Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Shattered: Top Ten Myths about the Ten Commandments (Part 3)

In the first two posts of this series, I identified 9 myths about the Ten Commandments that are pervasive today. You can read those posts here and here. But I've saved the best for last. Today I'm tackling the myth that sent me on a 5-year quest for answers, resulting in a PhD and a published book. I've been waiting 7 years to share this with you!

Myth #10. The Ten Commandments prohibit the use of Yahweh's name as a swear word or in false oaths.

Exodus 20:7 reads: "You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain, for the LORD will not hold guiltless one who takes his name in vain."

I've asked a lot of people what they think this verse means (we'll call it the "Name Command"). Most people assume that the Name Command teaches that we're not supposed to use God's name as a swear word (as in the flippant, "Oh, my God!" or the harsher "God dammit"). Instead, we should use it reverently. I agree that we should honor God's name by using it reverently, but I do not think swear words are the problem that the Name Command seeks to address. 

Photo: Banner of Truth Trust
Others suggest that the Name Command prohibits false oaths. This interpretation has a very long history. To cite just one example, consider Question and Answer 99 from the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. What is the aim of the third commandment? 
A. That we neither blaspheme nor misuse the name of God by cursing, perjury, or unnecessary oaths, nor share in such horrible sins by being silent bystanders. In summary, we should use the holy name of God only with reverence and awe, so that we may properly confess God, pray to God, and glorify God in all our words and works.
However, the Name Command says nothing about oaths or cursing. In fact, there are no speech-related words at all. Translated simply, it says, "You shall not bear the name of Yahweh, your God, in vain." Perhaps this is why I've been able to count 23 distinctly different interpretations of the Name Command. It seems like an odd statement -- how does one "bear" God's name? It's no wonder that interpreters have often gone to other passages (either inside or outside of the Bible) hoping for clarification.  Most assume that "bear the name" is short-hand for something like "bear the name on your lips," which would be to say the name, or "lift your hand to the name," which would mean to swear an oath.

But there's a much simpler explanation. We miss it because it involves a metaphor that's unfamiliar to us. Shortly after the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, God gave instructions to Moses regarding the construction of the tabernacle, which will house the two stone tablets, and the official vestments of the high priest, who will officiate. The article of clothing that is of central importance to Aaron's position as high priest is a cloth chest apron studded with 12 precious stones. These stones are to be inscribed, each with the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Yahweh instructs Aaron to "bear the names of the sons of Israel" whenever he enters the sacred tent (Exodus 28:12, 29). Aaron literally bears their names. He carries them on his person as he goes about his official duties. He serves as the people's authorized representative before God. He also bears Yahweh's name on his forehead, setting him apart as God's representative to the people.

As special as he is, Aaron is a visual model of what the entire covenant community is called to be and do. At Sinai, Yahweh selected Israel as his treasured possession, kingdom of priests, and holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6). All three titles designate Israel as Yahweh's official representative, set apart to mediate his blessing to all nations. By selecting the Israelites, Yahweh has claimed them as his own, in effect, branding them with his name as a claim of ownership. Because they bear his name, they are charged to represent him well. That is, they must not bear that name in vain. This goes far beyond oaths or pronunciation of God's name. It extends to their behavior in every area of life. In everything, they represent him. They are his public relations department. The nations are watching the Israelites to find out what Yahweh is like.

Not convinced yet? Look at Aaron's blessing in Numbers 6:24-27. After Aaron's ordination  as high priest (where he was clothed with the special garments) and the consecration of the tabernacle and people, his first official act was to pronounce this blessing over the people (see Leviticus 9:22). It's very likely that you've heard the blessing before. It's often used in churches and synagogues:
"May Yahweh bless you and keep you;
May Yahweh smile on you and be gracious to you; 
May Yahweh show you his favor and give you peace." 
But have you ever read the following verse? "So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them."

You see? It's quite explicit. God put his name on the Israelites as a claim of ownership. They wore an invisible tattoo. They were not to bear it in vain.

