“Birth of a Nation,” starring the Bible!

nat-turner-the-birth-of-a-nation-nate-parker-03

 

Denise and I watched “Birth of a Nation” last Friday night.

It’s certainly not a “make-out” movie.

It’s uncomfortable.

It’s disturbing.

It’s gut-wrenching.

It’s important.

The main characters in the movie are:

*Nat Turner – a slave who is known for leading a rebellion against the slave owners of South Hampton County, Virginia.

*Elizabeth Turner – the plantation owner’s wife.

*Samuel Turner – the plantation owner’s son and upon the death of his father, the plantation owner and Nat’s owner.

*The Bible.  Yep, the Bible plays a major role in the real life story of Nat Turner.   I don’t recall a movie with more Scripture than “Birth of a Nation.”

Nat could read.  His ability was noticed by Elizabeth who brought him into the library of the main house.  When Nat reaches for a book, though, he’s quickly reprimanded.  “Those books are for white folks,” she says.  “They’re full of things your kind wouldn’t understand.”

So she hands him the only book he’d ever need, the book that shaped his life: a Bible.  Nat becomes a preacher and begins holding Sunday services on the plantation for the slaves.

There is an unrest among the slaves in the county, so, at the suggestion of the local white preacher, Samuel pimps Nat out to other slave owners to preach to their slaves in an effort to keep them under control.

Instructed by the slave owners, Nat based his sermons on texts like:

“Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to those who are harsh”  (1 Peter 2:18)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and sincerity of heart, just as you would show to Christ (Ephesians 6:5).

“All who are under the yoke of slavery should regard their masters as fully worthy of honor, so that God’s name and our teaching will not be discredited” (1 Timothy 6:1).

Initially, Nat doesn’t realize he’s part of a systematic indoctrination.  Then he does. And he doesn’t like it.  The words he’s reading from the pages of the Bible leave a bitter taste in his mouth.  The words are:

Offensive.

Unjust.

Unloving.

Nat began to read other parts of the Bible.  Nat tells his flock, “I’m going back through his words with new eyes.  For every verse they use to defend our torture, there’s another demanding our freedom.”

He found new texts for his sermons:

“Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the nations… ( Psalm 149:6-9).

Nat hatches a plan to put that text into practice. His wife, Cherry, reminds him of another Bible verse: “…those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

But Nat is determined.  The passage that confirms for him that he should lead an armed rebellion against the slave-owners is 1 Samuel 15, in which God tells Saul, through the prophet Samuel, to commit genocide against the Amalekites.

While this movie, like all movies “based on a true story,” plays loose with some facts, the portrayal of the role played by the Bible in the story is spot on.

From one Bible came three different ethics.

  1. Slaves, submit to your master no matter what.
  2. Slaves, kill your master  (remember the Exodus?).
  3. Love your enemies.

Each of us is living a story.  What role does the Bible play in our stories – our ethics?

In this story, “Birth of a Nation,” the issue is slavery.  On that issue the Bible was used as the basis for diametrically opposed positions: pro-slavery and anti-slavery.

Slave owners and pro-slavery pastors used the Bible to justify the African slave trade through the 19th century.  Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, said that slavery…

“was established by decrees of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.” 

Through the 21st century white Christians continued to used the Bible to justify their feelings of superiority over and oppression of non-whites.

Throughout history, people have invoked the “Good Book” to rationalize the widespread murder of others.  Europeans quoted the same verses that inspired Nat to brutally kill white slave owners, to excuse the murder of Native Americans.  Catholics and Protestants have each quoted it in their violence against the other.  Preachers quoted it to support the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.  Some Christians are still quoting it today to teach that the murder of men, women and children is the righteous reaction to disbelief in God.

There is a lot of pro-slavery backing in the Bible.  In fact, in his book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, historian Mark Noll, in comparing the pro-slavery sentiment in the United States with that of Europe, says, “When a populace, committed to republican and democratic principles, was also a Bible-reading populace, the proslavery biblical case never lacked for persuasive resources.”

On the other side, were anti-slavery Christians who appealed to the spirit of Jesus to support their view.  The line was drawn between the anti-slavery spirit of Jesus and the pro-slavery letter of the Bible.

And according to Dr. Noll, “Those who defended the legitimacy of slavery in the Bible had the easiest task.”

I’ve found Dr. Noll to be right.  It’s easier to point to chapter and verse than to point to the life and spirit of Jesus.

So, I have to remember to whom the Bible itself points – Jesus.

Jesus is talking to religious people who, when confronted with the radical teachings of Jesus, liked to point to a particular verse to prove Jesus’ way was wrong.

“…the Father who sent has himself testified on my behalf.  But you have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him who he has sent.  You search the scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:37-40).

Jesus says the Bible points to Him.

It doesn’t point to itself.

It’s about Him.

