Hello, Mike ...
I too am a parent (of three kids aged 6, 8 and 10) who is looking for something outside of organized religion to help teach in the ethics and morals department. I grew up in the Lutheran Church, but left the church a couple of years ago when my understanding of God/life no longer fit into the Christian definition. I have been flying blind since then, pretty much homeschooling the Art and Science of Life, doing my best to answer questions such as, from my youngest, who was three at the time: “If everything alive died, would life start all over again?” Hmmm .... I dunno.
The one guideline I tend to fall back on at this point is that no matter the situation, the relationship is what’s important. Your situation with your daughter, where you re-framed her sense of guilt into one of compassion for tsunami survivors, follows this principle that we are all connected and those of us living outside of whichever crisis have a responsibility to help those who are suffering. The relationships idea was suggested to me as an explanation for the Ten Commandments. It goes something like this:
In 1996, I attended a week-long seminar on the Ten Commandments given by a Lutheran minister. He opened the seminar Monday morning to a group of seventy or so adults ranging in age from twenty- to eighty-something by asking each of us to recall one rule we remember from our childhood. One by one we stated a rule and the minister wrote them all on a marker board: “Don’t tease your sister.” “Eat your vegetables.” Don’t start a job unless you’re going to finish it.” “Don’t tickle your father’s feet when he’s sleeping. “ “Look both ways before you cross the street.” ... After all seventy rules were posted, he asked us why our parents/teachers had these rules and what were they trying to teach us. He pointed out that all the rules had to do with either safety and well-being, our own and others, or respect, for ourselves and for others. His whole point of the exercise was to suggest that maybe the Ten Commandments were not necessarily about “[protecting] man in his natural rights against the injustice of his fellows.” (Catholic Encyclopedia) But rather had more to do with protecting and nurturing our Relationships. He pointed out that the Commandments all together cover every possible relationship - God, family, neighbour, self ...
To reference each commandment with a relationship gives me a totally different focus for ‘obeying’ them. Instead of debating the right or wrong of a situation with a crime and punishment focus, I find that to focus on the harm any one action, or inaction, does to whichever relationship is a solid measure as to whether a decision/action/attitude is good or not.
To go through all ten, I end up with the following interpretations:
1. Honour God, which for me is the force/energy/intelligence which is found in all that make up this universe, and beyond.
2. Honour Life and all things living, including flora, fauna, the planet, the universe,...
3. Since I understand God to be a life-giving force, to ‘not take his name in vain,’ means to me to respect, protect and cherish Life and all things living.
4. ‘Keeping the Sabbath holy,’ would refer to the importance of taking the time to notice and honour our own life and reflect on how we are using our lives, if we are contributing to our relationships or not.
5. Honouring our fathers and mothers can be easy for some who are lucky enough to have obviously honourable parents, but for many whose parents either abandonned or abused them, this commandment falls somewhere between difficult and impossible. My thought is that even with seemingly ‘dishonourable’ parents, we are still required to honour their lives and learn from them and their mistakes, especially the Big mistakes, to do our best to make sure the mistakes aren’t repeated from generation to generation. (John Bradshaw speaks of this in his book, “The Family.”)
6. “Thou shalt not kill,’ because of the irreversible damage it does to the relationships surrounding the victim. It obviously puts an abrupt end to all the victim’s relationships, but also interferes in the relationships of all those left behind, including the murderer.
7. Adultery is not about the sex, it’s about the damage done to the relationship, the distrust and loss of security, between the spouses.
8. Stealing destroys the trust between the thief and the victim and causes the victim to be distrustful of others.
9. Bearing false witness destroys the relationship not only between you and your neighbour, but interferes and damages the trust between you and everybody who now knows they cannot trust you, and also between the neighbour and anybody who may now question his character.
10. Covetting your neighbour’s house, introduces a harmful element to your relationship not only with your neighbour, but also goes against the very first commandment to honour life rather than things material.
I find that interpeting the commandments in this way is very helpful for answering the question, why these ten and not some other ten good rules. Anyway, some food for thought passed on down the line .... good luck to us!