As a kid growing up in a fundamentalist church, the Bible was always center stage. It was read daily in our home. I memorized verses in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. And at church services, my father the pastor, would preach from it line by line. The result of all that biblical exposure is that the words of the Bible got into my bones.
I am amazed at how much I retain all these years later; how much biblical turns of phrase still influence my speech and thought patterns. Even so, my relationship with the Bible has been a rocky one, even from a very early age. As a kid I had a healthy skepticism for most of what I was told and so when the church told me that the Bible was perfect, I arched an eyebrow of disbelief. As a kid I loved grammar and decided that if the Bible had an Achilles Heel, then I would find it in the grammar. And so I would sit in my bedroom and open the Bible to a random passage just to check if God was using punctuation properly. St. Paul’s run-on sentences I found especially suspect.
As I got older, my doubts grew to encompass more than grammar. What I learned in science classes seemed to contradict some stories in the Bible. In the Bible, God seems to intervene in human affairs all the time, yet it seemed to me that God could be strangely absent in the modern world. And then there were the moral problems presented in the Bible’s stories. Just for fun this week I Googled “atrocities of the Bible.” Lots of atheist websites popped up, seeming to take delight in the litany of horrors recorded in our holy book – things like the subjugation of women, slavery, religious warfare, ethnic cleansing, the stoning of rebellious children, a tent stake driven through the head of a sleeping man, amputations, murderous dogs, bears that eat children, etc., etc. The writers of the Bible sometimes claim that God orchestrated such violence. What do you make of that?
When you know a little bit about the violence in the Bible, it’s maddening to hear certain self-righteous and biblically illiterate Christians claim that the Koran is inherently violent while the Jewish and Christian Bibles are inherently peace-loving. The messy truth of the matter is that in the Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam violence and peace live side by side, just like do in human lives. Psalm 137 is a case in point. This Psalm was written against the backdrop of the devastating exile into Babylon. One cannot really understand much of the Bible without factoring in the Babylonian exile and what it did to the people. It was a cultural flashpoint, their 9/11.
Psalm 137 is the lament of a forlorn people who sat beside the river in a foreign land, and hung their harps on the trees and refused to sing when their captures taunted them. Instead, they pined away for Jerusalem the Golden, which was now Jerusalem the Devastated. The walls of the city were torn down. The city had been burned to the ground and the best and the brightest were carted off into humiliating exile. The result of all of this terrorism was a red-hot anger that erupts in the last two verses of this psalm, which read: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
So there it is, in our own Holy Book – an image of children and babies being punished for the sins of their parents by having their heads dashed against the stones. The lectionary used to leave these last two verses out of this reading, but now they’ve put them back in. And I’m glad. Let’s be honest about what is in our book.
So what are we to do with such violence in our Bible? What we have done, for the most part, is to simply ignore it. Our ignorance has been our bliss. But that’s dishonest and irresponsible. After all, Protestants are “People of the Book.”
So if we’re not supposed to ignore these sections of the Bible, then what on earth are we to do with them? Well, it’s the opposite of what we have done. When our reading of the Bible makes us cringe, when we are embarrassed and perplexed and disturbed, that is precisely the moment we should jump in with both feet. We should jump in and fight and wrestle with what we find, and trust that in the struggle, the truth will be born. How often in our own lives, in all kinds of other areas, have we found it to be true that it is because of the struggle that we come to new and deeper and more profound understanding?
That is a big part of what it means for the United Church of Christ to say that “God is still speaking.” To say that is not to imply that God is saying whatever we would like God to say. To say that is to imply a dynamic and sometimes volatile relationship with this book. It’s not that the truth simply spills out of the Bible’s pages. It’s that the truth is unearthed as you dig.
That digging a treasured part of our Congregationalist heritage. In his farewell sermon to the Pilgrims before they set sail to the New World, Pastor John Robinson encouraged them to continue to wrestle with the Bible, to expect that as their lives unfolded in this New World, as they changed and grew, so would their understanding of the Bible’s truth. Robinson preached to them: "I charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.”
The truth breaks forth in the struggle. Christian history is full of the stories of holy people who fought with this holy book. The result of the struggle is transformation – a movement beyond the stale orthodoxies of the day and into the unknown of what the Spirit is doing in the world. What do I mean by that? Well, once upon a time it was orthodox Christian belief to assume that the Bible supported slavery. Even in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus references slavery and does not challenge it. Therefore, those who worked for abolition, including the folks who founded this church, seemed to have precious little Biblical evidence for their belief that slavery was against the will of God. So they wrestled with the Bible and their conscious and their common sense and their human decency until they became convinced that the enslavement of others was a denial of the Gospel’s central message. The same struggle with Scripture helped us to move toward the ordination of women and the acceptance of people like me to stand in a pulpit. Tired, wooden, lazy readings of the Bible have the potential to leave people in prisons of prejudice and despair. But a deep and faithful engagement with the Bible sets people free.
Ignoring this book is an option, but not for Christian people. It’s a disservice to the past and all of those who gave of their sweat and blood to pass it down to us. It’s a disservice to our Protestant heritage. So read this book. Study this book. Fight with this book. Struggle with this book until the truth emerges and you know for yourself this promise of Jesus Christ – that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Thanks be to God. Amen