Saturday Night Theologian
26 October 2008

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Outside a McCain rally this week, an anti-Muslim bigot was railing against Barack Obama, claiming, among other things, that he was a Muslim and that Muslims were involved in some secret plot to subvert the political process. Several McCain supporters confronted the man, including Daniel Zubairi, one of McCain's statewide leadership directors for the state of Maryland. Zubairi identified himself as a Muslim, and he said that the kind of hate the other man was spewing was unwelcome at a McCain event. In a similar vein, former secretary of state Colin Powell went on television Sunday to endorse Barack Obama, but less widely reported--though probably more significant in the long run--were Powell's words about some of the attacks on Obama by some McCain supporters. When Obama is accused of being a Muslim, Powell said this:

Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America.
These two incidents provide a backdrop for two different parts of today's reading from Leviticus. First, "You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people." It is fine to disagree with another person's beliefs, actions, or qualifications, but it is not OK to lie about him. More to the point is the second passage: "You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The anti-Muslim racist in the first story violated both these passages, first by lying about Obama's religious background, and second by presuming that there was something inherently evil about being a Muslim. It took centuries before most Christians in the U.S. treated Jews with respect--unfortunately, anti-Semitism remains a lingering problem--but most American Christians today strongly oppose anti-Semitism. Many of these same Christians, however, see nothing wrong with adopting stridently anti-Muslim positions and using strong anti-Muslim rhetoric. The number of Muslims in the U.S. is growing, and they are our neighbors. It is time for Christians, and all others, to understand that fact and behave accordingly.

Psalm 1 (first published 15 February 2004)

The book of Psalms developed over a long period of time, and evidence of its growth can be seen in its organization. Many of the psalms have titles, beginning with Psalm 3, and scholars have suggested that an earlier version of the Psalter began with this psalm, perhaps ending with Psalm 72 or 89. Later, perhaps after the exile, as the psalms were increasingly read from a messianic perspective, Psalm 2 was added at the beginning, and other psalms were added at the end, maybe ending with Psalm 118. It is possible that Psalms 1 and 119 were added at about the same time, shifting the focus of the book from messianism to wisdom and reflections on the Torah. Finally, the psalms at the end of the book were added, with Psalm 150 serving as a final doxology to the entire book. If we look at Psalm 1 as an introduction to the whole Psalter, its advocacy of meditation on the law is revealing. The "law" mentioned in the psalm is not that portion of the Hebrew Bible often called the Law (i.e., the Pentateuch), nor is it the legal portions of the Bible. The "law" the psalmist had in mind was God's instruction, which certainly included the Pentateuch and its legal material but also encompassed other edifying literature--such as the other psalms--and oral teachings as well. The psalmist encouraged the reader or hearer to meditate on what God had to teach him or her, regardless of the medium. The explicit contrast between the way of "the righteous" and the way of "the wicked" demonstrates that the psalmist stood firmly within the wisdom tradition in ancient Israel, a tradition that drew on the best teachings both inside and outside Israel. Certainly the focus was on Israelite traditions about God and life, but wisdom practitioners were perfectly comfortable adapting the traditions of their neighbors--Canaanite, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian--and reinterpreting them for their contemporaries. Those who understand God and the world will flourish like trees alongside flowing streams, whereas those who don't will be blown away like chaff from the threshing floor. There is a tendency among fundamentalists of all religious traditions to try to insulate their children from the broader teachings of society. Some madrassas in Pakistan teach a strict form of Islam that denigrates other religions. Some Christian schools in the U.S. focus narrowly on the Bible and caricature Darwinian evolution and radioisotope dating methods. Some Jewish schools in Israel teach a fanciful view of the history of the Middle East. The first psalm suggests that we should be open to learn whatever we can from every available source. Of course we will interpret the teachings of other religions and cultures in light of our own understanding, but if we are honest learners, we will also be open to modifying our views in the light of convincing evidence. Perhaps the basic difference between fundamentalists and more enlightened practitioners of the various religions is the unwillingness or openness, respectively, to learn from other traditions. The first psalm invites us to open our minds to search for God wherever we can.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 (first published 23 October 2005)

