Listen To Article
As a young child, I, like so many others throughout church history, was taught the Ten Commandments as part of my catechetical instruction. Some commandments appeared rather inapplicable to me at the time. There seemed little chance that I would commit murder or adultery. Other commandments, like “thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” which was explained to me to mean, “Do not tell lies to or about other people,” were both easier to understand and harder to follow. The longer I live the more this becomes apparent to me.
In his large catechism, Martin Luther described three applications of this commandment, the last of which I want to reflect on briefly. He wrote, “[T]his commandment forbids all sins of the tongue whereby we may injure … our neighbor.” These sins of the tongue include speaking behind a person’s back, slander, the tendency to prefer hearing evil rather than hearing good of others, judging others’ sin (in contrast to knowing others’ sin), and publicly speaking ill of another person regardless of the veracity of our claims.
To Luther’s list, I would add “enemy images.” Enemy images are static assessments of persons or groups whereby we classify them as wrong, bad, immoral, fundamentally flawed—e.g., “He’s power hungry;” “She’s completely incompetent;” “He’s narcissistic;” or, “They’re a bunch of conservatives/liberals.” Such sweeping evaluations allow us to dismiss others rather than encounter them as fellow creatures made in the image of God. We can explain away their opinions and concerns rather than seeing and hearing them fully.
These enemy images are formed in our hearts and minds long before we speak them. And thus the transgression of this commandment includes more than the sins of the tongue; it includes the judgments we harbor against others and the narratives we weave about them, which prevent us from seeing them as they truly are, persons created in the image of God.
For me this raises the question of how to engage this season of presidential politics. Our culture thrives on creating enemy images of politicians (and all those associated with them). It’s bafflingly difficult to jump into political banter without also speaking of politicians or entire political parties in a dehumanizing manner—i.e., without shattering the ninth commandment. Too few public conversations focus on critical analysis without devolving into ad hominem attacks of some sort.
In light of our human predicament – i.e., our sin and suffering – we might wonder how, if at all, we might see and hear and speak of others truly rather than falsely in this kind of climate. While our ability to live in conformity with this commandment is ultimately dependent upon God’s grace and an eschatological reality, I wonder what it would be like if, in our own circles of influence, we sought to set aside our enemy images, admitting our inability to judge others or even ourselves with complete accuracy. While any one of us is unlikely to change the entire political climate, perhaps we might at least avoid reinforcing factions and divisions in our families, churches, and neighborhoods.