Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Leaving Egypt: Justice and only Justice (Part Three)

Well, it appears I have written myself into a corner.

When I started writing about the Exodus about a week ago, it was the result of a brief discussion a friend of mine and I had had together about the Exodus as a type of redemption. Tim's a preacher. That Sunday he went off and did his thing, while I continued to kick my thoughts around and puzzle over the way the story has two endings. By Wednesday last week, I realized that my thoughts had stretched beyond one blog post, and had become a short series.

If you've read the first two parts already, you can see the progression I had in mind. God miraculously intervenes and delivers Israel through the ten plagues, and brings the nation to birth in the Sinai desert. In the desert he gradually weans Israel from a childlike dependency on him for its every need, and moves them toward a more mature relationship where they're ready to enter the family business of redeeming the nations.

The idea I had in mind for this third post was that the Torah – the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures – expressed God's desire for how Israel should do this.

This is nothing new, of course. The book of Genesis repeatedly states God's desire to bless Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and make them into a great nation, so that all nations on the earth would be blessed. Located along the major trade routes of the ancient Middle East, Israel was in a perfect position to spread the news of a god who had a personal involvement in history and who was nowhere near as capricious as the other gods of the region.

In itself, the notion that Law can exist independently of the whims of a king is a pretty big contribution to world thought. A lot of the ideas expressed in the Torah are heavyweights in their own right, such as the proclamation of the Jubilee year, when every debt in Israel was to be forgiven, every slave emancipated, and the entire nation celebrating for a year. That idea was so memorable that the Founding Fathers of America had a Bible verse engraved in the Liberty Bell: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land."

The Law was also big on keeping punishments commensurate with the severity of the crime. Under the Torah, breaking someone's arm or blinding them in one eye wasn't grounds for capital punishment, as it once had been in some ancient cultures. Instead the worst you could expect was a punishment equal to the crime.

But this is also true: The Levitical code is easy to bash for its harshness, because it's pretty damn harsh.

Among other things, the Bible calls for the death penalty for several things that just don't warrant it. Adultery, for instance. Disrespecting your parents for another. Gay sex. Even being a rape victim.

I mean, what the hell is up with that? Next time someone defends a business owner's right to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, citing “freedom of religion,” ask them if they think a rape victim should be executed if she doesn't scream for help when she's attacked. It's right there in Deuteronomy 22:24.

Still, it's important to read any piece of literature in its socio-historical context, to get its meaning. Adjust for the patriarchal culture it was written in, and maybe you can excuse the sexism in the book of Proverbs, which uses the imagery of a sexually aware young woman as a predator of young men — but fails to present the young man as a sexual predator of women. The Bible after all does hold women repeatedly in high regard – Deborah and Esther save the nation, and Jael is a war hero, for instance; and the book of Proverbs also uses a feminine image of wisdom as the standard that men should seek. Even Paul, who gets accused of sexism because of what some misogynists have twisted his teachings to justify over the centuries, blames the Fall on Adam rather than Eve, and hails the woman Junia as chief among the apostles.

But stoning a woman if she's raped and no one hears her screaming for help?  The nicest spin I can put on this commandment, is that it's a good idea to avoid false accusations of rape. #NotAllMen and all that. Sometimes I can't help but think that the people who wrote the Bible just got it wrong. This is one of those times.

I can already hear someone arguing that we have to take the Bible the way it is, and that if we start cherry-picking the parts of the Bible we don't like, we're setting ourselves up over God. I'm going to call bullocks on that one. For starters, there is not a person alive who views the Bible as sacred and does not already cherry-pick. For another, it's the easy way out to say "take it as it is" and not try to figure out what's going on beneath and behind the words.

As a whole the Christian Bible is a library of smaller books written across an ocean and written from as far back as perhaps 3,000 years ago to as recently as only 2000 years ago. It is written in three different languages that most of us don't speak today, and comes from a culture that many of us would find incomprehensible and intolerably oppressive.

Simply reading Leviticus 20:13 and concluding that God hates gay sex is as irresponsible as reading Job 38:22 and concluding that God keeps snow in warehouses, or reading Revelation 7:1 and determining that the earth is a quadrilateral. Or as reading Deuteronomy 22:24 and concluding that if a woman claims rape but no one heard her scream then she's lying, and couldn't have been terrified, intimidated, drugged, coerced or manipulated – and therefore was a willing accomplice and should be executed.

