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LOSING MOSES ON THE FREEWAY: THE 10 COMMANDMENTS IN AMERICA

By Chris Hedges, Free Press, 206p $24

From America, October 31, 2005

Despite its title, this book is not about controversial displays of the Ten Commandments in public buildings. This issue is not even mentioned. Rather, Chris Hedges focuses on the life-giving force of the Ten Commandments in our lives as individuals and as a country.

“The commandments are guideposts. They bring us back, even when we stray, as we all do, to the right path,” he writes. “They are our protection against the siren calls of glory, wealth and power that will ultimately dash us against the rocks…. The commandments guide us toward relationships built on trust rather than fear. Only through trust can there be love.”

Hedges was a war correspondent for nearly 20 years in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans for such publications as The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times. Losing Moses on the Freeway originated in a series of 10 stories the author wrote for The New York Times; each story was based on one of the commandments.

Hedges shows us what can happen both when the commandments are broken and when they are honored. He tells of those who seek redemption after breaking a commandment and of those who see nothing wrong in a questionable path they are taking. He also measures American society against the commandments and finds it lacking.

“The consumer goods we amass, the status we seek in titles and positions, the ruthlessness we employ to advance our careers, the ambitions and even noble causes we champion, the money we covet and the houses we build and the cars we drive become our pathetic statements of being. And those of us who see the truth of the commandments have a hard time applying them. It is one thing to understand but another to act.”

In the chapter on the First Commandment (“You shall have no other gods before me”) Hedges tells of his struggles in his early 20’s as a Presbyterian lay minister in charge of a church in a particularly run-down section of Roxbury, Mass. He was studying at Harvard Divinity School, and he had idealistic hopes of heroically serving a poor congregation. Instead, his main experience was a running battle with two violent young drug addicts in the neighborhood. He eventually leaves for good when he is informed that they had been waiting in his house to kill him.

“All this was a long time ago. It was a time I dreamed of being good. But this was the idolatry of self, the worship not of God but of my virtue. I had to learn my own complicity in oppression, my own sinfulness, how evil lurked within me, how when I was afraid I could turn on the weak and powerless.”

He earned his degree, but he did not get ordained. Instead he left to cover the civil war in El Salvador as a freelance journalist.

Hedges next examines the lure of idols by talking to devotees of the band Phish. Many of its fans became obsessed with the band and followed it around the country from concert to concert. These fans took all too seriously the half-baked and at times nihilistic mythological stories the lead guitarist told from the stage. This way of life encouraged in fans an extended childhood, which in many cases led to a descent into self-destructiveness.

In a moving chapter based on the commandment “Honor your father and your mother,” Hedges tells the story of his late father. He was a Presbyterian minister, whose experience in the Army in World War II left him with a deep distrust of all authority. He stood up for the poor in the upstate New York town where they lived, advocated for civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War. In this chapter, Hedges reprints the text of a commencement address he himself gave at Rockford College in Illinois in May 2003. It was an incisive critique of the war in Iraq, which created an uproar, including booing, heckling, a man climbing up on the stage and even some people in tears singing “God Bless America.”

Hedges’ employer, The New York Times, sent him a letter of reprimand that said his public remarks “could undermine public trust in the paper’s impartiality.”

Hedges was unrepentant. “I was called into the office. It was an unpleasant moment.... But I knew what I was called to do. I had seen the cost. To be silent would be to betray my father, to turn my back on what he stood for, to dishonor his memory, to dishonor my own memory.”

For the commandment “You shall not kill” Hedges interviews Episcopalian Bishop George Packard, who killed and directed killing as a platoon leader in Vietnam. Others profiled include a journalist who went to prison for insider trading (“You shall not steal”) and those involved in a long-running feud between rival chess shops on the same street in New York City’s Greenwich Village (“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”).

The book also examines the unhappy life of a man born out of wedlock (“You shall not commit adultery”). “Adulterers are thrust into a life of deceit. Children born of the affairs can grow up with feelings of rejection and inadequacy,” he writes. “Lies, as any affair goes on, pile one on top of the other. It is morally corrosive.”

I have just one problem with this book. Hedges is extremely dismissive of religious institutions and leaders, and indeed their failings are many. Yet how would living traditions be passed on for centuries without them? Would we even have the Bible or the Decalogue without institutional religion? Would a world filled with unaffiliated religious freelancers be any better—or, given the social nature of humanity, even be possible?

But this does not detract much from an excellent and at times very moving book. One reads Losing Moses on the Freeway with the realization that public displays of the Ten Commandments mean much less than their living presence in the hearts of men and women. Mark E. Rondeau

Mark E. Rondeau , a former newspaper editor who lives in North Adams, Mass., is a freelance correspondent for The Catholic Observer, of the Diocese of Springfield.

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