Last night, we saw the president of the United States stroll across a public park after having both police and military use tear gas and rubber bullets to clear that park of peaceful protestors. There was a curfew at 7 p.m. and it’s likely that many in the crowd would have left on their own, but he couldn’t be bothered to wait even though as they were clearing the crowd he claimed to be supportive of peaceful protest. And, once the park was cleared of anyone who might offer critique, he strolled across the park to stand in front of a church and hold up a bible. He didn’t read it. He didn’t pray over it. He didn’t talk about the content of the book that he was holding. He simply held it aloft, seemingly confused at times about what he was holding, and talked about how he was going to make things great again.
There has been much criticism for his using the bible as a prop, but as I’ve reflected on his actions we shouldn’t be surprised. Throughout his presidency, he has used the symbols and trappings of evangelical expressions of faith to support his goals. This has been effective for there is a particular group of the faith community that seems to look for symbols more than substance in what the president does. This group regularly appeals to the bible, calling themselves “people of the book,” but for some reason don’t seem to be particularly enamored with the teachings of Jesus. As a recovering evangelical (a history I continue to celebrate in giving me a love for that sacred text), I’ve seen too often worship of the book itself rather than a willingness to be challenged by a living Christ who calls for radical love and sacrifice. For them, holding up a book is enough, rather than being changed and transformed by the neverending love of a Christ who calls us to take up our own crosses as we follow him.
I believe that the scriptures are “God-breathed” and inspired as Paul writes to Timothy (even though Paul was only speaking of the existing Hebrew bible at the time). Yet the importance of these texts is found in the content within, not the external display of the bible. These are texts that call us to love our enemies, words that say that judgment is connected to how we treat the poor, writings that suggest love and unity are the most important things for the community of faith. To attempt to combine the teachings of scripture with threats of military force against protestors and tweets that regularly sow division is, in my opinion, a sign of an unwillingness to hear the words of Jesus.
Of course, none of this matters for our president. For him, the book is a symbol to reach out to a particular part of the national community to say “See, I’m one of you…” The book has no more meaning than its ability to mobilize certain groups to support his agenda of control.
We do not worship a sacred text. The bible is important as a revelation of God’s presence and work in the world, but it is not the subject of our worship. We worship a living God who is continually revealing God’s self through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are guided by a power that is far stronger than any sacred text. And to think otherwise is to fall prey to turning that text into an idol.
Several years ago I was blessed to be the part of a planning team for worship at an intergenerational event at a United Methodist retreat center. One of the things we tried to do was to regularly draw on young people at the event to assist in worship leadership to ensure their voices were heard and to help them grow in their leadership. One evening, we asked a young woman who had been theologically trained to read the scripture for the evening, and when she came up front she opened her phone and read the text from her bible app.
After the service, I was confronted by a group of elderly women who complained about her reading the scripture from her phone. “It’s sacrilegious,” they said. “
“But the words are the same,” I said in response.
“That doesn’t matter,” they said. It’s not the bible.”
These were good folks who were certainly bound in their own generational understanding and uncomfortable with change. But they also had confused a book with the Word of God, the divine logos, who was present in the beginning and has come to bring forth a new kingdom, one in which ALL are embraced and welcome, and one in which the love of God reigns supreme.
So, who or what do you worship?
A book that teaches about God, or the God that is the subject of that book?
Let all who have ears hear.