Holy Books and Violent Texts

“Come in and kill them. Let no one escape.”

Such is a verse found in a book sacred to billions of religious people in the world. It’s not the only text of violence in this holy book. Indeed, there’s lots of violence in it. It would be easy to read this book – isolated verses and the longer sagas – and conclude that those who consider it to be holy are radical extremists, and that their God considers violence to be just.

Here are a few more verses:

406460_f520“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

“He said, ‘Come with me, and see my zeal for God.’ When he came to the place, he killed all who were left, until he had wiped them out, according to the word of God that he spoke to the prophet.”

“The king said to the guards and to the officers, ‘Come in and kill them; let no one escape.'”

“Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys … They burned down the city, and everything in it.”

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Did I give it away by that last one? These quotes, some slightly edited, come from the Bible that Christians around the world consider to be sacred.

Reading a people’s holy book outside of that people’s tradition of interpretation, piety, and prayer is dangerous.

I’d hate for a non-Jew or non-Christian to pick up and read the Bible on their own apart from the community of faith. Look at these verses! Read in isolation there are horrendous. Holy Books are products of living and active religions, and are interpreted within a living and active tradition and community of faith.

The Bible has all kinds of passages that are, on the surface, terrible. However, our interpretive tradition has, over the centuries and millennia, struggled to frame and make some sense out such verses. In isolation, these verses do not exemplify my faith nor the faith of billions of Christians (and Jews, for that matter).

Here are those verses from above, unedited, with citations:

Ps 137:9 “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

2 Kings 10:16 “He said, ‘Come with me, and see my zeal for the LORD.’ So he had him ride in his chariot. When he came to Samaria, he killed all who were left to Ahab in Samaria, until he had wiped them out, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke to Elijah.”

2 Kings 10:25 “Jehu said to the guards and to the officers, ‘Come in and kill them; let no one escape.'”

Joshua 6:21, 24 “Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys … They burned down the city, and everything in it.”

Matthew 10:34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

And I could go on.

Holy texts cannot be understood apart from holy communities.

Just as I would not want a non-Christian to read these verses as if they defined my faith, let’s not read the Koran, or any other holy book, and claim we know what it means. Sacred texts belong in faithful communities, and apart from those communities they cannot be properly understood. Christians who seek to understand Islam cannot simply pick up and read a Koran in isolation, but instead must learn from the community of faith who consider that text to be sacred.

Jesus Grieves: The Cross at Half Staff

I drove past a church today that has two flag poles on its property – one for the American Flag, and one for the Christian Flag. They were both flying at half staff in an act of public mourning for the victims of the Chattanooga shooting.

Now, I find the Christian Flag to be somewhere between silly and heretical. Flags are emblems of nation states, signs of a government’s authority over territory and people. Christianity is not a nation state and it needs no flag. Our Lord Jesus rejected efforts to give him the kind of authority that a flag represents. Christianity’s symbol is a cross on which our Lord found victory through death (not conquest), and power through weakness (not might). On that cross, our Lord bid us to do the same. To that end, I find the impulse to slap a cross on a political symbol to be odd, at the least.

Nonetheless, the Christian Flag gave me a different kind of pause today, as it flew at half staff. I am accustomed to seeing the American flag flown in such a manner, a sign that calls us to public mourning. But to see the cross similarly flown, well, that struck me. It reminded me that Jesus grieves.

Our Lord grieves at the senseless death of any of his children. Our Lord grieves at the sin that grips our nation and world. Our Lord grieves when the demons of anger or sickness or passion or evil possess any of his children and lead them to take the life of another.

Yes, our Lord grieves at the brokenness of our world – a world that produces enough food to feed all people, but does not have the will to do so. Our Lord grieves at all the -isms which, coupled with the power of majority rule or government mandate or social acceptance, keeps people from realizing the fullness of their promise in God. Our Lord grieves, because our Lord loves.

I’m no fan of the Christian Flag, but on this day I am grateful for its humble flight at half staff that recalled for me the grieving Lord of love who is present with us in our sorrows and sufferings, and who shows us a better way.

