Scripture

Questioning the Bible: What I Would Have Said to Bill Maher

Jim Wallis appears on 'Real Time with Bill Maher'
Jim Wallis appears on 'Real Time with Bill Maher'

Sojourners president Jim Wallis was recently a guest on HBO's  "Real Time with Bill Maher." In the course of the show Maher confronted Wallis on the Bible, asking him some very pointed questions about some of its more troubling texts. You can watch the exchange HERE.

Maher asks, "How do you reconcile this idea that it all comes from the Bible, but the Bible is so flawed... I mean, it's just so full of either nonsense or viciousness." In response, Wallis steered the conversation back to the topic of social justice and compassion, often overlooked Biblical mandates. Maher objected several times, accusing Wallis of "cherry-picking the good parts" of the Bible while ignoring the bad parts. 

I'm a big fan of Jim Wallis (heck, I blog for Sojourners!), and I appreciate that he moved the conversation away from Maher's attempted divisiveness and back to caring for the poor and immigration reform in this country. He's totally right that caring for the marginalized should be the priority of us Christians, and I understand that he wanted to stay focused on that.

At the same time, I think the question Bill Maher was raising is an important one, too, because it ultimately has to do with caring for the marginalized as well. That is, when the Bible is read in a hurtful way, it can and has been used throughout history to justify horrendous violence and mistreatment. That matters, and consequently it matters how we read the Bible. So as someone who has focused on confronting those "bad parts" in Scripture, I wanted to take a stab at addressing Maher's questions.

Who Is My Enemy?

Opposing chess pieces, Dima Sobko / Shutterstock.com
Opposing chess pieces, Dima Sobko / Shutterstock.com

Our church community in Salt Lake City has been going through a series titled “Love God, Love Neighbor.” We’ve been going through Jesus’ famous response to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus of course turns the questions back to the man asking, “What is written in the law?” the man responds by saying,  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” It appears the man who asks the question — described as either a lawyer or expert of religious law — does not like Jesus’ response very much and so he asks another question. “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus’ response to the question is perhaps one of the most well-known parables in the Bible: that of the Good Samaritan. But the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is a question we must still wrestle with today, as distressing and upsetting as it most definitely will be.

Who is my neighbor? If we are to examine the parable of the Good Samaritan it appears that Jesus wants to make it clear that our neighbors are everyone, especially — perhaps even specifically — our enemies. So another way of asking the question is, “Who is my enemy?” When I confront the question on a personal level, I realize that even though my neighbors or enemies are perhaps atypical from the norm, I am still called to love them.

Who are my enemies? For me, it’s simple really. My enemies are politicians, Congress, rich people, Wall Street Bankers, rich Christians, and the most hated form of all: “rich, white, Christian politicians.” I jest, but it’s not too far off.

On Scripture: Fear and Wisdom In The Immigration Debate

Immigration reform rally, Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com
Immigration reform rally in 2010 in Washington, D.C., Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

They have many labels. Undocumented immigrants. Illegal Immigrants. Illegal Aliens. Wetbacks. Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, recently suggested that most of them are “drug mules.” Some have even called them “terrorists.” But few are known by their real names or treated as people with real lives.

Most of them live at the edges of the society, under inhumane and dangerous conditions, often separated from their loved ones. For some it may be a choice. However, a vast majority of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are driven to such extremes by factors beyond their control — political crisis, drug-related violence, famine, or eviction from their own homes at gunpoint. Theirs is a story of displacement, of being forced to flee their homes and take risks few would under normal circumstances. They are victims, not the offenders they are often made out to be. Still, for many, it is a story of being treated by the border security as violent criminals, being stripped of their clothes and dignity and separated from their families and traumatized in detention centers. It is also a story of ostracizing and exploitation by parts of the society. The labels and stereotypes about them “otherize” them in ways that prevent their full participation in the society. Injustices like these are the reason why NETWORK’s Nuns On The Bus have been touring across the country speaking out for immigration reform.

Is a Messiah’s Work Never Done?

 man walking through open doors, Mopic / Shutterstock.com
man walking through open doors, Mopic / Shutterstock.com

The Jews believe that the Messiah is yet to come.

Christians believe the Messiah is coming back.

Those of other – or no – religions haven’t noticed much difference and don’t really care.

But all would agree that there is plenty of work left to be done.

We, by any standard, are far from an age of any Messiah — an era of justice, peace, and restoration seems as distant or alien or even incomprehensible as a blockbuster sci-fi film.

But perhaps, in some odd way, that is the point.

Colm Toibin’s 'Testament of Mary' Brings Jesus’ Mother Down to Earth

Photo by Paul Kolnik/courtesy The Testament of Mary production
iona Shaw in a scene from The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. Photo by Paul Kolnik/courtesy The Testament of Mary production

How far can one go in retelling a Bible story, adding things that are not in the original? In The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin goes a long way.

His 2012 book is now a Broadway play presenting a view of the mother of Jesus so different from pious tradition that it angers some Christians, creating a “new,” intellectually and spiritually challenging Virgin Mary.

Yet in the end, Toibin’s searingly human Mary may be ultimately more accessible than the Mary of porcelain perfection set high on a pedestal.

The Irish writer, who has written about his strong Catholic childhood, imagines Mary 30 years after the crucifixion of her son. She lives as a virtual prisoner of two of Jesus’ disciples, still mourning her son’s death, bitter at what has happened since, and seeking consolation from pagan idols, which make more sense to her than what happened to Jesus.

America's Rough Week

Hands photo, Andreas Gradin / Shutterstock.com
Hands photo, Andreas Gradin / Shutterstock.com

Life is difficult. It can knock you down. Sometimes, an entire nation gets knocked down.

