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America’s Bible problem

Trump's Bible thumping is designed to divide people, evoking awe from some, and alienating the rest -- whereas the Bible itself shows God's investment in every single human being
President Trump poses with a Bible in front of St. John's Church, June 1, 2020. (Twitter)

The Bible knows a lot about strife, violence, and hatred between people. In some cases, the Bible has created strife, violence, and hatred between people. But central to the Bible is that even God is willing to sacrifice in order to avoid strife and to bring peace and love to the world. It is an affront to the Bible itself and to all those who care about it for anyone to use the Holy Writings as a prop to foment hatred and division in our society.

This has always been a problem, but the use of the Bible as an identity marker has taken some odd and worrying turns in Washington, DC in recent years. The Museum of the Bible seems confused about what the Bible actually is, and even whether certain books are Bibles or not, but they are sure that the Bible’s influence on America is profound and positive. Now, two miles away across the mall, President Trump thought it would be a good idea to pose for pictures with a Bible in his hand (not his Bible, he clarified, but “a Bible”).

This is not studying the Bible, engaging with the Bible, or even being aware of any of the contents of the Bible. It is using the Bible as a prop, as an object with symbolic value. That in itself is not a tragedy; religious groups have all kinds of symbols. What is disturbing about this use of the Bible is that the symbolism is so discordant with the text itself.

What is the symbolism? His loyal evangelical base understands: “Look at my president! He’s establishing the Lord’s kingdom in the world.” The Lord’s kingdom, in this version, is established by trampling on the crowds in Lafayette Square, who were violently dispersed by police in riot gear using flash grenades and some chemical spray. And I assume that the Lord’s kingdom is not going to include many Americans, myself included — presumably both because I am Jewish and because I don’t plan to vote for Trump in November. So this Bible thumping is specifically designed to divide the people, evoking awe from those on one side, and alienating the rest. In the Bible itself, on the other hand, love, respect, and compassion for fellow humans are so important that even God takes a backseat to them.

There is a law in the Bible about a man who suspects his wife of infidelity. The law is disturbing, as the wife is made to suffer an ordeal to prove her innocence. But there is a remarkable teaching embedded within this law: the priest writes the name of God, the very name that is never uttered out loud by Jews, to this very day, and then dissolves the paper in the water.

As the second-century talmudic sage Rabbi Ishmael comments, God orders that the ineffable divine name be erased — literally erased! — “in order to make peace between a husband and a wife.” Or, as the 20th-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas put it, “the effacement of the Name is the reconciliation of men.”

The idea that God is willing to take a step back in order to bring love to society finds its extreme expression, of course, in the New Testament, in John 3:16, a line so overused in signs at baseball games that its shocking profundity is often missed: God so loved the world that God was willing to give up God’s own son for the sake of the world. For Christians, the part of the world most precious to God had to be sacrificed because of God’s love for the world. And God did it: God suffered and love triumphed.

This is worth remembering as President Trump had people shoved out of the way and tear gassed so that he could stand in front of a church with a closed Bible in his hand for a photo op. When Reverend Girbasi, the rector of the church, reports that she was stunned by the desecration of holy ground, when the church remains boarded up, and when even the Bible in the president’s hand remained closed, it is hard to imagine that anything about Bible has penetrated into the political messaging of the day. The Society of Biblical Literature, the leading international body for the academic study of the Bible (of which I am a member), put out an excellent statement yesterday criticizing the abuse of “what is for many a treasured spiritual resource and symbol,” and affirming — as scholars of the Bible — that Black Lives Matter.

The Bible, in all its forms, is a book with a complex past and a checkered present. It contains passages that can be misogynistic and xenophobic, alongside some of the most soaring passages of humanistic thinking and enlightened religious teaching in the human library. It has served as a defense of slavery and an inspiration for the most impassioned civil rights work. The idea that humankind — every single member of the human race — was created in the divine image is a teaching whose radicalism is sometimes missed. Again, the talmudic sages spell out the implication: anyone who kills another human being has destroyed an entire world. We mourn not only George Floyd, but the world that was lost with his death.

This powerful ethical teaching needs to stand at the center of any reading of the Bible. And for those with short attention spans for reading, the Bible has done the favor of putting this in the very first chapter. Before there are patriarchs and matriarchs, before there is an Exodus and the law, even before there is good and evil, there is the image of God invested in every single human being.

In both the Jewish and Christian traditions, there is an aversion to being intoxicated with God. Instead, love of God is supposed to lead to positive action in the world. John reports that Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commands.” And the midrash goes even farther, having God say: “If only the people would abandon Me, and keep My Torah!”

If God is willing to step aside to promote love, certainly Bible itself — the physical, material book that whose ubiquity in hotel rooms masks a text that is so subversive — should only be used the same way. Religious texts can be resources for many of us in difficult times. They can teach the extent to which we must go to value each other, treasure each other with all our differences, respect each other and even “love each other as ourselves.” We cannot allow it to be hijacked as a political prop.

About the Author
Aaron Koller is professor of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, and chair of the Beren Department of Jewish Studies. His latest book is Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought (JPS, 2020).
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