Mormon Bashing

“‘All things are lawful,'” but not all things are beneficial.
All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” – 1 Corinthians 10:23

This week The Current in Westfield and The Current in Carmel included a 12-page “advertising supplement” entitled “Non-Mormon Temple Visitors Guide.” In this “guide” provided by Tri-Grace Ministries of Ephraim, Utah, you’ll read all kinds of claims about the Mormon faith written by non-Mormons and by people who claim to be former Mormons.

Twice on the first page this “guide” refers to Mormon teaching as “deception.” I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that this is not an entirely fair “guide.”  This guide may be sincerely written by people of faith, but it is harmful to our community and particularly to our Mormon friends and neighbors.

“‘All things are lawful,'” but not all things are beneficial.
‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” – 1 Corinthians 10:23

It is entirely lawful for The Current to run this “advertising supplement.” The First Amendment protects and guarantees their free speech and that of the authors of this “advertising supplement.” But this massive “advertising supplement” is not beneficial. It does not build up our community.

It is not beneficial for a newspaper that arrives at every single house in our ZIP Code to distribute such a “guide” that dismisses as “deceptive” the teachings, practices, and faith of the Mormon Church. This “advertising supplement” is a form of public bullying, disparaging the faith and church of many of our neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. Mormonism is a minority religion whose adherents have, for much of their history, been bullied, harassed, persecuted, and chased out of town. That ugly tradition continues with this “advertising supplement.”

Next week will The Current run a 12-page screed against Jews? Roman Catholics? Muslims? Lutherans? Homosexuals?

No matter what theological qualms some may have about the Mormon Church (or the Roman Catholic Church, or Islam, or Lutheranism, or whatever), it does not build up our community when a public asset such as The Current distributes divisive and biased literature to every single household in our community. Rather than spread divisive and biased literature, The Current should seek mutual understanding, interpret the words, faith, and actions of our neighbors in the best possible light, and celebrate when members of our community celebrate (such as our Mormon friends are doing this week with the opening of their new Temple).

Martin Luther, in his teaching on the 8th Commandment (“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”), says:

We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

I am attending an Open House at the new Mormon Temple in Carmel next week. I am doing so to learn more about the Mormon faith so that I can “come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” I am also attending the Open House so that I can stand with my friends and neighbors against the unfair attacks and slander they experience all too often.

Theological differences between the Mormon Church and the Lutheran Church are real. But so too is the unfair treatment our neighbors, friends, and fellow children of God of the Mormon Church receive to this day. My friends and neighbors don’t deserve to receive, on their doorstep, such a publication. I cannot remain silent. I have to speak out.

For me, living a life of faith is not about projecting my faith into the public square to the detriment of others, or seeking public assets – be they government or business – to enshrine and propagate my faith through their power and reach. Instead, living a life of faith is about coming to the defense of my neighbors, seeking the good of the community – particularly the most vulnerable and “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) – living into the promises of the coming Kingdom of God, and having the opportunity to worship and live according to the dictates of faith.

I pray for mutual understanding among the faith communities of Westfield and Carmel.
I pray for a renewed commitment by our communities to seek the common good.
I pray for God’s grace to strengthen us, and especially those oppressed by bigotry and prejudice of any kind.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

UPDATE – Saturday, July 11

After three days I have turned off comments on this post, as the conversation in the comment thread was no longer constructive. We all seem to be talking past each other. Thank you for the conversation and for sharing your different points of view on this matter.

Blessings.

What a Week

(My weekly church blogpost shared here, as our church website is in transition)

Remind me not to take vacation during the last week in June ever again.

I remember watching the Phil Donahue Show one summer in late June as a kid, shortly after school let out (I was a really fun kid. Really.). They were talking about the constitutionality of burning the American flag in the wake of United States v. Eichman, a case that ruled as unconstitutional laws that banned the desecration of the American flag on free speech grounds.

The guests were passionate. The audience members were opinionated. There was lots of energy around this issue.

From that moment I got more and more interested in both politics and in the flag, and I learned quite a bit about both. I read the Constitution and the Flag Code, and various opinions about both. One of the lessons I learned is this: even though school is out and summer has started, late June – when the Supreme Court releases its most anticipated rulings – is one of the most consequential times of the year for our country.

