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The Bible and The Other

When Ethnic Cleansing Is Next to Godliness

by Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS

The Holy Bible is commonly viewed as “the gospel truth.” People readily refer to any source of authority for them as their “Bible.” In the past especially, witnesses in court trials, regardless of their belief, swore an oath on the Holy Bible “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” The Bible’s widely assumed sacredness and infallibility are seen in President Obama taking the oath of office for his second term by placing his hand on, not just one but, two Bibles: the one used by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other by Abraham Lincoln. The Holy Bible is the centerpiece on the altars in many Christian churches and its words the authoritative frame of reference for sermons and sacraments. The way people quote the Bible, you would think it was “The Word of God.” Never mind that it has often provided the justification for horrible atrocities committed against those whom its words and interpretations have demonized as The Other.

One of America’s original sins is the horrific enslavement of– and then its continued discrimination against– people of color, in a white-controlled hierarchy of access to economic, political, legal and religious power. The moral rationale for dehumanizing them as the inferior Other is found in the New Testament: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” (Ephesians 6: 5, 6) Here, enslavement was spiritually sanitized: just think of it as obedience to “Christ.”

Another original sin was the “Founding Fathers’” biblically-inspired belief that America was like “a city built on a hill,” the divinely-guided “light of the world” (Matthew 5: 14-16), a nation crowned with a canopy of “beautiful . . . spacious skies,” and with “God shed[ding] his grace on thee, And crown[ing] thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea.” (From “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies,” words by Katharine Lee Bates; music by Samuel A. Ward) “Brotherhood?” Except for the indigenous peoples, turned into inferior “savages,” i.e., The Other, who were not included in the “manifest destiny” of “God’s light-shedding grace,” and cast into outer darkness. The divinely envisioned Promised Land led pioneers to kill, drive out and corral indigenous peoples, which was “how the West was won” and settled.

There is more. Belief in the Holy Bible as the infallible “Word of God” provides the religious authority for certain Christian denominations– and many states– to continue demonizing and discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons as The Other. The spiritual violence against LGBT persons is legitimized by biblical passages, like Leviticus 20:13 in the Old Testament: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” And, in the New Testament, there is Romans 1: 26-32: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men. . . . They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die– yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.”

Certain Christian denominations will attempt to dissociate themselves from the biblically-inspired climate of rejection they help to foster, a climate that turns LGBT persons into The Other and leads to their being discriminated against, and even subjected to physical violence. Christian professions of “love” for these scripturely-defined Other, and the simultaneous condemning of their behavior as “sinful,” “unnatural” and “incompatible with Christian teaching,” are merely self-serving, face-saving theological denials—hatred masked as “love”– and said with a straight face. To try to separate who one is from what one does reveals a schizophrenic theology, rooted in fear and ignorance, that sins against another’s authentic identity and integrity. Here there is not “the gospel truth,” but the dumbing down of one’s deity.

The Bible engages in another sleight of hand in putting women down while placing them on a pedestal. Mary may be revered as “The Mother of God,” but her sisters are not lofty enough to be priests and ministers in certain of her “Son’s” Christian churches. So says Paul the Apostle, who is credited with writing almost half of the New Testament, and was the primary leader of the earliest Christian communities. “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission,” he instructed. “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” Why is that? Because “Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing . . .” (1Timothy 2: 11-15)

Paul’s women-diminishing patriarchal belief goes back to The Bible’s story of Adam and Eve, whom “the Lord God” created and put “in the garden of Eden . . . to freely eat of every tree of the garden”– except “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil . . . for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” The serpent tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit that would make her “wise” and “be like God, knowing good from evil.” Eve ate from the tree, and induced Adam to eat from it. “The Lord God” found out, and let Eve, especially, have it: “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing . . . yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3) Thus Paul the Apostle not only declared that women could not be ordained as priests and ministers; they also were to be submissive to their husbands. “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.” And for emphasis: “Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.” (Ephesians 5: 22-24)

