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Should the Bible be Censored?

 

Psalm 139: 19-24

        Psalm 137:7-9            1st Kings 18:36-40               Matthew 5:17-20

 

According to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the collect for the second Sunday in Advent (next week) informs us that concerning the “Holy Scriptures” we are to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.”

Digest the scriptures? Throughout my ministry many people have told me the bible gives them indigestion.         They maintain that much of the bible is unpalatable.  What they find unpalatable, indigestible, is the bloodshed and the carnage. But it isn’t only the bloodshed and the carnage; it’s also the apparent attitude lying behind the bloodshed. Not only does this person disembowel that person; the biblical figures do it with such enthusiasm and even appear to relish doing it.

When my sisters and I were very young my mother used to read us instalments of the Cinderella story.  One evening my sisters broke into tears as they learned of the nastiness of Cinderella’s stepmother.  If the Cinderella story upsets children, should we allow them, never mind encourage them, to read bible stories?

The all-time “wretched verse” that upsets so very many people is that verse in Psalm 137 which is directed against Israel ’s enemies: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.”  Are we dealing here merely with the barbarism (so-called) of primitive people, or with the conscienceless savagery of the deranged?  In fact we are dealing with neither.  Our Israelite foreparents in faith were not deranged.  Neither were they simply spewing barbarism.

 

I: — Nonetheless, many people remain perplexed, not to say put off.  Take the book of Psalms, for instance.  The psalms were the hymnbook or prayer book of our Israelite ancestors. The psalms have always been the prayerbook of Christians.  The psalms are matchless. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”  “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands. Serve the Lord with gladness. Come into his presence with singing.”

And then there is what many people regard as the under side.  “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.”  “Do not I hate them that hate thee, O Lord?  And do not I loathe them that rise up against thee?  I hate them with perfect hatred.  I count them my enemies.” And then the “cruncher” which I have already quoted:  “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones (i.e., of the Edomites) and dashes them against the rock.”

C.S. Lewis speaks of these latter verses as “the refinement of malice”; they express, he says, a hatred which is “festering, gloating, undisguised.” I have long admired Lewis and usually agree with him, but not this time.  I do not think that the verses I have quoted are a refinement of malice; I do not think they embody a festering, gloating, undisguised hatred. Here Lewis is wrong.

You see, the psalmist who wrote, “I hate them with perfect hatred”, also wrote in the next line, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me, and know my thoughts. And see if there be any wicked way in me.…” Whatever he meant by the so-called black verse he didn’t mean what we modern westerners accuse him of meaning.

Moreover, the bible is perfectly clear that we are not to be hateful toward enemies. The book of Leviticus states unambiguously, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.  I AM THE LORD”. Animosity toward one’s fellows isn’t even permitted in Israel , let alone encouraged, let alone divinely sanctioned.  The book of Exodus informs us, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall bring it back to him.  If you see the ass of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall help him to lift it up.” Even the person who hates me I must help; I must never return hatred for hatred.

Let me say right here that I am upset when I hear people assuming that the newer testament is new inasmuch as it is sweet and condemns nastiness, while the older testament is old inasmuch as it is bitter and condones nastiness. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For this reason I try to refrain from speaking of the “old” testament. In modern English “old” suggests antiquated or obsolete.  That collection of books, Genesis through Malachi, is neither antiquated nor obsolete.   Let’s think instead of the one witness of scripture consisting of an older part and a newer part. The older testament simply does not permit us to visit wanton cruelty upon someone we don’t like, even when we know that that person intends to harm us.

Think of the book of Proverbs.  “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink….”  We must be kind even toward those who are personal enemies.  “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles – lest the Lord see it and be displeased….” Plainly there is to be no gloating over the misfortune of one’s enemies, no elation that someone we don’t like (because he doesn’t like us) finally “got it in the teeth”; no pleasure that someone who has made his bed will now have to lie in it.  Glee that someone at last got his comeuppance may be humanly understandable; nevertheless, the older testament insists that such glee is sin. As Job searches his own heart he insists that he has not rejoiced at the ruin of an enemy.

“Not so fast”, someone objects; “look at the prophet Jeremiah. Doesn’t Jeremiah pray that God will destroy his persecutors twice over?”  Yes he does. But what does Jeremiah mean by this in view of the fact that he prefaces his prayer with these words: “I have not pressed thee (i.e., God) to send evil, nor have I desired the day of disaster, thou knowest”?

We must be sure to note that in the older testament vengeance is forbidden the people of God. God everywhere forbids his people to exact revenge. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”   The text doesn’t mean that we can forget about seeking revenge because God will do it for us. It means rather that we are not to seek revenge inasmuch as we are never objective and will always turn tit-for-tat into a vendetta which worsens every day. It means that what is to befall someone who wounds us is to be left in God’s hands.  Not that God will exact revenge on our behalf and therefore we can leave the matter of retaliation with him; rather, we leave the matter with him so that nasty retaliation won’t occur at all.

