Difficult Words

Recently on the CNN website there was an interesting little reflection on the Bible. The author was trying to illustrate the “messiness” of the Bible and how there is a religious culture out there that has been too successful in “sanitizing” the language and the ideas in that remarkable book. The author is Steven James, and here is the link to the reflection:


Very well put, but I don’t think the author goes far enough or deep enough. Certainly it is worthwhile to bring to the fore the rough edges of the people of the Bible and the fact that they are not “prayer-card saints.” But the author only hints at a much deeper problem and dilemma for the true believer, if only he/she opens their eyes or perhaps we should say open their ears for the Word of God is meant to be heard.

All of us in the Christian tradition consider the Bible the “Word of God,” but what we exactly mean by that can vary quite a bit and what authority we attribute to this text can also vary. I am not going to discuss all that, but what I want to point at is a problem regardless of your place within the Christian tradition or how much you rely on the Bible as the “Word of God.” There is this little problem that in the Bible God seems to condone, indeed even orders, some “unsocial behavior,” like pillaging and stealing, like genocide and murder, and a host of other rather nasty actions. Consider the following: If the parents of a son find his behavior reprehensible and find him disobedient, they can bring him to the elders of the town and say: “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard. Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.” (Dt 21:20-21). No unruly teenagers then!! “Tommy if you don’t clean up your room we are going to take a walk to see the elders!” Sorry, couldn’t resist that one….. Now the real problem here is that this is presented as the Law of God, as the law given to Israel by God. Conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists who believe that every word in the Bible was actually dictated by God should have a real problem with this kind of passage—except that they usually don’t; they just ignore it because it would create anxiety about their “theory of inspiration.” Liberal Protestants and most Catholics who have a more nuanced idea of divine inspiration say that you need to read such passages within a larger context in order to understand what is really going on. In other words, don’t get lost in minute details that may in fact have very human limitations, but look at the larger story of God’s call and promise, etc., etc. Ok, that sounds nice, but it leaves me wondering. There are just too many such passages, and I can’t get over that the Book PRESENTS God in that way. Another example: “A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned to death….” (Lev 20: 27). Just an aside: God is presented as very liberal with the death penalty. “When the daughter of a priest profanes herself through prostitution, she profanes her father; she shall be burned to death” (Lev21: 9). And then this: “When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the sabbath day. Those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses, Aaron, and to the whole congregation. They put him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp'” (Numbers 15: 33-35).

Now all the above pertains to so-called God-given laws concerning individual actions. But there are even more troubling things yet! When the Israelites are liberated by God from Egypt, they are directed again by God to enter this particular land and make it their own. Only one little problem: there are people there already. Not to worry, just listen to the Lord: “But the Lord said to Moses, ‘Do not be afraid of him; for I have given him into your hand, with all his people, and all his land. You shall do to him as you did to Sihon of the Amorites….’ So they killed him, his sons, and all his people, until there was no survivor left; and they took possession of the land”(Numbers 21: 34-35). And then there is this lovely moment in salvation history: “The Lord said to me, ‘See, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin now to take possession of his land.’ So when Sihon came out against us, he and all his people for battle at Jahaz, the Lord our God gave him over to us; and we struck him down, along with his offspring and all his people. At that time we captured all his towns, and in each town we utterly destroyed men, women, and children. We left not a single survivor. Only the livestock we kept as spoil for ourselves, as well as the plunder of the towns that we had captured”(Dt 2: 31-35). But then we reach a kind of crescendo of “justified” genocide in this remarkable passage: “When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you in forced labor. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil…. Thus shall you treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them–the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and Jebusites–just as the Lord your God has commanded….”(Dt 20: 10-17).