Christianity seeks to cushion—and camouflage– the biblically legitimized relegation of women to The “adored” Other. We are reminded that Jesus was very affirming of women, and that they were worshipful toward him. Never mind that all of his twelve disciples were men, which is used as a key scriptural argument for why certain Christian denominations ordain men only as priests and ministers. To counteract this reality, the religious work of women is repeatedly verbalized as invaluable– and it is! Never mind, though, that real equality involves the sharing of power, which is represented in certain Christian churches by a clerical collar or suit, and not a blouse or skirt. Thus certain male-controlled Christian denominations continue to have difficulty cutting the “umbiblical” chord of patriarchy. Contrary to biblical literalism that believes Adam and Eve’s disobedience represents the sinful “fall of man,” the opening of their eyes to “the knowledge of good and evil” represents instead the moral rise of humanity.

Christianity’s ingrained imperialism is prophesized in the first chapter of John’s gospel. Jesus is equated with “God.” His birth is announced: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus was “the true light” for “all people,” and “to all who received him” and “believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

This imperialistic Christian belief is also pronounced in the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel. A resurrected Jesus is recorded as appearing to his disciples and commanding them with, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore,” he continued, “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (28: 16-20) Never mind that the doctrine of the Trinity (belief that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are separate and equal substances of the Christian god) was formulated some three centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus. The early Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire, until Constantine the Great converted to Christianity in the fourth century; it then became the religion of the state, and Christians, with their imperialistic mission and state acquired power, began evangelizing the Roman world and persecuting the Jews.

It is no surprise then that a majority of evangelical Christians in particular acquiesced, accommodated, or actively supported a prayerful, “hand of Providence”-guided President George W. Bush in his prosecution of the criminal, falsely-based, pre-emptive war against Iraq—certain Christian leaders even seeing it not as a horrible war crime against humanity, but as an opportunity to convert The Other, i.e. [Muslims) to their Christ. (See “Young White Evangelicals: Less Republican, Still Conservative,” by Dan Cox, Research Associate, www.pewforum.org, Sept. 28, 2007; and “Rev. Franklin Graham and Samaritan’s Purse,” by Shelia Musaji, theamericanmuslim.org, May 27, 2012) American exceptionalism and Christocentric belief are two sides of the same imperialistic coin.

People who believe they possess the one true religion, or see themselves in other biblical ways as “God’s chosen people,” are unable to affirm the inherent worth and rights of those who are different. Such biblically-blessed exceptionalism, rooted in a personal or political need to gain power over people or remain submissive, turns persons deemed less than acceptable into The Other, who become objects of paternalistic and predatory behavior. Here, ethnic cleansing is next to godliness. A final example is the State of Israel’s brutal oppression of the Palestinian people.

In seminary, I was taught that “God” liberated the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage and led them to The Promised Land. As the Bible says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt . . . and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land . . . to . . . a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites.” (Exodus 3:7,8) We seminarians were not encouraged to theo-moralize about the fate of the Canaanites and other indigenous peoples, demonized as The Other. Actually, preoccupation with theologizing itself often encouraged obliviousness to pursuing such moral implications.

The moral of the biblical story was that “the Lord God” created a covenant to reward oppressed faithful Jews with a homeland of their own. The morality of the story? We did not get into that. We paid no mind that “the Lord God” also said,

I will hand over to you the inhabitants of the land, and you shall drive them out before you. . . . And when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. . . . The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the people on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Exodus 23: 31; Deuteronomy 7: 1-6)

In my United Methodist Conference, certain ministers were granted stipends for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was about visiting sacred Christian sites where a liberating and crucified Jesus walked, not connecting with the sights of the oppressed Palestinians of today. It was actually about lifting the spiritual life of the visiting minister, not about liberating the physical lives of the biblically-victimized Palestinian Other.

