March 15, 2020
Remember the man who told Jesus he had kept all of the commandments since his youth? How many people do you know who can say that? What I’ve heard is, the easiest, safest way to keep all three of the “thou shalt nots” in today’s reading from Exodus is to stay asleep. Play ‘possum!
Before anything else, let’s acknowledge and address the big problem today’s lessons expose about the Bible. These three commandments set up a “no trespassing” boundary against our ability to take, whether by force or by cunning, what is necessary for the life of another person. These words protect the weak against the strong by prohibiting murder, stealing, and adultery.
But a certain color of fabric in the patchwork quilt called the Holy Bible contradicts these words by sanctioning and even inciting violence. For instance, in I Samuel 15, the prophet Samuel orders the brand-new, first-ever king, Saul, to slay the Amalekites—men, women, children, infants, cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys. Fanatical genocide!
Again, in Ezekiel 9, the prophet envisions God sending executioners through the streets to kill anyone who is not anguished with remorse over the sins of the city!
I don’t want to spend the time it would take to refer to similar passages where cruel violence is attributed to the will of God. We simply cannot deny the existence of such threads in the fabric of our scriptures. Neither can we deny that such stories have been used to justify the Inquisition, the Crusades, the witch burnings, the persecution of Jews, religious wars, child abuse, and the brutal treatment of those suffering from mental illness. No wonder the American patriot Thomas Paine exclaimed, “The belief in a cruel god makes a cruel man!”
Well, you say, those passages are in the First Testament—the Old Testament—and we’re a New Testament church. Let me remind you, though, that the New Testament was written for readers steeped in Old Testament terms, motifs, and theology. Therefore, we need to be a “Whole Bible” church.
All the same, if I may say so, Wadoo, zim bam boodle-oo, Hoodle ah da wa da
Scatty wah ! Oh yeah ! It ain’t necessarily so; it ain’t necessarily so!”
To my friends who would throw out the entire library called the Bible on account of this certain color of fabric in its patchwork quilt, I say, “Hold on!” We’ve all heard—haven’t we?—people who react when a tornado or hurricane causes death and destruction by saying it was God punishing people; but you don’t believe statements like that, do you? So, filter those passages which contradict the indispensable words of the Ten Commandments. Strain them through the sieve of neighbor love, which is their fundamental purpose.
Push notifications from the TV news pop up on my office computer. In October, CBS said, “Greensboro and High Point are two of the deadliest cities in America. Greensboro ranked at number 39 with a murder rate of 12.6 per 100,000.” Right behind Nashville; one place ahead Albuquerque, my hometown, home of my brother and sister. “High Point ranked at number 25 with a murder rate of 16.09 per 100,000.” What a shame! Sure, no one here is a perpetrator of such violence, but some of you have been traumatized by it.
Some people argue that capital punishment is a way members of a society find it easy to kill someone—that is, by having the executioner do the job. When we see pictures of mobs gathered around a lynching tree, we feel disgusted. But capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is a legal, government-sanctioned practice where a person is killed as punishment for a crime. Twenty-two states have outlawed capital punishment. Since North Carolina’s current law went into effect in 1977, forty-three individuals have been executed in this state.
Do you know the Rev. Dr. Jack Sullivan—the husband of Rev. Sekinah Hamlin, a former member of our church staff? Jack is a Disciples minister serving as Executive Director of the Ohio Council of Churches, but he’s also the President of Ohioans to Stop Executions. One of his family members was murdered. Jack argues that the death penalty system does not help victims left behind and wastes millions of dollars that could better be spent on services that aid families after the loss of a loved one.
Another easy way to kill people is by letting drone operators do the job. Drones—Unmanned Aerial Vehicles—were becoming a big deal just before I retired from the Air Force. Already chaplains were facing the challenge of counseling drone pilots struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and moral injury.
On the one hand, most of them had some ethical grounding in the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Over-against that moral foundation, the Air Force has conducted training to dehumanize the “enemy” people below while applauding the precision in killing them. Which might work for a bomber pilot zooming across a target at hundreds of miles per hour and scarcely realizing that human beings would be killed because of his pulling the trigger. But it hasn’t been very helpful for drone operators who can see the effects of their explosives in stark detail as the drone’s powerful video camera continues to focus on charred bodies and burnt-out cars on the road. The worst is the uncertainty haunting them about whether they have killed civilians, including children, as happens from time to time. Remember the U.S. drone that fired missiles into a convoy of cars carrying people to a wedding party in Yemen? Thirteen wedding guests died that day.
So chaplains and psychologists stay busy now trying to help people sort through the unshakable stress of the conflict between their duty and their conscience. They pull that trigger, then they gawk at the details of the destruction, and then they go to the parking lot, hop in their car, drive home, have dinner with their family, help put their children to bed, and try to be a good wife or husband with a calm and pleasant demeanor. Easy for us, but not for them. They do the killing for us.
Better, though, to see their vulnerability to moral injury than to imagine a day when drone operators will feel nothing more about killing people than kids playing a video game.
In our gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus probes beneath the outward action of murder. He digs down to the very root of the problem—the type of anger that becomes homicidal. Insulting a brother or sister or neighbor. Name-calling. Yes, name-calling makes you fit for the ever-burning trash heap in the landfill.
But there’s a positive dimension to this warning, and that quite simply is love for your neighbor, and even for your enemy.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion.” In our polarized society, I want to promote “the quintessence of true religion.”
In closing, I’ll share this wisdom from the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu:
Watch your thoughts. They become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.