How Not to Take the Lord’s Name in Vain in an Election Year

Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash

Here’s an evergreen commandment—“Don’t take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” (Ex. 20:7) It’s one of the top 10 from Sinai and it’s most often invoked when someone believes they have breached it—say when they let a juicy God-based epithet fly in front of the preacher. How many times have I been the recipient of guilty looks and sheepish apologies when that happens!

A salty invocation of God to express exasperation is not the point of the third commandment, however. Most of us, if we were doing our own rankings, would not have chosen such behavior for such high billing in a list of no-nos. Walter Brueggemann agrees, but you might not like his alternative interpretation because, if he’s right, we are far more likely to be breaking the commandment than we think, especially in the election cycle. What does it mean to refrain from wrongful use of the Lord’s name? “The God of Sinai is not to be recruited or associated with our best projects, liberal or conservative.” (63)

Well, there goes 3/4 of my Twitter feed.

At the recommendation of a friend, I found my way to a 1999 collection of Brueggemann essays titled The Covenanted Self: Explorations in Law and Covenant. The venerable Old Testament scholar has a prolific body of work now, but this thin book captures some of the things I most appreciate about his approach:

  1. He taps into the prophetic tradition by drawing sharp contrasts, 
  2. He sees the Hebrew scriptures as a collection of witnesses from a community that is always having a contested conversation about the nature of God, and 
  3. He always keeps in the foreground the competing interests of empire and beloved community.

As his take on the third commandment demonstrates, Brueggemann is never one to offer easy certainties. In fact there is an essay here on the danger of certainty, how it can lead to mute accommodation or to whacking opponents. In the end he reaches for a definition of obedience that foregoes a deadly “hard-nosed morality.” Instead, obedience is “the safety, joy, and well-being of communion that leaves some things a bit open in the community.” (73) Not that God’s word is not clear and piercing, but especially in the areas of sexuality and economic justice our “loud certitude” can keep us from seeing those liminal situations where old configurations are broken and God may be seeking to give us something new.

In several of the early essays here, Brueggemann wrestles with the question of “the other,” both God’s otherness/holiness and the neighbor as the other. He lifts up some early and mid-20th century thinkers like Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas to explore the notion that the other unsettles our sense of self and makes us more available to them. We are so used to our own totalizing gaze that it is difficult for us to truly be open to what we might receive when we encounter God and neighbor.

Perhaps what the church has forgotten is that it is to have a dialectic of praise and lament. The Psalms reveal, at various moments, a movement between yielding and protesting in the presence of God.

In the end, the obedience of Torah piety is not ‘must’ or ‘ought’ or ‘should.’ It is rather the kind of delight whereby friendship ripens into love, and obligation is the chance to please and delight the other, the Thou who hopes and delights in us, as well as commands us. (31)

I always feel convicted and invited by Brueggemann’s work. His tone is that of the world-weary prophet who sees clearly all the ways we deceive ourselves. But the God he discovers is not a God of the dead letter but of dynamic relationship. That God is not concerned with our breaches of decorum as much as with the stirring in our souls to be in relationship. And if our souls would speak, who knows what bold and shattering words might emerge.

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