First it was Boston. Some mad man (or men) lays waste to one of America’s most hallowed sporting events — the Boston Marathon. Sidewalks that should have been covered with confetti were covered in blood.

Then it was the quintessential small Texas town of West. Populated by hearty Czech immigrants, folks in West worked hard in their shops, bakeries, and fertilizer plant until the plant exploded. A magnitude-2.1 on the Richter scale, witnesses compared it to a nuclear bomb. Dozens are feared dead.

In the nation’s capital, we had the bitter realization that something is broken that will not be easily repaired. A commonsense proposal that emerged from the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, background checks to prevent convicted felons and the seriously mentally ill from purchasing guns online or at gun shows, fell prey to Washington gridlock. None of the Newtown proposals — the ban on assault weapons, limits on the number of bullets a gun can hold or expanded background checks — could garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Senate filibuster.

Finally, there were the ricin-laced letters sent to a Republican senator and the president.

The Endlessly Fascinating Word

  • Preaching God's Transforming Justice, edited by Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Ronald J. Allen, is a lectionary commentary series from Westminster John Knox Press that helps preachers better proclaim the biblical call to be agents of God's love and justice in the world. Embodying that mission in a small but key way, the 90 contributors include close to equal numbers of women and men and represent significant ethnic and racial diversity. Each volume provides commentary for all the year's lectionary days, plus essays on 22 "Holy Days of Justice," from World AIDS Day to Children's Sabbaths. The first two volumes, for Years B and C, are already available. The Year A volume is due for release in August.
     
  • The Revised Common Lectionary's readings for each Sunday—four selected scriptures, generally one each from the Psalms, the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the epistles, and the gospels—are heard by millions of Christians each week. Timothy Matthew Slemmons, an assistant professor of homiletics and worship at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, has been captivated by what isn't heard. In Year D: A Quadrennial Supplement to the Revised Common Lectionary (Cascade Books), he argues for an expansion of the lectionary in order to present a fuller portrait of God's revelation. It includes a proposed one-year set of readings that does not shy away from many difficult texts, including from the Psalms and prophets.

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Relearning to Read

DREAMS CAN serve a powerful purpose. Jacob dreamed a ladder and was renamed Israel. Joseph dreamed the sun and moon and stars and was sold into slavery. The magi dreamed a warning and returned home by way of another road.

Years ago I had a dream. I sat, a child, on a dirt floor. Around me paced a horse, saddled, ready. In front stood an immense door, cathedral-tall and brooding. And though open, the space within was dark. I was holding a light. And in the dream, I knew we were to bring light into that darkness. And the darkness—the darkness was the church.

In Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, bears light to the exegetical (seminary lingo for interpretive) work and examination of the interplay between truth and power found in both familiar and less familiar narratives of Old Testament scripture. Rigorous in content, the read is nevertheless accessible to scholar and novice alike.

Brueggemann's concern with the interplay of truth and power rests on the observation that far too often truth, even biblical truth, is found colluding with and legitimizing the self-serving and self-preserving agenda of totalistic and monopolizing authorities. To use biblical imagery, truth sides with the Pharaohs and the Solomons of the world and not with those on its margins and periphery.

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For God So Loved the World

NEW YORK CITY has been bombed at least twice in the past decade. First by al Qaeda and second by Hurricane Sandy.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States launched two ground wars and a worldwide "war on terror." Within two months, Congress federalized the Transportation Security Administration to secure airports. More than 263 government organizations were either created or reorganized. Some 1,931 private companies were put to work on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. Rightly or wrongly, America moved heaven and earth to stop terrorism in its tracks. It was seen as both an ongoing threat and a moral affront that had to be dealt with.

What about Climate Change?
In February, a New York State Senate task force on Superstorm Sandy compared the hurricane that affected 24 states to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "[On 9/11] there were more than 3,000 souls lost, but in terms of the geographic destruction, it was isolated to Lower Manhattan," said Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island). "[After Sandy] we have miles and miles and miles of destruction. Hundreds of thousands of homes affected, 60 ... New Yorkers killed, 250,000 to 260,000 businesses affected."

Hurricane Sandy killed 253 people in seven countries. It was the second largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded—and the most expensive. It smashed into the East Coast with barely three days' warning. Like hurricanes Katrina and Rita before it, Sandy was a disaster of biblical proportions.

After 9/11, Americans knew in our gut that something was seriously wrong. Our moral intuition had been sucker punched.

Climate change—and its deadly implications—has been harder to grasp. There's a lot of complicated science involved. Instead of a single incident, we're inundated with seemingly disconnected events. And, despite the evidence, we often fail to see it as a "crime."

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Fifty Days of Grace

HOW SHALL WE engage with scripture through all 50 days of Easter? There are clues in the haunting story of Jesus' appearance beside the sea of Tiberius. After Easter Day many of us are ready to let things quickly revert to normal. It is, strangely, both reassuring and uncomfortable to hear that those disciples, whose business had been fishing, wanted to get back to their boats so promptly after the horrors and wonders they had witnessed in Jerusalem.

Jesus is waiting for them by the shore with breakfast already cooking. All is ready, yet he wants them to bring some of what they haul up in their nets, so he can include samples of their own catch in the menu. And what a catch it was!

Easter is our time to experience the grace that is always ahead of our game and is underway for us before we are ready. Yet grace does not exclude what we bring to the table. Grace expects and includes the work of our hands, the weavings of our imaginations, and the gifts of our unique experiences. In one sense, Eastertide is more truly a season of repentance than is Lent. One thing we might need to repent of is our passivity—those times when we expect God to hand us on a plate the meaning we are hungry for. We need to bring our own bits to the cooking fire if we are to really eat with Jesus. It is part of the mix of grace that we must participate, not just receive.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ April 7 ]
Trust But Verify
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

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