A CREED OUTWORN
"…Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." – Thomas Jefferson
This is an inscription on one of the panels at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. Someone recently posted it on Facebook and it immediately snapped into focus a notion that has been rattling around in my head for some time now.
Perhaps Jefferson’s insight has never been as immediately relevant today as 2nd Amendment zealots thunder on about their right to own and use even semi-automatic assault weapons – despite what happened at Newton, Aurora, and Blacksburg, and countless other places.
But slavish adherence to the past – including centuries old amendments, rules, and customs -- is not just the province of gun-rights advocates. Look at what clinging to ancient rules and customs had done in the name of religion. It would be easy to point fingers at the Middle East where Muslims are killing fellow Muslims in the name of doctrinal purity and orthodoxy. But, Christians should not cut ourselves too much slack. We have our own sad history and we don’t have to go back that far to see evidence of it.
Even now when we are no longer beheading or burning our errant Christian co-religionists in the name of doctrinal orthodoxy, as we did in times past, the pernicious effects of rigid fundamentalism still play out regularly in local and national politics. Opponents of gays and lesbians, for example -- using the Bible as a grab-bag -- can find Scriptural references supposedly showing God’s condemnation and rejection of such people. Or why women should play a subservient role in society or in the Church. Look at the stunning displays of such thinking we saw on parade in some of the campaigns for the House and the Senate this past year. Or as we still see, for example, in the Vatican’s rigid opposition to allowing women full participation in the Catholic Church.
It is so deeply ironic that many of us “Christians” can cite the Scripture to dismiss or marginalize whole segments of society. All this, of course, in the name of its Founder whose only commandment was for us to love and forgive one another. Not just fellow Christians, He told us, but everyone regardless of who they are. He called for a Big Tent where everyone was welcome and we gave Him rigid stone churches with big walls to keep people out.
How did we get it so wrong? For one thing, by adhering slavishly to the past and to a rigid literalism. By not understanding the cultural and literary context in which the various, often contradictory books of the Bible, were written. And by whom they were written. And when they were written. The Bible is an important part of Judeo-Christian life and worship, to be sure. But, what makes us think that God’s revelation stopped stone cold 2000-6000 years ago? My late sister Mary – a Sister of Mercy for almost 60 years – used to ask: Who is writing the Scripture of our time?We are, of course, and we are writing it – not on scrolls or papyrus – but in the form of public policy, civil as well as ecclesiastical. Otherwise, we deserve what we get and render ourselves irrelevant, leaving our country and our churches at the mercy of the past and those current ecclesiastical and civil leaders who didn’t learn from its mistakes.