Sunday, May 1, 2011

Marc Chagall, "Moses and the Burning Bush"


Historians of American constitutional development report that the original version of the Constitution was believed, by those who wrote it and endorsed the content of what had been written, to have contained absolute clarity about the protection of the rights of Americans. Not everyone agreed. In fact, there was a stir because specific freedoms were not specifically articulated so that, as the first critics demanded, there could be no room whatsoever for misunderstanding the full freedoms the founders and framers intended for every American to exercise as she or he saw fit. Assumptions, in other words, were both inadequate and potentially dangerous. So, why allow for the possibility of ambiguity when with a little more ink the details could be spelled out?

We have a nation in 1776, but we do not have a full-fledged Constitution. In 1787, when the presumed final draft of the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification, it was largely not embraced for the reason I’ve just stated.

The first rumbles of rejection came from Patrick Henry and Virginia insisting that the specific rights and freedoms of the American people must be specified in writing. Other states demanded that a Bill of Rights be added to the Constitution, and some few states ratified the Constitution provisionally, withholding full support until the freedoms of American citizens were enumerated. There must have been some forebears of present Silverside members in the midst of that process, which explains why we here handle constitutional issues so comfortably and so gracefully. More on that subject later--much, much, much later, I hope.

So, the Constitution before having been fully accepted, fully ratified was already being amended, and the first ten amendments to the Constitution came to be called “The Bill of Rights.” Authored and presented by James Madison, in final form, the rights begin with the freedom of and conversely the freedom from religion then moves quickly to deal with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly along with the right for the individual citizen to petition the government about whatever concerns she or he may have.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Right now, for the sake of completion, but without comment, I’ll tick off the other nine rights or freedoms belonging to Americans, but I will come back to the freedom of religion because I think it may be the one most threatened in our country today

The second, is the right to form a militia to protect a free state and with it the rights of individuals to bear arms.

The third right gave owners of homes the right to permit or disallow troops to be housed and fed in the homes of these private citizens during war time.

The fourth right is protection from unreasonable search and seizure of one’s home or property.

The fifth freedom guarantees someone accused of breaking a law due process including the assurance that no citizen may be tried for the same crime twice if the death penalty is a possible or probable punishment in the event of a guilty verdict. The citizen is free not to incriminate herself or himself, and a citizen may not have her or his land and any buildings on that land taken for official use unless she or he be compensated justly.

The sixth freedom guarantees a citizen accused of some crime the right to a speedy trial, presided over and heard by an impartial judge in the setting of a public trial and the right to competent legal counsel.

The seventh freedom the Bill of Rights guarantees is that some of those who have been charged with a wrong in place of judge only a trial by jury presided over by a fair and competent judge.

The eighth freedom ensures that any bail that is set for someone held in custody cannot be excessive, and if the court finds a citizen guilty the punishment may not be cruel and unusual.

The ninth right or freedom: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In other words, the list of ten may be broad-based and thoughtful, but may not be comprehensive. There may be related freedoms to which we are entitled not described in particular.

The tenth amendment to the Constitution-right-out-of-the-gate was: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” States by the confines of their own laws and federal laws, constitutional laws, have the right to shape themselves. If states want to kill off their citizens with unbridled pollution, to a large measure they have that freedom. Similarly, if a state wants to embrace a state board of education that wishes to have blatant lies written and published as fact in textbooks used by the children in the public schools of that state they have the freedom to do that. In no time at all religiously skeptical deists like Thomas Jefferson who, despite his great skills in statesmanship and understanding of how freedom might or might now work on a large scale and who held slaves having a long time sexual relationship with at least one of his female slaves, can be turned into a rightwing Bible-believing, Bible-toting Christian in conservative churches every Sunday screaming out, “Amen,”and, “Praise the Lord,” every time the preacher pleased him. No, friends, this wasn’t Jefferson at all--the guy who edited out most of Hebrew and Christian scripture to create his own very limited version of the Bible. In Texas, if the state Board of Education has its way, and they do have the freedom to do this, Jefferson can be written up in the textbooks the state is willing to purchase as the rightwing fundamentalist Christian I’ve just described who looks more and sounds more like the typically ill-informed Mike Huckaby than THE Thomas Jefferson.