Prairie College, Three Hills, AB (Photo: C Imes)
Perhaps an illustration will help. Imagine a group of students from Prairie College (the Bible college where I teach) who drive to Calgary on a Friday night wearing their Prairie College swag. They go to a bar, get totally hammered, and begin to pick fights with the other customers. Soon, they are kicked out and stagger off to their cars to drive home. On the way home, their car swerves over the center line and crashes head on into oncoming traffic, killing both drivers instantly and injuring several others. When this story hits the news, what sort of impression will it leave about Prairie College? These students may not think of themselves as representatives of the college, but by enrolling as students and wearing the name, they identify with the school. Like it or not, people's impressions of Prairie are largely formed by the behavior of its students.

So, too, with the people of God. Drawn into a covenant with Yahweh at Sinai, like it or not, they have become his representatives. At the top of the list of covenant stipulations inscribed on the stone tablets are two commands that set the stage for all the others: Worship only Yahweh, and don't bear his name in vain. These two echo the covenant formula repeated throughout the Old Testament: "I will be your God, and you will be my people." The rest of the 613 commands in the Torah flesh these out in more detail.

And that is what I think the Name Command is all about.


Much more could be said, but this is a blog post, not a book. If you have more questions, you'll find a 186-page justification for this interpretation in my book, Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai: A Reexamination of the Name Command of the Decalogue. After a brief introductory chapter, chapter 2 engages with other interpretations throughout history, chapter 3 provides extensive word studies of each of the key words in the Name Command, chapter 4 explores the literary context, and chapter 5 delves into conceptual metaphor theory, connecting the Name Command with the high priest and the wider biblical theme of "bearing Yahweh's name."

In the meantime, watch for the biblical theme of "bearing Yahweh's name" as you read the Bible. It's all over the place, once you have eyes to see! You can start with 2 Chronicles 7:14 or Ezekiel 36:20-21 in the Old Testament, and 1 Peter 4:16 or Revelation 14:1 in the New Testament.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Why Andy Stanley is Wrong about the Old Testament . . .

Andy Stanley rocked the internet this week by saying that Christians ought to “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament. No doubt a great many who heard this were relieved. There’s a lot of gnarly stuff in the Old Testament that people struggle with (I should know. I’m an Old Testament professor. With students lined up to see me during office hours.) Stanley’s pastoral motivation for making the statement is commendable. He has watched countless people leave the faith because they could not swallow the Old Testament or its God. His hope was to win them back by focusing on the resurrection of Jesus. It’s just that he’s going about it all wrong.

Stanley is not the first person to think of this. Not long after the resurrection a leader arose in the early church who felt the same way. His name was Marcion. Marcion saw a strong distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament. He rejected the Old Testament and even those New Testament books that he thought were “too Jewish.”

And he was rightly condemned as a heretic early in the 3rd century.

But why?

What’s so important about the Old Testament?

Stanley concedes that it is inspired, and that it gives us the “backstory” so that we can understand the New Testament. That in itself should be enough to motivate us to keep reading it. The New Testament makes little sense without it. But the relevance of the Old Testament goes deeper than that.
New Testament authors consistently use the Old Testament as their primary source for ethical reflection. In fact, they appeal to the Old Testament far more often than they appeal to things Jesus said while he was on earth, not just for the backstory, but to guide their behavior.  In other words, they are not just reminiscing about the “bad ole’ days” when they cite the Old Testament. It remains their authority. It tells them how to live after the resurrection.

Stanley reportedly made his appeal for Christians to “unhitch” from the Old Testament while preaching on Acts 15. This is a grand irony. Acts 15 narrates the proceedings from the first church “council” meeting. Leaders have gathered to figure out what to do now that there are Gentiles who want to become disciples. Do they have to convert to Judaism first? Or can they follow Jesus as Gentiles? Conversion requires circumcision, but these folks have already received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which complicates matters. The Spirit is a sign of covenant membership, but these are not Jews, at least not yet. What to do?

