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Exodus 20:1-17

In “The Good Place,” Arizona dirtbag Eleanor Shellstrop is a selfish, condescending, self-absorbed bench who finds herself embarking upon the project of becoming a “good” person in the afterlife (spoiler alert). Bespectacled and insufferable moral philosopher (everyone hates moral philosophy professors) Chidi Anagonya provides a litany of texts and thinkers to help Eleanor become a better person–including Aristotle, Immanual Kant, Tim Scanlon, and Jonathan Dancy.

The question of how to be a “good” and “moral” person is one that humanity has been attempting to answer for millenia. This week’s passage, Exodus 20:1-17, has long been viewed as a way to be moral: Follow these Ten Commandments and you are a “good” person. Or at least not a “bad” person. Eleanor herself appeals to the sixth commandment to defend herself from the judgment that she is a bad person: “Look. I might not have been a saint, but it’s not like I killed anybody. I wasn’t an arsonist. I never found a wallet outside of an IHOP and thought about returning it but saw the owner lived out of state so just took the cash and dropped the wallet back on the ground”[1] (Spoiler alert: She definitely did).

It’s comforting to believe in this sort of morality: all you have to do is follow these rules and you are moral. Holy. Good. It’s a trap that our own Holiness tradition has fallen into: the choking vines of legalism. It’s the same spell that authoritarians are able to cast over entire populations. It’s the comfort of having someone tell you what to do and how to do. The comfort of not having to engage in self-reflection or self-responsibility.

To use the Ten Commandments in this manner is irresponsible and ignoring the context and spirit of the story.

The Israelites receive the Ten Commandments upon their arrival at Mt. Sinai after escaping slavery in Egypt. Before this moment, they are a nation of enslaved people–they have escaped Pharaoh’s army, they have witnessed the miracles of God, they are moving toward the Promised Land. And yet, their collective memory is still dominated by their years of oppression. The injustice they have suffered is still their identity.

The Decalogue offers a new source of identity for Israel: not a list of rules to follow, but an invitation to forge a new identity and new relationships with one another and with God. These aren’t rules meant to control and subjugate, rather societal agreements about what sort of people they will be (though, it must be stated that the Ten Commandments are still products of the time; wives are listed among property, there are still enslaved people despite the fact that the Israelites so recently escaped their own enslavement, etc.).

The ethics of the Ten Commandments are not based upon following ten rules. They are based upon the kind relationships that the Ten Commandments reflect and the identity that the Israelites hope to embody.

“The Good Place” comes to a similar conclusion: In the second season, Eleanor tries to become a “good” person by following rules and engaging in “moral” action only to fail. It is only when her moral journey is based in relationship with the rest of Team Cockroach that she begins to make progress. Without commentary or judgment upon the accuracy of this TV show’s vision of the afterlife, or it’s moral foundations, what The Good Place can illustrate is the limits of good behavior. It’s not enough to follow the rules, one must be shaped in relationship. This is what Jesus concluded in Matthew 22: The Greatest Commandments encourage right relationship with God and with others.

For far too long, the Ten Commandments have been misused. In the United States, displays of the Decalogue have been a consistent battle in the “culture wars” causing strife and division–a sad irony given the intent of the Commandments to create unity and shared identity. However, the invitation to examine the role of these foundational rules in our own communities, families, friendships, and societal relationships is exciting. It is a chance to engage in the hard work of self-examination and reflect upon the state of these relationships, our motivation, intent, and the results of our actions. It’s hard work, but supremely holy work.

[1] The Good Place Ep. 1