A majority of early Americans wanted stipulations of freedoms in writing, not just in the hearts of well-intentioned elected leaders or in the hearts and minds of every citizen. Don’t answer this now, but you can answer it if you like in Sermon Talk Back: if you had to give up one of these ten freedoms, which one would it be?

Johann Neen has been writing about the facts that many US Americans are worried that the so-called Christian heritage of the United States is being threatened all over the place and in all kinds of ways, some obvious and some subtle. Neen says that even if this supposed threat is more a matter of perception than a matter of fact, there has been sufficient fear to mobilize influential and powerful religious leaders and well placed politicians to begin loudly questioning the wisdom of the first amendment to the Constitution: should there really be separation of church and state? The rightwing hardliners, religious or not, are saying that this principle really doesn’t work and should be reversed or undone so that our democracy becomes a theocracy. However, and listen to Neen very carefully on this point: “In challenging the separation of church and state today, many American Christians are threatening America’s Christian heritage.” Catch it, and carry it home with you; it is the contemporary Christians themselves are becoming the most threatening enemies of our nation’s Christian heritage.


Maybe you’ve heard of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. It is an

independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. USCIRF's principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.

On this past Friday, April 29, released its annual report of CPS’s: countries of particular concern in the religious abuse department. Most of countries on this year’s report are repeat offenders; at least one is glaringly new. Here’s the list: Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. This year has been the first year in the existence of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom that Egypt has been on the list of countries of particular concern.

USCIRF Chairperson, Leonard Leo, said in a press release:

CPC’s are nations whose conduct marks them as the world’s worst religious freedom violators and human rights abusers. In the case of Egypt, instances of severe religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government have increased dramatically since the release of last year’s report, with violence, including murder, escalating against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities. Since President Mubarak’s resignation from office in February, such violence continues unabated without the government’s bringing the perpetrators to justice. Consequently, USCIRF recommends CPC designation for Egypt.

There is also a “watch list” of countries under suspicion, but not yet on the list: Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela.

The Cornell University Law School has a Legal Information Institute, which recently published this startling news:

More than one-half of the world’s population lives under regimes that severely restrict or prohibit the freedom of their citizens to study, believe, observe, and freely practice the religious faith of their choice. Religious believers and communities suffer both government-sponsored and government-tolerated violations of their rights to religious freedom. Among the many forms of such violations are state-sponsored slander campaigns, confiscations of property, surveillance by security police, including by special divisions of “religious police,” severe prohibitions against construction and repair of places of worship, denial of the right to assemble and relegation of religious communities to illegal status through arbitrary registration laws, prohibitions against the pursuit of education or public office, and prohibitions against publishing, distributing, or possessing religious literature and materials. More abhorrent, religious believers in many countries face such severe and violent forms of religious persecution as detention, torture, beatings, forced marriage, rape, imprisonment, enslavement, mass resettlement, and death merely for the peaceful belief in, change of or practice of their faith. In many countries, religious believers are forced to meet secretly, and religious leaders are targeted by national security forces and hostile mobs.

So are these scary acts of religious persecution limited to the big bad countries on watch dog watch lists? You know very well that this is not the case. There is religious persecution on our continent as well, especially in the United States and Canada. In most cases, perhaps, death of violators is not involved or, at least, unintended; still, the government gets involved in limited ways to block certain religious practices, usually out of a concern for the well-being of participants who may not understand the risks they are being asked to take when they follow the teachings of a group or a cult leader.

When I was in college about a hundred years ago, there was a freedom of religion fight going on a ways up from Knoxville, in Newport, Tennessee, which had become a kind of regional headquarters for literalists who zeroed in on literally living out what they took to be proofs of true personal faith, which happen to be listed in what scholars call the “longer ending of the Gospel of Mark,” an ending appended to the original odd ending as the author or authors left it. This is how the writer or writers of Mark’s Gospel intended for their little literary masterpiece to end:

As [the women who had gone to anoint Jesus’ body] entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

What a magnificent ending, literarily and theologically! But the later handlers couldn’t leave it be. They wanted a more dramatic ending, one that they thought would draw more people into the movement. This is PART of what they came up with, adding to Mark’s original masterful and mysterious ending:

Later [Jesus, in his transitional body] appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; will speak in new tongues; will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

The devout folk in the Newport area were especially focused on snake handling. If, in a religious service, someone handled a poisonous snake, and the snake didn’t bite her or him, that was a low-level sign of “advanced faith.” If, the snake bit, however, and they lived, that was the sign of the height of faith; if the snake bit you, and you died your faith was weak. Too bad there was no more opportunity to work on strengthening that faith.

