Sunday, April 13, 2014

By the Rivers of Babylon: The Bible as a Guide to Morality

Arthur Hacker. By the Waters of Babylon
Remember in school when we learned about state symbols? Growing up in Arkansas, I learned how the state bird was the mockingbird, and the state gem was a diamond (Arkansas being one of the only states with diamonds). Those are the only two state symbols I can remember. I guess it never struck me as an important topic. But some people apparently think it's very important. In fact, lately state symbols seem to have become a battle front in the church/state controversies.

There's the situation in South Carolina, for example, where a little girl asked the legislature to name the Columbian mammoth as the state fossil. This seems perfectly sensible, because the great beasts' bones were first discovered back in 1725 in South Carolina swamps. But things went sideways when certain legislators didn't want to have a state fossil without including Biblical language in the law; language about how the mammoth was created with the other beasts of the field on the sixth day. Naturally, this was controversial, and made it into the national news. As I write, it's still unclear whether the mammoth will become the official fossil of South Carolina, and whether the law that makes it so will reference the Book of Genesis.

Now there seems to be a similar fight brewing where I live in Louisiana. There's a proposal in the House to make the Bible the state book of Louisiana. My local paper ran a story about it, and it turns out even local pastors are divided on the idea. A pastor at the First United Methodist Church said, “The Bible is a testimony of mankind’s experience with God, and I don’t think the Legislature has any business dealing with that subject. This is a divisive waste of time.” But another local pastor disagreed, saying, "“I believe that making the Bible the official state book, the people of Louisiana would follow the lessons taught in it.”

I agree with the Methodist minister, but it was the other man's comment that really got me thinking. I hear sentiments like his all the time--that we should follow the lessons of the Bible, and that it's a great guide to morality. But I'm not so sure. I agree that some parts of the Bible, such as the Sermon on the Mount, are full of real wisdom about living a moral and compassionate life. But other parts I simply can't agree with, and I don't think the people who talk about following the Bible can either. 

To explain, let me take a brief detour into music. Despite my sometimes combative stance toward religion, I absolutely love African-American gospel music. Mahalia Jackson, The Fairfield Four, The Blind Boys of Alabama, early Staple Singers...I think they created some of the most moving music ever recorded. So my Pandora station plays a lot of that kind of thing. One day, I heard a beautiful acappella version of Rivers of Babylon, by the Soweto Gospel Choir. I'm imbedding a link to it below. I urge you to listen to it--it really is beautiful.

The song's lyrics come straight from Psalm 137, which famously begins, "By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion." It turns out the song wasn't actually written as a Christian spiritual, as I thought when I heard it, but a Rastafarian one, by a Jamaican group called the Melodians (and of course, the Soweto Gospel Choir is South African, not African-American.) Whatever the case, the song is basically a part of the Bible put to music. When I heard it, still thinking it was an old American gospel song, I decided to look up the verse it came from, because I really did think the imagery was beautiful. 

And what a shock I got. Instead of describing it, I'll let the Psalm speak for itself:
By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
    the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
    Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
    Happy shall they be who pay you back
    what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
    and dash them against the rock!
Suddenly and jarringly, the gorgeous lamentation beside the rivers turns into a longing for a horrible kind of revenge--and not on the people who carried the Israelites away to Babylon, but their little children. Dashing them against the rock? Is this the kind of morality we really want to be promoting? I really hope nobody today thinks it is. Not only is it bloodthirsty and awful, it directly contradicts Jesus' admonition to turn the other cheek and love our enemies. 

But there it is in the Bible, right at the end of one of the more famous passages in the whole book. That's why, when people say the Bible is a good guide to morality, I don't quite know what they're talking about. Maybe it is a good guide, but only if you have some means of deciding which parts to follow. Anyone who actually takes Psalm 137 as a guide to behavior should be locked up. I'm sorry, but that's as bloodthirsty a passage as I've ever read anywhere. And it's not that uncommon. The Bible is probably the most violent book I have ever read, and I've read most of the Game of Thrones series.

I didn't really mean to write about religion for for a while. I've been extra appreciative of all my friends lately, whatever their views, and I know I talk about this stuff too much. But I have to write when I'm inspired, and besides, the legislature in the state where I live is considering adopting--as its official book---a work that talks about bashing children against rocks! Yes, it talks about a lot of good things too, but still. Perhaps it's a debate worth having, and soon.

So here's my question to those who talk about the Bible as a guide to morality: "What are your criteria for deciding which parts of the Bible to take as a guide?" I've asked this many times, and never gotten a satisfactory answer. I don't say that to imply that there isn't one, or that I've backed anybody into a rhetorical corner. I really do want to hear their answer. If they have no answer, then I have to think they haven't put enough thought into what they're saying. If they say you have to follow the whole Bible ("you can't pick and choose," is what I often hear), then I have no choice but to conclude they're wrong. If you try to do follow the entire thing, the Bible is a terrible guide to morality. Not only does it advocate really awful violence, it's contradictory. You can't simultaneously turn the other cheek, love your enemies, and dash their children against the rocks. You just can't. So I ask again: If you think the Bible is a guide to a moral life, perhaps THE guide to a moral life, worthy of being recognized as such by our government, then what exactly do you mean? Which parts are you talking about? Because I simply can't imagine that you're talking about Psalm 137.


Could Bible Become State Book? Houma Courier