The Didache 10 – The Second Commandment

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor, you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge. You shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued, for to be double-tongued is a snare of death. Your speech shall not be false, nor empty, but fulfilled by deed. You shall not be covetous, nor rapacious, nor a hypocrite, nor evil disposed, nor haughty. You shall not take evil counsel against your neighbor. You shall not hate any man; but some you shall reprove, and concerning some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.

It would be depressing to focus on the second commandment of the Teaching to the extent that I focused on the first, so I’m going to tackle it in one post. In order to live the way of life, you must move away from the way of death. The second commandment deals with some of the things that characterize the way of death. As one would expect, a number of the practices are drawn directly from what we call the Ten Commandments. However, I wanted to focus more on the ones that are not.

The first such practice specifically listed along the way of death is pederasty. It’s difficult today to understand the extent to which children were viewed as property in the ancient world, as something that could be used as its owner saw fit. Within that larger context, of course, there were many families and tribes that cared for and protected their children. But things that we do not consider normative in the modern world were much more common in the ancient world. And pederasty was one such thing. From the very beginning, Christians taught and acted to protect the weakest and those most scorned by society, as we can see in the way they treated not just the poor, but women and children as well.

The next practice of death to avoid is fornication. I must confess that raised in the culture, environment, and various settings that I was, I have a great deal of difficulty internalizing whatever a ‘Christian’ perspective of sexuality might be. Fortunately I’ve been married to one lovely woman for the entire time I’ve been ‘Christian’ and my own internalized approach to sexuality within the context of marriage seems to be very similar to the Christian perspective, so it’s never been as major an issue for me as it would have been if I had been a Christian while not married. Nevertheless, it does mean that I don’t tend to react on this issue as many of my fellow Christians do when I hear that a couple are living together, when someone I know is pregnant and unmarried, or any of a host of similar situations. I’m not even sure if, on balance, that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

With that said, I’ve always been aware that sex can never truly be “casual”. I am not a dualist. I do not separate body into one sphere of existence and mind and spirit into another. We are whole human beings. Everything we do with our bodies affects our spirits and vice versa. I knew that was true long before I was Christian. In fact, I think I’ve always known that was true. And there is hardly anything more intimate we can do with our bodies than sex. How then can it ever be spiritually insignificant? From a historical perspective, where we have surviving pagan perspectives of Christians in the ancient world, their sexual restraint is often noted. (Their strange belief in resurrection, cannibalistic ritual practice, and care for the poor and sick outside their own group are also noted.) I do hear many Christians today speak as though this is some sort of modern, cultural issue. It’s not. In human practice and history, Christian sexual restraint has often been markedly different from the cultural norm. I would say that the disturbing thing in our modern society is not that “the culture” is highly sexualized, but that there is no discernible difference between the practice of Christians and non-Christians within it. I found Lauren Winner’s book, Real Sex, actually helpful on this topic. That’s not true of most other things I’ve encountered.

I don’t know the particular setting, language, or context for the practices translated here as “magic” and “witchcraft”. As such, anything I surmise is probably more likely wrong than right. Nevertheless, simply based on other things I’ve picked up over the years about the perspective within the ancient world, “witchcraft” makes me think of efforts to contact, communicate, or control spirits, either of dead human beings or otherwise. If so, magic would be other efforts to influence the world or people around you, predict the future, or similar exercises. I think the general rule should be that we not attempt to extend our personal sphere of power inappropriately over creation or our fellow human beings. And don’t open yourself up to spirits.

You can’t read early Christian writings without encountering their struggle against the culture of their era concerning children. Abortion is not a modern issue. It was an ancient issue as well. While I don’t believe the whole modern “culture war” approach is even vaguely helpful and don’t believe that changing the law at this juncture is or would be a beneficial approach in the US, I’ve also never been comfortable with abortion. It’s one of the reasons I was a teen parent. However, the ancient issues and practices toward children were actually much worse in some ways than we face today. As I pointed out earlier, children (and women) were effectively considered and often treated like property. If the male of the family or household did not want another girl, if the baby was deformed, or for a host of other reasons, the infant would often be killed after birth. While the infant might simply be killed, the more “moral” members of society would instead practice “exposure”. When a child was “exposed” the child was left outside the city in the wild. The theory was that the child’s fate was left up to the gods. If the gods wanted to save the baby, they could. In practice, of course, exposed infants died of thirst, exposure to the elements, or were torn apart and eaten by wild animals. By and large, the exposed infants were simply ignored by everyone. If someone did take in the exposed infant, it was typically to a life of slavery.

Christians prohibited abortion and exposure (or any other form of post-birth killing) of infants among themselves as the Teaching indicates. As a group, this made them extremely attractive to women, who were typically given no voice in these matters. Many Christians would go farther and take those exposed infants they could find to raise safely among themselves.

Many of the next actions listed involve attitudes and things we say to one another. I notice particularly that these are listed alongside with the gravest of the practices of the way of death. Apparently they are as serious as murder. James has some good words on this subject in his letter. The words we say to each other, the manner in which we view each other, are much more important than we typically credit.

This section closes with the line:

You shall not hate any man; but some you shall reprove, and concerning some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.

Hatred of any human being places me on the way of death rather than life. The rest of the list are various ways you love the human being. It ramps up quickly. Reproof we might find easy, though we must be careful it truly is an act of love. Prayer — true prayer for the other — takes it to another level. But then it concludes that some we must love more than we love our own lives — the way that Jesus loved us.

The way of death seems frightening, but in practice it is so easy to live within it. We slide into its rhythms and allow it to shape our life and being without even being aware that that is what we’re doing. I’m reminded that Jesus warned,

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.

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