The government was trying to make snake handling in worship illegal, and the Newport snake handlers were fighting back. My college philosophy professor came to class one day and said he had no interest in handling snakes at church, at school, or at home; but he’d seen many a snake handler at carnivals and circuses never challenged in any way by the government. If it’s OK for side show performers (even though their snakes might have been drugged and defanged) to handle snakes for fun and profit, how can people trying to express their faith be told that they can’t?

More recently, the US government has prosecuted or tried to prosecute Indigenous Americans who, like their ancestors did for centuries, used peyote in religious rituals. It once was legal, but now it’s illegal--even if used exclusively in religious gatherings.

There’s a religious sect in Hialeah, Florida, the Santerians, that sacrifice chickens and other small animals as part of ritual sacrifice. The government says they can’t sacrifice these animals as a part of their religious practices even though poultry producers kill chickens for us to eat, and hunters chase down and shoot the other small animals for food or for sport.

Numerically, the most common serious religious-based attacks appear to be antisemitic actions by skinheads and a handful of extreme right wing political and religious groups. Usually, attacks take the form of desecration of synagogues, cemeteries, schools, and so on. Islamophobia may be getting the Jews off the hook a bit these days as some of the same thugs divert their attention, or some of it, to try to frighten and physically hurt Muslims. Their mosques are desecrated. They are robbed. Their children are threatened. They are beaten and left bleeding in the streets--often in the name of the God of Jesus.

There is a small group of so called Christians attacking those who name themselves Neo-Pagans and who openly practice their faith. The only somewhat recent religiously motivated lynchings and attempted mass murders in the United States have involved these two groups, the Christians out to kill some Neo-Pagans.

There are also deaths, though most are unintended, during certain exorcisms where the person thought to be possessed by demons is beaten in the hopes of driving the demons out of her or his body. In these cases, religious persecution only occurs if the person believed to be possessed is exorcised against her or his will.


Some of the most compelling stories in Hebrew and Christian scripture are set in the wilderness. The Hebrew slaves wandered in the wilderness for forty legendary years on their way out of Egyptian slavery to the land they said God promised them as the place wherein they would be able to live out their freedom. Jesus spent forty days in the literal wilderness or in the wilderness of his mind pondering how in the world he would serve God. John the Baptist lived and preached in the wilderness.

The story from scripture on which we focus today is yet another of the vitally important wilderness stories. Perhaps it is a prelude to the wilderness aspect of the Hebrew slaves’ escape from slavery into their long wilderness sojourn.

Moses is the key figure in our story. He has his father-in-law’s flock trying to guide them to some grazing land and water, but finding mostly desert and wilderness everywhere he turned. Everything looked the same.

Moses was wide-eyed. He wasn’t a lame brain, and he did want the very best for his father-in-law’s, Jethro’s, sheep. He did not want the animals to suffer for several reasons.

They, he and the sheep for which he had responsibility, happened to pass by a mountain, which to many of us in our part of the world would have looked much more like a hill, but to them it was a mountain, Mt. Horeb, which had a nickname, “the mountain of God.” Over somewhere away from the mountain, his eye caught a bush on fire. I’d think something on fire in the desert wouldn’t have been an unusual sight, but in this case it was unusual since fire didn’t consume the little bush in a flash, so to speak. The bush kept burning, but it was not consumed by the flames. Now that was something to take note of.

Moses heard a voice coming to him out of the burning bush, and he took this voice to be the voice of one of God’s messengers with a message for him. The storyteller says that God spoke out of the bush; Moses took the voice to have been the voice of a divine messenger speaking to him; in either case he was confident that the God whom he worshiped and longed to serve was getting a message to him. God was taken with the fact that Moses stopped his search for food and water for the animals for which he was responsible to ponder a burning bush. Not everyone would have stopped to see what it was. As I said before, things burning in desserts weren’t uncommon sights, and neither were hallucinations rare in the extreme heat.

