Back to the Forties

Essay by Fred Plumer on 30 November 2017 6 Comments

Well here we go again, friends, facing another Christmas. The big stores are posting huge advertisements, notifying us of major sales, playing Christmas music and of course wherever you go there is a Santa Clause. It has been that way for a couple of weeks. It seems to me that this phenomenon starts earlier every year. I cannot help but wonder what Jesus would say if he returned today and observed the way we celebrate his so-called birthday. He was born poor, was always poor, and spoke primarily to the poor.

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Are there parts of the Old Testament that are said to be relevant today and why?


Dear Janet,

The question you pose is far too complex to lend itself to a simple yes or no answer. The Old Testament is a library that contains 39 unique and different books. These books were written over a period of perhaps a thousand years. They represent a wide variety of types of literature. Some are descriptions of tribal history. Some are filled with liturgical and ethical injunctions; some are interpreters of history; some are wisdom literature; some are poetry; some are the writings of prophets; some are protest literature. There is no doubt that parts of this body of sacred literature are eternal and therefore relevant to us today. Other parts are so clearly time bound as to be totally irrelevant to our world today. The issue is how does one separate the wheat from the chaff.

The first step is not to impose a literal agenda on this literature that comes from a nation of storytellers. The second is to recognize the time span between the event being described and the description. For example, if Abraham actually was a person of history, he lived about 1850 B.C.E. but the stories about Abraham were not written for at least 800 years. Moses lived around 1250 B.C.E. but everything we know about Moses was written some 300 years later. Third, one should expect the attitudes and knowledge of the past to be reflected in ancient records. So it is that in the Bible women are inferior; women are the property of men; homosexuals are to be executed; slavery is morally possible; sickness is caused by sin; the earth is the center of the universe; God lives above the sky, etc. etc. None of these assumptions do most of us today find either relevant or edifying.

But when Moses escaped his tribal identity and began to see God as a universal presence; when Hosea discovered that he loved his wife even when she had become a prostitute and recognized in that experience the love of God for his wayward nation; when Amos saw justice as the other side of worship and worship as the other side of justice, that book is profound and relevant. The Bible in this way leads us through its very human words to glimpse the reality behind all that is. Those are the moments when we hear the "word of God" in the biblical tradition.

I treasure the Old Testament. I do not read it literally nor should you. I reject much of it as no longer having relevance for my life. But I read it seriously and ask what does this mean? Why was it preserved? Where does this touch life? That is how its insights emerge.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published March 10, 2004


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

Do we have the moral right to choose to die?

SpongIs death a natural and normal part of human life or is it an enemy that we must always seek to defeat? That is an issue being debated today in religious circles, pitting traditional religious groups, most notably the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and leading Protestant Fundamentalists, against the rapidly growing movement of those who seek to secure the option that has been called "death with dignity" or "compassion in dying." Both of these are titles of organizations made up of people who advocate the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. In the state of Oregon this debate has reached the status of becoming an option guaranteed by law. Attorney General John Ashcroft has thus far made two unsuccessful attempts to overturn this decision that was ratified twice by the voters of Oregon. This is interesting behavior for a representative of an administration that claims to stand for the rights of states and consequently for decreasing the power of the federal government. One should not, however, expect consistency in politics. As medical science continues to push back the barriers of finitude and expand the possibilities of longer life, the intensity of this battle is bound to rise and these two vastly different points of view will more and more find themselves on a collision course.

Let me begin this discussion by acknowledging that there is no doubt that, given the way the Judeo-Christian faith story has traditionally been understood, the religious establishment of the western world will normally be opposed to making changes in this arena. The creation story, with which the Bible opens, says that life is the property and gift of God. The decision, therefore, as to how and when a person is to die is not one, this point of view asserts, that any human being can ever take from God's hands. This theme is confirmed again and again throughout the pages of Holy Scripture in the distinct negativity that is expressed toward suicide. So, this religious mentality tells us, physician-assisted suicide can never be defended as a human choice or a human right by Christian people. That is why many religious leaders regard it as an immoral decision that must not only be avoided, but should not even be debated.

As the religious argument develops, the case is made that in the Bible death is defined as God's punishment for human disobedience of the divine will that corrupted the perfect creation. In the ancient, primeval legend of the first human beings, Eve, who was presumably born to immortality, responds to the tempting serpent with these words: "God said that if we eat of the fruit of this tree, we will surely die." Death was contingent on her behavior; it was not her natural destiny. But this story proclaims that she and her husband Adam in fact did eat of this forbidden fruit and, true to God's promise, they lost eternity and entered mortality. From that day to this, says the tradition, the inevitably of death has been the punishment and fate of us all.

Paul, a major architect of the early Christian faith, built on that definition when he wrote in his first Epistle to the Corinthians that death is the "last enemy" to be destroyed. Paul saw the life of Jesus as one who had, on the stage of history, taken on this enemy and defeated it, thus breaking the power of death that had plagued human life from the dawn of creation.

