After a woman was credited with calling in the tip that led to the arrest of Dylann Roof, the alleged shooter in Charleston, South Carolina, she humbly gave God the credit. She told the reporter, “God was the hero!” But I think she made faith sound too simple. If faith was at work, then God would have intervened before Dylann Roof walked into the church, studied the Bible for an hour with parishioners, and then pulled a gun and murdered nine of them. Pulling up to Roof in traffic and identifying him after his picture had been plastered all over the news and social media didn’t qualify God as a hero. It seems to me that the woman, though humble, was the real hero. So, where was God?
In a world of so much hurt and hate, it isn’t just that faith fails. Faith has led to many wonderful achievements; but, left in the wrong hands, faith fails unquestionably. In the Abrahamic traditions, the One God is a universal “father,” in Whose acts of creation we are all the progeny of one first man and bound by ethics that are not relative nor trivial. Our pathways to the One God are particular but they are not exclusive. Our pathways are as diverse as the people who are on them.
In the wrong hands, we err when we use our sacred texts as eternal law codes. At best, they are human words inspired by faith that guide us to their highest ideals for love between humankind and love between us and God. We ascribe to these words a sacred quality due to their remarkable journey from ancient times down to our own. Having succeeded in reaching us, the obligation of the faithful is to discern from their ancient and translated syntax and context the greatest lessons for our times.
Today, we have more understanding about the natural world than any generation before us. We have defined universal boundaries for crimes against humanity, and we know that 2000 year-old prohibitions against some sins bear little if any resemblance to the environment in which we think we find them, today. The evolution of human thought that came from individual and social aspirations for knowledge and understanding was supposed to help us conclude that perspectives on human equality, racial, sexual, religious, etc., evolved, too. It isn’t enough to thump our Bibles to point at our claim on divine understanding and ultimate authority.
Faith in the right hands was never supposed to provide only the right answers. Faith in the right hands was always supposed to provide the right questions. Our sacred books filled with ancient words in translation take us on a journey of history, sociology, religious thought, economics, sexuality, and other subjects that should pique our curiosity constantly.
The sacred quality of our Bibles is in their enduring ability to raise timeless questions for every generation so that they can find answers that enable them to maintain not an ancient standard of times gone-by, but benchmarks that reveal the greatest human freedom and potential ever known to humankind. Racial, religious and sexual discrimination was wrong long ago; but, in our time it should already be anachronistic.
Where was God? is the wrong question. The right question is where was humankind? Where are the people who wield the power to make a difference in gun violence prevention and mental health care in our country? The world isn’t growing less complex. Let’s stop building walls around us to protect the present against the future. For the first time in history, our children are growing up in a world that we’re learning about from them through technology. But the best lessons about how to address the world’s complexities, technologies, and stubborn prejudices are still found in books of faith bequeathed to us from ancient peoples who also struggled with matters of the human experience.
If I could ask them a question, I might ask, “Is this what you expected us to do with your books of faith?” Then again, I don’t like to ask questions when I already know the answer. A better question might be, “What can sacred texts teach us about our duty to each other in a world of unprecedented technology, growing violence and unyielding discrimination?”
I believe that a good answer isn’t without faith, and that the best answer will also require moral courage and political will. God is waiting for us to intervene.
Who’s ready to begin?