Even someone in a patriarchal society should have been able to realize that that one is just wrong.

Now I know at least one person who is going to be appalled by what he will consider my wholesale rejection of biblical authority, and I'm sure there are other people who are going to be disappointed that I'm willing to come this far and not renounce my faith in zombie Jesus or my imaginary friend in the sky.

But amid the arcane rules over Temple worship, the dietary restrictions that even Jewish people argue over, and the sometimes confounding legal code and bizarre restrictions it imposed, there is one principle that emerges throughout the Torah: Seek justice.

Rabbi Hillel famously said, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor.” The Torah itself puts it like this: “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Unique among laws, the Torah makes the pursuit of justice not just a civic obligation but a religious one as well, and a deeper religious obligation than matters like ritual cleanliness, using the right bathroom, or even who has sex with whom. Hebrew prophets like Moses and Jeremiah stressed compassion for others and justice to be the sine qua none of religious behavior. Prophets like Amos and Hosea had little to say about violations of the kosher rules or priestly rituals, but plenty to say about oppression and social injustice.

Even Sodom, famously (and inaccurately) linked with homosexuality, was destroyed for offenses like arrogance, cruelty to strangers, and the oppression of the poor, according to the Bible (Ezekiel 16:49).

This principle carries over into Christianity, or it least it was meant to. Some of Jesus' most powerful teachings, like the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, place a premium on providing social justice; and James the Elder in his letter says that a faith that produces no works is a faith that isn't worth talking about. Justice, and a desire to see it done, is one of the defining characteristics of the God we worship as Christians, a justice animated by love for the afflicted, the powerless, and the disenfranchised.

Before the founding of the Republic, William Bradford saw the Massachusetts colony as having received a divine mandate to be a city on a hill, which light would show the people of the world what the Christian faith is meant to be. This was a motif President Reagan cited regularly throughout his presidency, albeit in terms of a civic rather than specifically Christian religion.

That's a bold ambition. The Torah called for a sabbath year, where debts would be canceled and slaves released; and it called for a Jubilee, which returned all land to its ancestral holders. The Torah also forbade collecting interest on loans, and required the people of Israel to treat foreigners among them with dignity and respect. For his part, Christ crossed social, ethnic and language lines and talked with people who were considered untouchable, took care of people's physical needs indiscriminately, and told the wealthy to give all their money to the poor if they wanted to follow him.

That's the sort of religion we should celebrate the freedom to exercise. Instead, lately, we've seen states such as Mississippi and North Carolina making the news because of “Freedom of Religion” laws they have passed guaranteeing the right of (usually Christian) business owners not to provide cakes, floral arrangements or other wedding services for same-sex couples.

That's a shocking contrast. We've subverted the religion based on the teachings of Jesus so that we can keep other people at arm's length in the name of morality. This is neither justice, nor is it a passion set alight by divine love. It is cold and doctrinaire, valuing people less than a moral code.

Demographically this is also the same group opposed to providing health care under the Affordable Care Act and that often opposes raising the minimum wage. It's a strange perversion of religion that won't support the happiness of same-sex couples as they begin a life together, but will insist that people who need health insurance shouldn't receive it, and that employers should be free of obligation to pay a living wage to their workers.

The pattern goes on. During the past year, two of the remaining presidential candidates of the Republican Party have called for turning away refugees of the Muslim faith, or for an outright moratorium on immigration of Muslims. And we all know what Donald Trump has said about Mexicans.

Meanwhile, our criminal justice system punishes white people far more leniently than it does convicts of color. A European American convicted of a violent crime can expect a sentence comparable to the sentence an African American receives for a nonviolent one. The Voting Rights Act, which once safeguarded the rights of African Americans in the South for decades, has been gutted; and in its wake, a series of laws has arisen that disproportionately affect their right to vote, to prevent voter fraud that objectively does not exist.

These are all things that should anger Americans as a betrayal of our country's values. For those of us who profess to be a people of faith, they should be a call to action, to transform our society and to establish justice.

Some 3500 years ago, God brought Israel out of Egypt, and set the people on course to transform the world around them with a law where the pursuit of justice was a religious observance. Under the kings David and Solomon, they did a decent job, so that the joint kingdom experienced a golden age and had an influence that reportedly went far beyond its borders.

“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.” That is the mark of true religion.

In fact, it's the kind that God cares most about — and the only kind our neighbors ever notice.

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Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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