The Bible Guy is off on vacation with his lovely wife, and will return in three weeks. God bless you all, and keep reading your Bible!
The Bible Guy is off on vacation with his lovely wife, and will return in three weeks. God bless you all, and keep reading your Bible!
In our ordinary, day-to-day reading, we realize that different texts must be read in different ways. It would never occur to us to read the phone book the way that we would read a novel (“Hmmm–lots of characters, but no plot. . .”). Similarly, we are (at least, generally) aware that while novels sometimes may contain facts, they are not factual: neither Sherlock Holmes nor Atticus Finch is a real person.
But when we turn to the books of the Bible, we sometimes forget this common-sense principle, and insist that each passage of Scripture must be read in the same way as every other passage, “flattening” the Bible as though it were all of a piece. Slogans such as “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” not only treat the Bible as if it were flat, but also insist that this is the only faithful way to read the Bible. If the Bible is God’s word, after all, then it must be true, and if the Bible is true, then that must mean that every word of it is true in the same way: factual, accurate, applicable, and authoritative.
We will talk about biblical authority next time. But for now, this flattening approach ignores a fundamental feature of the Bible, evident to the most casual reader: the Bible is not a book, but a library of books, written in different times, places, and languages. The Hebrew Bible contains a good deal of poetry: indeed, the books of Psalms and the Song of Songs (sometimes called the Song of Solomon) are entirely poetic. The Greek New Testament is dominated by letters, such as Romans or 1 Thessalonians. Some books are narratives, with characters and dialogue and plot–such as Ruth or Jonah on the left-hand side of the Bible, or Acts on the right. Most Old Testament prophetic books, such as Amos or Jeremiah, are collections of speeches; similarly, in the New Testament, Hebrews is a sermon. The first five books of the Bible are commonly called “law,” although only Leviticus and Deuteronomy consist mostly of laws; Genesis is entirely narrative, and Exodus is mostly so. The first four books of uniquely Christian Scripture are all called “gospels,” from the Old English godspel, or “good news”–although only Mark explicitly bears that title (Mark 1:1). No wonder we call this book “the Bible,” a word which comes from the Greek ta biblia, meaning “the books!”
Not only do different books call for different readings, but within each biblical book, we find a variety of styles and techniques, calling for different approaches. For example, Jesus was a master storyteller. In the New Testament, the word “parable” (Greek parabole) occurs fifty times, all but twice (Heb 9:9; 11:19) in the first three books: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Indeed, Mark and Matthew go so far as to say that Jesus never taught without a parable (Mark 4:34; Matt 13:34). The Septuagint (the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture) uses parabole for the Hebrew word mashal. In the Hebrew Bible, a mashal is a saying requiring interpretation: generally speaking, a riddle, a proverb (the Hebrew name for the book of Proverbs is Meshalim), or a metaphor.
Put simply, parables are meant to be read not literally, but figuratively (as the two uses of parabole in the book of Hebrews indicate). For example, Jesus’ parable of the weeds growing among the wheat (Matt 13:24-30) doesn’t describe good farming practices–although when I was growing up, I tried persuading my Dad that weeding our garden wasn’t biblical! Instead, it is a story about the kingdom of God.
Usually, we understand this distinction without difficulty. When Jesus says, “How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that” (Matt 23:27), no one thinks that Jesus has wings, or that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were chickens! We know how figurative language works.
Yet Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-30) is sometimes read, not as a story told to illustrate a point about wealth and responsibility, but as a proof of the existence of hell–indeed, as a detailed geography of the afterlife, detailing where “the bosom of Abraham” and hell are located relative to one another, with a “great gulf” between them, across which people in hell can see into heaven, and vice versa. That Jesus says nothing about that topic either before or after this story in Luke should remind us that this is after all a parable, not a cosmic travelogue.
Reading the Bible rightly, then, requires us to ask of any passage, where does this come from? What sort of text is this? What standards of interpretation do I need to apply if I am to understand its message?
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are often cited by Christians opposed to same-sex marriage. In the CEB, the first passage reads, “You must not have sexual intercourse with a man as you would with a woman; it is a detestable practice (Hebrew to’ebah).” The second goes further: “If a man has sexual intercourse with a man as he would with a woman, the two of them have done something detestable (Hebrew to’ebah). They must be executed; their blood is on their own heads.” How ought these passages be read and applied?
I have written about these verses in greater detail before. Put briefly, they come from a section of Leviticus called the Holiness Code (Lev 17—26), which “democratizes” the idea of holiness: not only are the priests and the sacred objects pertaining to worship set apart as belonging to God, but all of Israel is God’s, and so is called to a higher standard of commitment, service, and ritual purity: “You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2).
In these chapters, more stringent standards of ritual purity are upheld than is the case elsewhere, even within the book of Leviticus! For example, Leviticus 15:24 states that a man who has sex with a woman during her menstrual period (during which she is ritually unclean: see Lev 15:19–23) shares in her impurity—like her, “he will be unclean for seven days.” Lev 18:19 and 20:18 go far beyond this, however. In the radical view of ritual purity the Holiness Code upholds, sexual contact with a menstruating woman is to’ebah: an abomination to be punished by exile from the community (Lev 18:29; 20:18).
Ritual purity and impurity–the “clean” and the “unclean”–are strange concepts to many of us. Put simply, these rules have to do with customs that you follow in order to be a fully integrated member of your tribe: the food that you eat, the clothes that you wear, the way that you plant your crops. Violating these customs alienates you from your tribe: but even more, in ancient Israel, such violations were regarded as pollutions that stained not only the offender, but anyone else who came into contact with him or her. In fact, the Holiness Code declares that the land itself was defiled by such actions, and so would repel their perpetrators:
You must not do any of these detestable things, neither citizen nor immigrant who lives with you (because the people who had the land before you did all of these detestable things and the land became unclean), so that the land does not vomit you out because you have made it unclean, just as it vomited out the nations that were before you (Lev 18:26-28).
Some such customs deal with actions any culture would condemn, such as as incest (18:6-18), child sacrifice (18:21), and bestiality (18:23). But ritual purity doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with morality.
Horses, for example, were ritually unclean: since, unlike cows, sheep, and goats, they have solid rather than divided hooves and do not chew the cud (see Lev 11:3), they couldn’t be eaten or offered as sacrifices. But this doesn’t mean that ancient Israelites thought that horses were evil: in fact they were important, particularly for the military, and praised for their strength and beauty (see Job 39:19-25).
