The Book and the Sword

June 13, 2016, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. Remarks at a vigil in memory of the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre.

Sunday morning’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub took place during both Pride Month and Ramadan, timing significant for both the LGBTQ victims of the crime and the nominally Muslim perpetrator. For gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, and the queer community, the timing is especially painful. The same can be said for the vast majority of American Muslims who are being unjustly tagged as complicit in the crime, or sympathetic to its goals.

Sunday also happened to be the Jewish festival of Shavuot, a day which my Tradition marks as the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah. It is the day on which God proclaimed the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, sending the Word down from heaven into the world. It is a day on which Jews typically greet each other with the words chag sameach, “may your holiday be joyful.” This year, it was anything but.

The notion that our sacred scripture descended from heaven is one that Jews understand in many different ways. As with other religions, we have our literalists. Others of us (and I count myself among them) understand divine revelation not as the audible speech of an invisible omnipotent deity taking place at a moment in time, but rather as a process of unfolding, of growing in awareness. Torah is what is timeless, true, and beautiful, and just.

Our human efforts to record and describe that Torah in a book, and to put it into practice in the world, are decidedly mixed. It seems to me that the gap between ideal and reality is at the heart of this observation, recorded in an ancient commentary on the book of Deuteronomy (Sifrei 12):

“Rabbi Eliezer said: the Book and the Sword came down from heaven together, intertwined. ‘If you fulfill the teaching written in the one, you’ll be saved from the other. And if you don’t…then it will consume you.’”

Our religious texts – all of them – contain strikingly beautiful and timeless teachings, as well as passages that reflect a more time-bound, halting effort at naming the Ineffable. They contain some outright misses as well. None of our religions is free of that phenomenon by which the Book is held as though it were the Sword, giving license to small indignities, unspeakable horrors, and everything in between. Theologian Mary Ann Tolbert has called the misuse of scripture to hurt rather than heal “textual harassment.” She coined the term in reference to some Christians’ interpretations with respect to LGBTQ people, but what she said can be applied across scriptures, religious traditions, and eras. A violent misuse of the Quran was almost certainly among the factors that drove Omar Mateen to slaughter dozens of people on Sunday morning, and to maim dozens more.

Speaking of her own sacred scripture, Tolbert notes with dark irony that “the Bible itself doesn’t kill people; groups of readers of the Bible do that in its name.” She is right, of course, just as advocates of an armed and ready populace are right in a certain way when they say the same thing about guns. But take someone in the sway of a perverted understanding of his Book, and put in his hands a perfected version of the Sword – a modern version that can fire off dozens of expanding-tip bullets per minute — and the result can eat us alive.

Tonight, we pray as though everything depends upon God; tomorrow, may we act as though everything depends upon us. Let us unflinchingly call out textual harassment in all its forms, whoever the actor, whoever the victim, whatever the scripture. Let us work to make our world safer, to better separate people set on violence from the tools that make their work all too easy. Let us bring what is timeless, true, beautiful and just into the world. Let us embody a torat chayim, a life-affirming path.

Amen.

 

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