In the past week, the Supreme Court has ruled on marriage, healthcare, environmental protections, fair housing, and congressional redistricting, among other issues. Together with the outrage following the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and the heated – yet very important – discussion surrounding the Confederate Flag, it was a significant week for our nation.

Now, in the midst of all this news and critical issues before our country, the church cannot be silent. At the least, the church and its leaders should seek to make sense – in terms of faith – of what our society is experiencing in this moment. Even more, the church and its leaders should be public voices for justice. After all, a lamp isn’t lit to be set underneath a bushel (Matthew 5:15), the call of a prophet is to cry out loudly against injustice (Isaiah 1:23, for example), and the kingdom of God is not a matter of words but of power (1 Corinthians 4:20).

Cries for the church to stay out of politics, and for preachers to speak on matters of faith not politics, miss the point. Jesus engaged in ministry publicly. Jesus spoke about how people treat one another. Jesus died at the hands of government – publicly. The prophets of old decried how society neglected the widow and the poor. Faith without works is dead, and one work of faith is to seek a more just society that improves the health and welfare of any who suffer injustice, indignity, poverty, hunger, and oppression of any kind. Faith is inherently public, and is inherently concerned with public things.

After all, Jesus’ main way of speaking about God’s intent for humanity was to speak of the Kingdom of God. “The Kingdom of God is like ….” Kingdoms are societies. They are inherently social, public, corporate. The life of faith is not just something we keep to ourselves, individually.

Even more. Faith is not just one part of our lives, but informs the whole of our lives. We do not put faith on and take faith off. Faith is not just found in one box in our closet, to be taken out on Sundays and holidays. Faith is part of all that we do. Faith informs all of our actions. Faith – and the God in whom we have faith – is concerned with all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Thus faith led me to weep when nine African Americans were murdered while at prayer. When one member of the body of Christ suffers, I suffer. Faith led me to ask tough questions about the legacy of racism, the power of symbols, and the unfulfilled promise of “we the people” seeking to form “a more perfect union.” In faith I read where Scripture tells me that “love bears all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), and that we are called to “bear another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Looking at the burden of racism and the legacy of oppression that my sisters and brothers bear, I grieve and ask, “How can I bear this burden with them?” I don’t have a very good answer. The question gnaws at me. The status quo is not working. Racism persists. This sin, and the structures that were shaped by it, need to be dismantled.

Faith led me to celebrate the Supreme Court ruling on marriage, extending marriage rights to same-gender couples in all fifty states. For years couples and families have lived without the dignity and legal protections of marriage. Medical decisions, estates, health insurance, shared property ownership, and so many other protections and opportunities were denied to same-gender couples and their families, to our neighbors and friends, to Soldiers wearing the uniform of the Armed Forces, to our fellow human beings and sisters and brothers in Christ. Legal prohibitions created a hardship for millions of people. Faith celebrates when hardships are alleviated, when “the lowly are lifted up” (Luke 1:52). Faith rejoices at wholeness and healing and justice.

In neither of these issues am I directly implicated. I am not black. I am not gay. Yet that is precisely the point. Faith is not primarily concerned with the self. Our faith is primarily concerned with the whole of society and the care of the other. “Love does not insist on its own way,” writes Paul, speaking to the faith community in Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:5). Faith is oriented toward the justice and renewal of the Kingdom of God and those who live within it. Justice is experienced – and enacted – in community. Faith is inherently interested in the community and the world.

So too, I believe, is the American Experiment. The United States was established by “we the people” to establish “a more perfect union.” The Bill of Rights was written to restrain society, its government, and its majorities from trampling on the rights of individuals. But more than a mere restraint function or a statement of the rights of individuals, the Bill of Rights and the eloquent call to create “a more perfect union” speak to a positive view of a society in which “liberty and justice for all” is the goal.

In the critical conversations about race that our nation has begun since the Charleston shooting, and in the celebrations and hand-wringings and questions of “what’s next?” following the Supreme Court’s ruling, our nation is one step closer to realizing its calling to form a more perfect union. Such steps are difficult, and ours will never be a perfect union – sin will make sure of that.

