“What Did You Say” Message for August 18, 2019. Laity-led service by Pete Toot.
Today we are going to have a conversation. I have several readings which we will use, but a portion of the service is going to be a dialogue. I get to pose situations and you get to tell me what you think, or what you would do. We are going to be dealing with how we handle offensive or disturbing statements that just pop up in the course of conversation, or in reading, like in sacred texts.
We’ll start with a well-known Bible story. It is the story of Noah, but I’m not going to include the parts about Noah and his family, or the construction of the ark, but just focus on what God is trying to accomplish. Genesis 6 reveals what God is saying about how poorly the people of the world turned out. Does it disturb you that God is planning to murder everyone on Earth? Well, let’s hear the story.
Genesis 6:5-7, 17-21, 7:21-22 read by a volunteer.
I put in the bold font in verse 17. God says, “I will bring a great flood of water on the earth. I will destroy all living things that live under heaven. Everything on the earth will die.” This reading says plainly that God murders every living thing in the creation but for a few individuals and creatures. The men and women, the children, babies, puppies, cattle, and so forth killed off. But we see it as a simple story. Are you shocked that a God of love can do such a thing? Probably not. Why not? At the very least, the Bible says this is OK for God. Is it OK for the rest of us, too? Discussed the questions briefly.
Let’s do a follow-up reading from Swedenborg.
Secrets of Heaven n. 591 read by a volunteer.
So Swedenborg has a different take on the flood story. He has tons to say about it, but the gist of it is that God doesn’t actually murder all the people and animals and birds. If you get into it further, it isn’t talking about a physical flood, and it isn’t talking about a physical killing either. It is about people becoming dead, spiritually, and he goes on to describe the flood as representing the end of one kind of church and the start of a new church, one person at a time; a new dispensation called “Noah”. The dead animals and birds are the already dead ideas, affections, and motivations that have departed from truth and goodness, and they need to be replaced. It is the deterioration of these ideas, affections, and motivations that led to the spiritual death of the people. Is that less shocking? Does it make you feel better about what the Bible says about God’s actions? What do you think of Swedenborg’s view?
Maybe we can say that most of the meaning of Genesis is hidden in the parable form of the story. Now let’s try one more reading from the Old Testament, the genocide of the Amalekites from Samuel.
1 Samuel 15:1-3, 7-11,14-16, 22-23 read by a volunteer.
So, here we find God wanting to destroy people again. He and /or She gives commands to Saul by way of Samuel. Now these Amalekites were descendants of Esau, the legitimate firstborn of Isaac, so, family. They did mess with Moses coming into Canaan, but that was around 300 years earlier, and they have been a real pain ever since. In this story, Saul, recently anointed king by the Prophet Samuel on God’s instructions, carries out most of the commands, but just killing the men, women, children, babies, and a bunch of the livestock doesn’t seem to be acceptable to God. Now it’s all about obedience! So, some questions to think about: Did Saul do a good thing or a bad thing? Where he followed orders, he did atrocious things. Where he spared King Agag and some prime livestock to be killed later, it isn’t much better and in addition he disobeyed the highest authority he knew. Do you think Samuel had it in for the Amalekites? How do you respond to the idea that God not only orders the destruction of the Amalekites, but is so displeased with Saul after the fight that God won’t accept him as king anymore? Discussed the questions briefly.
Song, then the Message
Swedenborg only mentions the passage from Samuel briefly in a long discussion of the Amalekites. It is not quite as clear cut as the story of the flood, but suffice it to say that the Amalekites represent at an inner level a continuing spiritual threat to a person’s worship of God, and so to Truth and Caring. There probably was an actual battle in the physical world, but Swedenborg is silent on this and seems not to be concerned. He focuses on the message in the inner meaning of the Word, and it addresses spiritual things. But the literal story is still there and it is still disturbing. When someone says to you that they are not religious because the Bible shows explicitly that the God of the Bible is unpredictable and can be quite terrible, I can understand that. What do you say? Wait for responses.
We are told the Old Testament is intended for a people who needed to have a simple and easy to understand set of lessons to present the Law and teach in familiar contexts. We would say it is only an Old Testament appearance that God is angry or malicious. Is the New Testament free of such statements? Does the idea of “love your neighbor” fail to show up somewhere? Yes. Not quite in the same way that it turns up in the Old Testament. The selections that seem offensive are not explicit about what God will or will not do. These New Testament passages relate more to putting people in their place – namely, Jews who get in the way of the disciples teaching, and women in general who are told they are subservient to the men. Told by men, of course.
Here are three short readings from the New Testament, and one from the Quran. After hearing these we will look at how people deal with such statements. Volunteers read them.
1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 – Bad Jews are to suffer God’s anger.
Ephesians 5:21-32 – Wives…serve their husbands in everything.
