I've committed myself to a 4 year theology course, and I am in my first year now. This year's theme is 'Theosis' and this particular segment is 'Justice'.
I won't bore you by going into the details of it, but as a first year student, my focus is the Old Testament. I do my study and bring it into the same discussion as the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year students whose focus is altogether different. Our discussions are interesting, coming as they do from all directions. I think in the end, these differences are supposed to flow coherently into the discussion of current situations.
Initially, I felt that I would have nothing to add to the discussion, being that I am a first year (and unfortunately, the ONLY first year) but I have found the group welcoming, More than once, they've been pleased with something that I've brought up, saying that fresh eyes alert them to things that they had missed, so, as the weeks pass, I've gotten more comfortable with speaking up.
One of the things that I've grown increasingly more uncomfortable with is the old testament. I've come to believe that all those rules, all those laws, the stories that were told, the destruction, the inhumanity, all of was designed to control a people.
The Pentatuch was written by people in a position of power. A surprising number of stories have their roots in epic poems about Gilgamesh and Enkidu, stories that would have been familiar to the people hearing them all those thousands of years ago. The old stories were incorporated in the new framework. In my mind, there were people claiming that God spoke to them, and they were wielding those words like a holy club to maintain their hold on their power and position. For someone who has spent her life not looking really closely at this, my thinking actually scares me sometimes. I am entering into some personally uncharted territory here.
I don't want to get into it because I know that it is controversial. There are people who believe the Bible is to be taken literally. I don't believe you can. The more of the old testament I study, the more questions that I have. Some people see this as a dangerous direction, and tell me so. They want to argue about it, and some of them feel as if they have to save my soul, which is tedious, because I know they are doing it out of genuine concern. I certainly don't want to be rude to people who, at the root of it, love me. I have learned to not talk about it. In the end, I will either find my faith strengthened, or I will find it dashed on the rocks. I don't know, but I do believe that the truth is always worth looking for.
In any case, the discussion at our last class was lively as usual, and I listened. We were examining 'justice' from a Biblical perspective, and we applied those thoughts to what is unfolding in the world around us.
Finally, the facilitator got to me and my old testament readings. My thoughts did not fit with the direction of the discussion (they never do, it seems) because my readings had been about Ezra and Nehemiah, two scribes sent out by the two different Persian rulers to collect the laws of Judah, a conquered country. The long and the short of it is that these two scribes seemed to wield a lot of power.
One of the things that they determined to be ungodly was that the men of Judah had married foreign women and had children with them. These women were divorced and sent off with their children to the lands that they came from, a shocking thing to me. In a patriarchal time, these women (and by extension, their now 'bastard' children) would have had no power, no rights, no protection, no home, nothing.
The ramifications of these decrees made me sick to ponder, and after days of this, once again, I reached the conclusion that I always seem to reach. Ezra and Nehemiah both claimed to be instructed by God, and once again, I found myself doubting it. Where ever you see horror and inhumanity and cruelty, I believe that this is not the work of God. It is the work of men. Godless ones at that.
There it was. My turn to speak on the reading that I had done, on the conclusions that I had reached in a week when the discussion was justice. I explained my thinking, which really wasn't anything that I hadn't already said. A fourth year student said, "So you don't believe this was God speaking?"
"No," I answered calmly, and explained my thinking.
And there was silence as people listened in a considering way, but my questioner was obviously affronted, which is out of place for the group. We are supposed to listen. Disagree if we feel we have something to bring to the table that would cast the thing in a new light, but it is supposed to be a thoughtful and respectful process. We never say that anyone is wrong.
But this woman felt strongly I was wrong. She began to cite the reasons that God would have given such a commandment. I expounded a bit more on why I felt sure that He did not.
She snapped, "Why do you keep talking about the men? Maybe the women were the ones that wanted the foreigners driven out! Who's to say that the women didn't put that bug in their husbands' ears?"
And getting irritated myself, I snapped right back, "Because it was a patriarchal society! They were the ones that made the rules, and judged the rules, and enforced the rules! And just what does this have to do with the topic being discussed?"
There in the middle of a discussion about justice, she snapped angrily, "God wanted a pure race!"
I was dumbfounded. Gobsmacked. My brain was filled with outraged words. I never thought that I would hear Adolf Hitler's words ascribed to God. As the words tumbled from my brain, my mouth was trying to stop me from uttering them. I knew that in the end, my mouth would lose that battle. I knew that I was about to speak some very unfortunate words that were inappropriate to the setting, and could never, ever be taken back, once spoken.
I left the meeting.
I clicked off the computer, gathered my books and put them away. I stormed to my kitchen in a fine temper and cleaned it to within an inch of its life. Tim was no doubt startled by the shouting from the office, but after 23 years, he has seen this temper at times and he knows to let me be, that I will talk when I'm ready.
It is now two days later.
Once I got that temper under control, I see several things plainly. The first is that the woman is a very stubborn woman, given to think that she has all the answers. I am a very stubborn woman who believes that if anyone thinks they have all the answers, they don't.
She has some very obvious biases and they have shown up in other conversations with other members too. It's not personal.
I think that our facilitator is perhaps inexperienced. Maybe just too nice. She not only overlooks the abrasiveness, but she also defers to the woman frequently, because, in short, she knows her Bible. I'd hate to play against her in a game of Bible Trivia.
Three of the other group members have reached out to me in these days. They've been dealing with this behavior for years, and they've been awfully concerned that I would simply leave the group in a huff. Last night, one of them called after a long day with her dying father. I knew that she was exhausted and I felt terrible that this tempest in a teapot was even a blip on her radar. She wanted to know what I was going to do.
"I'm still reaching a decision on it, really. I mean, if I leave it won't be because I'm pissed though," I assured her. She was a little surprised at that. "Well, it's true. I have blurted some incredibly stupid stuff in my life. I would hate to think that people held it against me forever." Knowing that little factoid about myself makes it easier to be generous to others likewise afflicted.
I also explained some background: that her words were such a powerful trigger to me because I was raised in a very racist home and had lost a lot of time and relationship with my parents. There were words and thoughts that I did not want my children exposed to, and my parents felt strongly that they were in their own house and if my father chose to speak about niggers and Jews, he had every right to do so. Furthermore, if I didn't like it, I was welcome to take my ass and my kids home. Really, it got to the point where my father would say his ugly things with a sidelong glance at me to see how I was going to react. He was enjoying himself.
The simple fact of it is that the words that were spoken in that theology course were guaranteed to raise my hackles. It would not have mattered where I was or who said the words. It was engrained in me to speak up and to walk out.
I have no idea why I feel so strongly about this, but I do. I can't NOT speak up.
My friend considered this, but was curious about why I would consider leaving the group if I weren't angry and disgusted.
I don't know, really. Sometimes, maybe I think that I'm not a good fit for something. It happens a lot in my life. I'm not sure why that is, but I know that this is an important group, and I do not want to be a stumbling block to it. The thing that keeps me undecided though is simple. The study is very good very challenging, and I'm curious what I will be when I am done with it.