The point is that, if indeed Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 have to do with ritual purity (as their context suggests; see Lev 18:26-28), then we should not read them as though they were moral proscriptions. Concerning ritual purity, Jesus taught: “Listen and understand. It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person” (Matt 15:10-11). When pressed for an explanation, he said:
Don’t you understand yet? Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults. These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight (Matt 15:16-20).
Christians need not read every verse of Leviticus as a commandment–nor indeed do we. Few if any Christian readers regard sex with a menstruating woman as a sin. Further, even among those who would insist upon applying Lev 18:22 directly to our contemporary context, few would call for the death penalty for gay men (Lev 20:13), let alone for children who curse their parents (Lev 20:9) or for mediums and diviners (Lev 20:27). In short, despite protests to the contrary, none of us really apply the same standard of authority or interpretation to every passage of Scripture. All of us realize that the Bible is not flat–and an honest reading of Scripture must begin with that acknowledgement.
Because the Bible is not flat, reading Scripture responsibly and honestly requires taking the Bible seriously–not literally. The Bible requires committed, prayerful reflection and careful study. This is particularly the case for those books, like Leviticus, that presume a worldview and way of life very different from ours.
But this certainly doesn’t mean that Christians should avoid those harder books! Leviticus, including the Holiness Code, is Scripture–word of God for people of God. We need to hear, and heed, its summons to lives of personal holiness.
Holiness, after all, means more than ritual purity. The Holiness Code also states, “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18). Jesus called this passage one of the two commandments on which “[a]ll the Law and the Prophets depend” (see Matt 22:34-40). For John Wesley, holiness, or Christian perfection, meant
. . . loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love (John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection [Orlando: Relevant Media, 2006; orig. 1777]; p. 49).
May our reading of the Bible lead us into lives of love, following the God who comes to meet us in these pages.
Several of you reported problems with the subscription link on this page. Our seminary’s intrepid webmaster David Keys wrote, “To make this a more generic feed to read, I converted the link to a feedburner link. This is a Google service which should make subscribing more universally easy to everyone.
. . . The users that are using the original rss feed http://steventuell.net/?feed=rss2 will continue to do so. It is still active.”
Let me know how this works!
On Sunday, it will be my honor to participate in the memorial service for Dr. Loretto R. Auvil, mother of my old and dear friend Walt, and a leading citizen and philanthropist in Parkersburg, WV where I was raised–may light perpetual shine upon her. As is traditional in services of death and resurrection, we will share together the ancient, powerful, comforting words of the Twenty-Third Psalm.
One reason we find this passage so comforting is that it is so familiar. Typically, I find that as soon as I start this Psalm, others join in–many people, even folk who have long been estranged from the church, have this psalm by heart. Like John 3:16 or 1 Corinthians 13, Psalm 23 has become woven into our culture. Surely, such a familiar passage must be throughly understood–how could it possibly hold any surprises?
My Hebrew class was reading Psalm 23, identifying words and parsing verbs as we went, when we came upon weshabti in the middle of verse 6. My students were puzzled by this word–and to my astonishment and chagrin, so was I! I had always read right over it, but when I looked again at the verse, and at this word, I found that it did not say what I had always assumed that it said. Usually, weshabti is read as though it were a form of yashab (“dwell”)–so, “I shall dwell.” That is what the Aramaic Targum of this psalm has, what the Greek translators of the Septuagint assumed (for more on these ancient versions of Scripture, see my blog “Which Bible?”), and the way that pretty much every English translation of the psalm of which I am aware reads.
But, if weshabti comes from yashab, it is a very irregular form of that verb! What it actually looks like is a form of the verb shub (“return”), in which case the verse should read, “I will return to the LORD’s house”–as the footnotes on this verse in the English Standard Version and the Common English Bible alike observe. The point of the verse would then be the psalmist’s promise to keep coming back to God’s temple as long as he lives–to return on pilgrimage, as often as possible. Psalm 23:6 may not be so much about rest at life’s end as it is about a lifelong commitment to worship the LORD.
The Bible does this to me all the time. Again and again, a “familiar” text that I had thought that I had pegged will suddenly leap off the page, grab me by the collar, and show me something I have never see before. The writer of Hebrews puts it very well:
God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions (Heb 4:12).
One of my favorite sayings comes from nineteenth- century American humorist Josh Billings (the stage name of Henry Wheeler Shaw): “It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.” This is especially true of Scripture. Because the Bible is so familiar, so deeply ingrained in Western culture, and so often cited as an authority, we sometimes assume that we know what it says, when in fact we may not.
For example, in a 2001 study by the Barna Group, 75% of Americans surveyed agreed with the statement, “The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves.” Of course, that chestnut is not found in the Bible at all. The saying “God helps those who help themselves” comes from seventeenth-century English political theorist Algernon Sydney (Discourses Concerning Government, Chapter 2, section 23), though it was popularized by Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1736). I sneaked that one into the Bible content exam at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary once, and while I am pleased (and relieved!) to report that most of our students knew that “God helps those who help themselves” was not in the Bible, a disturbing minority was certain that it was in there somewhere, perhaps in James or Proverbs!
Even those of us who have long loved and studied Scripture continually find that the Spirit has something new to show us. The first step in reading the Bible, then, is actually to read the Bible, in big chunks–not assuming that we already know what it says, but to look again, humbly seeking to discern Scripture’s intent.
One thing we may think that we know about the Bible is that the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:1-28 proves God’s anger over the sin of homosexuality. This may seem obvious: after all, the men of the city crowd around Lot’s house, demanding “Where are the men who arrived tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may have sex with them” (Gen 19:5). Indeed, this is where the word “sodomy” comes from.
But, look again. The Bible itself does not refer to Sodom in this way. When “Sodom” is mentioned in the Bible (in Old and New Testaments combined, in 48 verses), it is often used metaphorically, as an example of total destruction brought by divine wrath (for example, Deut 29:23; Matt 11:24//Lk 10:12), with nothing said about the reason for Sodom’s destruction. Even in the account of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction in Genesis 18:16–19:28, the reason given for the LORD’s judgment on the cities is not sexual sin:
Then the Lord said, “The cries of injustice from Sodom and Gomorrah are countless, and their sin is very serious! I will go down now to examine the cries of injustice that have reached me. Have they really done all this? If not, I want to know” (Gen 18:20-21).