1 Timothy 2:8-15 – Instructions for men and women.
Quran 4:34 – What men are to do if their wives are not loyal.
I should point out for clarity that in the Quran – An-Nisha’ 34 that some translations describe that the punishments for disloyal wives are to be applied sequentially, only as the previous punishment clearly fails. We can talk about the messages in these readings more, but not right now. – I want first to have a look at the methods people use to deal with what “objectionable material”. Rebecca Esterson, who spoke at Convention on a similar subject taught in her mini-course taught me that there are four primary ways that difficult Scripture passages are read, to which I added one more. One or more of them should sound familiar. I do want to go through these rather quickly, to get to the next part of the our conversation – on how we deal with real life encounters of offensive situations.
- Charitable Reading – Involves asking “how could this be true?” The assumption is that it is true in some way, but it is not obvious. An example is when Swedenborgians look to the inner sense of the passage to find a more understandable meaning in it.
- Historical Critical – Here the passage is determined to be no longer pertinent. So it may have been true or less objectionable at one time, but history has changed that.
- Dialogical – This approach is to consider the passage as a challenge or an opportunity to engage with God. It is OK to accept or reject it, but it is there to create dialogue, to lead the reader toward some unstated truth by forcing him or her to wrestle with it.
- Avoidance / Editing – This is the simplest approach. Just skip the difficult passage, do not let it bother you. Or edit it so that it does make sense to the reader. This happens a lot when sermons are written. Pieces of passages are left out, not only the ones that just make the reading too long, but also those that do not make the point the pastor is trying to make. I have it on good authority that this is very common. Less than orthodox, the assumption here is that the text as we see it written is no longer, or perhaps never was, error-free; and as additions as texts were assembled into Bible we use today, some of these actions could have been wrong. But a lot of editing strictly deals with making a particular point, context notwithstanding.
- Mythology – Rebecca didn’t mention this one – perhaps because it is not really interpretation. In this case – throw out the whole book as mythology, invention, and not worthy of much further consideration. The passage is considered disturbing because it isn’t supposed to be taken seriously anyway.
So that speaks to dealing with text – interesting to some of us, but text does not talk back. It isn’t going to change. It is not as “live” as a personal experience with people around us. However, I think there are similarities to how we deal with offensive statements in everyday conversation, and here are some. Upon hearing such a statement, one might think to themselves…
- “Some people think that, though I do not.” Offensive perhaps, but more a matter of opinion than of fact. The usual response, if any, is to point out that not everyone agrees with position, and sometimes possible reasons for that are suggested. As in politics. Or,
- “Maybe true once, but not now”. A response might be to present some recent, new thoughts on the subject that “add to” the no longer widely held position. Or,
- “That is just plain wrong! And I need to object.” The usual response is to enter into debate, or argument, to educate the speaker, or at least take the high ground as you see it. This is not always useful, but could be if planting a different idea bears fruit. This internal response is often accompanied by outrage or disgust, it may not go well.
- “This has no place in polite conversation.” Usually due to crude or inflammatory language, and the usual response is to change the subject or drop out of the conversation while it continues without you. The hope is that no one will encourage the speaker.
- “I can’t believe they said that!” Maybe this is where you say, “What did you say?” hoping you heard it wrong. Text: if you read it wrong, just read it again. Not as easy in real time.
We have an exercise here to experiment with these ideas. In these envelopes we have instances of what I am guessing are statements that some of you will find offensive. Of course, I could be wrong, which might make this more interesting. Do not expect that your reactions will be simple. I have never met anyone who does not have some degree of prejudice that affects their behavior, whether they know it or not, and whether they express it or not. That includes myself. We all shy away from things or people we don’t understand. It is called pre-judgment and is rooted in ignorance of those who are different from us. That is a completely different very large topic we will not get into today, but you may find it creates some ambivalence in your reactions. I want you to select an envelope or two, read the situation described there, and see what reactions you have. Think about how you would respond if the situation were real. Then if and when you’re ready, share with us what you’re feeling and thinking about. If you have run into a similar situation before personally, how did it go?
That ends the message.
The exercise followed, and it depended on the congregants’ reactions and the envelopes they choose. Each envelope described a situation in which one person’s prejudice and tendency to place some group of people into second-class, less-than human, or terrorist stereotypes was spoken aloud, which allowed the reader to be witness to and in a position to react to the statements. Such “others” in the situations were derided using stereotypes related to sexual preference, gender, age, ethnicity, or religion. In the exercise as it was done, most were able to identify their possible responses, some their attitudes, but none spoke of their feelings (nor were they prompted to do so), and only one presented an actual case experience that I recall. The exercise was not conducted under explicit confidentially rules, but I have chosen not to include any of the conversation here.