It shows us who God is, and who God isn’t, through the person of Jesus.

Any ethic found in the Bible that is not found in Jesus loses to Jesus.

Let’s build the story of our lives around Him.

 

Happy MLK JR Day

stick-with-love

I so appreciate what  Martin Luther King Jr. did…

… and the way in which he did it – through “enemy love.”

In June 1956 (the month and year of my birth), a federal district court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional; the Supreme Court affirmed the ruling in November 1956.  It just blows my mind that it took our court system to right such a wrong as racial segregation.

The Montgomery Improvement Association sent the following letter outlining how people should conduct themselves on the newly integrated city bus system.

bus-letter

Sound familiar?  Have you ever read or heard anything like that?  Go back and read it again.

Quite the contrast to what we see and hear today.

Let’s continue the work.
Let’s continue in the spirit in which the work was done.

 

A Relevant Message from Our History

second-inaugural-address-quote

 

I’ve had several post-election conversations with people on both sides of the political divide.

One of the more intriguing elements of the conversations is the “God” part.

“What role did/does God have in  elections?”
“We prayed and our prayers were answered.”
“We prayed and our prayers were not answered.” 

“The answer to the ‘God-part’ question is in the Bible!” I’m told.

“By me kings reign” (Proverbs 8:15). 

“…he removes and sets up kings” (Daniel 2:21).  

But what about this one?

“They set up kings without my consent;  they chose princes without my  approval” (Hosea 8:4).

“Hmmm.  I didn’t know that was in there.”

This contest of Scriptural “one upmanship” is tiring.

I received some comfort and direction from another time in America’s history.

It was inauguration day, March 4, 1865.  The nation was fractured.  Some people were hopeful.  Some people were fearful.   620,000 men had died in the Civil War.

Between 30-40,000 people had gathered at the east entrance of the Capitol.  In the crowd were Frederick Douglass, the African American abolitionist and newspaper editor, and the actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, seething with hatred.
President Lincoln stepped to the podium.  With keen theological and political insight, he said, “Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…”

The 56 year old President helped the nation focus on what mattered in the days ahead,

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Good words then.  Good words now.

A New Way to See

col-sanders

What do you see when you look at the pic of Col. Sanders?

1.  The KFC founder with a cool “Western” or “String” Bow Tie? or,

2.  The KFC founder with a big head and a tiny stickman body?

The original KFC logo with the pic of the Colonel came out in 1952.

I was born in 1956.  Until today, I have looked at that pic and seen option 1 – The Colonel with a cool tie.  Today, someone pointed out to me option 2!

Now, it’s all I see.

I can’t unsee it.

What that person did with Col Sanders, Jesus does with life.  Jesus didn’t draw pictures but he told picture-stories. We call them parables. Jesus used parables to not only help us see things more clearly; but more often than not, his parables were told to help us see things differently!

When Jesus finished his stories, people found themselves slapping their foreheads and exclaiming, “Wow!  I’ve never thought of it that way!”

Let me give you a “for instance.”  It’s recorded in Luke 10:25-37.  Jesus is in a conversation with an expert in the Law of Moses, who asks Jesus a fundamental question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.”  As far as questions go, it doesn’t get any bigger than that!

The answer given by Jesus isn’t found in most “Gospel Tracts”:  Love God and love your neighbor as yourself…Do this and you will live.”

Out of this came another question from the Lawyer: “Ok, then, who is my neighbor?”  

Luke says the Lawyer was trying to “justify himself”  – “looking for a loophole, he asked, ‘And just how would you define neighbor?’” is how The Message puts it.

The religious expert was trying to determine who he did and did not have to love.

So, Jesus told a story.  We call it “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”

Isn’t in interesting that, in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus does not give a straightforward answer?

He could have handed the lawyer a list of people to love.

He could have given a catalogue of characteristics to look for in people whom he should love.

He does not.

Instead, he tells a story.

A story is ambiguous.

A list is straightforward and simplistic.

These are interesting times.  Some familiar landmarks have shifted and some people are anxious, worried, scared, angry. They want unambiguous, straightforward answers.

And Jesus tells us a story.

It’s a story that presents another way of looking at things…

At people.

At religion.

We don’t always like to look at something in a new way.   We like the old way.  The way it looked before.

And so we shut out people.  We shut out ideas.

The original hearers of Jesus’ story were not just surprised.  They were shocked.  The hero of the story is not a person of their own race or religion.  He’s a Samaritan!

“What?  Did you hear that? Can you believe he said that?  A Samaritan?!  Come on now!  This is too much.  He’s really crossed the line this time.  He’s been in the sun too long.  He stayed too long with the wine at that wedding.”

But, I think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing.  With this story-picture, Jesus is saying, “All people even people you don’t like, you don’t understand, who don’t share your values, who don’t vote like you, who don’t look like you, who don’t love like you are your neighbors.”