The Hebrew word rendered “cries of injustice” in the CEB is za’aqah (sometimes spelled tsa’aqah)– typically used for the cry of the oppressed for help (for example, Exod 22:21-24). Indeed, the gang rape attempted by the men of Sodom does not represent anyone’s idea of consensual intimacy! This passage is about power and control through rape: the sexual humiliation of the stranger.
So too, in Ezekiel 16:49-50, we read:
This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy. They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it.
Since the word rendered “detestable thing” here (Hebrew to’ebah) in used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 for male homosexuality (for more on those passages, see my earlier blog; we will discuss these verses and others next time), some have proposed that that is its meaning in Ezek 16:50 as well. However, in Ezekiel, where the term to’ebah appears 43 times, it nearly always refers to idolatry (for example, Ezek 6:9; for the concern for idolatry in Ezek 16, see 16:16-21). For Ezekiel, injustice to the poor and false worship together led to Sodom’s destruction.
The exception that proves the rule–the only passage in Scripture that relates the sin of Sodom to a sexual act–is Jude 6-7:
I remind you too of the angels who didn’t keep their position of authority but deserted their own home. The Lord has kept them in eternal chains in the underworld until the judgment of the great day. In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and neighboring towns practiced immoral sexual relations and pursued other sexual urges. By undergoing the punishment of eternal fire, they serve as a warning.
Jude’s reference to “the angels who didn’t keep their position of authority but deserted their own home,” imprisoned “in eternal chains in the underworld,” alludes to a third-century BC Jewish apocalypse, “The Book of the Watchers,” preserved in 1 Enoch. The Watchers were angels, charged with caring for humanity, who instead gave humans forbidden knowledge, and had sex with human women. Out of these unions the Nephilim (Hebrew for “fallen ones”) were born: giants, monsters, and heroes of ancient times (see Gen 6:1-4). For their crimes, the Watchers were imprisoned until the final judgment (1 Enoch 10:4-14).
Jude says that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for acting “in the same way” as those angels–that is, for doing what the Watchers did. The CEB translates the Greek opiso sarkos heteras as “other sexual urges” (the NIV has “perversion”), but a more literal rendering would be “going after other [or "strange"] flesh” (see the KJV). The explicit comparison with the story of the Watchers makes plain what is meant by this odd expression. The men of Sodom lusted after angels, just as the angelic Watchers lusted after human women (for Jude’s concern about showing spiritual beings proper respect, see Jude 8-10).
I invite you to chase these passages yourself, and do your own study of them. But I honestly see no relevance of the Sodom texts to our contemporary conversation about LGBTQ women and men.
Distinguished Hebrew Bible scholar and preacher Ellen F. Davis writes,
I suppose every one of us would like to be an astonishing preacher–unlikely though that seems on a week-to-week basis. But the plain fact is that no preacher can ever be astonishing (in a positive sense!) unless she has first been astonished. And the only regular and fully reliable source of astonishment for the Christian preacher is the Scripture itself (Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005], 2).
This is true, sisters and brothers, not just for preachers, but for all of us! God give us open ears, open hearts, and wide open eyes, so that we will not settle for what we already “know” that the Bible says, but will be willing, always, to look again–and to wait, confidently and eagerly, for God’s living Word to astonish us!
On Friday June 26, by a 5-4 margin, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that same-sex marriage is a Constitutionally protected right. Responses, pro and con, were swift in coming. As a Bible-believing Christian, a United Methodist minister, and a Hebrew Bible scholar who welcomes this ruling, I was not surprised that many other believers did not. Disagreements among believers on doctrine and Bible interpretation are certainly nothing new, and I have dear friends and family members who I know differ with me on this issue, as on others.
I was, though, saddened by many responses. Christian vocalist and evangelist Carman Licciardello wrote:
I have to hand it to the LGBT community. They have fought for what they believed in much harder than the Christian community ever did. They’re much more united than we are. They comprise only 3% of the American population and took in the 83% who claim to be Christians and won.
Similarly, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, when asked by ABC correspondent George Stephanopolous if he was calling for acts of civil disobedience against the Court’s ruling, replied:
I don’t think a lot of pastors and Christian schools are going to have a choice. They either are going to follow God, their conscience and what they truly believe is what the scripture teaches them, or they will follow civil law. They will go the path of Dr. Martin Luther King, who in his brilliant essay the letters from a Birmingham jail reminded us, based on what St. Augustine said, that an unjust law is no law at all. And I do think that we’re going to see a lot of pastors who will have to make this tough decision.
You’re going to see it on the part of Christian business owners. You’ll see it on the part of Christian university presidents, Christian school administrators.
Most bewildering was this tweet from Christian radio talk show host Bryan Fischer:
What none of these responses recognize is that not only are there many Christians, like me, who support this ruling, but that there are Christian churches–the United Churches of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church, to name three–that permitted their clergy to perform same sex marriages, where the law permitted, prior to this decision. What is more, 48% of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning) women and men identify as Christian–indeed, 13% identify as Evangelical, and 11% as Catholic, despite the position of the Roman Catholic Church and of most Evangelical denominations in opposition to homosexual acts, if not to same-sex attraction. Are these persons, these denominations–let’s make it personal, am I–then, not “really” Christian?
Many friends have posted links to a blog by Jonathan Parnell, titled “Why Homosexuality Is Not Like Other Sins.” Rev. Parnell writes,
As Christians, we believe with deepest sincerity that the embrace of homosexual practice, along with other sins, keeps people out of the kingdom of God. And if our society celebrates it, we can’t both be caring and not say anything. Too much is at stake. This means it is an oversimplification to say that Christians — or conservative evangelicals — are simply against homosexuality. We are against any sin that restrains people from everlasting joy in God, and homosexual practice just gets all the press because, at this cultural moment, it’s the main sin that is so freshly endorsed in our context by the powers that be. Let’s hope that if there’s some new cultural agenda promoting thievery — one that says it’s now our right to take whatever we want from others by whatever means — that Christians will speak out against it. The issue is sin. That’s what we’re against. And that’s what should make our voice so unique when we speak into this debate.
But what about those of us who genuinely are persuaded that homosexual practice is not inherently sinful? The response invariably is that those of us who take this position are rejecting Scripture.
It certainly cannot be denied that there are passages of Scripture that condemn same-sex relations (though perhaps not so many as is sometimes claimed). However, the Bible is also perfectly clear on other matters about which we are not so ready to claim its authority.
