I love the Bible. So much, that I spent three years of my life studying Greek and Hebrew so I could read it in its original languages. But when you’re awakened in the middle of the night by someone reading the Bible OVER A PUBLIC ADDRESS SYSTEM, your love for the scriptures is temporarily pushed aside.
That’s what happened to me May 7 as some well-intentioned folks conducted their annual Bible Readathon on the courthouse lawn near my home. Yes, dear reader, you saw that correctly. These good Christians weren’t just reading the Bible. And they weren’t just reading it IN A VERY LOUD VOICE. They were reading it in the most public place in Blount County. At the seat of our local government.
But what about the Constitution? You know. The separation of church and state?
Well, we still have that. Thankfully. That’s why we have such strong churches in America in the first place. We learned our lesson in Europe and don’t allow the institutions of government to meddle in the affairs of faith. That’s why we don’t allow public school teachers to promote their religion or anyone else’s in their classrooms. We leave that to you and, yes, to the churches and synagogues of America.
The lawn of the courthouse — it turns out — is a “public forum.” That means anybody, including our well-intentioned Bible readers, can stage a protest or a promotion there.
But having a “right” to do something doesn’t make it right. Or wise. Or appropriate.
Reading the Bible — like praying — is a good thing, most Americans would agree. But is it a good thing to do it in the most public place in town and over a loudspeaker?
Not according to Jesus. In his most famous sermon, he lambasted the faithful for practicing their piety in public. When you pray, said Jesus, don’t do it on the street corner as the hypocrites like to do. Instead, “enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father, which is in secret, and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”
And when you do alms, Jesus went on, “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth that thy alms may be in secret, and thy Father, which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.”
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in biblical studies to know what he would have said about reading scripture over a microphone on the steps of the courthouse.
In fairness to the good people who impose this public piety on us every year, the temptation toward self-righteousness is almost irresistible. A whole lot of Jesus’ words were about this insidious sin that infects even the most faithful — especially the most faithful — among us. I’ve certainly had my share of it. Gladly bearing my cross but only if it’s livestreamed on the internet for everyone to see.
I’ve tried to get inside the thinking of those who would have us read the Bible on the steps of the courthouse or pray at the high school graduation or football game. Some of it may be self-righteousness. True. But much of it, I suspect, is concern over the rapid secularization of society, the decline in church membership, the erosion of family values and the coarsening of cultural norms such that the F-word is now common parlance.
If I’m correct, our faith traditions have an answer, and it’s not simply turning up the volume on our Bible reading or saying our prayers in a busy restaurant instead of in our homes.
It is to go deeper. To engage in the hard inner work of “discipleship” to use a popular evangelical term. It is to become better humans and, therefore, better ambassadors of our own faith. To feed the hungry in our community like the folks over at the Welcome Table or over at the Community Food Connection. To cloth the naked like RIO and KARM (Knox Area Rescue Mission). To visit the sick. Become peacemakers. To forget about our First or Second Amendment rights for a few minutes and become better listeners. Better healers. More devoted moms and dads, spouses and friends. To show hospitality to strangers and in so doing to change the world.
The Talmud says if you save one life, you save the world. Jesus said if you help “the least of these,” you help God. Instead of a Bible Readathon next year, maybe we should have a visit-the-nursing-home-athon or a build-some-needy-family-a-house-athon.
And why wait? If the world really is on a skateboard to hell as some may fear, there’s no better time than now to let your little light shine.