It was a new way of thinking and seeing for them.

It’s a new way for us.

But it’s His way.

I hope I will never unsee His way.

A New Way to See

col-sanders

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you see when you look at the above pic of Col. Sanders?

1.  The KFC founder with a cool “Western” or “String” Bow Tie? or,

2.  The KFC founder with a big head and a tiny stickman body?

The original KFC logo with the pic of the Colonel came out in 1952.

I was born in 1956.  Until today, I have looked at that pic and seen option 1 – The Colonel with a cool tie.  Today, someone pointed out to me option 2.

They’re right.  It does look like a big head with a tiny stickman body.

Now, it’s all I see.

I can’t unsee it.

What that person did with Col Sanders, Jesus does with life.  Jesus didn’t draw pictures but he told picture-stories. We call them parables. Jesus used parables to not only help us see things more clearly; but more often than not, his parables were told to help us see things differently!

When Jesus finished his stories, people found themselves slapping their foreheads and exclaiming, “Wow!  I’ve never thought of it that way!”

Let me give you a “for instance.”  It’s recorded in Luke 10:25-37.  Jesus is in a conversation with an expert in the Law of Moses, who asks Jesus a fundamental question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.”  As far as questions go, it doesn’t get any bigger than that!

The answer given by Jesus isn’t found in most “Gospel Tracts”:  Love God and love your neighbor as yourself…Do this and you will live.”

Out of this came another question from the Lawyer: “Ok, then, who is my neighbor?”  

Luke says the Lawyer was trying to “justify himself”  – “looking for a loophole, he asked, ‘And just how would you define neighbor?’” is how “The Message” puts it.

The religious expert was trying to determine who he did and did not have to love.

So, Jesus told a story.  We call it “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”

Isn’t it interesting that, in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus does not give a straightforward answer?

He could have handed the lawyer a list of people to love.

He could have given a catalogue of characteristics to look for in people whom he should love.

He does not.

Instead, he tells a story.

A story is ambiguous.

A list is straightforward and simplistic.

These are interesting times.  Some familiar landmarks have shifted and some people are anxious, worried, scared, angry. They want unambiguous, straightforward answers.

And Jesus tells  a story.

It’s a story that presents another way of looking at things…

At people.

At religion.

We don’t always like to look at something in a new way.   We like the old way.  The way it looked before.

And so we shut out people.  We shut out ideas.

The original hearers of Jesus’ story were not just surprised.  They were shocked.  The hero of the story is not a person of their own race or religion.  He’s a Samaritan!

“What?  Did you hear that? Can you believe he said that?  A Samaritan?!  Come on now!  This is too much.  He’s really crossed the line this time.  He’s been in the sun too long.  He stayed too long with the wine at that wedding.”

But, I think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing.  With this picture-story, Jesus is saying, “All people even people you don’t like, you don’t understand, who don’t share your values, who don’t vote like you, who don’t look like you, who don’t love like you, are your neighbors.”

It was, for them, a new way of thinking and seeing.

It’s a new way for us.

But it’s His way.

I hope His way is all I will ever see.

Heresy Hunters

heretic-nametag

 

I watched CBS’s “60 Minutes” a couple of Sunday night’s ago.  Scott Pelley interviewed King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, the King of Jordan.

 

They talked about terrorism.

They talked about refugees.

They talked about ISIS (He’s causing them fits.)

They talked about how “think tanks” in the West think “they know us better than we know ourselves.”

They talked about Islam.

 

You can read the interview here.

 

I learned a lot. But this is the biggie.

 

The King said this about Islam:  “…in Islam, us traditional Muslims, it is not our right to call people heretics.  God decides at the end of the day.  The jihadists take it upon themselves to call the rest of us heretics…”

 

Did you catch that?  “In Islam, it is not our right to call people heretics.  God decides at the end of the day.”

 

That hit home with me.

I’ve been called a heretic more than a few times.

 

Christians throw the “heretic” word around like pizza chefs throw pizza dough. Hold a view that differs from some Christians?  Watch out for the “H-bomb!

 

You’ve heard of “witch hunts?”  This is a heresy hunt.

 

The first heresy hunters were members of the ancient tribe of Manasseh called Gileadites.  There had been a longstanding feud between them and the Ephraimites in northern Israel.  To make sure no undesirables got into their camp, the Gileadites set up a check point at the fords of the Jordan River.  They challenged anyone trying to cross the river to say the password: “shibboleth.” The Ephraimites, no matter how hard they tried, just could not properly pronounce the word.  It always came out “sibboleth.”  When that happened, the Gileadites would cut off their heads.  All because they couldn’t pronounce the “sh” sound. I know: Crazy.  Check it out for yourself here.