James stands up in the meeting and delivers the clincher. He quotes Amos 9 (which is, if you don’t know, in the Old Testament). It’s a mic drop moment -- not because he has just undermined the Old Testament Law, but because he demonstrated from the Old Testament itself that Gentiles can be considered covenant members without first converting to Judaism. The council is unanimous – no circumcision necessary for Gentiles. Still, they issue 4 directives for Gentile Christians – no eating food sacrificed to idols, blood, meat of strangled animals, and no sexual immorality – each of which is associated with pagan worship practices. The reason given for these directives is the law of Moses (Acts 15:21). Did you catch that? The book of Acts demonstrates precisely the point that Stanley seems to want to avoid, namely, the law of Moses retains relevance for both Jewish and Gentile believers.

Reading it well can be tricky. Each cultural situation requires us to re-engage with it, asking new questions as we seek to be faithful to the covenant. But what we cannot do is relegate it to the archives as something of merely antiquarian interest.

So before you head out and buy your copy of the new “Perforated Bible” (which allows you to remove the parts you don’t need), wait first and read the New Testament. You’ll discover that the Old Testament cannot be so easily dismissed.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Staying Grounded at the Academic Conference

Next week I'm heading to the regional meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature. This time it's being held at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. I'll be presenting a paper, responding to a colleague's paper, and chairing a session. I've written before about the value of these conferences. They are worth every penny.

This week InterVarsity released a piece I wrote about the spiritual side of conference attendance. What are the dangers of conference attendance? How can I avoid them? And most importantly, how can I participate in the work God is doing in the academy?


I’ll never forget the euphoria of my first several academic conferences. I marked those long days in dozens — attending dozens of papers, meeting dozens of scholars, and buying dozens of books — until my brain was as distended as my suitcase. Walking between sessions, my eyes flitted from face to name tag and back again, registering surprise as bibliography entries took on flesh and passed me in the halls. In those years I “collected” sightings and handshakes, listing them in my journal on the way home. I was conscious of the danger of idolatry, but it was hard not to be giddy. The stories I brought home made me feel important-by-association.

August Konkel, Daniel Block, Jennifer Jones, Carmen Imes,
and Richard Hess at the IBR Annual Meeting, 2017
Things are different now, but equally dangerous. I know these scholars well enough now to see them as human. The seduction of the personality cult has been eclipsed by another phenomenon: they know me. Now the temptation is to “collect” stories of those who called out to say hello, sought me out during a reception, complimented my paper. In the early years it was a big deal to see Dr. So-and-So give a paper, and a bigger deal to ask a question afterward. Now Dr. So-and-So is taking me out to breakfast, asking about my work, and recommending me for committees and other projects.


You can read the rest of my post over at The Well

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Shattered: Top Ten Myths about the Ten Commandments (Part 2)

In my previous post, I addressed 5 myths people commonly believe about the Ten Commandments. Now we're ready to tackle the next 4 myths.

Three Primary Ways the Decalogue Has Been Numbered,
from Jason S. DeRouchie, "Counting the Ten: An
Investigation into the Numbering of the Decalogue,"
in For Our Good Always: Studies on the Message and
Influence of Deuteronomy in Honor of Daniel I. Block 

(Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbruans, 2013), page 102.
Myth #6. The Ten Commandments are easy to count. Counting the Ten is not as straightforward as you might think. We know there are ten because Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13 both say so. The cantillation marks on the Hebrew text preserve two possible ways of counting them. The history of interpretation has introduced still others. Differences in how to count them revolve around how to handle the first several and the last two verses. Among Christians today there are two main approaches: the Reformed and the Catholic/Lutheran. For the Reformed view, "No other gods" and "No idols" are the first two commands, whereas Catholics and Lutherans take these together as the first command. They still end up with ten commands because "Do not covet" is split in two (note the two verbs). Jewish interpreters often consider the Preamble (Exodus 20:2) as the first "Word" (the Bible never refers to these as "Ten Commandments," but rather "Ten Words," so this is plausible).