For example, it is absolutely clear that divorce and remarriage are condemned by Jesus, in the very passages commonly cited as demonstrating that biblical marriage is between one man and one woman (Mark 10:1-12//Matthew 19:3-9; see especially Mark 10:11-12, and compare Matthew 19:9 and 5:31-32; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor 7:10-16). Yet my own United Methodist Church, which states in its Social Principles that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” (2012 Book of Discipline ¶ 161F, p. 111), also states that “when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness” (¶ 161C, p. 109) and that “Divorce does not preclude a new marriage” (¶ 161C, p. 110).
Please do not misunderstand me here. I do not believe that the Scripture passages regarding divorce and remarriage should be applied legalistically. However, if I am indeed to take the entire Bible literally as word of God, without picking and choosing, then how can I justify reading Mark 10:11-12 any differently than I read Romans 1:23-27?
The truth is, none of us read the Bible in that way–and we never have. As Rachel Held Evans reminds us in her thoughtful blog, the “plain teaching of Scripture” has been used far too often to confirm what we already believe: to condemn racial integration, to oppose the ordination of women–even to reject the view that the earth goes around the sun, and not vice versa. All of our readings of Scripture are interpretations of Scripture, built on who we are and where we stand. This means that we must read humbly and prayerfully, and be prepared to acknowledge the possibility that our reading has been misguided–or at least, that we can learn from a different approach. Ms. Evans puts it very well: “One need not discount the inspiration and authority of Scripture to hold one’s interpretations of Scripture with an open hand.”
In the following blogs, I will wrestle with the question of how to read Scripture. This involves, first of all, a willingness actually to read the Bible, not to rely upon what we already believe the Bible to say. Secondly, it requires a determination to acknowledge, honestly, the implications of our commitments. Most importantly, reading the Bible requires that we realize what the Bible is: not an encyclopedia, or an instruction manual, but a confession about who God is, and an invitation into a relationship with God.
Walking the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland, Wendy and I saw this wonderful pub. Its name has no apocalyptic significance: as its website states,
Back in the 16th century Edinburgh was a walled city. The gates to the city were situated outside the pub, and the brass cobbles in the road represent their exact location. As far as the people of Edinburgh were concerned, the world outside these gates was no longer theirs: hence the name, The World’s End.
By now, surely everyone has seen or heard about the Pew Research Center study “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” which also signals the end of a world, if not of the world. The results of this nationwide survey confirm trends identified by earlier studies, and are neatly summarized in this graph:
In the wake of this study, some have been swift to place the blame on the liberal theology and lenient morality of the “mainline” Christian denominations. For example, an article in Christianity Today headlined, “Pew: Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles in America” bears the subtitle, “Amid changing US religious landscape, Christians ‘decline sharply’ as unaffiliated rise. But born-again believers aren’t to blame.” Similarly, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in response to the Pew study:
The Pew report holds that mainline denominations—those who have made their peace with the Sexual Revolution—continue to report heavy losses, while evangelical churches remain remarkably steady—even against some heavy headwinds coming from the other direction. Why?
We learned this answer 100 years ago, and it reminds us of what we learned 2,000 years ago. Two or three generations ago, Christians who held to the Virgin birth of Christ were warned that their children would flee the faith unless the parents redefined Christianity. “If you want to win the next generation,” they were told, “you have to make Christianity relevant, and that means dispending with miracles in favor of modern science.” The churches that followed that path aren’t just dying; they are dead, sustained by endowments and dwindling gatherings of nostalgic senior adults with a smattering of community organizers here and there.
Digging more deeply into the results of the Pew study does not confirm this view. Evangelical churches are not in fact growing: they too have declined, by about 1% overall as a share of the U.S. population.
As Jonathan Merritt, in an article for Religious Studies News, observes:
Simply put, almost all of America’s largest Protestant denominations are declining, regardless of political or theological alignment. Roman Catholics are declining at roughly the same rate as mainline Protestant denominations. The nation’s largest evangelical body, the SBC [Southern Baptist Church], is declining at roughly the same rate as the largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church.
These numbers tell us that America’s religious landscape is more complex than some evangelicals once believed. Conservatism does not necessarily lead to growth, it seems, and liberalism does not necessarily lead to decline. The waters of change that once overwhelmed mainliners are now lapping at the toes of evangelicalism.
I believe that the best response to the Pew report that I have seen came from my old friend and brother in United Methodist ministry, Michael McKay. In a Facebook post, Mike wrote:
So, the Pew report is out and its pointing out that non-affiliated folks now outnumber Catholics and Mainline Protestants has everyone’s shorts in a knot.
I will confess it has had me feeling pretty bad when I reflect that I am a part of a generation of clergy that has lead the church into this decline. The drumbeat of decrease and calls to fix it are never ending.
But then I think of Casey Stengal addressing his 1962 Mets at the end of the worst season of baseball ever played (42-120). He said to his players, “Don’t feel bad boys, no one person could have done all this.”
God sometimes speaks from the most unlikely places…
So what might a Casey Stengel have to say to the American church today? If we want to assign blame in the rapidly changing religious landscape of the United States, there is plenty to go around! But it is much more fruitful to ask, how can we be faithful in this contemporary context?
Perhaps the best conclusion to draw from these disturbing statistics is that we are indeed seeing the end: not of the world, or of the church, but of an illusion called “Christendom.”
It is an old illusion, one that has been clinging to the church since the days of the Roman emperor Constantine (272-337 AD), when the Christian religion not only became legal but also took on the trappings of official power. Certainly here in American, we Christians had come to think that we belong with the popular and powerful, rather than the shunned and the powerless. We had come to believe that we ought to be able to dictate our values to the world, rather than demonstrating our values through lives of engagement and service. We had forgotten that we serve a crucified Lord, whose only crown was a crown of thorns. Perhaps now that “Christendom” lies dead or dying, we can be the Church again, and seek the kingdom of God.
But the end, even of an illusion, is never easy! In the Book of the Twelve, Habakkuk speaks to the doubt, fear and anxiety prompted by the end of his world, with the rise of Babylonian imperial power. In anguish, the prophet cries out:
LORD, aren’t you ancient, my God, my holy one? Don’t let us die.
LORD, you put the Chaldean here for judgment.
Rock, you established him as a rebuke.
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you are unable to look at disaster.
Why would you look at the treacherous
or keep silent when the wicked swallows one who is more righteous? (Hab 1:12-13).
