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The False Idol of Unfettered Capitalism

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Posted on Mar 16, 2009
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn

By Chris Hedges

When I returned to New York City after nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans, I was unsure of where I was headed. I lacked the emotional and physical resiliency that had allowed me to cope as a war correspondent. I was plagued by memories I wanted to forget, waking suddenly in the middle of the night, my sleep shattered by visions of gunfire and death. I was alienated from those around me, unaccustomed to the common language and images imposed by consumer culture, unable to communicate the pain and suffering I had witnessed, not much interested in building a career.

It was at this time that the Brooklyn Academy of Music began showing a 10-part film series called “The Decalogue.” Deka, in Greek, means 10. Logos means saying or speech. The Decalogue is the classical name of the Ten Commandments. The director was the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, who had made the trilogy “White, Blue and Red.” The 10 films, each about an hour long and based on one of the commandments, were to be shown two at a time over five consecutive weeks. I saw them on Sunday nights, taking the subway to Brooklyn, its cars rocking and screeching along the tracks in the darkened tunnels. The theater was rarely more than half full. 

The films were quiet, subtle and often opaque. It was sometimes hard to tell which commandment was being addressed. The characters never spoke about the commandments directly. They were too busy, as we all are, coping with life. The stories presented the lives of ordinary people confronted by extraordinary events. All lived in a Warsaw housing complex, many of them neighbors. They were on a common voyage, yet also out of touch with the pain and dislocation of those around them. The commandments, Kieslowski understood, were not dusty relics of another age, but a powerful compass with vital contemporary resonance.

In film after film he dealt with the core violation raised by each of the commandments. He freed the commandments from the clutter of piety and narrow definitions imposed upon them by religious leaders and institutions. The promiscuous woman portrayed in the film about adultery was not married. She had a series of empty, carnal relationships. Adultery, at its deepest level for the director, was sex without love. The father in the film about honoring our parents was not the biological father. The biological mother was absent in the daughter’s life. Parenting,  Kieslowski knew, is not defined by blood or birth or gender. It is defined by commitment, fidelity and love. In the film about killing, an unemployed drifter robs and brutally murders a cab driver. He is caught, sentenced and executed by the state. Kieslowski forces us to confront the barbarity of murder, whether it is committed by a deranged individual or sanctioned by society.

I knew the commandments. I had learned them at Sunday school, listened to sermons based on the commandments from my father’s pulpit and studied them as a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School. But Kieslowski turned them into living, breathing entities. 

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“ ... For 6,000 years these rules have been unquestionably right,” Kieslowski said of the commandments. “And yet we break them every day. We know what we should do, and yet we fail to live as we should. People feel that something is wrong in life. There is some kind of atmosphere that makes people turn now to other values. They want to contemplate the basic questions of life, and that is probably the real reason for wanting to tell these stories.”

In eight of the films there was a brief appearance by a young man, solemn and silent. Kieslowski said he did not know who the character was. Perhaps he was an angel or Christ. Perhaps he represented the divine presence who observed with profound sadness the tragedy and folly we humans commit against others and against ourselves.   

“He’s not very pleased with us,” was all the director said. 

The commandments are a list of religious edicts, according to passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy, given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. The first four are designed to guide the believer toward a proper relationship with God. The remaining six deal with our relations with others. It is these final six commands that are given the negative form of “You Shall Not ... .” Only two of the commandments, the prohibitions against stealing and murder, are incorporated into our legal code. Protestants, Catholics and Jews have compiled slightly different lists, but the essence of the commandments remains the same. Muslims, while they do not list the commandments in the Koran, honor the laws of Moses, whom they see as a prophet.

The commandments are not defined, however, by the three monotheistic faiths. They are one of the earliest attempts to lay down moral rules and guidelines to sustain a human community. Nearly every religion has set down an ethical and moral code that is strikingly similar to the Ten Commandments. The Eightfold Path, known within Buddhism as the Wheel of Law, forbids murder, unchastity, theft, falsehood and, especially, covetous desire. The Hindus’ sacred syllable Om, said or sung before and after prayers, ends with a fourth sound beyond the range of human hearing. This sound is called the “sound of silence.” It is also called “the sound of the universe.” Hindus, in the repetition of the Sacred Syllable, try to go beyond thought, to reach the stillness and silence that constitutes God. Five of the Ten Commandments delivered from Mount Sinai are lifted directly from the Egyptian “Book of the Dead.” No human being, no nation, no religion, has been chosen to be the sole interpreter of mystery. All cultures struggle to give words to the experience of the transcendent. It is a reminder that all of us find God not in what we know, but in what we cannot comprehend.