Chiasm in the First Command of the Decalogue (Deut 5).
From Carmen Joy Imes, Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai,
(Eisenbrauns, 2018), page 133. 
Mainly to be difficult, I advocate for a modified Catholic/Lutheran view in my book, taking the Preamble as part of the first command. I see a chiasm (or literary "sandwich" pattern) in Exodus 20:2-6 (or Deuteronomy 5:6-10, pictured left) that reinforces it. If this passage is split into two commands, the phrase "serve them" in Deuteronomy 5:9a has no suitable plural antecedent ("carved-image" is singular). For ancient Israelites, worshipping other gods would necessarily include images of those gods. The prohibition of images is a way of underscoring the seriousness of the command to worship only Yahweh. Whether you agree with my numbering or not, the main point here is that counting the ten is rather complicated.

Myth #7. The Ten Commandments teach that there is only one God. On the contrary, the Ten Commandments make no effort to convince the Israelites that Yahweh is the only God. Instead, they call Israel to worship only Yahweh. In a sea of options, Yahweh is the only legitimate deity deserving of worship. Rather than monotheism (the existence of one God), the Ten Commandments teach monolatry (the worship of one God). This is not to say that there are other gods, but the Israelites  and their neighbors would have assumed so. The uniqueness of Yahweh is that he calls for exclusive worship.

Myth #8. The Sabbath Command is the one command Christians no longer have to keep. This myth is very unfortunate. It results (I think) from the notion that whichever commands are not explicitly repeated in the New Testament do not apply to Christians. However, Jesus made no effort to set aside this command. True, he was not in favor of legalism. He went about doing good on the Sabbath, even when that activity came close to what some defined as "work." But he was clearly a Torah-observant Jew and did not discourage obedience to Jewish law. 

It's worth noting that Sabbath observance begins before Sinai and is not specifically connected to temple worship. Even before any commands are given, God trains his people to adopt this day of rest by providing twice as much manna on the sixth day of each week. The Sabbath is Israel's way of declaring that they trust God to provide for their needs. God's people need not scramble to provide for themselves; they can rest in God's gracious provision. For a people freed from slavery in Egypt, the Sabbath was good news indeed. Yahweh is, in effect, telling them that they no longer need to live as slaves, toiling 24-7 to build someone else's empire. Now that they belong to Yahweh, they can enjoy a healthier rhythm of work and rest. The entire household gets a day off every week.

No, the Sabbath command is not one we have to keep, it's one we are blessed to enjoy. Why would we want to do away with such a gracious gift? We have not outgrown the need to rest and trust God.

Myth #9. The Ten Commandments prohibit lying. The specific prohibition in Exodus 20:16 is "false testimony against your neighbor." One would not be hard pressed to think of occasions in which lying would have nothing to do with one's neighbor's reputation, or in which the neighbor actually benefits. Would it be appropriate to lie to Nazi soldiers about hiding Jews? To lie to your child about the cake in the refrigerator in order to preserve a birthday surprise? 

What this command actually concerns is slander -- harming someone else's reputation by saying untrue things about them. To do so would unravel the network of trust necessary for the flourishing of the covenant community.

It may seem like a slippery slope to allow for any dishonesty. How can we determine whether a given lie is appropriate? Does the end justify the means? Matthew Newkirk's 2015 book, Just Deceivers, is helpful. He examines 28 examples of deception from the David narratives. In the foreward, Daniel Block summarizes the book's conclusion: "deception was evaluated negatively [by the narrator] when the goal of the deceit was to cause unjust harm or death to someone else, or when deceivers were only looking out for their own interest. By contrast, when the intent of the deception was to prevent unjust harm or death, and when the deception was intended to benefit someone else, it was assessed positively" (page x). Another helpful plumb line is to consider whether our words reflect the character of God. Lie to your teacher about the reason your classmate is absent? Ultimately, this is neither helpful to your teacher or to the student in question, and since God "does not leave the guilty unpunished," it is a rebellious delay of inevitable consequences.

