Who Do Sacred Texts Serve?

This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.

“Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,’” James Baldwin

In my sixth decade as a son of the South, I know more than a little bit about Bible thumping.

Fundamentalist preachers, street preachers, and the faithful who hold the literal truth of Biblical texts sacred — these all embody literally and figuratively what “Bible thumping” represents: a sacred text.

The great irony of fundamentalism in the South where the King James Version of the Bible is thumped, slammed, waved, and quoted includes the problems with translation as well as the many contradictions in that text. Eye for an eye or turn the other cheek?

Not to dwell also on the cherry picking necessary for literalists: condemning homosexuality by jamming a finger on a passage from Leviticus but conveniently not pointing out the dozens of other Jewish laws those literalists trespass daily.

Throughout the U.S., however, there is also a powerful secular sacred text, The Constitution (notably the most thumped Second Amendment), that serves as a disturbing and extra layer of irony.

Yes, often, those most fervent about their Christianity are equally fervent about their guns. It seems what is important is being fervent, not making sure ones ideologies match up.

But in the wake of tragedy, we may have hope.

The Orlando massacre has spurred a powerful message about the importance of a diversity of voices in a free society.

In 2016, white males continue to have too many megaphones — we labor under, for example, the relentless drumbeat of many David Brooks who know little but pontificate endlessly simply because they can — but with the rise of social media, we hear more and more from women, people of color, and LGBTQ+.

After Orlando, those diverse perspectives have been willing to challenge that sacred text, the Second Amendment, noting that when the Constitution and Amendments were codified, the voices of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ were absent.

In other words, our secular sacred text is necessarily incomplete, likely flawed.

And the problem rests in by whom, why, and how “sacred” is deemed.

There is a straight and clear line from the genesis of the South Baptist denomination — thumping the Bible to justify slavery — and the perversion of the Second Amendment — the right to bear arms to form a militia — to suit the gun fetish, gun industry, and culture of violence that all characterize the U.S., a so-called Christian nation.

Sacred texts most often serve the wants and needs — and status — of the privileged, those who have the power to thump the text and anoint it with the power of God or State.

And those powerful depend on the powerless to cling to those sacred texts, empowered by that clinging through the sheer proximity of “it’s in the Bible” or “the Second Amendment!”

So we stand in a particular part of history now, one in which some voices have been “deliberately silenced,” “preferably unheard.”

But the oppressed and suppressed are demanding that they be heard, in part by challenging, as Adrienne Rich wrote, the “book of myths/in which/our names do not appear.”

In the U.S., sacred texts are as deadly as the murderous guns we cling to — until we choose to look at ourselves, to listen, and to act in ways that hold all humans sacred.

[Grammar Note: There was a time when we made a distinction between “who” and “whom” — a sacred distinction like “they” always being plural — but “whom” has died so long live “who” as a versatile part of speech!]

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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