 

Over the centuries the church has continued chopping off heads of people who didn’t say something the “right” way.

Iraenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons in the 2nd century, claimed there was only one proper Church, outside of which there could be no salvation.  Other Christians were heretics and should be expelled, and, if possible, eliminated – killed.

 

By the 5th century there were over a hundred active statutes in the Roman Empire concerning heresy.  From Augustine onward,  most theologians agreed that heretics should be persecuted.  Thomas Aquinas thought it was a good thing to burn heretics.  Even better to burn them alive.

 

Any deviation from the current orthodoxy line could be judged as heretical.

 

Here are few things you could lose your head over:

Allowing women to preach – 12th century (and in some churches today!).

Pacifism.

Eating  meat on Friday.

Refusing to take oaths or make a pledge (The Waldensians of the 12th century – and some people today).

Translating the Bible into common languages.

Baptizing adults instead of children.

Opposing capital punishment.

Hanging the 10 Commandments on a wall (1676).

Believing/teaching that the earth revolves around the sun.

 

The punishments for heretical thinking varied:  Yes, there was the traditional beheading. But there were some more creative methods that would make some politicians proud:

*The Judas Chair:  The “heretic” would be placed in a harness and lowered onto a pyramid-shaped seat, with the point inserted into their anus or vagina, then very slowly lowered by ropes. The torture might last a few hours or a few days.   More often than not, the victim died of infection.

*Drowning-especially for Anabaptist for their views on baptism.

*Skinned alive.

*Some had their mouths stuffed with gun-powder which was then ignited.

*Castration.

*Children were killed in front of their parents.  

 

All in the name of Jesus.

 

The hunt continues today for people who don’t say things “right.”

 

All in the name of Jesus.

 

When Jesus describes the final judgment scene he doesn’t include questions on belief.  Nothing  about inerrancy, the Trinity, or atonement theory. His concern is how theology translates into how we treat people.

 

“I was hungry, did you feed me? I was thirsty, did you give  me something to drink?   I was in prison, did you visit me?  I was naked, did you give me clothes to wear?  I was sick, did you take care of me (Matthew 25:31-46)?

 

Theology matters.  I get that.  But how do we tell the difference between good theology and bad theology?  

 

Is it, as Jesus indicates, how we treat people (Matthew 7:12)?

 

The King of Jordan admitted that there are heresy hunters in Islam — yep, we know them – jihadist, ISIS.

 

What does that say about the heresy hunters in Christianity?

 

Hmmm.

 

Until I was 10 years old, I had a speech impediment.  There were some letters I just couldn’t pronounce. The impediment resurfaces every once in awhile. It can be a bit embarrassing while teaching.  If you ask me to say “shibboleth,” I may not say it right.

 

According to some, I don’t “believe” right.  

That’s ok.  
It’s still my desire to live in each moment.  To hear in each moment the voice of Jesus say, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant…”  

An 8-Year-Old Superhero

th

Last Friday was the first day with my Lunch Buddy for the new school year.  The “Lunch Buddies Program,”  part of “Big Brothers Big Sisters,” matches a volunteer with an elementary age child.

This is the 3rd year my lunch buddy and I have been buddies.  We eat lunch together, talk, play “Sorry” (his rules), go to the playground and play tag (with my inhaler handy), slide down the slides, swing on the swings, monkey across the monkey bars.

I love that 30 minutes a week.

I love that kid.

 

The idea is for the volunteer to help the kid.  You know, though, it goes both ways.  More times than not, he’s more a “helper” to me than I am to him.

Friday, he was the helper, the teacher, the adult.  I was the kid.

 

We were in the school library, eating lunch while playing a game.   I noticed a new book on display – a book on Superman.

So, I said, “If I were a superhero, I’d love to fly. Just run down the street, jump up and fly!”

I posed the question to him, “What would you do if you were a superhero?”

 

I was expecting web-spinning or wall-climbing like Spiderman.

Super strength like the Incredible Hulk.

X-ray vision like Superman.

Self-healing like the Wolverine.

Having cool stuff like Batman.

 

But no.  He went a totally different direction.

 

Here is his answer.

You ready?

“I’d like to help people,” he said.  

 

Boom!  

 

I felt small enough to crawl under the kid-sized library table at which we were sitting.

I was schooled.

 

“Your answer is a lot better than mine!” I told him raising my hand to give him a fist-bump.  

 

And it was.  No doubt.  

 

Is this what Jesus meant when he held up a child and said, “The kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children” (Luke 18:16)?

 

My lunch buddy doesn’t know this verse but he certainly lives it: “All the others care only for themselves and not for what matters to Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:21).  

 

I knew the verse but wasn’t living it.

 

When I left the school, my lunch buddy hugged me and said, “Thank you for coming to see me.”  

“You’re welcome,” I responded, ”Thank you for teaching me today.”