Thursday, May 26, 2005

Revering Dead Trees

The flushing of the Koran story has got me thinking about the way we treat sacred texts. Regarding the story coming out of Gitmo, the Bush administration and the Pentagon continue to claim it never happened, even when a detainee interviewed by the FBI claims it did. Of course, the Pentagon hauled the detainee in, and after who knows what persuasive tactics, got him to retract the allegation. The latest is that the military has been forced to grudgingly admit that they are investigating a least five instances of "mishandling" the Koran at the Cuban concentration camp, but assure us that it was never flushed. Meanwhile, Amnesty International is describing Gitmo as "the gulag of our time."

Here's what I find to be a very curious thing; that the desecration of a book could cause such outrage, or at least the appearance of outrage, while the physical abuses going on just off the Floridian coast hardly get a mention in the daily newscasts.

I understand that Islam, as well as other faith traditions, cares for their sacred texts with deep reverence. Christians honor the bible in a similar way; in a sacramental way. The words are an outward and visible sign of God's revelation.

But, they are still just books. By themselves, they are just dead trees with squiggly marks on them. The texts come alive when a living being engages them. We are what matters to God, not dead trees.

Islam is not the only faith tradition that takes revering a book to an extreme level. The same attitude can be found among some Christians regarding the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I refer to this attitude as "bibliolatry;" making the bible an idol. In my tradition, the best example of this is the Gospel procession, in which an ornate book is lifted above the Gospeler's head, and two torches and a thurifer lead the way into the midst of the congregation. The book is censed, and at the conclusion of the lesson, is kissed by the Gospeler. To be quite honest, the whole thing makes me very uncomfortable.

But what most disturbs me is the way the bible, and other sacred texts for that matter, are used as weapons today. If someone quotes enough bible at you, and you continue to disagree with them, then you are not a Christian at best, and the spawn of Satan at worst. The sacred text has become the law, has become God, and its authority has been lifted up to the status of absolute.

Maybe Bishop Spong can better explain my discomfort with giving a book such status;

...Many of the liturgical practices of the church today continue to encourage this premodern mentality. In liturgy, the Bible is carried in procession elevated above the people to elicit acts of devotion. When its words are read in worship they are introduced or concluded with some reference to the claim that they are the "Word of God."

People quote its verses in debate to prove that their perspective is in fact God's will. Hands are laid on this book when we vow to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Today we are experiencing the Bible being used by religious and political leaders to enable them to define the morality of birth control, abortion, racial and sexual discrimination and even acts of aggression against our "enemies."

To oppose this mentality, they not so subtly assert, is to oppose God and thus to be anti-religious. These are nothing less than the steps people take on the road to transforming a democracy into a theocracy, which is to walk in the direction of the cruelest form of government that human beings have devised.

Theocracies always turn demonic because they justify everything in the name of God.

Non-religious people and people whose religious tradition is different from the prevailing point of view should be alarmed at these trends, especially when their voices, raised in protest, are dismissed as anti-Christian.

That is why I urge those who like myself are Christians, steeped in this religious tradition that we love, to speak publicly in powerful opposition to this current use of religious power.

Varied religious voices need to remind the leaders of this nation that no single person speaks for and no single perspective captures the ultimate truth of God.

All any of us can ever do is to "see through a glass darkly." There is no single pathway into the realm of God, and no eternal code of unchanging truth has ever been captured in any revered book of antiquity...
Bishop Spong is a bit of an evangelical, in that he doesn't seem to acknowledge the sacramental nature of the sacred texts. But, at the same time, I think he makes some good points.

There's no excuse for the shameful treatment of the Koran at Gitmo. There is also no excuse for using the scriptures as weapons to beat your opponent into submission. In both cases, the offense is found in the desecration of a living being; the text was simply the implement of abuse. In the end, if we must choose between defending a book or defending the living sacraments, the people of God, I trust that our choice will not be too difficult to make.


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