Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for July, 2019

Holy Leviticus! Justice is True Holiness

Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel at CDF Alex Haley Farm
built as an ark of safety for children

There are some verses from Leviticus 19 that we don’t often hear, in part because the verses we do often hear have been decontextually weaponized and which, even when contextually comprehended, speak more to ancient biases than to actual biology. Yet just as Jesus the Son of Woman is fully human and fully divine, so too are the scriptures in which we prepare for and encounter him, the scriptures he interpreted and reinterpreted when necessary with an, “It is written… but I say unto you…”

In that spirit and with that permission we turn to the beloved, and also oft-cited, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and the equally familiar–if you came up in a black church–“You shall be holy for I the Holy One your God am holy.” Can I get a “holiness is yet right”? Between “you shall be holy” and “love your neighbor” hang all the law and the prophets, to borrow a phrase. Pray with me if you will, on the subject, “No Justice Without Love, No Love Without Justice.” 

Let us pray: May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery speak words of life, love, and liberation through these words. Amen.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself is the end of the teaching in this passage of Torah. And while Jesus gave us a vivid exegesis of the passage, the truth is it was always self-explanatory as his debate partners knew full well. Their question was not what does it look like to love your neighbor, but who can I exclude from the God-given charge to love my neighbor, and still be holy. (Yes, I am an Episcopal priest preaching holiness from Leviticus. God is a wonder to my soul.) See, I believe that Leviticus, the heart of Torah, has gotten a bad rap and is in need of rebranding. Leviticus is a holiness text and:

  • Leviticus is a community organizing text.
  • Leviticus is a public health text.
  • Leviticus is a get right and get your people right text.

You shall be holy for I the Holy One your God am holy. What follows that autobiographical declaration is a twelve-step plan to holiness in the idiom, vernacular, and culture of the Iron Age. (Don’t count my steps; it’s a metaphorical number and as a black preacher I really only need three anyway.) I thought I just might, for the time that is mine, translate this way to holiness into the idiom, vernacular, culture, and dialect of this anti-Christic neo-fascist white supremacist violently lethal misogynistic transphobic homophobic anti-Muslim, anti-brown immigrant and refugee – Norwegians and Swedes welcome – punitive poverty police state. Because none of that is holy. 

What is holy: When you all reap the harvest of your land, it shall not be completed to the very edges of your field for harvesting, and thegleanings of your harvest shall not be gathered. Your vineyard you shall not scrape bare, and the fallen grapes of your vineyard you shall not gather; you shall leave them for those oppressed through poverty and for the alien who resides [in your land]: I am the Holy One your God. [All translations of the biblical texts are mine.] Translation: You shall use your economic resources to relieve poverty and hunger. You shall not extract every drop of profit from your enterprises, rather you shall make it possible for others to benefit from your wealth and success. You are not entitled to all of the fruits of your labors when other folk are going hungry. Companies that don’t pay taxes to contribute to the wellbeing of their neighbors and community while paying poverty producing wages is not love of neighbor, and since corporations are now people, they are subject to the same call to holiness. Our tolerance and maintenance of poverty is not love and it is not holy.

What is holy: None of you shall steal… I am God Whose Name Is Holy. Translation: You shall not steal anything or anyone. You shall not steal people’s land­–and I know full well the biblical framers gleefully endorsed the theft of Canaanite land and their subjugation while bemoaning their own enslavement and serial occupation. You can’t have it both ways beloved. You shall not steal. No exceptions. And none are needed because the previous verses guaranteed that the poor would eat as long as the rich were eating so there would be no need to steal to feed yourself or your family. 

Let me translate further: You shall not steal land or lives or livelihoods. You shall not steal nations or their resources. You shall not steal drinkable water or breathable air. You shall not rob the earth of life or livability or species. You shall not steal wages or rob workers of their health, healthcare, or dignity. You shall not steal children or their childhoods, or their innocence. You shall not steal hope or dreams. You shall not steal! The theft, despoliation, and plunder of God’s children particularly on this land, from attempted genocide to enslavement to chain gangs to Chinese labor to Japanese internment, to convict leasing, to child-napping and caging is not love and is not holy.

You shall not steal and you shall not lie. None of you shall deceive, and none of you shall lie to a compatriot. And none of you shall swear by my Name to a lie and so profane the Name of your GodI am God Whose Name Is Holy. Lies are incompatible with love and incompatible with holiness. I just don’t believe that lying liars and their lies will ever be the oracle or instrument of God. I know some of us were raised that the worse thing you could do was to call someone a lie, not even a liar, but a lie, even when it was true. But I’m grown now and I’m going to call a lie a lie and a liar a liar.

The lies that come between us and the true holiness that is love of neighbor are legion. The lie of whiteness, white supremacy and its idol, white Jesus, have made it impossible for some folk to love their neighbors and for some folk to love themselves. The lie that human beings only come in two diametrically opposed forms has kept parents from loving their children, and precious queer and trans children from loving themselves or even loving their very lives. It ceases to be a limited understanding or misunderstanding of human biology and sexuality when you refuse and ignore the science because that’s not how an Iron Age writer with his own biases thought God thought about human flesh. 

