Sunday, April 8, 2007

The First Commandment

Sam Carter and Jack O'Neill discuss the Scriptures.

Image credit: screenshot by Cujo359. Stargate SG-1 is a copyrighted work of MGM Studios

Yes, it's Easter Sunday, and Christians are talking about morals today. If you want to read what some sensible Christians have to say, I'd suggest going here, or here. If you want to read what Dobson, Donohue, Robertson, and other bigots have to say, you're on your own.

But why should the rest of us be left out? I've mentioned before that if you're open to the lessons, you can learn a lot about morality from science fiction. So, in keeping with Christy Hardin Smith's theme, let's look at one of my favorite Stargate SG-1 episodes, "The First Commandment".

In the episode, SG-1 are sent to find another Stargate team, SG-9, who have been missing for some time. Their commander, Captain Jonas Hansen (William Russ), was caught in the too-hot sun of the planet they were assigned to observe and has gone insane. His delusions of grandeur lead him to believe himself to be the Judeo-Christian god, and as a result feels no restraints in pursuing his ambition to "improve" the inhabitants of the planet. He works them to death to achieve his goals, which are really nothing more than to build a temple for him and his harem. He has the members of his team who object murdered.

Predictably, SG-1 stop Hansen before he wipes out the planet's population. In the coda, Jack and Sam discuss her remorse at not having killed Hansen when she had the chance. Jack, who is probably as close to being a non-believer as anyone in SG-1, leafs through Hansen's Bible while he says:

"I generally remember a commandment in here. I think it's the first one..."

"'I am the Lord your God and you shall take no other gods before me'?", Sam asks.

"OK, it's not the first one. I'm talking about the 'no killing' one. No matter what the reason, when you break it you take one step closer to Hansen."

The truth, of course, is that Hansen broke both rules, and it was breaking the First Commandment that led him to break the 'no killing' one.

To anyone who's even mildly educated, this is a familiar story. The Greeks, Hebrews, and countless others have told such tales over time. Joseph Conrad wrote about it, and John Milius rewrote it for Francis Ford Coppola. Stargate SG-1 revisited the theme a few seasons later with the episode "Absolute Power". The reason they are so prevalent, I think, is a rather simple one - it's clear that people can't handle the sort of power gods have because we almost inevitably will end up using them for our own benefit. In the old days when virtually everyone believed in gods the best metaphor to use was to say we didn't have the wisdom of the gods (an arguable proposition if you paid close attention to the Greeks' myths about their gods, but that's another essay). This is why human societies have rules. Call them laws, ethics, or just commandments, they're the things we teach our children and repeat to ourselves so that they, and we, don't end up being a bunch of Hansens. We all need restraints, whether they're provided by external rules or our own conscience, because at heart we're all just hairless chimpanzees with advanced language skills. If you don't know what that means, watch a few documentaries about how chimps act in the wild.

Which brings us back to Christy's theme, which is a government run by Christians who seem to have forgotten what the First Commandment is all about:

Somehow, Machiavelli got to be an interchangeable text with The Bible in someone's mind, and a thirst for power replaced the hunger for working toward salvation. But, and this is a very big but, Machiavelli was meant as a cautionary tale, not a users' manual. Someone forgot to tell Goodling and her fellow Bushies that The Bible is not a text that was ever meant to be cherry-picked as a justification for being able to screw over whomever you please, or as an excuse to be able to do whatever you want, grasping for promotions and chits from the powerful along the way.

Perhaps a review of The Ten Commandments would have helped — the first commandment reads: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." That includes Presidents who say they talk to God, as well as their political power broker minions, too, and not just golden calves — and working hard to curry favor with any of the above is an act that worships power and what you can get from it. Nothing more, nothing less. Anyone who thinks securing earthly power, consolidating one's position and amassing a number of favors owed to you that you can call in when you need them is the point of existence is worshiping at the alter of Gordon Gekko.

Of State ... And Church

James Madison, who wrote the Constitution, once also wrote: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." He understood the limits of human morality, and when he wrote the Constitution he designed the government in such a way that it could be run by people who weren't angels and yet not trample on the rights of its citizens. The Constitution provides a set of rules, commandments if you will, that each branch of government is supposed to enforce on the others. Unfortunately, Madison and those who helped him failed to realize the effect that political parties would have on the process of government. What we have seen in the last few years, with the excesses of the K Street Project, the Black Sites and Guantanamo, Plamegate, the Iraq War, and the sacking of the USA Eight, is what happens when people decide to ignore the rules, and no one else is in a position to enforce them.

So who is playing the role of SG-1 in this little morality tale of reckless war, boundless corruption, and rampant cruelty? We The People are. Freedom isn't something you defend by sending someone else's kids to a place they've never heard of to kill people they have no beef with. You defend it by watching your government, and by changing it when it starts to go wrong. If you're not willing to do that, you can't really claim to be free.

After all, as Stargate once reminded us, it's our country, and they just run it for us.

Well, that's the sermon, folks. Happy Easter, or happy first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring, whichever applies.

UPDATE: (Apr. 9) CHS provides the postscipt to our sermon in her article today:
Who could have possibly forseen a grasping, power-hungry, chief executive more interested in unilateral consolidation of control of the government than in the concerns of the governed? A large number of our nation's founding fathers, that's who.

Unmentionables In The Sunshine

Can I hear an Amen?

UPDATE 2 (Nov. 16, 2008): Recently, I discussed the other commandments, over here.

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