Enough of these wretched passages! Now some may be saying that I am totally ignoring the New Testament; that’s where the “good stuff,” the “real stuff” is…. Fair enough, but has anyone recently read the Book of Revelation. A very violent text, and it seems written by someone on a bad acid trip or having ingested some bad peyote! Educated Christians will tell you that this language has to be read symbolically. (And indeed there are problematic texts in all the major world religions and something similar is usually deployed in order to “save the text”.) Not bad for an answer, but you have to admit there is something jarring about this language that makes it not seem in accord with the major thrust of the New Testament. Of course that is so true of such a large part of the Old Testament as we have indicated above. And so the Christian tradition has developed various strategies for dealing with this, and one of them is the “spiritualizing,” the “allegorizing,” the “symbolizing” of the problematic texts. The Church Fathers and the medieval monks were especially masters in this art. I mean you had to be if you were a monk and had to chant all those psalms every day, more so than we do today, and deal with all that violent language that seemed so much against the grain of the Gospels. So you turned that language into a message about something else.

This kind of strategy works up to a point, but there is one serious flaw that people tend to overlook. That kind of language tends to infiltrate one’s subconscious, one’s heart and mind, one’s worldview, etc. And it lives there alongside the language of the Gospel, not displaced by it. Inevitably it rears its ugly head in various ways through the centuries. There is a famous speech by (St.) Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Cistercian monastic leader, rallying French Christians to one of the crusades, and the language and spirit is right out of that early Biblical world. He urges them to slaughter the Moslems and liberate Jerusalem. And that language was already used against the Albigensians even earlier, living right there in France. And just think of all those heretics which the Church led to torture and burning, thousands upon thousands. And Protestents who think that was a “Catholic problem,” please take a look at Protestent Switzerland and the Puritans in colonial America and Oliver Cromwell, etc. And then there were the Serb Christians who massacred their own Moslem neighbors just a few decades ago. I suggest it is that language and imagery lurking in the Christian subconscious mind that at least assists and empowers such evils. Incidentally, the genocide of Native Americans started in colonial America, both in the Protestant Puritan colonies and in Catholic Spanish areas, and how the early accounts are couched in religious terms! Even our secular spirit of “American exceptionalism” as our leaders like to term it, which seems to give us immunity to commit war crimes and wage wars, has its roots in that old Biblical blindness.

Needless to say this Biblical problem is not unique to people of faith. Genocide, violence, etc. can be found quite easily in secular ideologies like communism or fascism to an almost unimaginable degree; and its manifestations are also present in all the major world religions. So it is, first and foremost, a human problem; but it is very important to see how the Bible is implicated and ensnared in this. Now let us see how we can pry open a door just a little bit to maybe get a glimpse of a way out of this dilemma without trashing the Book.

We have already mentioned the “spiritualizing” approach and its serious limitations, but there were some earlier attempts also–that failed also.

One attempted way out was proposed in early Christianity, as already many Christians felt uneasy with some of these elements in the Bible. It was proposed that you simply separate the Old Testament from the New Testament in a rigid way and simply reject the Old Testament as a mistake or failure of sorts. You dumped the Old Testament in the trash can. This was deemed a heresy by the early Church. You simply can’t do that because the writings of the New Testament depend on the Old Testament, are connected to them, and see themselves as grounded in the Old Testament. But even more importantly the very person of Jesus did not reject the Old Testament. And here we come to a crucial point. It is actually in the very person of Jesus that we find a way to transcend our dilemma. Jesus arises out of the whole messy and bloody context of the Old Testament, and he is totally and culturally connected with it and its language and its history, but the amazing thing is that even given all that he subverts that history and language, deconstructs its dark messages, and overthrows all notions of God that are limited and colored by that history and language. He does all that from within its own parameters, without as it were “cleaning the slate and starting fresh”–which would have indicated him as a kind of “outsider” to the human condition.