Joseph Goebbels was a master of deception. He could turn a brutal assault on his enemies into a justified response to provocation. He could make the victims of the worst abuses complicit in their own destruction. He could take an unpopular, unnecessary war and make it a campaign vital to the survival of the nation. He was an artist, his medium was words, and his palette was covered with a variety of paints: lies, half-truths, innuendo, patriotism, prejudice, and fear. As Minister of Propaganda during World War II, he kept the people united, convinced in the justice of their cause until the very end. Goebbels died by his own hand, but his legacy continues to this day in many forms and in many different settings. National governments offer "disinformation" to their enemies and to their own citizens. Politicians of all stripes bend and stretch and twist the truth. Journalists and writers distort the truth in order to ingratiate themselves to those in power. Company executives withhold the truth from stockholders while they themselves sell off their stock prior to a sharp decrease in value (though they sometimes warn their friends, the rich and powerful). Even religious leaders frequently twist the truth in order to get their followers to vote against their political enemies (remember Jerry Falwell's peddling of tapes that purported that Bill Clinton had authorized murder, or various religious leaders promoting the lies of the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth?). They also deny the findings of science in order to fool their constituents into misunderstanding the issues (e.g., the false link between abortion and breast cancer, the pseudoscientific nonsense of creation "science," and the "heated" denials of the reality of global warming). Perhaps most egregiously, religious leaders sometimes pervert the gospel message in order to get people to think that non-biblical, anti-Christian views have a basis in the teachings of Jesus himself (e.g., the morality of preemptive war, aggressive militarization, capital punishment, or the government's abandonment of the poor). Paul tells his readers in Thessalonica that deception is not the Christian way. "We proclaimed the gospel of God in spite of great opposition," he said, and without resorting to deceit, impure motives, trickery, or flattery. Paul believed in the power of the gospel to change lives, and to change the world for the better. Do we have the same view of the power of the gospel?

Matthew 22:34-46 (first published 23 October 2005)

Rabbi Horowitz, a well-known 16th-17th century Jewish Kabbalist, noted that there are 620 letters in the Ten Commandments. The first 613 letters stand for the 613 commandments in the Torah. The last seven are the leg on which the rest of the commandments stand, for the last seven letters of the Ten Commandments are the two words "which are your neighbor's." In other words, the commandments that are directed toward God are integrally related to those that are directed toward people. The leg in the reference above is an allusion to the Talmudic story of Hillel, who, when asked to recite the whole Torah while standing on one leg, said, "What you would not have others do to you, do not do to others. This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary." The realization that love of God and love of one's neighbor are two sides of the same coin goes back at least as far as the second century B.C.E. within Judaism, where the Testament of Issachar commands, "Love the Lord and your neighbor." In our gospel reading for today, an expert in the law asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is. Jesus' answer is in line with accepted Jewish teaching: love God and love your neighbor. It's interesting to compare Matthew's version of this story with the versions found in Mark and Luke. In Mark, a scribe who has been observing Jesus answer his questioners well decides to ask Jesus a question himself, apparently with no antagonistic motivations. After Jesus answers his question about the greatest commandment, he states his evaluation that Jesus has answered wisely. In Luke, when the lawyer asks the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus doesn't answer directly but instead invites the lawyer to answer the question. When the lawyer answers that one must love God and love one's neighbor, Jesus agrees that he has answered correctly. Only in Matthew does Jesus provide an answer with which the questioner gives no sign of agreement. Perhaps this subtle shift in Matthew is the result of the gospel being written in a period of intense rivalry between Jews and Christians, as both struggled to identify themselves in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple and of a growing Gentile presence in the church. At that time, near the end of the first century C.E., while both Jews and Christians would profess a love for God, it was questionable whether either group as a whole really felt any love for the other group, their neighbor. Unfortunately, this situation continues to the present among many believers of all faiths. Loving God is paramount in the teaching of all three monotheistic faiths of the West, but many adherents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam draw the line at recognizing those from the other faiths as their neighbors, much less loving them. Muslim suicide bombers kill themselves in their zeal to kill their Christian enemies. Christian pilots and bombardiers, at the instruction of Christian generals and presidents, drop bombs on their Muslim enemies. Jewish and Muslim zealots lob mortars, fire missiles, and shoot bullets at one another in Israel and Palestine. What happened to loving one's brother? Social commentators have noted the growth in fundamentalist forms of various religions around the world today, but unfortunately, these manifestations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam seem to know nothing about loving their fellow human beings. On the contrary, we are treated to the spectacle of a popular televangelist calling for the assassination of an elected president of another country, to self-appointed Muslim leaders preaching hate and murder, and to isolated Jewish leaders calling for Israel to hold onto the land taken from the Palestinians. Fortunately, none of these people speaks for the majority within the religion, but opposing voices, voices of rationality that advocate peace and justice, are all too silent. Yes, there are some speaking out, but their voices need to be joined by the voices of the masses of people of goodwill, people who hate not their neighbors but the violence of war and oppression. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim voices of reason need to encourage their followers to take a stand for peace, and at the same time they need to renounce the excesses of their co-religionists. It does little good for Christian leaders to renounce Muslim extremists. Instead, Muslims must renounce Muslim extremists, Christians must renounce Christian extremists, and Jews must renounce Jewish extremists. In this world of more than six billion people and growing, it is imperative that we learn to love our neighbors--all of them.