In the week I was asked to reflect on the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” a self-professed “conservative Christian” congressman was caught passionately kissing an aide and a prominent mega-church pastor resigned his church because of a string of extramarital affairs. Of course, worse things happened in America that week. A 16-year-old boy stabbed 21 of his classmates and 6 million children went to bed hungry. These kinds of stories cause us to ask: Can a large, diverse and free society dedicated to the pursuit of happiness also be moral? How might the Christian community be a blessing to the nation as a witness to what “happiness” is?
One clue is that the Hebrew word we translate as “adultery” is different from the word for “promiscuity.” The commandment isn’t about sex, or even sex with multiple partners. Indeed, it isn’t even about the three or four people directly affected by adultery. Like so many of God’s commandments, (not just the ten, but the 613 mitzvot in the Old Testament), this one is about fidelity of relationships as a benefit for the whole community. That’s why when they asked Jesus: “What is the most important commandment?” he said they were all summed up by two relationships: “Love God with all your heart,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The seventh commandment, like all of them, is about establishing just and loving covenants so that the whole community can flourish. That’s the goal of the pursuit of happiness.
How do we get there from here? The truth is the Ten Commandments didn’t work. The Old Testament is the story of persistent and pervasive covenant-breaking because the commandments are not self-evident or self-enforcing. And now, we don’t live in a command economy, like North Korea, or a commandment social structure like the Taliban. In fact, if the Meyers Briggs psychometric indicator is accurate, only about half of us appreciate a rule-based society and perhaps only 18 percent would be inclined to impose that on others.
The challenge of living a moral life in a free and wealthy society is that we have returned to the Garden of Eden and are making the same bad choices. Research shows Americans are less interested in “religion” but still crave “spirituality,” the feeling of connectedness to the transcendent and each other. And we imagine a spirit at work in our feelings, in our sensations and gratifications, like we feel good after ingesting sugar or cocaine. The excitement of the new “relationship” in adultery is a distorted spiritual quest.
What do we have to offer as Christians? It must be our example as participants in the new covenant offered by Christ. My wife, Drema, has performed about 400 weddings. At every one she says: “Your love has brought you to this moment. Your commitment is what will guide you from here on.” It’s how we live the seventh commandment. It’s how the éros (erotic love) of romance becomes the agápe (unconditional Christ-like love) of committed life together. That discipline yields longer, deeper rewards. It’s the lesson learned in good marriages, successful businesses and at the gym. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore put it this way: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
The joy of Christian service, including fidelity in all our relationships, is what we have to offer. In my tradition, that healthy, growing, contagious love in Christ is understood as God’s “sanctifying grace,” which unites personal and social holiness. If we model this, we can be a blessing to the nation.
The Rev. Dr. David McAllister-Wilson has been president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington since 2002. An ordained United Methodist minister, he has served for nearly 30 years in theological education and has helped make Wesley one of the nation’s largest and leading theological schools, preparing approximately 1,300 men and women for ministry each year.