The Bible and the Midterm Elections (or, How to Read Scripture this Week)
It’s often said that pastors should preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper (or tablet, or newsfeed!) in the other. But how to do that this week, as one of the ugliest, most polarizing midterm elections in modern memory fast approaches?
And how to do that this week, in the wake of the hateful, heartbreaking massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, a congregation deeply devoted to supporting refugees?
And how to do that this week, as migrants fleeing poverty and violence make their way north through southern Mexico, on their way to seeking asylum in the United States?
The Gospel is not politically partisan, but it is most certainly political - so long as the word “politics” is understood according to its most basic, fundamental meaning: the collective art of neighbors shaping our common life together.
And yet: for some in today’s congregations, explicit political references in worship can seem out of place, profane, or divisive. One person’s “speaking truth to power” is another person’s sacrilegious grandstanding. But silence is scarcely better: if worship can’t directly address the political dimensions of these events, including next week’s elections - then what on earth is worship for?
Here’s an idea to try: let scripture itself speak in a new way. As it turns out, the lectionary readings this week are prime examples of how the Bible itself is profoundly political - again, not politically partisan, but deeply concerned with the moral and spiritual health of community life.
So, in addition to expounding on scripture in a sermon, or borrowing key images from scripture in prayer, try opening up the readings this week a bit more than usual - and let the political, moral, community-oriented character of scripture speak for itself.
In the Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus quotes from both Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19. Leviticus 19 as a whole is an ancient text largely concerned with neighborly life, and at the same time, Deuteronomy 6 points to how pervasive our love of God should be in our lives. Together, these two texts present a deeply political, nonpartisan vision.
Imagine this: Instead of one reader to read the passage from Mark, recruit three: Reader One reads from Mark 12; Readers Two and Three read from Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19, respectively.
The three readers take their places up front, and Reader One begins.
Reader One: From the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 12: One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’ and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Reader Two: From the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 6:
Reader One: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’”
Reader Two: Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Reader Three: From the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 19:
Reader One: “The second commandment is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Reader Three: When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin... You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
Reader One: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Reader Three: And when an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 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 LORD your God.
Reader Two: Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Reader One: “There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Reader Two: You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Reader Three: And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.