Greatly needed here is the model provided by Fr. Michael Prior, C.M., Ph.D., biblical scholar, author, lecturer and liberation theologian, who wrote extensively about “the biblical mandate to commit genocide.” He focused on “A Land Flowing with Milk, Honey, and People.” (See “Confronting the Bible’s Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine,” in Burning Issues: Understanding and Misunderstanding The Middle East: A 40-Year Chronicle, published by Americans for Middle East Understanding, 2007; see also Dr. Prior’s book, The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, England, 1997, 1999) Teaching biblical studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank, Fr. Prior responded to a Palestinian plea for “pilgrimages from the West to meet the Christian communities” in Palestine, to meet “’the Living Stones’ of the land, and not be satisfied with the ‘dead stones’ of archeological sites.” Thus were established “links between Christians in Britain with the Holy Land.” (Ibid)

Upon Fr. Prior’s accidental death at age 62, in 2004, one eulogy in particular cited his commitment to the “Living Stones” of the Palestinian people. “One of his constant themes,” the eulogy stated, “was to question the motivation of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land who view all the religious sights, but fail to notice or act on the sufferings of the people who live there.” Prior is then quoted:

How, I constantly ask myself, are such people so unconcerned about others being kicked out of their homes, children being shot, people struggling for survival against very oppressive forces of occupation? Instead of trying to give food to the hungry and sight to the blind, as Jesus exhorted, these people support institutions that make seeing people blind, put free people in prison and make the poor poorer. (“In Memorium: Fr. Michael Prior, C.M., www.domusviridis.org.uk)

Fr. Prior confronted the biblically inspired belief that ethnic cleansing is next to godliness. He wrote, “The view that the Bible provides the title-deed for the establishment of the State of Israel and for its policies since1948 is so pervasive even within mainstream Christian theology and university biblical studies, that the very attempt to raise the issue is sure to elicit opposition.” (“Confronting the Bible’s Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine,” Ibid) He should know. In 2002, Fr. Prior’s invitation to present a lecture on “The Christian Churches, Zionism and the State of Israel” at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts was withdrawn. The reported reason: to “save Holy Cross some further unnecessary division,” as,”most of the Jewish faculty in the college were among the strongest supporters of the college and its Jesuit mission. They were worried about outside media attention.” Still, Fr. Prior’s tour across America included lectures at 15 academic and religious institutions, including Harvard. (“Fr. Michael Prior, C.M.: In Memoriam, Ibid)

Fr. Prior was not insensitive to the horrific oppression of the Jewish people during Hitler’s reign of terror. But, he stated, “Nor can the Shoah (Holocaust) be appealed to credibly to justify the destruction of an innocent third party. It is a dubious moral principle,” he added, “to regard the barbaric treatment of Jews by the Third Reich as constituting a right to establish a Jewish state at the expense of an innocent third party.” He added, “Until Israelis acknowledge their having displaced another people and make some reparation and accommodation, there will be no future for the state.” (“Confronting the Bible’s Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine,” Ibid)

Fr. Prior believed in a bigger god than the one for whom ethnic cleansing is next to godliness. “Namely,” he stated, “that God is fundamentally moral; and, for those espousing the Christian vision, that he loves all His people, irrespective of race, etc.” (Ibid) He had “no doubt that a future generation of diaspora and Israeli Jews will repudiate its presumptions and repent for the injustices perpetrated on the Palestinians by their fathers and grandfathers.” (Ibid)

This liberation theologian contributes greatly to the humanizing of The Other. He said,” It is high time that biblical scholars, church people, and Western intellectuals read the biblical narratives of the promise of land ‘with the eyes of the Canaanites.’” (Ibid)

“The eyes of the Canaanites.” Recently, some three dozen Palestinian villagers, joined by activists, set up a tent village on West Bank land that Israel intends to seize for settlement-building. Last Saturday, Israeli soldiers removed their tents, attacked them, and sprayed them with foul-smelling water. But the reported “villagers and activists refused to leave.” “Said one activist, Mazen Qumsiyeh, ‘It is our natural right to develop, reclaim, improve, use, and live on all our lands, free and without threats from the occupiers.’” They named their tent village “Canaan.” (“Israeli forces remove new Palestinian tent village in West Bank,” By DPA, HAARETZ.com, Feb. 9, 2013)

“The eyes of the Canaanites” are the windows to The Golden Rule and thus to every human being’s inalienable worth and rights.

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. His recently published book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, is available on Amazon.com. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.