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.

Short-term commitment to church? I can relate.

The other day I wrote about my struggle to keep running after completing my first marathon, an effort that was itself a capstone to an amazing year of running after 17 years of inactivity and poor eating habits. You see, for a year – and particularly for the few months leading up to the marathon – I somehow got up the gumption to change my life, to commit to running, and to run a race I never thought I would be able to run. But I did it. And I felt great. 

And then I stopped. Goal achieved. Box checked. Motivation, it seems, left somewhere out on 26.2 miles of asphalt in the District of Columbia.

My experience with running is not unlike many people's experience with church.

I've seen people get really involved in church for a while, as if to complete a project – a very tangible "project" such as the Confirmation of their teenager, or a more "spiritual" project of healing following a personal trauma. But once the project is complete, they drift away, having "achieved" what they first came to church seeking, but not having made the patterns of church or faith routine enough to be part of everyday life.

I can relate.

My project was to run a marathon. Since the physically and emotionally rewarding experience of running the marathon, however, my commitment to running has dropped off. Likewise, many people experience a period of intensive involvement in church, but then later drop off.

I don't begrudge folks who slip into the church for a time and then find themselves away, and not only because I can relate with this experience within the realm of running. Rather, part of what we're called to do in the church is to walk with people where they're at, and in that moment strive to be a welcoming community of Christ for them. Our doors are open.

Some come and sit for years on end. Others just wander through and take a look. Others hang out for a while but then move on. That's OK with me. Life-long membership is not the goal. Meeting people in their spiritual need and awakening them to the saving presence of the Triune God in their life – through shared practices of faith, including worship & praise, Bible study, prayer, service, fellowship, and giving – is what we're about, it seems to me.

In my own struggle to make running a daily and on-going routine rather than a time-limited project, perhaps I'm learning a little about those who come to church for a good, long stretch, and then who are absent for an even longer stretch.

As I try yet again to re-re-commit myself to running, I am grateful for friends who know the joy of running and who make running a part of their everyday life. They share their joy with me, and they encourage me despite my inconsistent commitment to running.

May I be as good a pastor, and our church as welcoming a community of faith, as these running friends are to this on-again, off-again, on-again wannabe runner.

Making Meaning on a Sunday Morning

I skipped church on Sunday morning.  It felt strange, for sure.  I'm a pastor, after all.  I usually work on Sundays, preaching a sermon, presiding at the altar, teaching a class, leading children in prayer.  I'm someone who finds great meaning and power in the Word and Sacraments and the fellowship of the Christian community.

But my Sunday apart from my routine of spiritual fellowship and leadership was not devoid of 09ArmyTenMilerStart meaning.  Quite the contrary.  I took off this Sunday to run in the Army Ten Miler, the largest ten mile race in the country (30,000 registrants; 21K+ finishers).  When I first committed to running this race, it was meant to be a capstone to a six-month return to fitness.  Yet, after an injury that kept me from training for two months, the race became less a capstone to my return to fitness than it was a gut-check as I struggled to stick to one of my exercise goals despite the set-back.

Truth be told, I had no business running the race. I hadn't run more than five miles over the past month, and when I tried for six miles on a recent training run, I crashed and burned with just under a mile to go.  But I ran the race anyway.  It had enough meaning to me that I ran.

And indeed, many among the gathered collection of humanity at the Army Ten Miler were running with meaning.  Sure, there were many people like me who made completing the Army Ten Miler a fitness goal, and many others who had goals of finishing in a certain amount of time.  Particularly in an age of rising health care costs and ever-increasing indicators telling us that we're unhealthy, such goals can be very powerful and motivating.

But people were also running as members of teams.  Over 700 teams competed in the race, from teams comprised of members of military units, to teams of staffers from military contractors, to at least one church team that I saw, to college teams, and so forth.  Their team camaraderie and dedication was fun to watch.

Most significantly, however, were those who were running in honor of soldiers serving overseas, and those running in memory of soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Where my wife and I were running – in the back 1/3 of the pack – perhaps as many as 1 in 10 of the runners wore shirts revealing a deep and personal connection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: shirts printed with the picture of a soldier killed in action; shirts printed with the picture of a friend or spouse serving overseas; shirts showing that the runner had served in a certain unit at a certain base overseas.  And then, of course, there were the soldiers in wheelchairs, having lost a leg or two in battle.  This race was for many a memorial event, honoring and remembering those who have served and those who continue to serve.

The Army Ten Miler was an amazing, meaningful experience.  Quite different, to be sure, than my usual routine of Sunday morning worship and fellowship.  It's like comparing apples and oranges – both fruit, both good for you, but nonetheless quite different.

It has become clear that fewer and fewer people are making meaning on Sunday mornings by gathering for worship and fellowship, or are making meaning during the week by meeting for Bible study or prayer groups.  But just because the church no longer has the lion's share of the meaning-making market doesn't mean that people are not making meaning.  It is soooooo easy for us in the church to suggest that folks who are outside of the church are leading hapless lives devoid of meaning and purpose (a sentiment I've heard stated more than once).  On the contrary!  Beyond the hallowed walls and stained glass windows of the church large throngs of people are deeply involved in groups and communities and activities which shape their identity and give them meaning.

In an era of church decline our call, perhaps, ought to be to put our ear to the ground and listen to what it is that gives people meaning and purpose, and to believe that God is doing something beyond our walls.  This is not to suggest that churches should abandon the riches of our tradition and faith for ten mile runs, or that God is at work in every activity that gives someone meaning.  Not at all!  But it is a call to take seriously how people today are making meaning, and to consider the experiences of those who do not sit in our pews as worthy of our attention and respect.