Yet we strive ever forward, as Christians and as Americans, to make ours a more perfect union. Such a more perfect union begins to take shape when our focus turns from self to other, and we recommit ourselves not to insisting on our own ways but instead to bearing others’ burdens … to seeking liberty and justice for all.

Questioning My Commitments to “The System”

I'll admit that this post is driven more by emotion than by careful thought … you've been warned!

I spent this past weekend immersed in worship and fellowship and games and Bible study and fun with about 250 Lutheran youth and adults from around the DC area. About halfway through worship on Sunday morning, in a room filled with adolescents singing and praying and listening in to the preacher, I leaned over to a pastor friend of mine and whispered,

"It's events such as this that make me question my commitment to traditional forms of worship and ministry."

In church it's as if we have this system that regulates and/or structures and/or guides our relationship with God and our experience of faith. It's a good system. I buy into the system. But at what point does the system take over? At what point does the church become an exercise of fitting people into a system rather than of being a place of holy encounter with God? And moreover, how do we define this system?

Sidebar: Yes, I recognize that I'm setting up a dichotomy that, in theory, is false. Surely "the system," well-executed, creates a place holy encounter. But I don't live or work or conduct ministry in theory. In practice, "the system" can and often does become a stumbling block to faith for many individuals and communities.

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Lawn Decor and Lucky Charms

I recently stumbled upon Christian symbols in places where I wasn't expected to find them.

Exhibit A

The other day we bought a box of Lucky Charms cereal for our children.  We rarely buy sugary cereal for the kids, but this day we did.  I was fascinated to notice all the charms and symbols in the cereal … including an ichthus.  Of course, the ichthus is an ancient Christian symbol.  From wikipedia:

Lucky charms Ichthys can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of several words. It compiles to "Jesus Christ, God's son, savior," in ancient Greek "Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ ͑Υιός, Σωτήρ", Iēsous Christos, Theou Huios, Sōtēr.

  • Iota (i) is the first letter of Iēsous (Ἰησοῦς), Greek for "Jesus".
  • Chi (ch) is the first letter of Christos (Χριστὸς), Greek for "anointed".
  • Theta (th) is the first letter of Theou (Θεοῦ), Greek for "God's", the genitive case of Θεóς, Theos, Greek for "God".
  • Upsilon (u) is the first letter of uios (Υἱὸς), Greek for "Son".
  • Sigma (s) is the first letter of sōtēr (Σωτήρ), Greek for "Savior".

This ancient symbol representing an early confession of faith in Jesus Christ has ended up, nearly 2000 years later, alongside horseshoes, arrowheads and shooting stars as a "Lucky Charm."

Halloween lawn cross

Exhibit B

Several houses in our neighborhood have crosses on their lawns – and no, they are not celebrating their faith.  Clearly the hot item at the Halloween store this year is a gray and black, worn-looking faux grave marker in the shape of a cross.  What better way to scare people and celebrate ghoulishness than to place a cross on your lawn!

[Of course, there is a clear connection between Halloween and the cross, for our current practice of Halloween is rooted in an older practice of All Hallows Eve and the commemoration of the faithfully departed on All Saints Day.  Yet that connection has all but been severed, resulting in a festival of sorts celebrating all things scary and ghoulish … and the cross, somehow, is seen as fit for fright.  Of course, the cross and all it represents is terrifying – the sin and brokenness of the world on full display in the murder of God's own son – but that meaning is hardly captured in the triviality of a Halloween lawn ornament.]

 

—–

So the main symbols of our faith have become cereal shapes and cheap Halloween lawn ornaments.  Sigh.  I guess this is what happens when our religion, once established for centuries as the central cultural, political, and social force in Western society, wanes in relevance.  Its symbols get caricatured to the point of meaninglessness, tossed among other trinkets in a cultural grab bag. 

I find these "uses" of our religious symbols regrettable, but I'm not necessarily complaining or pointing fingers.  It is what it is – a sign of the times in which we live … times in which our symbols are reduced to lawn decor and lucky charms, and our faith struggles to be more than a spiritual trinket.