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By Clive, March 16, 2009 at 7:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I find it sadly unfortunate that the comments posted so far - which to date are three in total - have almost entirely missed the point.  While I might agree with N8’s rephrasing of the “Ten Commandments”, I think that if one goes into the deepest layers of the commandments we have, the one’s Chris Hedges refers to, the parallels are there…as they are in all proposed moral codes offered by all spiritual paths.  The point is that we have traded ANY moral code at all - any moral code addressing the imperative to commit to the Common Good - in exchange for worshipping the idols of Greed, Celebrity, Fame, Money, Instant Gratification, and all forms of solely personal gain.

One of the most tragic and dangerous outcomes of eight years of the Bush Administration, is that by their example, by their deeds, and by their deeds so far going unpunished, the United States set the example, and an unparalleled precedent, (for any part of the world watching…and that was a big part of the world) to activily ignore and court disdain for the Common Good.

I applaud Mr. Hedges for asking us to reach past our ignorance and stupor, past our self-satisfaction and comfort, and to start asking questions that might hopefully lead to a reformulation of the questions, Who am I? And Why am I here? What does this all mean?

If we don’t start asking the right questions, we will never reach the right answers….in time.

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By Jim Yell, March 16, 2009 at 7:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If this were only true. Yes any and every religion has some good in it, but the worst of it is that most of the injunctions to do good are focused only upon those people who hold to the dogma. Some are like Islam and fundmentalist Christianity in their hostility and dismissiveness of others rights.

It is a stretch to try and use a document that is self contradictory to be the repository of “all truth” and worse to believe it is all to be taken literally. Thou shalt not kill and then pages and pages describing god giving instructions for all sorts of murder and maham and then on to the loving god who is quoted giving instructions for murder, torture and enslavement.

Give it a rest.

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By Tom Patteson, March 16, 2009 at 6:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

No. This is not a silly or ignorant article.
It’s a voice in the wilderness.

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By jhm, March 16, 2009 at 6:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You write: “He freed the commandments from the clutter of piety and narrow definitions imposed upon them by religious leaders and institutions.”  I agree, and wonder why you do not do the same.

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By Janice, March 16, 2009 at 6:29 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is a beautifully written article but I have a few questions. Mr. Hedges indicates that the commandments sustain community which in turn sustains us. What does community mean in such a diverse, fragmented society as the U.S.?
And how do we as a society decide on our rules, our ethics, our “commandments” that will be taught in universities, honored in corporations and perhaps codified in regulations? Is a unified ethical theory possible in the face of religious diversity and secular skepticism?

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By Bubba, March 16, 2009 at 6:20 am Link to this comment

I’ve seen Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy, “White, Blue and Red.”  Brilliant.  I’d not heard of “The Dekalogue,” but will see it.

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By thebeerdoctor, March 16, 2009 at 5:57 am Link to this comment

Mr. Hedges reveals in this silly hodge podge article that he is way out of his league. Much more useful to me, is a recent comment by Gore Vidal who put forth the question whether monotheism was actually good for human civilization? The whole One God, One Boss, One Way, etc. has led to millions of gallons of blood to be shed unnecessarily. But there is some comfort in that fatalist Eastern mysticism that says: pray to whomever you like, but in the end, it will not make any difference.

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By N8, March 16, 2009 at 5:27 am Link to this comment

Wow!! I have to disagree with the idea that the 10 commandments “include the most severe violations and moral dilemmas in human life, although these violations often lie beyond the scope of the law. They were for the ancients, and are for us, the core rules that, when honored, hold us together, and when dishonored lead to alienation, discord and violence.” Apparently you’re missing some other more severe moral violations like slavery, rape, incest, child abuse, and spousal abuse that the author of the 10 commandments forgot to include or didn’t see as important.

The first 4 commandments are basically thought crimes that don’t even deal with moral dilemmas if you consider the fact that morality has only to do with human happiness and suffering. That’s why we don’t have moral attitudes toward rocks. The rest of them could be argued to be too vague or even wrong (e.g. what about people who covet their neighbor’s education, go back to school, and improve their lives!)

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we had these as our commandments:
1) Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
2) In all things, strive to cause no harm.
3) Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
4) Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
5) Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.
6) Always seek to be learning something new.
7) Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
8) Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
9) Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
10) Question everything.

For more information about these objectively better commandments check out the author’s site: http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/new10c.html

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By Jason!!, March 16, 2009 at 5:19 am Link to this comment

What an ignorant article.

deserves the bad religion analogy award

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