What Does the Lord Require of You?
Not What You Think
“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Chances are, you recognize that line from The Wizard of Oz. Throughout history, Hollywood has gifted us memorable quotes that are used metaphorically in everyday language. From Humphrey Bogart’s “Here’s looking at you, kid” in Casablanca (1942) to Rene Zellweger’s ”You had me at hello” in Jerry Maguire (1996), movie lines stand the test of time and become part of our American vernacular that bridges generational chasms.
Admittedly, they’re fun to use. They add flavor to our stories and offer us a chance to be seen as witty and creative.
We do however, forget the context of famous quips and most people cannot name the movie from which they originate. To some degree, this isn’t surprising. We forget things with the passage of time.
But there are places where context matters and none more so than when we share ancient scripture from sources like the Bible.
These and many others, as innocuous as they seem, are often weaponized to justify judgment and authority.
Time to Dismount that Spiritual High-Horse
With respect to the quotes that have hung in my home, one specific aspect may stand out for the discerning eye — they are found in the Christian Bible’s Old Testament.* I have heard them used in church sermons for years, always directed at those of us sitting in the pews.
They are inspirational to many – including those who are not practicing Christians – and while Christians like to claim ownership of them – those words were not written for them. They were written for the Hebrews and tell the stories of their heritage. Christian appropriation of Jewish ritual and tradition is nothing new. In fact, it has increased in the past twenty years as Christians have incorporated Jewish rituals and symbolism into their faith practices.
It should be a surprise to noone – however, if you suggested to an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian that their practice of usurping others’ faith is religious appropriation, they would not only be shocked, they’d be offended.
I’m not making this up, friends. I know this because I’ve:
1) witnessed it first-hand
2) been that Christian who never considered how my actions may be seen as offensive by other religious cultures.
Deconstructing while in the church pews
When I share my deconstruction story, I’m often asked if there was a defining moment that prompted my exodus from church. I’ve come to realize that I was deconstructing long before I walked out those doors for the last time.
At first, there were moments I could have easily missed had I not been paying attention. For instance, when I had invited a friend to Easter service and she laughed and said, “Karla, I love you but no thanks. I want nothing to do with your exclusive Christian club!” She moved on to the next topic but her response hit me in the gut. I was still reeling when I went home and decided to dive into researching how others viewed the American evangelical Christian.
To say I was horrified to learn that we were indeed seen as arrogant, closed-minded, judgmental and even callous in our lack of respect for other people’s beliefs and customs is putting it mildly. I knew we had a reputation of being bad tippers, but I had no idea that we were seen in such a negative light by the rest of the world.
Once you know this type of thing, there is no un-knowing it, and it changed me profoundly. Even though I was dutifully fulfilling my duties at church and being the “good” Christian, this experience invited me to explore other aspects of my faith.
I wouldn’t know it for a few more years, but I had just begun the journey that would ultimately lead to the deconstructing of my faith.
Context and intended audience matter
This phase of deconstruction — when I was still in church yet spiraling away from my religious heritage — found me in the pews listening to each sermon with different ears. I stopped being spoon-fed from the pulpit and would covertly head home to do my own research. For hours, I would examine scripture and its historical context. More often than not, it would lead me to an entirely different conclusion than what I had just heard in church.
Until I began to use critical thinking around my studies of the Bible, I believed that the entirety of scripture, the Christian Bible’s Old Testament included, had been written exclusively for Christians.
That thinking is what contributes to the Christian lack of empathy for and understanding of Jewish heritage. Scriptures found in the Christian Bible’s Old Testament were never intended to provide guidance or insight to Christians.
They belong to another time and another people. When we read them we should remember this. We are, much like a movie, witnessing stories that will inspire, agitate, disrupt, bring sadness, or induce joy.
And if we’re lucky, a line or two from those stories will resonate so deeply that we will carry it with us, just as we do a line from a movie.
The shift may seem subtle, but it’s vital, especially for the deconstructing Christian who desires to be liberated from teachings that convinced them only their faith mattered, and their pastor’s preaching was the only education necessary.
So what does the Lord require of you?
The title of this blog is inspired by Micah 6:8 (“seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly). We took the long way around to return to this verse, but here we are. I’ve chosen Micah 6:8 to emphasize how 1) context and intended audience matter, and 2) Christian appropriation of Hebrew scripture has abused its meaning.
Don’t believe me? Head over to Etsy and see how many products you will find with Micah 6:8 on it. Pasting your favorite sayings and scriptures on your social media page and hanging them throughout your home isn’t inherently a bad thing. It becomes an issue when they are used to justify the harm and oppression of people who don’t pray, live, believe, or love like you.
Micah was a prophet who was lamenting the people of Israel to turn back to God. His intended audience, the Israelites, have lost their “way,” and God is displeased with their lack of adherence to the laws. Micah begins the chapter with “Listen to what the Lord says” — a clear indication that he is speaking for God.
The prophet’s words are important, because they are an invitation for the Israelites to focus less on sacrifices and more on acting justly, being kind, and walking humbly, because it points us to our spirituality. In other words, any ritual or sacrifice can become so routine that unless we remember what it means to be human – that from whence you came and shall return – we become callous, uncaring and unjust.
I’m looking right at you “Church on Sunday and a jerk on Monday” crowd.
For the Christian who uses this verse to oppress others is committing the most egregious acts of cherry-picking.
Micah 6:8 has become a favorite of evangelical Christians to justify protecting their beliefs through government intervention. Interestingly, it is also used by progressive Christians as inspiration to put social justice issues at the forefront of societal priorities.
When we remember that people quote movie lines and apply them as they see fit — even though it may be totally out of context from its original purpose— it’s easy to see how people on opposite ends of the faith spectrum can find meaning in the same words.
As far as quoting movies, no one cares how or why you do it.
There are, however, real world consequences to the implication that a centuries-old writing gives you permission to harm others. Micah 6:8’s use by both evangelical and progressive Christians is essentially wrong, and perhaps its overuse is a signal that it is time to leave it where it was meant to be.
While that probably won’t happen any time soon, it’s up to us to pay attention and always apply critical thinking to what we are being taught. This is especially true for those of us who overcame powerful religious indoctrination.
I’m aware this blog won’t dampen America’s love of Micah 6:8 – and I still love this verse as much as the next person. I treat it with the reverence it deserves but also as a witness to its context. I’m simply an outsider peeking into a story told long ago to a people who were learning what it meant to marry their humanity with humility, compassion and equality.
Thousands of years later, we’re still trying to get it right. Maybe someday we will.
I hope so.
For the sake of those who have been and still are victimized by those who use scripture to justify their oppression, I pray so.
*If you’re a new reader to my blog, you may find it strange that I qualify the use of the term “Old Testament” for parts of the Christian Bible. I do this to honor Judaism that does not refer to this text as the Old Testament. To the Jewish people, it is the Tanakh — the collection of writings that comprise the Hebrew Bible. You may also hear it referred to as the Torah. However, many Jewish people only use Torah to refer to the first five books, which may also be referred to as “the Law.” These sacred scriptures are not “old” to the Jewish people, and the Christian label of “old” is a reference to the new covenant when Jesus was born. It is also Christian appropriation, so when possible, I refer to the Christian’s Bible portion of the Hebrew Bible as Christian’s Bible Old Testament. For more about replacement theology from a Jewish perspective, read this. From a Christian perspective, read this. It is important to note that an evangelical Christian perspective will always justify replacement theology. This is Christian appropriation.