Yet God’s answer to the prophet is stark and bleak:
There is still a vision for the appointed time;
it testifies to the end;
it does not deceive.
If it delays, wait for it;
for it is surely coming; it will not be late (Hab 2:3).
The stark honesty of Habakkuk’s struggle with doubt and uncertainty in the face of that message may take us aback. Indeed, one ancient Christian interpreter of this prophet, Theodoret of Cyrus, insists that the prophet never really doubted God, but merely “adopted the attitude” of the doubter, “putting the question as though anxious in his own case to learn the reason for what happens” (Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, ed. Robert Charles Hill [Brookline: Holy Cross, 2006], 191). Since Habakkuk’s book is an oracle (see Hab 1:1) delivered “under the influence of the Spirit,” the apparent anguish of the prophet’s cry (“LORD, how long will I call for help and you not listen?,” Hab 1:2) cannot be real: “it is obvious that, instead of suffering that fate personally, he is exposing the plight of those so disposed and applying the remedy” (Commentary, 192).
But surely this defense is unnecessary. People of God in all times and places have known that faith and doubt are not opposites: indeed, deep faith and profound doubt can occupy the same heart.
May 24 was not only Pentecost, but also Aldersgate Day, when Methodists the world over recall and celebrate John Wesley’s vaunted Aldersgate experience, when his heart was “strangely warmed” and he knew the assurance that Christ “had taken away my sins, even mine” (John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler, Library of Protestant Thought [New York: Oxford University, 1964], 66).
Years after that profound spiritual experience, John Wesley wrote in a letter to his brother Charles,
[I do not love God. I never did]. Therefore [I never] believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore [I am only an] honest heathen, a proselyte of the Temple” (Wesley, 81; the words in brackets were written in Wesley’s private shorthand).
Yet in that very same letter, Wesley affirms, “I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it,” and urges his brother, “O insist everywhere on full redemption, receivable by faith alone; consequently, to be looked for now“ (Wesley, 82).
Looking at our present circumstance through the lens of Habakkuk and Wesley, perhaps we too can at once both acknowledge our fears and doubts, and also seek and celebrate God’s presence in spite of those fears and doubts. Certainly Habakkuk knew that we need to see God in the midst of doubt, struggle, loss, and pain, and affirmed God’s presence even there – indeed, especially there (something we Christians, who affirm God’s presence and power in the cross of Christ, should recognize). Therefore the prophet did not simply succumb to despair. His book ends with this bold assertion:
Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom,
and there’s no produce on the vine;
though the olive crop withers,
and the fields don’t provide food;
though the sheep are cut off from the pen,
and there are no cattle in the stalls;
I will rejoice in the Lord.
I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance (Hab 3:17-18).
We cannot choose our circumstances. But we can choose how we will respond to them. The end of a world, particularly an illusory one, need not be the end of our world. In the immortal words of R.E.M., “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine!”
This is the last of an intermittent series (beginning with this post from last October) on the twelve prophets whose books come at the end of the Christian Old Testament. If you have ideas for a new series, or a question or issue you would like to see pursued by the Bible Guy, let me know!
This past Saturday, I was blessed to hear Grace Killian, a mission intern with the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church (not to mention a daughter of Mount Lebanon UMC here in Pittsburgh, and an alumna of the Miller Summer Youth Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary!) speak at St Paul’s UMC in Allison Park, PA. Grace shared her experiences working in Palestine with the Wi’am Palestine Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem. At the Wi’am Center, Grace worked particularly with women through the Just Sharing Fellowship: a gathering in which these young Palestinian women from Bethlehem (some of whom are in the picture above–that’s Grace on your far left) learned to trust and to empower one another by sharing their stories (you can read some of them here).
To help us grasp the power of story, for good and for ill, Grace shared with us Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on “The Danger of a Single Story.” Ms. Adichie relates her encounter with her first college roommate, in America:
She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. (Laughter) She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove. . . . She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.
Ms. Adichie speaks in particular of what happens when we define someone else by daring to tell their story for them:
There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.”
When I was last in Israel/Palestine, in the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, I asked our guide through the camp what we could do for him and for his community. He said, simply, “Tell our story.” That is hard to do, when the “single story” of Israel and Palestine told in America depicts Israel in entirely heroic terms as the courageous defender of democracy, and Palestine in entirely villainous terms, as a land of terrorists committed to violence against Israel. What are we to do, then, with stories like this–one young woman’s memory of an Israeli army incursion in 2002, in response to what is sometimes called the Second Intifada:
I remember it was sunset, my mother was cleaning the house and I was playing, when suddenly we heard a hard knock on the door with people shouting “eftakh Bab, eftakh Bab” (Open the door). We opened and it was a group of Israeli soldiers with a tank and armored vehicles coming to take over our house. They came in yelling at us and I got really scared as any eight year old innocent girl would do seeing the enemy this close for the first time in her childhood. They were planning on putting the whole family my two aunts, my uncle with his two sons, and me with my two brothers, my sister, and my parents in my room with no bathroom, no water, no food to eat and not enough space for eleven people to sleep. But my grandmother, god rest her soul, saved the day. My aunt told the soldiers that my grandmother was sick and that we can’t leave her in the house by herself, so they decided to lock us all in my aunt’s two-room house. . . .
We were three families living in one small house, all our belongings were next door but unreachable and sleeping on the floor was our only choice because all our beds became part of the military defenses and we were only left with my aunts’ three beds. We were out of food and water and the Red Cross was our only source of supplies. I remember them bringing us food and water and putting them in a big basket that we would pull up the balcony. . . .
The soldiers then left and we thought the nightmare was over. But we thought wrong. . . . the nightmare began again—the nonstop shooting, anxiety and fear began again. The worst thing is that this time they didn’t only endanger our lives, and violate our rights, but they offended our religion. The soldiers that came the second time were stricter than the ones before. They were of the “religious” kind. They took all the crosses that were in the house and destroyed them. They broke them, stuffed them between shoes and even peed on them.
Of course, this too must not be permitted to stand as the “single story,” whether of Israel, the Israeli people, or the Israeli army. But it is a story that we need to hear, if we are not to impose, from our own position of power, a single story upon the entire people of Palestine.
This Sunday is Pentecost, when we recall the birthday of the church in the outpouring of God’s Spirit. The primary Scripture reading for this day is Acts 2:1-21, a text which relates, in part, how the news of God’s salvation was spread abroad on that day through what is often called the gift of tongues:
When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak. There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” (Acts 2:1-11)
Please notice that this passage does not say that the people all started speaking the same language–that their cultural and ethnic distinctiveness was denied or undone–but rather that each one heard “the mighty works of God” declared in her or his own language.
