From the Book of Deuteronomy:
You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree. Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Deuteronomy 12:2-3 (NRSV) – June 4, 2013.)
OK. I’ll acknowledge and admit that there may have been good reason for Moses to lay down this law for his people as they were preparing to enter the Promised Land. He was concerned that they maintain their identity as the Hebrews, the People of the God of Sinai, and if they had taken on the gods or worship of the people they were conquering that might have been difficult. That he put these words into the mouth of God, however, is very problematic. It was a disservice to later generations and it has played havoc with ecumenical and interfaith relations in the modern era.
“Wait,” someone will say, “these are God’s words, not Moses’s.” So it says. So it says. Moses claims his words are God’s and we have no reason say otherwise. Except . . . . we have the later revelation of God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. We should read the text of the Hebrew Scriptures using our understanding of the Gospel and our relationship with Jesus as a lens or filter; Jesus should be our starting point for reading the text.
Brian McLaren suggests that we use a “a Christo-focal reading,” in which “Jesus becomes . . . the catalytic agent in a chemical reaction or the central variable in a mathematical equation. When Jesus is the focal point of the story, he is the climax, the hero, the summit, the surprise, the shock, the revelation that gives all that precedes and all that follows profound and ultimate meaning.” As one of my seminary professors used to say, “The gospel trumps the bible.”
When we apply such a lens, such a “Christo-focal” reading, when we allow the gospel to trump the bible, does the utter and complete destruction of another people’s religious tradition seem like a godly admonition? Is this what we expect of the God who, incarnate in Jesus, healed the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman and the servant of a Roman Centurion, who praised that same Centurion for faith greater than any he had seen in Israel, and who preached his gospel and worked his wonders among the Greek-speaking Gentile population of the Decapolis? Is this what we expect of the God who commissioned and empowered his apostle Paul to walk the streets of Athens viewing the temples of its citizens whom he would later praise as “extremely religious?”
I think not. I’m willing to give God the benefit of the doubt and conclude that these are Moses’s words, and to give Moses the benefit of the doubt that there was good reason for this strategy at the time of the Hebrews’ conquest of the Promised Land.
But today we must have a different attitude toward other faiths! In a paper presented to a symposium on pluralism sponsored by the National Council of Churches, Professor Damayanthi M.A. Niles calls upon Christians to develop a theology “that values and takes plurality seriously.” Such a theology, he argues, would “allow Christians to celebrate and participate in the diversity around us and to add our own particular stories, enriching the story of God’s work in the world.” It would also help Christians to hear “the weaker and marginalized voices often silenced in the name of an artificial unity.” He suggests that as Christians enter into interfaith dialogue we will discover that other religious traditions have appropriated Christ and the Christian story in their own terms. Responding to the ways other faiths may interpret Christian ideas will give us unique opportunities to restate our own understanding of who Christ is. This could not happen if the altars, pillars, sacred poles, the icons, and the images of other faiths are destroyed.
On the first anniversary of 9/11, my friend and colleague Pierre Whalon, bishop of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, wrote that “the present global situation requires interfaith dialogue.” In an essay entitled The Question of Other Faiths he concluded:
Engaging people of other faiths is therefore not to be done as an exercise in the superiority of Christianity. Not only does our chequered history give the lie to any such claims—they are also fundamentally incompatible with being Christian. It is not in our strength but our weakness that we may speak of Christ to others. He demands not pride, not an imparting of our imagined riches, but an admission of our own poverty before God and others.
No one can go to war who is coming from this position of servanthood. On the contrary. In the strange reversal that characterizes the action of the Spirit, those who seek to be warrior-conquerors are weak, and the ones who cling to the powerless Jesus are the truly strong. This provides us with a coherent position from which to address others that avoids the hollow claims of Christian superiority, the unselfconscious arrogance of universalism, or the belittling of the grounds of Christian faith.
There is a single word that describes this attitude, which was attributed to Jesus himself: humility. It does not come naturally to us anymore than to other people. But without it, we are no followers of Christ, and we therefore have nothing to say to, and learn from, people of other faiths.
More than a decade later there is no less urgency, no less a need for humility and interfaith dialogue. And absolutely no need to “break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places!” Even if that admonition is in the Bible!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.