I'm saving the tenth myth for a separate post because it deserves longer justification. You can read it here.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Shattered: Top Ten Myths about the Ten Commandments (Part 1)

"The Ten Commandments" are among the most well-known passages of the Old Testament. Even those who do not attend church have at least a vague idea of what they contain. However, the most familiar passages are often encrusted with the thickest layers of distortion because of their long interpretive history. This is certainly the case with the Ten Commandments. How many of these myths have you believed?

Myth #1. The Ten Commandments embody a timeless, universal ethic. People often assume that because the Ten Commandments were written in stone, they apply to everyone throughout history, unlike the myriad of other specific laws in the Torah, which were intended for ancient Israel. But this line of thinking doesn't work. The Ten Commandments are prefaced with a clear statement of their specific audience: "I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves" (Exodus 20:2). The commands contain language very specific to that ancient culture ("Do not covet your neighbor's ox"). And they are never communicated to Israel's neighbors. When the prophets pronounce judgment on Israel's neighbors, they are not measured against the Ten Commandments. Instead, they are measured against a standard of basic human decency. Are they arrogant jerks? Have they taken advantage of other nations' misfortune or been unduly violent? None of these assessments clearly arises from the Ten Commandments. To me the most striking example of the specific audience of the Ten Commandments is the "Name Command" (Exodus 20:7). See Myth #10, in part 2 of this series.

Myth #2. The Ten Commandments were Israel's way of earning salvation. No, no, no! I have often heard this mis-characterization of Old Testament law: "The Israelites had to earn their salvation, but we have grace because of Jesus." This could not be farther from the truth. God did not send Moses to Egypt to tell the people, "Hey, I can get you all out of here, I just need you to sign on the dotted line saying that you agree to keep all these commandments." No, the commandments were given after they were already rescued, showing them how to live in freedom. They are the conditions of ongoing freedom. "Do you want to remain free? Here's a recipe for success." They are also a gracious gift from a God who makes himself accessible and calls Israel his "treasured possession" (Exodus 19:5-6). The Israelites did not have a different means of salvation in the Old Testament. Reconciliation with God has always been available to those who respond to his grace by trusting his promise and accepting his means of forgiveness for sin. 

Myth #3. The Ten Commandments are a summary of Israel's laws. It would be more accurate to say that they are the seed or source of Israel's laws. Other instructions flesh out specific ways of living faithfully to what God commands, but they also contain other domains of instruction that do not relate directly to any of the Ten Commandments, such as agricultural laws, injunctions to care for widows and orphans, or instructions for Israel's future king.

Two Stone Tablets (Photo: C Imes)
Myth #4. The Ten Commandments are divided into two groups: laws that pertain to God and laws that pertain to others. This unfortunate misunderstanding goes back many centuries and is deeply entrenched. To cite just one example, the Heidelberg Catechism states:
Q. How are these commandments divided? 
A. Into two tables. The first has four commandments, teaching us how we ought to live in relation to God. The second has six commandments, teaching us what we owe our neighbor. (Q&A 93)
But this approach betrays an inadequate view of how covenants work. These "Ten Words" are the stipulations of the covenant God made with the Israelites at Sinai (see Myth #5). In the covenant community, all of life is an expression of worship and loyalty to the God who has committed himself to these people. After David sins by lusting after his neighbor's wife, committing adultery with her, and then murdering her husband, he responds to the prophet Nathan's confrontation by saying, "I have sinned against the LORD." Later he prays to the LORD, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight" (Psalm 51:4a). Conversely, if just one Israelite rebels against the LORD, it puts the entire community at risk of God's judgment. An obvious example is Achan, who kept some of the plunder of Jericho in spite of God's clear instruction not to do so, resulting in Israel's defeat at Ai (Joshua 7). All ten of these commandments reflect a proper disposition toward God, and all ten affect the entire covenant community. By keeping them, the Israelites not only honored God, but also ensured that the community of faith could flourish. 