What about King David? As a military commander representing his nation David behaved with the undeflectable resolve that General Eisenhower did on D-Day.  But no one has ever suggested that Eisenhower’s military prowess on behalf of the allied nations betokened personal cruelty.  When faced with personal enemies King David acted with uncommon generosity. Saul tried to kill David repeatedly. Twice David had opportunity to rid himself of this threat on his life; he spared Saul on both occasions. Absalom, David’s son, tried to kill his father, even going so far as recruiting a gang of cutthroats to help him. David took no action at all against Absalom, and in fact was heartbroken when Absalom suffered a fatal mishap. Yes, David behaved unconscionably with respect to Bathsheba and her husband.  David also knew he was wrong in this; so far from pretending that God sanctioned it, he knew he was judged for it. (And his life thereafter fell apart on account of it.)

Then what do the “black verses” of the older testament mean?  What appear to be dreadful threats and curses are not directed towards one’s enemies. What appear to be threats and curses in fact are prayers.  Prayers prayed fervently to God.  Prayers of trust in God. Prayers of confidence that God will act speedily.  They are prayers that God will vindicate his own name.  The older testament insists that vindictiveness is sin; at the same time it cries out to God to vindicate his name, his truth, his people.

          Vindictiveness is nasty retaliation rooted in a mean spirit.  Vindication is clearing someone’s name of the slander which surrounds it.  Vindictiveness is a mean-spirited desire for revenge. Vindication is public recognition that a good name has been spoken of falsely.  In the older testament what appears to us to be nasty vindictiveness is in fact fervent prayer that God will vindicate himself, his truth, his people.

What would you do if your child were expelled from school for thieving when you knew that your child had not stolen?  You would stop at nothing to have your child’s name cleared.  It’s not that you personally dislike the school principal or board of education director; there is no personal vindictiveness here. You simply want your child vindicated; you want your child’s name cleared. And if you were vehement in pursuing this, really vehement, no one would fault you for it.

For years my wife was a primary school teacher.  What would I do if parents circulated word that they didn’t want their children in my wife’s grade one class because she was promiscuous and they thought they shouldn’t entrust their youngsters to such a person? What would I do? I’d do whatever it took to clear my wife’s name and restore public confidence in her integrity and public trust in her suitability as a teacher.  And if I appeared vehement in doing this?  Would anyone expect me to appear placid in the face of such slander?

The black passages, so-called, in the older testament are the cries of God’s people pleading with God to rout evil; to rout evil so thoroughly that no doubt will remain that it has been routed.  It’s not that the psalmist doesn’t like children or takes fiendish pleasure in seeing them thrown on rocks.  The psalmist knows that vindictiveness is sin.         The psalmist, rather, is crying to God to vindicate himself as the God who resists evil and supports those victimized by it.  Right now, say the psalmist and other sensitive people from the older testament, God’s truth is falsified; God’s way is mocked; God’s people are set upon; God’s name is dragged through the mud.  In other words, evil seems to triumph; evil gloats; evil sneers; evil profits from evil and continues to work more evil.  Won’t God do something to clear his name and demonstrate his truth and protect his people? Then evil must be routed; every vestige of it.

Each Sunday at worship (if not every day) we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” Do we mean it?  If we genuinely want the kingdom of God to come fully, then we want the kingdom of evil to go utterly.  “Kingdom of God come fully” means “kingdom of evil go utterly.” But this is highly abstract. The Hebrew mind is never abstract. The Hebrew mind is always concrete. Where we say, “May the kingdom of evil go”, the Israelite says, “May the cocaine-dealer drop dead. Happy is the society whose cocaine-dealers drop dead.”   You don’t have any personal vindictiveness toward cocaine-dealers; you don’t even know any.  But you do want vindication of the rule of law; you do want a just society; you do want callous exploitation eliminated; you do want defenceless people protected.

When I pray, “Thy kingdom come”, I am asking God to deal with the wicked man who gets rich by fleecing the helpless, schizophrenic people who frequently come to see me.  I am asking God to deal so thoroughly with this man that he will never try to fleece defenceless people again.  This is precisely what the psalmist is doing in Psalm 139 when he cries to God, “Your enemies are my enemies; I hate those who hate you.  I hate them with perfect hatred.”   When Jeremiah prays that God will destroy his persecutors twice over, Jeremiah is not vindictive. He wants only that God will act so thoroughly, so unmistakably, that the whole world will know that God opposes persecution, God vindicates those who are persecuted, and God vindicates himself as the saviour of the victimized.

When next you read what appears to reflect a nasty spirit, read again with new understanding.