This should not surprise us. The entire Bible models for us how to escape the danger of the single story. Scripture rarely gives us a single story about anything! At the beginning of our Bible, we find two different accounts of the creation of the world. The story of Israel’s beginnings is likewise told, not in a single story line, but through multiple memories. The New Testament opens with four gospels, presenting four quite different accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The canon itself calls for us to listen with open ears and open hearts for the truth told, not as a single story, but as a chorus of voices. Sometimes those voices are in harmony, sometimes they are in dissonance, but always they are lifted in praise to the God who remembers all our stories, the comedies and tragedies alike, and catches them up together in love, forgiveness, and grace.
You are invited to join us at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for the 74th annual Henderson Summer Leadership Conference on June 7-10, 2015. This year’s event will focus on “The Good Earth: Creation and Ministry in an Ecological Age.” Our keynote speakers will be Dr. Norman Wirzba, Professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke Divinity School, and Dr. Fred Bahnson, Director of the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Guests will have the opportunity to participate in a variety of workshops (including “Being Earthlings: Preaching As Though the Planet Mattered,” by the Bible Guy) and conversations with community leaders on themes relevant to sustainability and stewardship of the earth. There will be a Farm to Table Banquet and optional field trips to sites related to the conference’s theme. You can register for this conference here.
At their annual conference this month, the United Methodist Church in Liberia upheld their ban on divorced persons being elected to the office of bishop. According to an article on the webpage of the United Methodist News Service, in separate meetings prior to the general session vote,
On April 14, clergy delegates voted 90-1 to uphold the provision. In a six-page page report, the conference board of ordained ministry outlined five counts dubbed “Reminders of the Conference Major Decisions (1985).” Those included the rule on divorced clergy: “No divorced clergy are allowed to be nominated as a candidate for the office of bishop of our conference.”
Lay delegates voted 116-0 to lift the ban. The delegates called on the conference to uphold ¶¶ 4, 403, and ¶ 604 of the 2012 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.
Still, in the annual conference session, which was interrupted on one afternoon by people protesting the ban, “delegates voted 433 to 24 to affirm the rule barring divorced clergy persons from the episcopal office. Six delegates abstained from the voting process.”
Why would the Liberians, controversy notwithstanding, vote in the end to uphold a standard for bishops contrary to the UM Book of Discipline? The Rev. Paye Cooper Mondolo, superintendent of the Weala district, argued
The decision to bar divorced clergy persons from being nominated for the position of bishop will bring moral credibility to the episcopal office of our church and guide the conduct of those who want to be bishop in the future.
What the UM News article did not say, but was almost certainly in the minds of those voting to uphold the ban on divorced bishops, is that their ban is in keeping with Scripture. In the King James Version, 1 Timothy 3:2 reads, “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach” (so too the NRSV). Likewise, Titus 1:7-9 reads:
If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers (KJV; again, compare NRSV).
Granted, the proper translation of the Greek word episkopos (rendered “bishop” in the passages above) is unclear; note that the NIV reads “overseer” (the literal translation of the Greek word), and the CEB has “supervisor” in these passages. Even less clear is the association between these officials of the early church and the office of bishop as understood within United Methodism.
But many New Testament passages reject divorce, not only for bishops, but for everyone. Jesus said, “Any man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and a man who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18; compare Matt 5:31-32). In Mark 10:1-12//Matthew 19:3-9, this teaching is placed in a context: Jesus is approached by the Pharisees, and asked to weigh in on the ongoing rabbinic debate concerning divorce. In Matthew (19:9 and 5:31-32), divorce is allowed in cases of adultery (reflecting the teaching of some rabbis), though remarriage is still problematic. The gospel of Mark adds, “if a wife divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). This differs from the Old Testament and traditional Jewish position, where only men could initiate divorce (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4), and places Jesus’ teaching in the context of Roman law, which permitted a woman to initiate a divorce. Likewise Paul (see 1 Cor 7:10-16), who cites Jesus’ teaching on divorce (one of the few places where the words of Jesus are cited in Paul’s letters), recognizes that in the Roman world a wife could legally divorce her husband. But for Paul, as for Jesus, marriage is intended to be permanent, and divorce and remarriage are forbidden.
In short, if we read the Bible as a rulebook, then the Liberia Conference is of course correct, and the Discipline is wrong: their stance on divorced bishops ought to become our stance. The questions is, is this the way that we in fact read–or ought to read–the Bible?
This leads us to another current case in United Methodism. Jaci Pfeiffer and Kelly Bardier, who had been employed by the Aloma UMC daycare center in Winter Park, FL, were fired last month, “despite being lauded as gifted and beloved employees.” The reason for their firing was that they are a lesbian couple. The Florida Conference has issued a statement that “termination based solely on sexual orientation would violate a person’s civil rights.” But the daycare center that fired Ms. Pfeiffer and Ms. Bardier can scarcely be faulted for being confused. While the Discipline does support “Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation” (¶ 162 J, p. 126), it also states that, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” (¶ 161F, p. 111). How can a church be faulted for letting someone go whose practices are “incompatible with Christian teaching”?
Here, friends, is my quandary. The only reasonable response to the Liberia Conference’s action, I propose, is either to amend the Discipline in accordance with the biblical practice of our Liberian sisters and brothers, or to acknowledge in all honesty that we do not read the Bible’s statements on the marital status of bishops, or on divorce and remarriage, as binding rules: in short, that we do not read the Bible as a rulebook. That should also prompt us to reconsider why it is that we do read other texts on human sexuality as binding rules (in the case of Ms. Pfeiffer and Ms. Bardier, Romans 1:26, the only passage in Scripture mentioning lesbians). Indeed, what about the host of other biblical rules, on a host of other matters, that we choose to ignore? As I wrote in an earlier blog:
All of us, without exception, are selective in our application of Scripture. If we worship on Sunday and do yard work on Saturday, we violate Sabbath law. If we enjoy ham and crab cakes, we violate dietary law. If we accept or charge interest, we violate the economic principles of the Scriptures. Should we Christians say that that is all Old Testament stuff, and that we live by the New Testament, we are even more caught in a bind! The Gospels advocate a lifestyle of radical renunciation of the world–how many of us are prepared to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (Matt 19:21)? Jesus explicitly condemns divorce and re-marriage. But how many of us truly believe that all divorced and remarried people are living in sin?