As Christian theology developed, these ancient Hebrew narratives, which Paul viewed as literal events in history, came to be thought of as founding myths or legends, but their hold on truth was still not disputed. The Church almost universally taught that people were born with the stain of Adam and Eve's "original sin," and it was our destiny to endure its consequences. So all were to be victimized by death. That is still today bedrock, traditional Christian thinking.

Christian baptism was developed to wash away the damning stain of 'original sin' into which each newborn infant was born, and thus to enable each baptized Christian to participate in Christ's victory over death. That is why the Church taught for centuries that the unbaptized baby was doomed though all eternity. It was a very effective fear tactic that the Church used to enhance its power. The fourth century theologian Augustine gave this concept of original sin its ultimate power, when he used it to develop what most people still regard as traditional Christian doctrine. The fact that all human beings died was proof to Augustine that all lives were lived in the sin of Adam, with no capacity to save themselves. He then portrayed Jesus as the divine rescue operation, sent from God to accomplish what only God could do. Jesus' death on the cross became the moment when the price of sin was paid, and the story of Jesus' resurrection became the sign that the punishing power of death had, in fact, been broken.

The Eucharist, the Lord's Supper or the Mass became the liturgical re-enactment of this drama of salvation, which had been effected on Good Friday and Easter. Each generation could, in worship, newly appropriate the salvation that God had wrought. It was a neat and consistent system and it gave order to western religion for almost 2000 years. It has only one major problem, but it is of such magnitude that it now renders this whole theological viewpoint both dated and inoperative. This understanding of the origin of evil is simply not true either literally or metaphorically. We were not created perfect; we have rather evolved from lower forms of life. We did not fall into sin; we are rather just not yet fully human. We do not need to be rescued from a fall that never happened, nor can we be restored to a status we have never possessed. Life is naturally mortal. Immortality is not something that human beings have lost. The unique thing about human life is that we live in the constant knowledge that it is our natural destiny to die. If Christianity is going to survive in a generation with a very different consciousness, it must address these key issues.

Today, it is easy for us to understand how ancient people related to the ever-present specter of death. It was a constant reality. No one seemed to die in his or her old age. Death always seemed premature whether it came in battle or by way of sickness. In a world that knew nothing of germs or tumors, death was always interpreted as a punishing visitation from God. Sickness was treated in those days with prayers and sacrifices to appease an angry Deity.

It is hard for us to step into these presuppositions of our ancestors; so profoundly different is our understanding of the world. Slowly over the centuries, sickness and disease have been both demystified and secularized. If germs cause sickness, antibiotics are developed to counter the germs. If tumors grow abnormally in our bodies, we discover them with x-rays or MRIs, then we shrink them with radiation, treat them with chemotherapy or excise them with surgery. If our blood becomes infected, we transfuse the whole system or cleanse that blood outside the body. If kidneys fail, we hook the body up to a dialysis machine to do their work.

In these processes we have pushed death not out of life but at least to the edge of life, where we might look at it with more objectivity than our ancestors were able to do. The result is a radical transformation in the way modern people think of death and this has tempered our long-standing obsession with and fear of death.

The first conclusion we have to draw is that St. Paul was surely wrong about death. Death is not an enemy, not even the last enemy. Death is an inevitable part of life and even of creation, which is called good. It is not the first time, nor the only time, that Paul has been declared wrong although those, who have turned the Bible into a semi-divine inerrant book, are always bothered and defensive about such charges. Nonetheless, in the western world today, it is widely assumed that Paul was wrong about women and wrong about homosexuality. He is also now seen as wrong about death being punishment and thus the final enemy to be defeated. Death is in fact the power that gives life its urgency, its ultimate meaning. It is a natural and normal part of the life cycle that must be embraced as a friend not resisted as an enemy. As the shadow side of life, death walks with us from the moment we are born. Death pressures life, making it imperative that we not postpone saying "I love you," or fail to rush to heal a broken relationship. It urges us to struggle now, not tomorrow, to build a better world. Death rings the bell on all our procrastination. It keeps life from being what someone called "an endless game of shuffleboard."

We rejoice when medicine pushes back the domain of death and expands the length and quality of our days. When the skills of modern medicine, however, reach the edges of their competence, they cease this noble task and begin only to postpone the inevitability of our natural dying. That is a very different reality. It is this reality that makes it necessary to face radically new choices and to make radically different decisions. This is the frontier that modern men and women are now confronting, and it is the source of the tension in the current religious debate.

When life meets its ultimate limits and is threatened with a choice between unbearable pain and a meaningless state of existence, it should be, I believe, the patient's choice to embrace death by directing the doctors to end that existence. Those of us, who have taken from the hand and mind of God the power to expand life's boundaries so dramatically, must now also discover the appropriateness of taking from God's hand the right to decide how and when we will die. It is a salute to life's beauty; a tribute to life's sacredness, and that makes it, in my mind, a profoundly ethical decision. It is a decision based on the definition of life as holy, while still taking seriously the new consciousness to which human life is only now awakening. The right to end one's life with dignity and with appropriate medical assistance is still a minority opinion opposed by most religious systems. However, I believe it is destined to become a majority opinion that will be embraced by the people of God, newly emancipated from fear. I welcome it.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published October 6, 2004




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