From Mount Sinai to Minneapolis – Abolition and the Gospel, Part 6
July 12, 2020 – David R. Weiss
NOTE: In this series of posts* I’m NOT offering a detailed explanation of how police abolition would work—there are others who can do that far better than me. Rather I’m presenting a series of images to help white Christians in particular hear in these calls to Defund or Abolish the Police some surprising echoes of biblical themes … and to encourage us to consider whether God is doing a new thing once again today.
I can imagine Moses thinking to himself, “What do you mean ‘low battery’?! No!!!!” After almost forty days and forty nights up on Mount Sinai, God finally decides to speak. And were it not for Moses’ iPhone battery deciding to give out, we might have a clearer picture of what transpired on that mountaintop shrouded in cloud and lightning. As it was, you’d have thought two stone tablets would hold up well through the ages, but apparently they weren’t supported by later applications and the files are no longer accessible. Yes, we have texts but there’s a peculiar ambiguity in the text.
The Decalogue—literally, “Ten Words”—refers to ten utterances, some just a single word, that God gives to Moses on Mount Sinai sometime soon after the Hebrews escape their years of bondage in Egypt and begin their sojourn through the wilderness. I’m not actually concerned to debate whether this moment on Sinai was something “historical” (i.e., could we have captured it, had that iPhone battery held out?). Whatever took place at that intersection of slavery-liberation, escape-wilderness, and mountaintop liminality—whatever took place—was singularly transformative for Israel’s life.
We (Christians more so than Jews, actually) remember it primarily as Moses receiving The Law, the Ten Commandments. We translate the words as imperatives, a list of divine demands: Do this! Don’t do that! OR ELSE.
But what if these were words … of Promise? What if, rather than shouted orders from heaven, they read more like a promotional brochure for “Things to Do—Now That You’re Free”? I don’t mean to belittle them at all. I’m suggesting—quite seriously—that perhaps these words are the words of a God who is courting Israel’s imagination with a description of what their life together could look like. That would utterly transform how we read them. And the grammar argues for that as a real possibility.
In Hebrew, the present imperative (the “voice” of order) has the same form as the future indicative (the “voice” of description). Context tells you whether someone is ordering you to do something or describing what tomorrow will be like. “Honor the Sabbath (dammit!)” or “Every seventh day we’ll rest.” The same Hebrew word stands behind either rendering, and on account of that failed iPhone battery we simply don’t know.
Except for the context. These people are on their way to a new future. Indeed, to a life framed by a word unknown to slaves: tomorrow. This divine Presence, having heard their cries of anguish, liberated them from slavery, led them out of Egypt, and promised to establish the conditions for their flourishing is now luring them on toward that life together. Imagine these Ten Words spoken by God in this tone of voice, toward a life rooted in reverence and mutual love:
- I will be your first love, for all the days of your life, and your desire for me shall not wane.
- I will be for you daily delight and surprise, outstripping any fixed images.
- Because my very name—Yahweh—is bound up with the promise of freedom, you will never invoke it to oppress others or to curse them. To do so would render me a stranger to you.
- Every seventh day you will rest and renew yourselves, rejoicing in our life together.
- In Egypt your families were ever at risk; now parents will be honored by their children just as surely as children shall be wrapped well in the love of their parents.
- While murder was your daily wage as slaves, killing shall no longer be known among you; life will be treasured and honored as the gift it is.
- In so honoring life, you will discover the deep joy of intimacy and fidelity in your unions.
- Although in Egypt your labor was stolen from you, now theft will be unknown among you, for where justice prevails the property of each will be respected by all.
- You will not speak falsely of your neighbor, for honor shall be the commonwealth of my people.
- And you will not find your lives distorted by envy, for you will shape your lives by simplicity and generosity, and you will discover in this way a life brimming with abundance.
We haven’t (ever) heard The Decalogue this way. But it is a grammatically legitimate rendition, and I argue it is both contextually and theologically the best reading. In liberating the Hebrews from oppression God did not set them beneath a new taskmaster, but invited them to live into genuine freedom grounded in reverence for that which is Holy and that which is human.
The legacy of the Hebrew prophets—both in railing against Israel’s repeated slides into unjust relations in their communal life and in calling them to radical hope in times of desolation—that legacy is precisely the legacy of calling Israel back to a life rooted in those Ten Words of Promise.
You can argue about whether the historical realization of that promised life is possible—more accurately, the extent to which it is possible. I’ll grant that humanity has a poor track record of instantiating justice in society. BUT, BUT, BUT—the core claim of biblical faith is that God is infinitely committed to that project—and that God seeks our partnership in that work. If you wish to break with biblical faith, I can’t stop that. But I can ask—on behalf of God—that you not water it down to make it more palatable for those who’ve managed to prosper under oppression, or those who’ve managed to dodge the worst of the suffering that is the price of the status quo.
From Moses onward (and right through Jesus!), God’s work in human history has been has been a series of variations on a single theme: “Let my people go.” Today’s abolitionists, whether they invoke God or not, draw their voice from that same breath. Their words also are Words of Promise, “There is a land without police or prisons.” Abolition, not unlike the Decalogue, is much richer than a single declaration of what won’t be anymore. It also includes both principles and proposals for what that Promised Life might look like: a life that honors, upholds, and heals hurting communities from the ground up.
Scholars still argue over the exact location of Mount Sinai, but since May 25, Mount Sinai has been at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis. And from out of the killing of George Floyd, through march and vigil, protest and riot, uprising and art, the surging calls to abolish the police should echo in us as though borne by Moses himself.
We can debate vigorously (though I might prefer that we imagine vibrantly, but whatever) the details of how we move toward that promised life. But as Christians, we betray our own legacy and we belittle the transformative energy of God in our midst when we assert, “Oh but that can’t be!” Abolition is our story. To the extent that we’ve forgotten this, the Movement for Black Lives and the calls for Abolition, these are the Holy Spirit moving through prophets in our midst today.
David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.
 The scene (sans iPhone) but complete with clouds, smoke, thunder, and lightning is in Exodus 19:16-20:17.
 Of course, Jews revere the Ten Commandments as well; but their framework for experiencing them is set within the wider context of Torah—“the Teaching” that shapes the overall pattern of their life. Christians tend to see them more like lightning bolt demands of an omnipotent, authoritarian God. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that, but for this essay, that’s sufficient.
 I learned of this view of reading the Decalogue through the future from Rev. Otto Bremer (1922-2001) a Lutheran ethicist, who credited it to his teacher, George Mendelhall (1916-2016), Lutheran biblical scholar who taught at the University of Michigan 1952-1986.