Being honest about how we read Scripture requires us to think hard and to pray hard on what exactly we do mean when we say that the Bible is word of God for people of God. What if, instead of a rule book compelling our obedience, or a list of propositions requiring our assent, the Bible is an invitation into relationship with God, calling for our commitment? This way of reading Scripture is complicated: but then, if we are honest, so is the attempt to justify reading some passages legalistically, but not others. If we are reluctant to adopt the rules of the Liberian church on divorce, perhaps we should also rethink whether all lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered persons–unless they commit to living silent and celibate lives–must be found guilty of practices “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
This stone stands on the land of Daoud Nassar, a Palestinian Christian living in the West Bank, southwest of Bethlehem–land that has been in his family since 1916, and has been cultivated by them throughout that time. For years, Daoud Nassar and his family have hosted Tent of Nations, a work camp dedicated to fostering peace and understanding among the world’s communities. But since 1991, the Nassar family has been in a battle in Israeli state courts, resisting attempts by Israel’s government to seize their land. The stone declares the purpose of Tent of Nations, and the commitment of the Nassar family to nonviolent resistance, in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and German: “We refuse to be enemies.”
Standing in stark contrast to this is the cynical game of adversarial politics, where those who disagree with me or differ from me are made into my enemies. These posters from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s successful re-election campaign read, “This is us or them. Only Likkud [Netanyahu's party]. Only Netanyahu.” During the campaign, Netanyahu warned against Arab Israelis turning out to vote “in droves”–a remark for which he has apologized since the election.
Similarly, in this country, we seem prepared to believe nearly anything of those with whom we disagree. In February of last year, Fox News personality Brit Hume tweeted to his followers, “There are now people seriously arguing for abortion AFTER BIRTH.” He referenced an article, then already two years old in the online journal Slate, by William Saletan. In that article, Saletan took to task an argument for infanticide in some cases, which had been published in a medical journal. Despite the fact that this was not a policy proposal, that it has been supported by no one, and that the article cited refuted the hypothetical arguments advanced, Hume’s tweet was picked up elsewhere, and grew. In November of last year, an article in the online magazine Political Ears was headlined, “DEMOCRATS WANT TO LEGALIZE ‘POST BIRTH ABORTION’ UP TO AGE 4.”
Saletan sadly comments on this entire charade (the emphasis in the following quote is mine):
Why do we do this? Why do we hype stories like this one, assuming the worst, failing to check the details or even read the article? Because we love to be outraged, and our outrage is useful. . . . If you think this disease is confined to the right, you’re kidding yourself. Every day, I see it on the left. I see it at Slate. I see it among people who think they’re enlightened and critically astute.
Outrage against the enemy is the theme of Obadiah: the shortest book in the Old Testament, tucked among other short books in the Book of the Twelve. The twenty-one verses that make up this book are entirely given over to the condemnation of an enemy of Israel, namely Edom:
Look now, I will make you of little importance among the nations;
you will be totally despised.
Your proud heart has tricked you—
you who live in the cracks of the rock,
whose dwelling is high above.
You who say in your heart,
“Who will bring me down to the ground?”
Though you soar like the eagle,
though your nest is set among the stars,
I will bring you down from there,
says the LORD (Obad 2-4)
Why does Obadiah show such hostility toward Edom? After all, Edom was only a minor kingdom, located south of Judah. Indeed, some texts regard Edom positively: Deuteronomy 23:7-8 permits Edomites who have lived among the people of Israel for three generations to be included in the worshipping congregation, and even Obadiah recognizes Edom as a place of ancient wisdom (Obad 8).
According to ancient tradition, the people of Edom were the descendants of Isaac’s eldest son Esau (see Gen 36:1–43), who is also called Edom (see Gen 25:25, 30; note that in Hebrew, ‘edom means “red”–referring perhaps to the red sandstone cliffs of this region). The Israelites were descended from Esau’s twin brother Jacob, who is also called Israel (Gen 32:22–32). In Genesis, the hostility between Edom and Israel begins in the womb (Gen 25:22-23; see Obad 10; Mal 1:2-3; Rom 9:10-15) and continues through the brothers’ early lives.
When Jacob by trickery steals the deathbed blessing their father had intended for Esau, Isaac pronounces over his eldest son the only “blessing” he has left to give:
You will live by your sword;
you will serve your brother.
But when you grow restless,
you will tear away his harness
from your neck (Gen 27:40).
Although Genesis 33:1-17 describes the reconciliation of the two brothers, other biblical texts describe continued hostility between the rival kingdoms, culminating in Edom’s participation in the sacking of Jerusalem after Babylon’s conquest (for example, Ps 137:7; Lam 4:21–22). Obadiah cries out against Edom’s betrayal:
You stood nearby,
strangers carried off his wealth,
and foreigners entered his gates
and cast lots for Jerusalem;
you too were like one of them.
But you should have taken no pleasure over your brother
on the day of his misery;
you shouldn’t have rejoiced over the people of Judah
on the day of their devastation;
you shouldn’t have bragged
on their day of hardship.
You shouldn’t have entered the gate of my people
on the day of their defeat;
you shouldn’t have even looked on his suffering
on the day of his disaster;
you shouldn’t have stolen his possessions
on the day of his distress.
You shouldn’t have waited on the roads
to destroy his escapees;
you shouldn’t have handed over his survivors
on the day of defeat (Obad 10-14).
In the end, however, Obadiah is not about vengeance over Edom. Edom becomes, in the final form of this little book, a symbol for every enemy, every oppressor:
The day of the Lord is near
against all the nations.
As you have done, so it will be done to you;
your actions will make you suffer! (Obad 15).
The end of the book is not vengeance, but justice–and possibly, reconciliation. In the day to come, this prophet declares, all the nations will become one:
The deliverers will go up to Mount Zion
to rule Mount Esau,
and the kingdom will be the LORD’s (Obad 21).
Under the rulership of the LORD, all our divisions cease; all our hostilities are stilled. While the language of adversarial politics seeks to enlist God on our side–whatever that side might be–Obadiah reminds us that the real question is whether we are on God’s side.
Abraham Lincoln expressed this well in his second inaugural address. Looking back in sadness to the beginning of the Civil War, he wryly observed:
Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.