From the bush, his name was being called out, though: “Moses, Moses! Take off your sandals and come no closer because you are standing on holy ground.” People in Moses’ day didn’t wear shoes at home and when they gathered at a holy shrine of some sort. Without a doubt, shoelessness was a sign of respect and honor in the presence of someone deserving of homage just as keeping one’s distance from what was taken to have been divine was respectful.

We presume Moses complied with the requests, but we aren’t told that he did. Whether the storyteller wants us to hear the voice of God Godself speaking to Moses or a divinely ordained messenger speaking on behalf of God, Moses caught on rather quickly that the Creator was speaking to him. He hid his face in the folds of his sleeves both out reverence for God and because he knew he wasn’t supposed to look at God; word was, if you looked at God face to face, you died on the spot. Moses wasn’t ready for that.

God was tapping out Moses to be the one to lead the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage. Moses said, “But, God, they aren’t going to follow me.”

God said, “They will when you tell them who has sent you. Moses, I have heard their cries in the pit of their repression and abuse. They are willing to do whatever is necessary to reach for freedom, even if their lives are at risk.” We must never underestimate the power of people sick of abuse and oppression and repression who join themselves to the loving God who wants no person put down, kept down, robbed of freedom to be who she or he dreams to be or aspires to be under God.

“OK, OK,” said Moses, “but they’ve been introduced to lots and lots of goddesses and gods while they’ve been in Egypt. I’m going to have to tell them which God it is who wants to have me lead them out of Egypt.”

“You tell them I’m the true God, the one and only, and because of that I have no name. I Am Who I Am. Tell them the Creator God sends you, the one who will act in the future the same way divine actions have been done in the past.”

“Well, I’ll tell them whatever you tell me to tell them because this burning bush is no joke, but the most popular gods and goddesses are the ones with impressive names. Some of my sister- and brother-Hebrews are going to write me off when I come and tell the god with no name has given me the responsibility to lead them out of their captivity. They’re going to think, ‘Hallucination. Been to the desert with a god with no name....’ That will just make it tougher for both of us, O Great One Who Will Be Who You Have Been.”

“Work with it, Moses!”

James Cone teaches up the road from us, up in New York City at the Union Theological Seminary. No voice for uprooting the racism that chokes people of color has been more powerful except Martin Luther’s King Jr’s. King attacked the problem nonviolently in the streets, Cone from academia--not to say that all he did to fight racism was sit in his comfy office and do “the pen is mightier than the sword” thing.

Professor Cone believes, and was joined in this powerful insight by his late colleague, Paul Tillich, that theology is no more universal and necessarily applicable in all times, places, and circumstances than are ethics. Ethicist Joseph Fletcher made the case for “situation ethics” before I started my undergraduate studies nearly forty years ago. Theology is by no means universal, but rather is tied to specific historical and cultural contexts. Any universal theology is an abstract theology, and abstraction rarely makes a difference when someone’s life is being eaten up by evil. Thus, Dr. Cone formulated a theology of liberation based on the experiences of Black people in this country. The original liberation theologies were Latin American, and Cone had to be, to some degree, influenced by them. So it wasn’t rich, white, first world church goers who initially noticed that Jesus was preoccupied with and spent most of his time with the poor and the dispossessed. The Latin and Black liberation theologians were the first to notice this trait of Jesus with clarity.

Cone says that God identifies with whoever is being downtrodden and, for example, robbed of basic human freedom. For Cone, as a Black man, he realized that God identified with his Blackness.

Quoting Cone here:

The black theologian must reject any conception of God that stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism....The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition. This is the essence of the biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering...Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity.

Therefore, my friends, when repression and captivity have robbed certain people of all the life they are willing to have lost by such wasted means, the day will come, and we are seeing it in many places around the world today, where the unfree have had enough. In the spirit of Patrick Henry whom many of today’s freedom fighters, not all fighting with weapons thank goodness, know nothing about, they are saying, “Give us liberty or give us death; to this degree anyway, God is clearly with us!”


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