Detail of Painting by Javi G
(Photo: C Imes)
Myth #5. The Ten Commandments did not all fit on one stone tablet. This may be the most popular misconception of all. The vast majority of artistic representations of Moses and the two tablets presume that he's holding "volume 1" and "volume 2." However, we know from the biblical text that the commands were written on both sides of the tablets: 

         “And Moses turned and he went down from the mountain, and the two tablets of the [covenant] document (עֵדוּת) [were] in his hand, tablets inscribed on both sides, inscribed on front and back.” (Exodus 32:15)
The words could easily fit on two sides of a single stone tablet, even if that tablet was not much larger than Moses' hand. So why make two? For the answer we must turn to other ancient Near Eastern treaty documents. What we find is that it was standard practice to make duplicate copies of a treaty document, etched in stone. One copy belonged to each party. Each copy was customarily placed in that community's most important temple, so that their respective gods could see the terms of the treaty and watch to ensure that they remained faithful. Here's a Hittite example from a treaty between Suppiluliuma and Shattiwaza:

“A duplicate of this tablet has been deposited before the sun-goddess of Arinna, because the sun-goddess of Arinna regulates kingship and queenship. In Mitanni land [a duplicate] has been deposited before Teshub, the lord of the [sanctuary] of Kahat. At regular [intervals] shall they read it in the presence of the king of the Mitanni land and in the presence of the sons of the Hurri country.” (Kitchen and Lawrence, Treaty, Law and Covenant in the Ancient Near East, No. 56A)
In the case of Yahweh's covenant with Israel, there was only one temple (or tabernacle), and therefore Yahweh was the only deity who could ensure Israel's covenant faithfulness. Because there is no higher power who can hold Yahweh accountable, he ensured his own faithfulness as well.

I'll address 5 more myths about the Ten Commandments in my next two posts (part 2 and part 3). In the meantime, if you're looking for a more in-depth discussion of these matters, you can read more in chapter 4 of my book, Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai: A Reexamination of the Name Command of the Decalogue (Eisenbrauns, 2018). 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

David's Epic Fail

Prairie Chapel (Photo: Crystal Gillespie)
It's a story we've all heard before: David's notorious rendezvous with Bathsheba. But how well do we actually understand the dynamics of the narrative?

I was asked to preach on 2 Samuel 11-12 in chapel at Prairie College, and I soon found that my questions far outnumbered the answers.

  • Why is David not with his men in battle?
  • Why is he getting up in the evening?
  • Why can David see Bathsheba bathing?
  • Does Bathsheba want to be seen bathing?
  • Is it normal to bathe outside?
  • Is there indoor plumbing in Jerusalem during David's reign?
  • Is Bathsheba bathing at home or in a public pool?
  • How is a ritual bath different than a regular one?
  • Is her bath 7 days after the beginning of her period? or 7 days after it ended? (This determines whether she could have conceived during a one-night stand. See Leviticus 15:19 and 18:19)
  • How could David not know Bathsheba? She's married to one of his 30 mighty men, and the daughter of another mighty man.
  • How does she feel when David summons her?
  • Is David's primary motivation sexual or political?
  • When she sends words to David that she is pregnant, what does she hope David will do?
  • Does Uriah know what has taken place?
  • Is David trying to cover his guilt? or save face?
  • Why does David send Uriah a gift? Is this his way of buying Uriah's silence?
  • Is David trying to catch Uriah in a ritual infraction? Normally, David's men are prohibited from sexual intimacy during a military campaign (1 Sam 21:4-5; Deut 23:9-11).
  • Does David think that Uriah knows his wife his pregnant? or that he doesn't know?
  • Does Uriah guess the contents of the letter he brings to Joab?
However we answer these questions, what becomes crystal clear is that David thinks he has all the power. He is like a master chess player, shrewdly planning his moves so that his opponents are left with no way out. And who is his opponent? A member of his own team. It reminds me of another king of Israel who spent all his royal energy chasing a successful commander from his own army all through the wilderness. Doesn’t it? What has happened to David that he should become so much like Saul? Perhaps he feels Uriah is a threat. We’re not told. At the very least, Uriah stands in the way of what David wants. And David has come to believe that because he has power, he can have whatever he wants, when he wants it. Is David feeling like ‘less of a man’ because he’s not on the front lines fighting? Does this conquest of his neighbor’s wife and life restore his sense of power? If so, it shows us how twisted David’s thinking has become.