In the early church, when sisters and brothers met one another in the holy season of Easter, they would not just say “Hello.” Instead, they would greet one another with a hearty and enthusiastic Christe anesti–“Christ is risen!”–to which the only possible response is Allthos anesti–“He is risen indeed!” On this boisterous, rollicking, joy-filled day, it is surely appropriate to do a bit of shouting!
In celebration of this holiest of holy days, John of Damascus wrote this glorious hymn in the sixth century. This hymn, in John Mason Neale‘s translation, is commonly sung today to a tune by Arthur S. Sullivan. Have a joyous Easter, sisters and brothers: Christe anesti!
Come, you faithful, raise the strain
of triumphant gladness!
God has brought forth Israel
into joy from sadness,
loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke
Jacob’s sons and daughters;
led them with unmoistened foot
through the Red Sea waters.
’Tis the spring of souls today:
Christ has burst his prison,
and from three days’ sleep in death
as a sun has risen.
All the winter of our sins,
long and dark, is flying
from the Light to whom we give
laud and praise undying.
Neither could the gates of death,
nor the tomb’s dark portal,
nor the watchers, nor the seal,
hold you as a mortal:
but today, among your own,
you appear, bestowing
your deep peace, which ever more
passes human knowing.
Alleluia! Now we cry
to our Lord immortal,
who, triumphant, burst the bars
of the tomb’s dark portal;
Alleluia! With the Son,
God the Father praising;
Alleluia! Yet a gain
to the Spirit raising.
When Christians reflect on the cross, we tend to forget, or perhaps even to ignore, an obvious truth: Jesus was a political prisoner, executed by the Roman state on the charge of insurrection. Rome didn’t crucify thieves, or bandits, or rapists, or even murderers. It crucified slaves, and those who rebelled against Roman authority. The words posted above Jesus’ head on the cross were not a title, but an accusation, the accusation that brought him to the cross: “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.”
This past Friday, in a Spirit-filled service of worship at the Lived Theology Conference of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Metro-Urban Institute, this truth was brought home to me through one of the most powerful messages on the cross of Christ that it has been my privilege to hear.
The preacher was the Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, holder of the Desmond Tutu Chair of Peace, Global Justice and Reconciliation Studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. Dr. Boesak was a key figure in the struggle to overcome apartheid in South Africa, and has continued to be a world leader in the battle for human rights.
His text was not any of the accounts of Jesus’ passion from the gospels, or reflections on the cross from Paul or any other New Testament writer. It came instead from the left-hand side of the Bible: an extremely disturbing story found in 2 Samuel 21:1-14. I confess that when I heard this text read, I at first thought that the young seminarian doing the reading had made a mistake–surely Dr. Boesak did not intend to preach on this horrific text! But he did.
In this passage, David hands over seven young men, sons and grandsons of Saul, to the Gibeonites–who execute these seven men and publicly display their broken bodies. Indeed, the NRSV says, “they impaled them on the mountain before the LORD. The seven of them perished together” (2 Sam 21:9).
Dr. Boesak first called into question the assumption raised in the text that David had acted in obedience to God’s will, expressed when David “inquired of the LORD” (2 Sam 21:9, NRSV). That word, he reminded us, would have come through priests and court prophets close to the palace–men no doubt sensitive to David’s lingering fear of a rebellion against his authority by Saul’s surviving sons and grandsons. The surrender of these seven young men to the vengeance of the Gibeonites, Dr. Boesak proposed, was no act of obedience. It was a politically sanctioned killing, an act of state-sponsored terror not unlike the Roman practice of crucifixion: a mode of torture that also left the victim hanging, exposed to the elements. The bodies of crucifixion victims were usually left unburied, to be eaten by wild animals (Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999], p. 89).
Confirming that David’s horrific act was not the will of God, this text does not say that God responded to the prayers of his people, or lifted the famine which had prompted David to inquire of the LORD in the first place, once the young men had been killed. Instead, “God responded to prayers for the land” (2 Sam 21:14, CEB) only after David responded to the protest against that killing raised by Rizpah, wife of Saul and mother to two of the murdered young men. Although she never speaks a word in this passage, Dr. Boesak calls Rizpah a prophet in the shadow of the cross.
What did Rizpah do?
Aiah’s daughter Rizpah took funeral clothing and spread it out by herself on a rock. She stayed there from the beginning of the harvest until the rains poured down on the bodies from the sky, and she wouldn’t let any birds of prey land on the bodies during the day or let wild animals come at nighttime (2 Sam 21:10).
Day after day, night after night, Rizpah stayed by the seven slaughtered men. She could not take them down and honor them with burial, but she sat in funeral clothes, mourning them, and driving away the wild animals and carrion birds so that they could not mutilate the bodies. Though only two of these had been her sons, Rizpah mourned for and honored them all, thinking, as Dr. Boesak said, Every child on a cross is my child. No one came to stand by her and help her–she was alone in her grief, and in her defiance of the king’s word. Some may have pitied her, even sympathized with her–but Sympathy is not solidarity.
Yet Rizpah prevailed. At last, shamed and moved by Rizpah’s faithfulness, David not only took down and buried those seven bodies, but also sought out the still-unburied bones of their ancestor Saul–and of Saul’s son and David’s beloved friend Jonathan. He honored them all with proper mourning and burial rites. Then–and only then–”Once everything the king had commanded was done, God responded to prayers for the land” (2 Sam 21:14).
Rizpah brought healing to her land, because she spoke truth to power from the shadow of the cross. Speaking from his own bitter and painful experience, Dr. Boesak said that this is the only way that we can speak truth to power: We cannot speak truth to power if our heart is in the palace. As Jesus himself said,
All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them Matt 16:24-25).
It was his own identification with the least and the outcast, and his opposition to the powers that be, that brought Jesus to his cross. But just as Rizpah stayed in the shadow of the cross, so the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee stayed in the shadow of his cross (Luke 23:49).
They stayed with Jesus until he died, and witnessed his hurried burial (Luke 23:55) in a borrowed tomb. As soon as they were able, “Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb, bringing the fragrant spices they had prepared” (Luke 24:1)–and so they became the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection!
This Holy Week, as we remember Jesus’ suffering and death for us, may we too resolve to stand with our Lord in the shadow of the cross, opposing as Jesus did every oppressor, standing as he did in solidarity with every oppressed sister or brother. Then we too may witness the glorious light of Christ’s resurrection, and share in the joy of his kingdom that has no end.