The lie that patriarchy protects women has robbed women of their autonomy, agency, health, and lives. The lie that war leads to peace has scorched the earth and left legions of dead and dying, wounded and refugee. The lie that is American justice has incarcerated and enslaved, raped and pillaged and pimped out and rented out black and brown women and men and children and their labor. These lies are killing us and our children. And then they dare to lie on God and lie in her name. They choose the least loving and most harmful interpretation of scripture, willfully ignorant about and uncaring of its context. They sculpt idols out of their lies who bear unsurprising resemblances to themselves. There is no God and no Christ in these lies. There is no love or holiness in these lies. 

What is holy: You shall not defraud your neighbor, you shall not steal, and you shall not keep overnight for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. Translation: You shall not cultivate and maintain a permanent underclass. You shall not further oppress those already ground down by an unjust immigration and migrant labor system. You shall not use the undocumented status of your workers to pay them poverty cycle wages under the table while stealing a kickback out of that. You shall not enrich yourself and your corporate shareholders at the expense of the health and wealth of your employees. This point is so important that the passage circles back to it again and again. There is no holiness or love of neighbor without economic justice. 

What is holy: Translation:You shall not mock the deaf and, you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind… You shall love every human person and every human body. You shall marvel at the diversity of God’s creation. And you shall not just not hinder or injure your sistren, bindren, and brethren, but you shall actively work together against their harm and exclusion.

What is holy: You shall not render justiceunjust…you shall judge your compatriot rightly. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. Translation: You shall not call what is just unjust and you shall not call injustice justice. You shall not railroad the immigrant and the indigent. You shall not call desperate migrants rapists and gang members. You shall not throw babies in cages and make a profit off of their suffering. You shall not deny a rape victim justice with a “boys will be boys” and “let’s not ruin this nice young man’s future.” You shall not treat black folk like targets in a shooting gallery. You shall not kill our children, our sisters, our brothers, our mothers, or our lovers. You shall not lock up black and brown folk for selling the weed that you and your kids smoke while investing in the marijuana conglomerates of your friends and allies. You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not just stand by when black blood is flowing in the street. Holiness demands justice. Love demands justice.You shall not standby. Love won’t let you stand by. Holiness won’t let you stand by. 

What is holy: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. We know these words but most of us know them out of context. In context it is: You shall not hate in your heart your compatriot. Rebuke –yes rebuke!– your compatriot, and do not incur guilt on their account. You shall not take vengeance or nurture anger against any of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Translation: You shall not hate the haters. You shall love those who don’t love, those who by every reasonable standard would seem to be undeserving of love. You shall love and rebuke. Love them and rebuke them. Love them and not call them names. Love them and not start a twitter fight with them­–though it may turn into that–I’m talking to myself here. Love them and rebuke them. Rebuke Donald Trump. Rebuke Franklin Graham. Rebuke black preachers who hate black women while using their bodies and their money. Rebuke preachers who hate gay folk. Rebuke white supremacist Christianity. Rebuke bad preaching and worse exegesis. Tell the truth about the love of God and her call for us to love our neighbor as a demonstration of our holiness, her holiness, because we understand that she who is our God is holy.

Lastly, what is holy: The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Holy One your God. This should require no translation: 

Love treasures children and is incapable of considering them as instruments of deterrence.
Love would wash the feet of detainees not deny them showers and toothbrushes.
Love would provide a refuge for those terrorized fleeing violence at home.
Love would welcome the stranger.
Love would feed the hungry.
Love would comfort the frightened child.
Love would provide water in the desert instead of pouring it out and prosecuting those who leave it for the thirsty.

Love your neighbor as yourself and love yourself. Love yourself. Love your flesh. Love your fat. Love your freckles. Love your edges. Love your bald spot. Love your sag and your swag. Love your melanin. Love your kinks and your kink. Love yourself through your failures. Love yourself too much to let anyone love you less. 

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Holy Oneyour God.

The way of holiness is hard because it is the way of love. And the way of love is hard. Justice is elusive when it is not grounded in love. But we are not left to figure out how and who to love on our own. We bore witness to the love of God incarnate in the womb and at the breast of a mother whose love would stand at the cross and at the tomb. We saw the Beloved love out loud and in public in touch and word. Jesus the love of God incarnate is the way of love and our teacher and guide on the way. Jesus is love incarnate and love in action. It was love that nailed him to the cross and love that held him on the cross. A love that would not die even when the lover’s flesh was dead and buried. A love that transcended heaven and earth and life and death and every other binary burst forth into life from the womb of the tomb, still loving, still teaching, still touching, and because we love to eat, still grubbing, still greasing, still frying fish. That’s love. 

The power to love poured out on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit who moves between us with love, calling us to love empowers us to love those we don’t think we can love, those we don’t want to love, and those we don’t even like. We are the children of the God of love, who loves us to and through death to life. We were bathed in the love of God in our baptisms and we are nourished by the bread of life and love at the table. The tongue-twerking power of the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost gave us the strength to love. But the will is ours. Will we? Will we love? Will we love this world into justice for all God’s children? Amen.

May you love and be loved and do justice from a heart of love. In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who is the Love that covers us and fills us with her Love.