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The Politics of Scripture

God’s Radiant Law

Jesus pronounced judgment on the entire system and dismantled it with a whip – modeling for us how to treat egregious distortions of Christian worship that distract from God’s redemptive work. This is not politics “out there,” in the public square, but in house.

And God spoke all these words:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”

21 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

22 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: 23 Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.

24 “‘Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. 25 If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. 26 And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your private parts may be exposed.’

Exodus 20 (NRSV)

Christians in the United States have often fought to keep the Ten Commandments in the public square. They argue that God’s laws etched on stone form the foundation of Western Civilization.

But the Ten Commandments are unconstitutional.

The US Bill of Rights protects individual freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. The Ten Commandments explicitly constrain these so-called “rights”: prohibiting the worship of other gods, the crafting of images for worship, and the misrepresentation of God and neighbor. They go so far as to require the honor of parents and prevent the desire for what others possess.

To enshrine the Ten Commandments as national law would contradict the Bill of Rights, limiting religious freedom and freedom of expression.

For this reason, the Ten Commandments cannot be political in the way that some Christians want them to be. God’s commands present a more radical agenda for the community of faith – apart from federal law – calling us to restrain our own rights for the sake of our neighbors.

We are to allow our neighbors to be honored, to rest, to live, to hold property, to marry, and to be defended in court. Obedience to these commands requires submission to a power greater than any human government. God’s commands force us to look closely at our own hearts. Ambition, self-expression, independence, and personal achievement are not the measure of a person. But these values that fuel self-preoccupation are so widespread that they leak into our worship. Instead of a God-centered life that takes love of neighbor seriously, we opt for a rhythm of worship that does not encroach on our other priorities.

While online services have provided an essential way for church communities to stay somewhat connected during the Coronavirus pandemic, I fear that over time they may further nurture our independence. Watching church on my couch with the remote in hand means I can “do” church whenever I want, if I want. My passivity or lack of participation affects no one but me, or so I think.

The truth is, each one of us affects everyone else. My selfishness creates barriers to the flourishing of others, while my faithfulness contributes to a life-giving community. This truth is at the heart of the Ten Commandments. In Psalm 19:8 (NIV), the psalmist calls God’s law “radiant.”  When we live by it, our neighborhoods become radiant, too.

It’s worth lingering on this word: radiant. Some of the laws, systems, and institutions in our countries are not radiant. In many places, power goes to those with light skin or big bank accounts, regardless of their character, contribution, or depth of insight. We’re aware of the dearth of resources for schools in communities of color, the tendency of those with power to hire people who look like them, the likelihood that judges will find someone innocent if they are white, and guilty if they are not, and the disproportionate incarceration of ethnic minorities for non-violent crimes. In the evangelical movement we have pastors who act like TV personalities and offer preferred seating for the rich and famous, or leverage their platform in unethical ways to end up on the New York Times bestseller list. On the other end of the evangelical spectrum are authoritarian pastors who make it their ambition to silence women and tighten the theological ship at every turn to consolidate their own power in the name of biblical fidelity.

Psalm 19 tells us that God’s statutes and commands are perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, enlightening, true, and righteous. When they are implemented in ways that reflect God’s goodness, these laws protect the vulnerable and rein in the abusive power of patriarchy. When they are not, cycles of oppression strip humans of dignity and ravage creation of its beauty.

We can look to Jesus for an example of how God’s radiant law translates to action. In John 2:13-22, the Passover festival is almost underway – that great annual celebration of God’s rescue of the Hebrews from their oppressive toil in Egypt. Every year this festival stoked the people’s hope of eventual freedom from first-century Roman occupation and oppressive taxation. But when Jesus’ eyes scanned the temple courts, he saw a pressing need for a new kind of liberation. His ministry would have significant implications not only for imperial rule, but also for religious reform. Worship had become big business. Something about it was all wrong. Were the money changers charging exorbitant fees? Were those selling animals charging unfair prices? Or was the noise of the haggling shattering the solemnity of the house of prayer, especially for those relegated to the court of the Gentiles, where the selling took place?

Jesus pronounced judgment on the entire system and dismantled it with a whip – modeling for us how to treat egregious distortions of Christian worship that distract from God’s redemptive work. This is not politics “out there,” in the public square, but in house.

Not long ago, a pro-Trump crowd stormed the US Capitol building, waving US flags and sporting MAGA hats. The intention was to disrupt the official count of the electoral college that affirmed former Vice President Joseph Biden as the president elect. Protestors suspected widespread election fraud. They felt it was inconceivable for someone other than President Trump to win. They called on Republican senators to refuse to certify the votes and threatened to hang Vice President Mike Pence if he refused to put a stop to Biden’s election. Some of them carried crosses and Bibles and signs saying “Jesus Saves!” (The Save America Rally, at which Trump had spoken immediately prior to the march, seems to have coincided with the Jericho March, whose purpose was to mobilize Jews and Christians to “Pray, March, Fast, And Rally For Election Integrity.” Those who broke into the Senate chamber dedicated their violent act of intrusion and disruption of democracy to Jesus. They prayed through their bullhorn. One explained later that as a follower of Jesus he didn’t feel he had a choice but to make his voice heard by breaching the capitol building.)

If Jesus had showed up at this rally, I doubt he would have cracked his whip at the Senators gathered to do their jobs. While many conservatives are dismayed by liberal politicians, Jesus stares down Christian nationalism, which no longer knows the difference between church and state and mistakes political power with divine sanction. And while many progressives are dismayed by racism, homophobia, and conservatives’ susceptibility to conspiracy theories, Jesus frowns over the innate sense of superiority exuded by those who claim to champion the downtrodden.

Jesus’ temple cleansing must have come as quite a shock. By going to Jerusalem, he didn’t only head for the center of political power; he headed for the center of worship. He aimed his judgment at those who had lost sight of covenantal faithfulness and bent it to their own ends. He refused to tolerate their distortion of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ priority was to radically reorient the community of faith so that they would again prioritize love of neighbor.

And so should we.

The church does not rise or fall over whether the Ten Commandments are enshrined as public policy. The mission of the church depends on whether the community of faith will live by them.

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