Few hard-news journalists with careers akin to Chris Hedges' become Bible-based moralists. The nature of journalists who cover wars and write exposés tends...

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“Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America”
by Chris Hedges
Free Press, 206 pp., $24

Few hard-news journalists with careers akin to Chris Hedges’ become Bible-based moralists. The nature of journalists who cover wars and write exposés tends toward skepticism, if not downright cynicism. Yet in his previous book, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” and this new book, Hedges shows his preacher streak, derived in part from his minister father and his own time as a seminarian.

At the opening of “Losing Moses on the Freeway,” Hedges lists the Ten Commandments, based on Christian Bible passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy, allegedly presented by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. Hedges then explores the commandments, through contemporary examples based on his life and the lives of individuals he has encountered.

Hedges classifies the commandments like this: “The first four are designed to guide the believer toward a proper relationship with God. The remaining six deal with our relations with others.”

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Only two commandments have become the law of the realm, Hedges notes — the bans on stealing and murder. The others can be enforced only through conscience, not law. Still, Hedges is impressed at how the principles cut across religions and societies, commenting that Protestants, Catholics and Jews over thousands of years have found more similarities than differences, and that Muslims “honor the laws of Moses, whom they see as a prophet.”

Hedges shares his personal experiences with organized religion and commandments-based secular morality. He decided to write the book several years ago, after returning to The New York Times newsroom. Hedges had been traveling more or less incessantly for two decades, trying to explain the world outside the United States to Times readers from locations in the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia, African nations and Latin American nations.

“I was plagued by memories I wanted to forget, waking suddenly in the middle of the night, my sleep shattered by visions of gunfire and death,” Hedges says. “I felt alienated from those around me, unaccustomed to the common language and images imposed by popular culture, unable to communicate the pain and suffering I had witnessed, not much interested in building a career.”

What shook Hedges from his lethargy turned out to be a 10-part film series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a series called “The Decalogue” directed by Polish documentarian Krzysztof Kieslowski. As Hedges took in the films, set in a Warsaw housing complex, as he understood how subtly each of the Ten Commandments could enter a life, he felt inspired to provide his own version for a mass audience.

Hedges received further inspiration as he recalled covering the war in Guatemala. At a United Nations camp for refugees in Honduras, Hedges asked a peasant why the camp contained so many tents decorated with colored paper. The reply: They were celebrating the flight of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus to Egypt to escape the slaughter of children ordered by Herod. “It was on this day that Christ became a refugee,” the peasant said.

Hedges knew that Bible passage well from childhood. “But until that moment, standing in a muddy refugee camp with a man who may not have been able to read, I did not understand it. … The commandments can only be understood in moments when they are no longer abstractions. Scholarship, especially Biblical scholarship, divorced from experience is narrow, self-absorbed and frequently irrelevant.”

Knowing lots of readers will almost certainly not dig for their own examples, Hedges provides examples of intersections with the commandments from his life and lives of others. Hedges includes examples from phases of his life at a boarding school in Massachusetts, later in the Roxbury section of Boston, still later while at Rockford (Ill.) College delivering a commencement address. A few of Hedges’ subjects have achieved a bit of fame, however fleeting. Most are low-profile individuals, little-known outside their neighborhoods.

The case studies are relevant and sometimes compelling. It is touching that Hedges believes that knowledge and observance of the Ten Commandments can make the world a better place. His special perspective on war gives his belief urgency, and perhaps credibility.

“The wars I covered from Central America to Yugoslavia were places where the sanctity and respect for human life, that which the commandments protected, were ignored,” Hedges says. “Bosnia, with its rape camps, genocide, looting, razing of villages, heady intoxication with violence, power and death illustrated, like all wars, what happens when societies thrust the commandments aside.”

Steve Weinberg is a director of the National Book Critics Circle.