Sunday, December 5, 2010

And forgive us our debts

When I was little, I spent a bunch of time around religious folks.  And not just any religious folks, but those who believed the Bible was the inspired word of God!  There were no contradictions or mistranslations in the Bible for this crowd--there was only our failure to understand the great truths.

Such people are often called "Fundamentalists" and I was raised to be one.  This was a fairly grueling process involving attending a lot of Bible studies classes where a handful of verses would be discussed in excruciating detail.  And then there were those Mennonites who educated me K-6 who believed a good education involved memorizing hundreds of Bible verses.  These Mennonites were purists--the only Bible worth learning was the "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" King James Version.

Actually, if you are forced to memorize Bible verses, The King James version is probably the one to learn.  It was translated by favored establishment scholars whose elegance and grace with the language made their contemporary Will Shakespeare's writing look vulgar and primitive.  Learning such English at a very early age promotes a profound literacy that is difficult to produce any other way.

On the other hand, my Lutheran preacher father was of the opinion that the elegance of King James English posed a formidable obstacle to understanding.  After all, the essential Lutheran stress on universal literacy was the belief that everyone should be able to read and understand the sacred texts for themselves.  So when it came to translations, he was quite the trendy--embracing any new version that lowered the language barriers to understanding.

I have childhood memories where my father and a visiting clergyman would debate some obscure corner of Biblical texts armed with perhaps seven translations plus the Greek New Testament open on the table before them.  And while this sort of passionate scholarship may seem like an idealized form of purest inquiry, this sort of intellectual fundamentalism has led to a world of hurt.

  1. It is ridged.  The whole exercise of such theological scholarship is founded on the premise that someone in the past had absolute truth revealed to them.  Newer revelations in such a scheme, such as those provided by scientific inquiry, have reduced standing because they are not found in the ancient texts.
  2. It leads to absurd forms of social fragmentation.  I grew up in a tiny town of less than 2000 souls that had five different Mennonite churches.  YOU explain such ridiculous bickering within the followers of the Prince of Peace who already form one of the most obscure fragments of Protestantism.
  3. It can be intellectually ridiculous.  If you claim to believe something is true down to the last "jot and tittle" but cannot wait to buy the newest translation which just MIGHT explain some internal Biblical contradiction you want to be resolved, you are opening whole worlds of intellectual confusion.

For me, the MOST blatant example of fundamentalist confusion was found in the family collection of musical scores.  The Lord's Prayer as found in Matthew had been set to music and was popular for weddings so it was a well-used score.  However, the words "debt" and "our debtors" from Matt 6:12, "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" had been crossed out with pencil and replaced with "trespasses" and "those who trespass against us."  Anyone who can count will see that there are five more syllables in the "new" version which plays havoc with the music line.  This is a BIG change and folks who had to perform the new version always struggled with it.

So the most famous prayer in all of Christianity had been changed from the original text found in the "sacred" King James Bible, which resulted in butchering one of the more popular pieces of wedding music.  And I wanted to know why!  My father's explanation that this was just a new and better translation did NOT satisfy me because I could not imagine those King James translators confusing the concepts of debt and sin.  (Still cannot!)

In my mind, making such a large change to the Lord's Prayer just destroyed the whole rationale for fundamentalism.  What possible reason could one have for disputing the time needed for the creation of the world if the most sacred prayer of the faith could be so significantly altered?  And if tiny disputes over irrelevancies can cause religious schisms and cries of heresy, how did such a MAJOR heresy sneak through unscathed.

So it was with considerable pleasure that I see someone else has wrestled with this subject.  And it IS a critically important question because there are so many Christians in USA.  The King James Lord's Prayer is nothing less than a social plan for bringing the kingdom of God down to earth.  The "new" Lord's Prayer is nothing of the sort.  BIG difference!  Good stuff!

Give Us Bread; Forgive Our Debts
How Shall We Pray?
Jesus goes up to a local hill and speaks to his followers. They ask him how they should pray, which we may take as meaning either, “what form should our prayers take?” or else “what should we pray for?” I believe the latter is the way Jesus chose to understand the question, and it is the content of the prayer he taught them, not the form or rhythm of the words, that is of great importance to us today. “Our Father” he begins, “Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”. We note that by specifying that “our father” is in Heaven it is clear that Jesus is not referring to the Roman Emperor to whom it was customary to pray[1]. So this is already a political statement. But even in establishing the authority of God as one addresses God, this is merely a greeting, and a courtesy. If one is speaking to the greatest being in the universe, to the Creator, one should begin with courtesy, especially if you are asking for something. And Jesus, as we shall see, is about to ask for something very big. “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done” – Nothing less, that is, than the Kingdom of God and God’s will to be realized. This is a big request: help us to bring about your Kingdom, and to make your will reality.
But it is the next phrase that is the most decisive one in the entire prayer: “on Earth”. Stop there. That is the key. Malcolm X, in his most famous speech said “We will have our rights on this Earth, in this life, and we will have them by any means necessary.” This is the force with which the phrase “on Earth” must be heard. The effect on his followers massed up there in the hills all day, must have been electric. The Kingdom of God on Earth. That is the demand. “On Earth, as it is in Heaven.” That is, on Earth as though it were Heaven. On Earth just as it is in Heaven. We want Heaven on Earth. Nothing less. How many Christians have smugly argued that the utopian dreams of socialists, communists and others were useless in the face of a failed, flawed, and sinful humanity, yet recited this prayer every day, or at least every Sunday of their lives?[2]Never has there been a more radical proposal. But there is in fact nothing utopian about it, for just as Marx and Engels would insist on centuries later, there is a concrete program based on existing social forces to bring about this revolutionary proposal.
I imagine that God, being busy, is pleased by such well-meaning and selfless requests as “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done”, such as when Miss America hopes for World Peace, or any of us for a better world, and probably gives a blessing. But to really get God moving on things requires asking for something very concrete, something that can be done. Jesus is not playing. He knows how to bring about the Kingdom of God, make the Will of God law, he knows how to make Heaven on Earth.
It takes exactly two things:“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts”. This is the Swedish or postwar British Welfare State, or the American New Deal in its better days right after Johnson’s Great Society programs, all the result of the class conflicts of the 1930s and the 1960s movements, combined with the demand for debt cancellation by people across the Third World. This is a program for changing the world. That Christian churches have managed to take plain speaking and turn Jesus’ clear language into metaphor: daily bread is faith, debts are sins, is testimony to the power of dead labor when it gets the upper hand. For two thousand years, this clear, everyday language has been overwhelmed by institutional power and its exegesis. more

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