Consider the following: In the Gospel of Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is presented as a new lawgiver, in the mode of Moses. Read it carefully and you will see that while the framing of the discourse is well within the “Moses tradition,” the “Moses language” is being turned inside out, emptied out, vacuumed out, washed out, and then something wholly new is put back in its place with an amazing feel of real continuity with the old stuff. When you get to the end of the Sermon, you sense that something new has taken place here, replacing the old. It is labelled a sermon, and Jesus is presented as a teacher with authority–he is not just spinning ideas from the top of his head but this is coming from somewhere deep within him. Recall that this Sermon takes place immediately after the Baptism narrative and the period of trial in the desert. As we have said in earlier blog postings, Jesus comes out of these experiences with his new found sense of identity as “Son of God,” as one with Yahweh in an unimaginable intimacy. Thus he speaks with authority, but the authority is used in a very interesting way—certainly not to lord it over people but actually to be divinely subversive. I recall when I was teaching school in the early 1970s that one of my favorite books on education theory was a book with a title something like: Teaching As A Subversive Activity. The idea was that at the bottom of it all the teacher’s main job was to empower his students to unmask the various ideologies that impoverished their hearts, their minds, their lives. In this sense we can say that Jesus was practicing “Preaching as a subversive activity”!! And this is only one example. No wonder they put him to death! After this sermon, if you really take it in, you cannot read the Old Testament the same way, not even its nice passages. Even when the Law reads nicely, the very idea of the Law has been deconstructed and “re-visioned” so that a whole new dynamic is present. Yet Jesus is still presented as a traditional law-giver–so both continuity and discontinuity are present in Jesus.

Another example: Consider in the Gospel of John, chapter 8, 1-11, the woman caught in adultery. What an amazing scene! The woman has been caught in adultery, and the law of the Old Testament is very clear that she should be stoned to death. The Taliban, among others, still practice such things today. In any case, note how Jesus does not argue with the accusers—he is NOT a lawyer! He is not trying to get her “off.” He does not reject the law or its context or its history. Neither is he attacking the law itself or any interpretation of the law. This is so remarkable! Again, a sense of something new emerges, something new unfolding, a new reality. It is so amazing that it makes the old law impotent. The accusers cannot act. The old law has been subverted, deconstructed, replaced in such a quiet way that you don’t even realize it. Don’t get fooled by the simplicity of Jesus’s words—they are not simple, and there is so, so much buried in them.

Now what is going on in these kinds of passages, what is really at stake here: it is our very image of God, our vision of the Mystery of God, our very sense of God is being redefined from within the tradition. Nothing less than that. And the climax of all that is of course Jesus on the cross. Those of us in the Christian tradition believe in the ultimate value of this vision and what it reveals about God. (Incidentally that’s why I believe the crucifix as religious symbol is so far superior than just the cross.) So, so striking that Jesus is crucified for blasphemy. The Law would have had him “only” stoned, but the Romans added their touch. So this is the ultimate subversion of that Law— when we see Jesus on the cross we see where THAT can take us. Jesus on the cross throws us into a world “beyond Law,” and it reveals all law in its human limitations (and thus also the Book, which contains the Law, and thus also the Church which claims the Book.)

The Jerusalem religious elite turned this Jewish man over to the Romans because in their historical situation only the Romans could do what the law demanded: execution. (Incidentally, there is something eerie about the parallelism here because the Church authorities during the Inquisition never executed any heretics–they always turned them over to the state authorities for that unpleasant job–so some church apologists want to excuse the church from the horrors of the Inquisition.) Thus veneration of the Cross on Good Friday is especially significant ( and so subversive)–gaze on it with your heart’s eyes. But there is even something more remarkable if we consider this moment “from God’s side” as it were. In Jesus on the cross, God comes to join ALL the victims of the Law! Recall that old Black Spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” In Jesus on the cross, God says YES I was there when they tortured and burned each and every one of those children of mine deemed as heretics; Yes, I was there with my Moslem children as they were slaughtered by the Christians; Yes, I was there when the Native Americans were being massacred. And so on. And so on. No need to make a catalog of nightmares. And if you still want an explanation for all that, I will simply refer you to the most unusual spiritual master, Dostoyevsky in Brothers Karamazov, for he understood Christianity and the human heart better than all our church leaders ever did. So at the end of this tunnel lies Good Friday. And a vision of that Ultimate Mystery which we call God that in Jesus on the cross makes us transcend all our laws, all our books, all our ideas. Beyond that is a silent waiting for something even yet more astounding, but here only real silence is possible. And maybe pancakes!

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