Let’s be clear: This is not about David’s sexual needs. He has 7 wives and multiple concubines by this point in the story. If he was “in the mood,” he had plenty of honorable options. David is living in a dream world of his own making, a world where he’s above the law and can have whatever he wants. To make matters worse, his men are on the front lines, far from the comforts of home and wife, fighting his battles. 

The hinge of the narrative is when God takes a page from David's playbook by sending Nathan to him. Nathan is shrewd enough to know that he must awaken David’s conscience before his rebuke will hit home. How does he awaken a king whose conscience has been lulled into delusional thinking? He tells a story. It works. In response, David unwittingly pronounces his own sentence. And Nathan goes for the jugular: “YOU are the man.”

David has a lot to say in the Psalms about those who accuse him falsely. But this time the accusation is painfully true. David has failed abysmally. David knows he is in the wrong. This is where his story becomes an example for us to follow. His response is just two words in Hebrew, “I have sinned against YHWH.” He offers no defense. No equivocation. He’s been caught in the act.

I can imagine the responses he might have given: But she shouldn’t have been naked where I could see her! But Uriah should have gone home to his wife and I wouldn’t have had to have him killed! But the Ammonites killed him, not me! David offers none of these excuses. He simply takes responsibility.

With every failure we stand at a crossroads. We can hedge and whine and deflect and give excuses, shifting the blame, or we can take responsibility, repent, and become reconciled to God.

David’s more lengthy confession is found in Psalm 51. This psalm is his cry for mercy. With no small irony, David asks God to bathe him: “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin! . . . Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” 

May each of us have the courage to face our failures, own our sin, and receive God's mercy.

You can listen to my entire message here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Racial Injustice Today? (Part Four)

It's a small thing, writing these blog posts on racial injustice. It's no replacement for action, but action starts with awareness, and to that end I write. May these words nudge us toward greater awareness, and may our hands and feet follow.


During this Holy Week, we reflect on the Cross, reminded of Jesus' suffering at the hands of an angry mob whose fervor was fueled by rumors and half-truths whispered in dark alleyways by those who clung with white knuckles to power they neither deserved nor used for the benefit of others. Jesus played scapegoat to their fear. He was made to pay for crimes he did not commit so others could walk free.

Photo: C Imes
James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree invites us to consider the dark side of America's not-so-distant past in light of the crossJesus' innocent death on the cross, with its trumped-up charges and false witnesses, is echoed again in America's shadowy history, where a sideways glance could get a man (or boy!) tortured and hanged without a fair trial -- if he was black. Cone's book holds the potential of awakening us to what we have missed.

In some yesterdays, lynching happened under the cover of darkness, with murderous faces obscured by white hoods. Community leaders by day -- elected officials, doctors, judges, businessmen, pastors even -- and the ghosts of white supremacy by night.

But in other yesterdays, lynching became a spectator sport, highly publicized and attended by young and old alike, who jeered as victims were openly burned, beaten, and hung, "crucified" outside of court without a trial. Gawkers brought picnic lunches. Wore their Sunday best. Bought postcards to send to those who missed the big event. Some lynchings drew massive crowds.
Julius Bloch, "The Lynching," 1933

The Emancipation Proclamation was a start, but it did not abolish the narratives that allowed slavery to flourish. Like water running downhill, when blocked, those narratives simply changed course, finding new and insidious ways to channel white fear and subjugate black Americans. Blacks could no longer be owned, but they were still not considered fully human. Blacks were beaten down in a thousand other ways. Curfews. Segregation. Discrimination. Abuse with impunity. They were denied services. They were prevented access to education, health care, the right to vote or hold office, the right to buy or rent housing. They were lynched.

