Snow White and the Ten Commandments

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent III, March 4, 2018

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . . (Exodus 20:1-2)

Yesterday, my wife Carrie and I enjoyed spending the afternoon with some friends at the Hobby Center downtown for the musical Memphis. The lead male character is a fictionalized version of the pioneering disc jockey Dewey Phillips, who lived in Memphis, Tennessee. As a DJ, he introduced black music to a wider — and whiter — audience on the radio. Down the road, and beyond the scope of the musical, he would become famous as the first person to play on air a recording of Elvis Presley. That young Elvis would be taken around town by this white man to complete his musical education by meeting African American club owners and music stars.

In the musical, set in the segregated South of the 1950s, one of the main things that’s painful to watch is the racism that provides tension throughout the story. However, as if that’s not enough, there’s a jarring dissonance in Memphis between Christianity as it’s meant to be, like the image in the last book of the Bible of “a great multitude which no [one] could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne” of God, and old rules about how good Christian white people were supposed to act in the South.[1] It was an inversion of the biblical image in which a perversion of Christianity reinforced the walls between the races.

I’ve been wrestling with that same dissonance within my family tree over the last six months or so. As some of you heard me share during a recent Faith Forum on the theme of reconciliation, my wife strongly suggested to me last summer that I should find something else to do in my spare time other than checking the latest political news constantly. Fair enough, I thought. So one night when I was having trouble falling asleep, I decided that it might be a fun distraction to explore the past through And it was fun to discover in my wife’s family tree a truly delightful scoundrel who spent some time as a prisoner at the Jamestown Colony and four Unionist hell-raising cousins in my family tree who broke out of jail multiple times in Confederate North Carolina, barely escaping the hangman’s noose the last time.

But I didn’t expect to meet Daniel Hackney, Jr., my great, great, great, grandfather. He became a Baptist deacon in 1833 in Chatham County, North Carolina. After the Civil War, he was licensed preach in 1866 and then ordained as a minister of the gospel in 1871. He, too, was a Unionist throughout his political career as an elected representative in North Carolina’s General Assembly during the 1840s and 1850s.

But Hackney was a pro-slavery Unionist, believing, like many of the conservative politicians of his day, that secession would ultimately be the surest and quickest path to the destruction of the institution of slavery. That, of course, is exactly what happened. So I guess we can all agree he was right about that one thing at least.

The 1860 United States Federal Census included slave schedules that reveal the fact that Hackney, just like his father before him, owned slaves. It doesn’t include their names because they are simply counted as property under Hackney’s name. 14 in total, most of them children, including a one-month-old baby. 13 were black, one was biracial. There were eight males and six females. None were fugitives or had been manumitted. Together they lived in three slave houses. The dissonance between that harsh reality and Hackney’s complete devotion to the work of Baptist churches after the war without seeming to regret the past is astonishing, although it’s important to acknowledge that he would have been raised not to hear that.[2]

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . .” That sentence introduces what we Christians traditionally refer to as “The Ten Commandments,” which we’ve been reciting together at the beginning of our liturgies each Sunday throughout this season of Lent. But the Bible itself refers to this collection not with that familiar title but as “The Ten Words” or “Decalogue.” Interestingly, in the Jewish tradition, that sentence is neither an introduction nor a prologue to everything that follows but stands alone as the First Word.

As an aside, yes, there’s more than one way to divide up this familiar-sounding text into ten parts. In fact, there are three different ways to count those Ten Words. I’ve already mentioned the traditional Jewish way that counts the first sentence alone as the First Word before moving on to count not having other gods and not making idols, together, as the Second Word. Roman Catholics and Lutherans also combine no other gods and no idols as their First Word and split the commandment against coveting into not coveting a neighbor’s spouse as the Ninth Word and not coveting a neighbor’s possessions as the Tenth Word. Anglican, Orthodox, and Reformed Christians keep all that coveting together as the Tenth Word and count not having other gods as the First Word and not making idols as the Second Word. Got that?

So counting to ten can be more difficult than we often imagine! Back in 2006, Lynn Westmoreland, who’s a member of the United States House of Representatives from Georgia, co-sponsored a bill that would have declared the Ten Commandments to be “fundamental principles” and “the cornerstones of a fair and just society” and also would have required them to be clearly displayed in the United States Capitol. He believed people needed “to understand and to respect” these commandments. But when Westmorland was interviewed about this, he stumbled when he was asked,

What are the Ten Commandments?[3]

“Don’t murder. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Ummmmm.” And then he admitted, “I can’t name them all.”[4] Now to be fair, as my wife told me, that’s like asking Americans to name the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White. You might come up with Sleepy, Bashful, and Sneezy, while completely unable to recall Grumpy, Happy, Dopey, and Doc.

