Consider the 13th chapter of Deuteronomy. Kill them, says Moses, kill any preacher or prophet, regardless of how powerful or awesome the signs and wonders they can perform, if they try to lead you to worship a god other than our God. Even if that person is your offspring or soul mate, take no pity, have no regrets, just stone them to death. How does that resonate with you? Sounds more than a little like the Taliban to me, but there it is right in the bible. How do you reconcile that with the teachings of Jesus Christ? Is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures a different God that the one revealed by Jesus? The Gnostics thought so; were they right?
Those were questions that haunted more than a few participants in my adult Christian education classes. My response was to emphasize the idea of progressive revelation. It’s the idea that the story of God’s engagement with humanity, as recorded in the bible, reveals a God who addressed each succeeding generation in the cultural and ethical vocabulary of their time and place, and, at the same time, pushed them in new and unfamiliar ways to explore a God whose dimensions were always in the direction of greater inclusivity and love. God also continued to press the improbable revelation that He and He alone is God, there is no other. Those new and unfamiliar ways were uncomfortable, and there were many false starts and much backsliding along the way. Progressive revelation means that previous understandings of God and godly ethics can be and are corrected or replaced by succeeding revelation. Scripture records all of it.
In our own time we have experienced something of that progressive revelation. Consider that until two hundred years ago the world, as a whole, gave no serious thought to the idea that slavery might be immoral and inconsistent with God’s will. More recent than that has been the recognition that expansion of territory by conquest and genocide was immoral and inconsistent with God’s will. Neither of those ideas caught on right away, and respected Christian leaders hotly defended the contrary position. Both still happen, but at least we have come to the general recognition that God does not approve, even if earlier generations claimed he did.
I wrote a column for the local paper on this theme a couple of years ago, and was hammered in a letter to the editor by a fundamentalist preacher on the grounds that since the bible is God’s Holy Word, every part of it is of equal ethical value and there is nothing progressive about it. It is precisely that kind of Christian fundamentalism that can lead to our own brand of terrorism, by any of a dozen different names, and which, in my opinion, lead us away from God as revealed in Jesus Christ and toward an idolatrous god of our own making. What can be done? Should we stone them?