Friday, July 10, 2009
The Mercies of God
The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.
For those of us who believe, as the hymn says, that there really is “a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea,” and trust that the “arc of the moral universe” really does “bend toward justice,” there have been some bright spots this spring.
Maine and New Hampshire both adopted laws approving Gay Marriage, leaving Rhode Island as the last defender of marriage inequality in New England. At the Methodist Church my daughter Carolyn attends in Philadelphia, at the prayer time one Sunday, she shared the celebrations that her cousin was in the balcony when the New Hampshire law was passed, and her parents had been at a rally for marriage equality in Providence. One man in the congregation responded audibly, “Thank God for New England!”
But yesterday the Portland Press Herald carried a front page story on the efforts of a group called “Stand for Marriage Maine” is gathering signatures to put it on the ballot in November and calling for a “people’s veto.” The group has collected more than the necessary 55,000 signatures and has until August to submit them to the Secretary of State for verification. The group is supported by the Roman Catholic Church and other conservative Christians. In her story, Susan M. Cover reports:
Bob Emrich, a Baptist pastor and a member of Stand for Marriage Maine, said in a written statement that he looks forward to a "vigorous defense of marriage" throughout the campaign.
"Traditional marriage has never lost on the ballot in any state," he said. "We expect it to prevail in Maine. The fact that we've gathered all these signatures in just a month to proceed with the people's veto suggests that the people of Maine, like those in 43 other states, want to restore marriage to its historical and time-honored definition as between a man and a woman."
The traditionalists rest their argument in part on the Bible. Although those of us who support marriage equality can stand on the great biblical themes of freedom and equality, which are woven into the narrative from beginning to end, opponents focus on a few negative verses.
In his Torah Commentary this week, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, offers a reflection which speaks directly to the issue of biblical interpretation in relation to equality.
This is how he frames the question:
“Is there ever a discernible gap between God's morality and the Torah, or is the Torah itself our only window into the realm of divine values? Put another way, is it permissible for a reverent Jew to challenge the morality of a law, and to base this challenge on his or her own understanding of justice and thus God's will?”
The passage he is interpreting is from Numbers 27:1-11. It is the story of the five daughters of Zelophehad, who are disenfranchised by the law as it was first given at Sinai. Only male heirs can inherit. The five daughters have no brother, so they are left out. Their family will disappear from the land and the memory of Israel. But they present their claim to Moses, and he prays about it and delivers a NEW WORD from God. This new word of God overturns the injustice and grants them an inheritance. The living Spirit of God proclaims a justice that transcends the written text.
Nevins cites an early Midrash found in Sifre BeMidbar (133):
The daughters of Zelophehad approached. When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the Land was to be divided among the tribes, to males and not to females, they gathered together to take counsel in each other. They said, "Not like the mercies of people are the mercies of God. People have more mercy [i.e., preference] for males than females, but the One Who spoke and the World came to Be is not like this; rather, [God's] mercies are for both males and for females, and for all, as it says, "The Lord is good to all; His mercies are over all his creations." (Psalms 145:9)
Nevins point out the “blithe anachronism” of the midrash. The daughters of Zelophehad consult the Psalms, which will not be written for many more centuries. When we enter into dialog with the sacred texts of scripture, we take part in a conversation that transcends time and connects us to people of faith across the centuries.
The One Who spoke and the World came to be is not bound by narrow prejudice, but is filled with the widest compassion. “The Lord is good to all; His mercies are over all his creations.” God is a God of Justice. The “One Who spoke” created the world with a moral arc that bends toward justice.
It saddens me that other Christians choose to stand on the wrong side of history. I do not believe that in the end they will be able to unbend the arc, but they are trying. I am sad for Gay and Lesbian sisters and brothers who are being betrayed by the very people who should be shaped by the biblical story to stand with them. And I am troubled that narrow prejudice will once again be lifted up as if it were God’s word and will. Christians everywhere will be tarnished by their prejudice.
But as the ancient rabbis saw, the mercies of God are not like the mercies of human beings. God’s “mercies are for both males and for females, and for all, as it says, ‘The Lord is good to all; His mercies are over all his creations’." (Psalms 145:9)
The One Who spoke and the World came to be proclaims justice for all. And "all" means "all."