The issue with Westmoreland wasn’t the fact that he stumbled when he was asked to list the commandments. After all, there are different lists. Rather, it was the sanctimonious way he wanted to impose this on everyone without fully embracing it himself. And make no mistake about it, these ten words are spoken directly to Jews and, by extension, to Christians who accept the Hebrew Bible. They presume a redeemed and worshiping community like the one that surrounds us right now.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . .” That First Word in the Jewish reckoning isn’t a commandment at all. Rather, it’s a “statement of who God is and what God has already done for Israel.”[5] That one sentence really summarizes most of the Old Testament — using God’s revealed name, “I am Yahweh your God,” and reminding us of that God’s liberating actions, which are not merely anchored in the past but are a continuing reality in the lives of God’s people from generation to generation, including our own.

It’s easy to miss the plain reading of the text that God didn’t just bring those people from long ago out of the land of Egypt, God brought you . . . and me out of the land of Egypt. God brought us out of bondage. As Christians, we might say with the late Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.”[6] This God brings life out of death, good out of evil, and sets us free. Each of us needs to be set free from something.

Occasionally we get to see that deliverance in dramatic ways in the world around us. I’m grateful, for example, that people in the 1860s saw the end of the institution of slavery throughout the United States and that people in the 1960s witnessed the Civil Rights Movement. America’s original sin was enshrined in the words of the United States Constitution, where each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a whole person. And I hope the shadows of that, which linger in our own time, will one day be dispelled by the light of God’s love — the same love that we have seen in the face of Jesus Christ, who healed the afflicted and, from the cross, forgave his tormentors. Those in bondage to hatred aren’t really free, even if they seem to be.

But I know that even if a miraculous shift like that happens in our society while I’m still on this earth, the dissonance between my personal life and the words of the Decalogue will remain and never go away. That’s part of living, breathing, and being human. That’s part of knowing that we need to be forgiven and embraced and loved. And it’s important for me, spiritually, to listen for that dissonance, even if I’ve been taught not to hear it or the people around me don’t want me to acknowledge it.

I thought about that while reading Larry Parsley’s review of the novel Godric, which was written by Frederick Buechner. The book takes its title from the name of the story’s main character who observes that “nothing human’s not a broth of false and true.” Parsley says that “Godric’s early life breaks most of the Ten Commandments.” Eventually, however, he settles into the life of a Christian hermit whom people, for whatever reason, seek out for healing. And this is how Parsley’s review ends:

In Godric’s latter days, an obsequious monk named Reginald of Durham is dispatched to write Godric’s hagiography. As Reginald tries to pretty up the often ugly past of his subject, he justifies himself: “. . . for the sake of him who is himself the Truth, I leave some small truths out.” But Godric opposes the literary airbrushing techniques of Reginald at every turn. When Reginald tries to tell Godric his name is Saxon for “God reigns,” Godric corrects him and says his name literally means “God’s wreck.”

Over the course of reading this book, I was struck by my deep and persistent temptation to serve as my own Reginald, to tell stories of my life in such a way that the ugly parts are excised and the good parts are magnified. But in my heart of hearts, I know that I, too, am “God’s wreck.” Thankfully, though, I am God’s. And sometimes, God even moves through me . . .[7]

I don’t know about you, but I love the oddly comforting image of being God’s wreck. That’s something I share with my great, great, great grandfather and why it’s o.k. to talk about his life not as I wish it to be but as it really was. It’s o.k. for me to be honest with God about my own life too. God hears the dissonance, even the parts that I do not, taking those notes and composing something new that’s beautiful and eternal.

And that’s the invitation each one of us has received today — to bring our true selves to this Table, to be fed here, to be loved here, to be forgiven here, knowing that God will one day right all wrongs, those done not only to us but also by us. This I believe.


BACK TO POST Revelation 7:9 (Revised Standard Version).

BACK TO POST I also didn’t realize until last month that the same dissonance is present in the history of my alma mater, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Founded in 1834 to educate Baptist laity and men entering the ordained ministry, and named Wake Forest College in 1838, it was originally located near Raleigh in the town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. According to Twitter’s @WFUHistory, which highlights the six-volume History of Wake Forest College:

In 1860 Wake Forest was given the estate of Mr. John Blount for sale, which they sold for $12,153.19 Confederate dollars. All the money was invested in Confederate bonds, which were worth nothing by the time the college reopened in 1865. Of this $12,15319 over $10,000 came from the sale of Mr. Blount’s [16] slaves by The Board of Trustee’s Treasurer, Mr. J. S. Purefoy. The money from his estate was to be part of the college’s endowment.

BACK TO POST Bob Allen, “Baptist Congressman Can’t Name Ten Commandments,” Ethics Daily, June 22, 2006.


BACK TO POST William Johnstone, Exodus 20-40, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2014) 23.

BACK TO POST Robert Jenson, quoted by Stanley Hauerwas in “How to write a theological sentence,” ABC Religion & Ethics, September 26, 2013.

BACK TO POST Larry Parsley, “‘A Broth of False and True’: Frederick Buechner’s Godric,” Mockingbird, February 28, 2018.

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