Lynching outlasted slavery, gathering speed as it flowed downhill.
Lynching outlasted legalized segregation (though de facto segregation persists today).

Generations of Americans, especially in the South, viewed lynching as "an efficient and honorable act of justice" (5). Even children were tortured beyond recognition and lynched (65).

The Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, 1930
Notice the crowds of men and women spectators.
Just as the end of slavery was not the end of racial injustice, so the decline of lynchings did not result in equality. Cone writes that in the early 1950s (my parents' lifetime!), "spectacle lynching was on the decline," but racial discrimination was merely brought indoors under the guise of the law, replacing white mobs with all-white juries, judges, and lawyers who "used the criminal justice system to intimidate, terrorize, and murder blacks" (49). We could expand this list to include law enforcement. Sundown towns persisted in some areas until the mid 70s.* Since then, our legal system has worn deep ruts in the business of sending young black men to jail. At the writing of this book, "one-third of black men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight are in prisons, jails, on parole, or waiting for their day in court" (163). One third.

The war or drugs continues to apprehend, convict, and incarcerate black men at a far higher rate than white men, although the use and sale of drugs is about equal among whites. And the uneven application of the death penalty illustrates that we have a long way to go to ensure that our justice system is truly just. Consider these statistics, cited by the Death Penalty Information Center:
• Jurors in Washington state are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. (Prof. K. Beckett, Univ. of Washington, 2014).
• In Louisiana, the odds of a death sentence were 97% higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was black. (Pierce & Radelet, Louisiana Law Review, 2011). 
• A study in California found that those convicted of killing whites were more than 3 times as likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing blacks and more than 4 times more likely as those convicted of killing Latinos. (Pierce & Radelet, Santa Clara Law Review, 2005). 
• A comprehensive study of the death penalty in North Carolina found that the odds of receiving a death sentence rose by 3.5 times among those defendants whose victims were white. (Prof. Jack Boger and Dr. Isaac Unah, University of North Carolina, 2001).
These are hard facts to swallow, especially when you look at the dates of these studies. We're no longer talking about the decades before we were born. We're talking about now. Bryan Stevenson offers a plethora of other recent examples in his book Just Mercy, which I'll unpack in my next post in this series. The focus of this post is to highlight Cone's work connecting the cross and the lynching tree, and to suggest that the narratives of white superiority under which slavery and then lynching became part of our American past have not yet been fully replaced. They have simply found other means of expression.


*Have you ever heard of a "sundown town"? The concept dates back to the early days after the Civil War. These are towns in which a black person was risking his life if he was caught there after dark. According to Cone, "whites often lynched blacks simply to remind the black community of their powerlessness. Unemployed blacks passing through an area with no white man to vouch for them could easily find themselves on a prison chain gang or swinging from a lynching tree" (12). However, sundown towns were not just a feature of the deep South. DuPage County, IL, home of Wheaton and Downers Grove, is likely to have been a sundown county. Oregon City, Oregon, was a sundown town. In 1926, the only black resident of Oregon City, a business owner, was threatened with lynching and run out of town. In 1980, none of Oregon City's 14,000+ residents was black. By 2000, only 150 blacks lived in Oregon City, though the population had swelled to over 25,000. In Grants Pass and Medford, Oregon, "sundown" signs were not removed until the late 60s or early 70s, in spite of the passing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

This is par for the course in Oregon, a state which outlawed slavery in 1844, but also banned African Americans residents altogether. The laws excluding blacks were not repealed until 1927. Laws against interracial marriage were not repealed until 1951.