The Third Commandment, Pt. 1

I’m continuing excerpts from my writing project, Ten Essential Words.  This one is from chapter four.


Quick, in a single word, what is [the third] commandment prohibiting?  As I child growing up in Sunday school, the answer to that question was clearly “swearing”.  God was a God that did not like it when we used bad language.  So growing up, the Third Commandment was repeatedly reduced to: “Do not swear.”  At first, being a younger kid, I was not exactly sure which words were prohibited.  I knew a couple of the more common ones, ones with more Biblical roots: saying the word god before anything other than bless you, using the word hell (even with the common adolescent defense that it is a word in fact, found in the Bible), or damning someone to that place found in the Bible.  As I got older, I learned the rule of thumb that most swear words contained four letters (a rule probably originating from the word raca, found in scripture).  The deeper the Christian sub-culture delved into this command, the more they resembled ancient rabbis writing midrashim – interpreting and re-interpreting Mosaic Law; the more the list was expanded to include words that were substituted or slang for those four-letter words.  So now words like darn, dang, shoot, heck, geeze, gosh, and gall (as in gall-dang – a double whammy) were included under the prohibition of the Third Commandment.

I knew that it was a mortal sin to break other commandments, like murdering someone or stealing something.  But I was not sure how this one worked.  After all, I had heard even the best of people let one slip under their breath every now and then (God only knows I did as well).  I know from playing in church basketball leagues, we sometimes instituted a technical-foul rule, resulting in two free throws for the opposing team, for any swearing that took place on the court (imagine that rule in the NBA!).  So maybe God had some sort of cosmic technical foul assessment that we would only discover upon reaching the gates of heaven (hopefully, some sort of free throws would be involved as well – I was pretty good at free throws).  Or perhaps God just relied on the tried and true swear jar, with reduced fines for words muttered under your breath or just thought, but not spoken.  Come to think of it, maybe that is how God is financing the whole heaven project anyway (no wonder Revelation promised streets of gold).

But before you get too riled up examining your own propensity to “let one slip” every now-and-then, let me let you in on a little secret: the Third Commandment has nothing to do with swearing or using four letter words.  At least not swearing in the way we use the term today.  Now whether or not the language you are using is offensive to others or glorifying to God – that might be another story.  So where did we get off track on this one? The short answer is, in Biblical language, the entire area of making promises, pledges, and oaths was referred to as swearing.  This commandment has to do with that process of making oaths.  So over time, it was sometimes shortened to the phrase, “Do not swear”.  Only, also over time, the concept of swearing took on a whole new meaning.

What I’m Reading: Dead Aid

While in Uganda, I noticed something that I wanted to look further into.  In one of the more avant garde bookstores in Kampala, I saw a number of books by Africans questioning the value of all the international aid pouring into the continent every year.  It was an intriguing idea: the recipients of so much aid were beginning to ask difficult questions as to the effectiveness of it all.  As mentioned in a follow-up post, on my way back to the States passing through the Amsterdam airport, I saw a book that summarized this restlessness and ordered it upon arriving home.

In her book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, Dambisa Moyo, who is from Zambia and a former consultant for the World Bank, tackles these questions head on.  The implications of her conclusions are controversial; for some they are a breath of fresh air, while for others they are outright rejected.  But the facts cannot be avoided.  Consider just a few:

  • Since 1970, sub-Saharan Africa has received over $300 billion in development assistance, yet remains the poorest region in the world.
  • The poverty rate in Africa has actually risen during the periods of peak aid flows.
  • A World Bank study found that as much as 85 percent of aid flows were used for purposes other than that for which they were initially intended.
  • Many of the civil wars and conflicts on the African continent in recent decades can be tied to who controls the large aid disbursements made to African countries.

This only scratches the surface of the problems associated with the large amount of aid flowing to Africa on an ongoing basis.  However, one of Moyo’s biggest points that jumped out at me has little to do with quantifiable data.  It has to do with the voices behind the cries for even more aid:

This very important responsibility has, for all intents and purposes, and to the bewilderment and chagrin of many an African, been left to musicians who reside outside Africa.  One disastrous consequence of this has been that honest, critical and serious dialogue and debate on the merits and demerits of aid have atrophied.  As one critic of the aid model remarked, ‘my voice can’t compete with an electric guitar’.

We are so busy figuring out how to help Africa that we forgot to include Africans in on the conversation!  Much more could be said, but rather than go through the entire book, I’ll simply encourage you to read it – or something similar – on your own.

While most of us will not find ourselves on the front line of shaping aid policy, we are faced with choices everyday regarding charity, whether donating time to a cause, serving on a church missions board, or sparing some change for the guy on the corner.  Regardless of scope, a key issue is that of intentions versus outcomes.  Good intentions are no guarantee of good outcomes.  There is a line of thinking that I have seen in the church, which essentially holds that good intentions are what God wants from us; leave the outcome in God’s hands.  While this may sound spiritual, I believe God wants wise stewardship as well.  Are the causes we are promoting actually solving problems or might they actually be contributing to the problem?  After my time in Uganda and reading this book, I continue to wrestle through this issue.  I believe we are in need of fresh theology on the subject of missions and social action.  Maybe I’ll be bold enough one day to collect my thoughts on the subject and post them!