 

II: — What about the death penalty, especially the death penalty for moral offences? Should this strand of the bible be censored? I do not defend the death penalty, and have published an article opposing the death penalty.

Let me set you straight on one thing: Canada has not abolished the death penalty.  Canada has abolished the death penalty for first degree murder.  Canada has retained the death penalty for treason.  Did you know that? Canada has said two things: murder shouldn’t be punishable by death, treason should. Why Canada has made this distinction I shan’t discuss this morning.  My only point is that we shouldn’t consider Israel of old barbaric for classifying some offences as capital when we civilised creatures of modernity continue to do as much ourselves.

Before we fancy ourselves wonderfully enlightened compared to ancient Hebrews let me say something in passing.         When the criminal had to be punished in ancient Israel , it was decreed that he could not be punished in any way that degraded him. Right now the penalty for first degree murder, in Canada , is twenty-five years in prison, no parole; twenty-five years in jail, no hope of early release. Is this degrading or not? Have we made any advance on our Israelite forebears?

In ancient Israel property offences were not punishable by death.  No property crime was deemed significant enough to entail execution. But violation of family life was. Adultery, for instance. In Canada , adultery isn’t punishable at all, not even by a fine.  Doesn’t that tell you what we think of family life?

But keep your hands off my car.  My car is thirteen years old and has a market value of about $75.         If you steal it, you are going to jail.  And if you seduce my wife? No penalty at all. Tell me, which is a greater wound to me: theft of my car or alienation of my wife? What warps children more: loss of their dad’s vehicle or loss of their mother?

Question: Are property offences exceedingly serious?  Canada says yes, Israel said no. Are violations of family life exceedingly serious? Canada says no, Israel said yes. Is car theft more destructive humanly than adultery? Canada says yes, Israel said no. What do you think?

Let me repeat: I am not defending the death penalty.  But before we snicker at the ancient people of God because they exercised the death penalty here or there, we must understand that we differ from our ancestors only in what we deem valuable.

III: — Should the bible be censored? What about the incidents involving extermination, like Elijah’s slaughter of the Baal prophets? You know the story. Elijah, the prophet of God, confronts the prophets of Baal.  Baal was a fertility deity. Devotees of the fertility deity worshipped any and all reproductive forces.  The temples of Baal worship featured religious prostitution, male as well as female. You came to the church of Baal and worshiped the fertility deity by joining yourself to church-sponsored prostitutes of both genders.

The Israelite people assumed they could worship both God and Baal. They didn’t want to give up God, the living God, since he had delivered them from slavery.  But why not combine God and Baal?  Why not have one’s cake and eat it too?   Worship of God, worship of Baal, one-stop shopping, best of both worlds. Let’s have an inclusive church. Nobody excluded. God plus Baal.  Holy Communion plus hookers.  Truth plus superstition. Gospel plus greed. Why not have it all?

It still happens. While Jesus says we can’t be the servant of God and the servant of mammon, many preachers tell us we can. The banking scandals involving the Vatican can still be smelled around the world.  In the 1930s when Frankie Costello was the biggest mafia gangster in New York City he sat, by invitation, on the Advisory Board of The Salvation Army.  A prominent Canadian family has given millions to facilitate the worship of the God of Israel, when this money was made ruthlessly, illegally, even murderously throughout the prohibition era.  During the French Revolution the church was disestablished in France . Napoleon found he couldn’t control the masses. He told church authorities he would re-establish the church if they promised to keep the masses docile and subject to his tyranny.  Church authorities did just that.  Hermann Goering, head of Germany ’s Air Force in World War II and a Nazi party member (after the war he took the little white pill smuggled in to him rather than face execution) was married in a Lutheran church whose communion table was draped with the Swastika.

Is God honoured by all this?  Elijah said no. Elijah insisted that Israel desperately needed radical renewal of faith.  Elijah knew as well that radical renewal of faith entailed a radical break with Baal.

Let it never be said of me that I thirst for violence.  But may it always be said of me that I and Elijah are one with respect to this: the church desperately needs radical renewal of faith; and there can be radical renewal of faith only as there is a radical break with Baal.

 

Should the bible be censored?  You decide. For as long as I live I shall cherish what I have said today about the so-called sub-Christian passages in it.  In addition, I shall remember that Jesus my Lord was raised on the psalms – all of them – and died quoting them. I shall remember that Jesus maintained that his advent, his coming, meant not that the older testament had been abolished but that it had been fulfilled. Fulfilled, it remains the Word of God written.

And therefore I deem the Prayerbook Collect for Advent to be correct: concerning the Holy Scriptures we must “hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them.”

 

                                                                                               Victor Shepherd                                 

30th November 2008      

 Advent I        
Church of St.Bride, Anglican, Mississauga