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Pastors, Priests, and Police: Understanding the Third Commandment

July 16th, 2020 | 6 min read

By David Alexander

As people in the U.S and many parts of the world gathered to protest against police abuse a connection hit me between the current protests, the on-going clergy abuse scandals, and the third commandment from the decalogue. While it may not seem so, outrage towards police brutality actually expresses a high view of the police, and those equally outraged by clergy abuse are expressing a high view of religion. What all of this suggests is that the third commandment is more relevant and significant than we may have thought.

Here is the third commandment:

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: For the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.’

Many readers of the Decalogue have found this command to be quite odd. What is it doing on a list that includes prohibitions against murder, lying, stealing, and sexual promiscuity? Those things, we know, really do turn societies and families upside down. But “taking the name of the Lord thy God in vain?” How did that end up on this list?

To see why its presence on the famed commandments makes perfect sense an analogy with the current police crisis will help. Some conservatives (and non-conservatives as well) have expressed surprise or even scorn at protestors asymmetrical attitudes towards police crime versus civilian crime. However, I think there is a perfectly rational justification for the asymmetry: when a cop unjustifiably kills a civilian that killing does more damage to our society than when a civilian unjustifiably kills another civilian. Indeed, unjustified killings by cops do more damage than unjustified killings of cops. The cop who kills a civilian without good reason taints or stains the uniform, which is a symbol of the entire police force of the US.

The committing of a crime by a cop is worse than the committing of that very crime by a civilian because the ripple effects of the former are far wider and deeper than the ripple effects of the latter. The cop wears a uniform that is supposed to symbolize order and safety and protection. To commit a crime while wearing that uniform (or even being a wearer of that uniform) is a misrepresentation. It is a mockery not just of the symbol but of the realities that the symbol points to. In such cases the sign (the uniform) does not properly represent the reality that the sign is supposed to represent (order, safety, protection), and whenever the sign and the reality are disconnected confusion, distrust, and disintegration emerge. The uniform is now seen as an unfaithful representation of the reality even by those who wear it faithfully.

When some symbol x is supposed to stand for some reality y and whenever x is present but y is not, a literal diabolical situation emerges. In essence, this is equivalent to slander (or libel), which is, at bottom, a misrepresentation of reality. The more often such misrepresentation occurs, the less the sign or symbol functions as it is (or was) intended. The more important the sign or symbol, the more important the reality it represents, and the more diabolical or slanderous the misrepresentation. Since, police are supposed to be the keepers of peace and the enforcers of just laws and order they have an incredibly important role to play in any society.

So, when they misrepresent themselves by committing crime while wearing the sign and symbol of law and order, the slander is great. Indeed, law and order itself suffers since the symbol commonly and properly associated with it no longer does to a high degree. In other words, slander affects not just the function of the sign and symbol but, in some sense, it affects the reality. Law itself and order itself get neglected or tarnished in various ways when the symbols of law and order get neglected or tarnished.

Everything just said about the devastating impacts of police on civilian crime can be said with suitable adjustments about the third commandment. The command is on the list of the ten because it is really about the effects of slandering God. Here, it is instructive to consider the abuse scandals emerging from the Catholic church and their corollaries in various protestant denominations. When a priest or pastor commits a crime, especially in their capacity as priest or pastor, the clerical office itself is implicated in the crime. Sexual abuse is awful, but there is something more diabolical about sexual abuse committed by a religious authority. Sexual abuse committed by a religious authority is awful, but there is something even more diabolical about sexual abuse committed by a religious authority while acting as a religious authority.

The reason is the same as above: such acts misrepresent the reality that the religious authority is supposed to represent, namely God’s goodness, love, peace, justice, and grace. Such acts committed in the name of God are so much worse precisely because they distort not just the doer of the act but the very name of God itself. They are exactly the sort of thing that the third command is prohibiting—slandering or blaspheming God by misrepresenting who He is. Such acts lead others away from God by presenting a picture of God as far less than He really is. Indeed, such acts present God as a monster. Just as police-on-civilian crime presents the institution designed to protect and serve as the institution designed to harm and manipulate, clergy-on-laity crime presents the God who is love and goodness itself as the God who is hate and badness itself.

It is now no wonder to me that when police commit crimes while wearing the uniform more attention and scorn is directed towards them than when civilians commit those exact same crimes. Such acts are a kind of slander, a kind of blasphemy against a crucial and highly important role in any functioning society.

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