The God of the Bible is the God of Justice

I am continuing in my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I am exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

mlkmemphisspeech1968On April 3rd, 1968, the night before he was killed, Dr. King delivered a speech in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to support the sanitation workers’ strike. There had been threats against King related to this trip to Memphis; he mentioned the threats in his speech. He mentioned earlier dangers, too, including the time he was stabbed by a deranged woman in New York City. But he talks more about his gladness. He speaks about his gratitude for being alive to witness the sit-ins, and the bus boycott, and all the other ways that black people had aroused the conscience of the nation and stood up for freedom. He encourages the striking workers not to be afraid, and talks about all the practical necessities of their current struggle.

He ended his speech in words that his listeners would have known were an echo of the story of Moses. As the Hebrew people were close to entering the promised land, God brought Moses up on a mountain, where he could see the promised land, even though he would not be allowed to enter it with them. It was on that mountain that Moses died.

Here is what Dr. King said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

There is power in a story. For Dr. King, the story of Moses was a doorway into the power of God to lift up the lowly. King said that preachers should draw on the prophet Amos to say, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He said that preachers should say with Jesus, who himself was quoting the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.” Dr. King took the stories of the prophets and wove them into new words of hope and liberation, words that gave people the power to make a change.

There are still many people who try to argue against this justice-loving God of the Bible. Four years ago, just a few weeks before the anniversary of Dr. King’s death, Fox News commentator and radio personality Glenn Beck attacked churches that preach a gospel of social and economic justice. Glenn Beck said if your church preaches that, you should “run as fast as you can.” According to Beck, social and economic justice are code words for communism and Nazism.

Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the progressive Christian group Sojourners, responded to Beck on his own videoblog. He said,

When I was in seminary, we did a study of the Bible and we found 2000 verses in the Bible about the poor, about God’s concerns for the left out, the left behind, the vulnerable and God’s call for justice. One of my classmates took an old Bible, and cut out every single reference to the poor, to social justice, to economic justice, and when we were done, the Bible was just in shreds. If I were ever to talk to Glenn Beck, I would like to hand him that old Bible from seminary and say, Glenn, this would have to be your Bible. …The God of the Bible is the God of justice.

An Old Question, An Old Story

Apples DSC06312How do we make sense of evil in the world? Where does it come from, and what can we do about it? And what does it say to us about spirituality, about God?

These questions are not new ones. All of the world’s philosophies and religions, from time immemorial, have tried to account for the problem of evil. The Jewish bible begins with a beautiful story of creation, and concludes that, “God saw that it was very good.” But the very next chapter is about the fall from paradise. Yahweh God gave the humans an admonition: “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall die.”

But then the serpent came to Eve saying, “No, you will not die! God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” And so Eve and Adam took fruit from this tree and ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked, and they covered themselves. When Yahweh God came to them, he said, “See, the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to eat from the tree of life also, and live forever.” And so they were banished from the garden, and suffering entered their lives.

It is a powerful story. One way of interpreting it has been as a literal history of our first ancestors. According to some, Adam and Eve—and especially Eve—made a really colossal mistake by disobeying God, and now the rest of us are paying for it big-time. Original sin. But I don’t think it was ever meant as a story about a stolen apple. The Jewish writers were not so much speculating on origins, as describing the perennial human predicament. They saw the brokenness and suffering in their world and tried to tell a story that might express its painful contradictions.

The story itself is full of contradictions. Why did the tree of the knowledge of good and evil sit in the middle of the garden if it was forbidden? Why wouldn’t it make sense to trust the serpent, who is described as the most subtle of all the wild beasts that God made? Why did God make the serpent, if it would become a tempter? Adam and Eve lose their innocence, but why are they then described by God as “like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

The Jewish writers seem to be saying—reality is a trade-off. We try to imagine a perfect world, where nothing bad ever happens. But then there is no story. Only one chapter. We wouldn’t be who we are. Our eyes are open: we have knowledge, and the power to choose between good and evil. That’s reality. We can no longer be naked and unaware of it. Rebecca Solnit writes:

…imaginative Christian heretics worshipped Eve for having liberated us from paradise… The heretics recognized that before the fall we were not fully human—Adam and Eve need not wrestle with morality, with creation, with society, with mortality in paradise; they only realize their own potential and their own humanity in the struggle an imperfect world invites.

So we become choice-making agents, with power to act upon the world for good or evil. We can choose to conceal or to reveal ourselves, and thus the concept of truth and falsehood comes into being. Every choice we and others make has consequences which limit or expand the scope of our freedom. We are influenced and deceived and acted upon by those around us. Good and evil even masquerade as each other. This freedom and power in us means that anything can happen. The story is suddenly a real story. Unfinished, and unpredictable. Outcome uncertain.

Words about God: Reason vs. Myth

People have been searching for God, and making idols about God for a very long time. But we have some particular ways of doing it in the modern era. I believe one such phenomenon that has become an idolatry of our time is Biblical literalism. Fundamentalists claim to be bringing back the fundamentals of ancient Christianity, but in fact, their version of Christianity has not existed anywhere prior to the last one hundred years or so. They claim that every word in the Bible is the literal and factual truth. But scholar of religion Karen Armstrong reminds us that literalism is a very modern way to read the Bible, a way that was unheard of prior to this era. In A Case for God, she talks about the historical context for our modern idols.

After the destruction by the Romans of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, during the first century of what we call the Christian Era, there were various groups of Jews wrestling with their new religious predicament—much of the Hebrew Scriptures were centered around the temple, and the rites and rituals of the temple, but now there was no temple.

One group of rabbis began to re-work their faith into a guide for living as if the temple was everywhere, and how they lived should reflect the priestly status of all the Jewish people. They began to develop new practices for living, and created the beginnings of classical Judaism. They felt perfectly free to re-arrange the Biblical texts, or draw new meaning out of them, use them metaphorically, or even disagree with them. Eventually, a body of literature grew up around this effort, that we now call the Talmud.

There was also another group of Jews making new meaning out of the old scriptures. They were re-interpreting the old texts around the person of their teacher Jesus, whom they saw as the Messiah, who had been crucified by the Romans. They too re-arranged texts, interpreted them metaphorically, and added new writings and practices. They too were grappling as Jews with a temple-less Jewish faith, though now we call them the early Christians. But neither these early Christians, nor the rabbis who shaped the faith of Judaism, were biblical literalists.

Karen Armstrong writes that before the modern era, which was beginning about the time that Columbus set sail for America,

“religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally because [they believed] it was only possible to speak about a reality that transcended language in symbolic terms.”

Armstrong talks about how in premodern cultures there were two recognized ways of acquiring knowledge. Logos, or reason, “was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world.” Mythos, or myth, “focused on the more elusive, puzzling, and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside of the remit of logos.” The modern world is a world devoted to scientific reason, and has lost track of the meaning of myth—in fact, myth is now defined as something that is not true. But in pre-modern times, myth was the common language of religion, and helped people to wrestle with the challenges that were not so easily solved by reason. Mythic words were meant to be a doorway into that which was beyond words.

The language of myth was linked to the practice of ritual, in which people entered into a communal experience of story in a way that transcended logical thought or emotion. They were brought to the limits of their rational understanding, into the presence of the mysterious and ineffable, and emerged with a new capacity for living within the tragedy and bliss of this world. Religion was not something that people thought, but something that they did. People who put in the hard work and perseverance it required “discovered a transcendent dimension of life” that was also “identical with the deepest levels of their being.” Potholes flow DSC00653