That Harsh Noah Story, Its Not for Kids

Today we are going to be talking about a narrative from the Bible that to be frank I really don’t like. In fact, next to the crucifixion of Jesus, it is my least favorite story. Can anyone guess what that story might be?

Yes, that’s right. Noah and the Arc. 

By the way, you may have heard some say that Noah’s wife is given a name in the Bible and it is Joan of Arc. That is not the case. Noah’s wife’s name is never mentioned in the Bible.

Interestingly, the story of Noah is often offered up as the perfect Bible’s stories for children. It is often on the cover of Children’s Bibles. It is the subject of children’s songs and games. Now, the animals going 2 by 2 into a big boat indeed makes nice, kid-friendly pictures. But the text itself is the farthest thing from a children’s story. It is harsh.

Basically, the narrative pictures God annihilating all humans but Noah and his family and all animals but a couple of each specie. The rest are drowned by floods. The story basically amounts to God committing mass genocide on a global scale.

You may have noticed I did not read or talk about this story with the children. To be honest, it was only recently have I read the story to Corey. Why? Because it is not for tender ears. When I read the story to Corey, his first question was, “how could God do that?” I tell Corey all the time, God is Love. How does a God who is Love act in this way? That was Corey’s very wise and compassionate question.

How do we answer these questions? What are we do with the Noah narrative? Can we come up with a nonviolent reading of this story, one of the most brutal in the Bible?

The answer is yes.

To do so, we must first understand the context of the narrative. What is happening behind the scenes of this story?

Well, we must start by saying the story of Noah and the Flood is not an original story. You know how they have original movies and then later a remake comes along? Sometimes, like with the case of an old Japanese samurai movie called The Seven Samurai that was later remade as an American Western movie called The Magnificent Seven, the original story of the Flood set in Ancient Mesopotamia, in Babylon to be specific, was later retold in a different place and a different culture, in ancient Israel. We know it as the story of Noah.

The Ancient Babylonian story dates back to nearly 3,000 BC. It has the same basic storyline albeit in a polytheistic religious setting. However, there are some key differences that help us to see some progress when you compare the older version and the newer version of the story. In the older Babylonian story, there is a god who becomes really angry at his people because they are so noisy that they interrupt the god’s sleep. The god decides to rid himself of every single one of them. He opens the skies and causes it rain for 40 days and 40 nights, creating a Flood that annoyingly to the god fails to drown everyone. A few people escape. The god is disappointed but unperturbed and goes on attempting to get rid of the rest.

The Noah story, which scholars point to the same continent wide flood in 3000 BC, gives us a different slant in its retelling of the Flood. The key differences are striking. First of all, God is not angry because of some silly explanation regarding a noisy crowd of people that intrude on the god’s beauty sleep. In the Noah story, there is real injustice described. God’s people are off their rockers. They are facetious and angry and violent toward another. They speak in harsh tones and continually attempt to divide and conquer. The ignore hunger and poverty and hardship all around them.

Simply put, the creation God deemed as good is not functioning that way. A creation gone wrong and grown unjust and unrighteous is the impetus for god’s canvas being wiped clean and a new work re-created.

Now, is this to be read literally? Did the Babylonian god or God of the Bible really annihilate millions of people? Of course not. However, the point is sometimes a society or a culture lose their way so badly, all that can be done is to figuratively wipe the slate clean and begin anew again in some way. The American and French Revolutions can be seen as great examples of this. Or maybe even the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement. The Arab Spring from a few years ago is another example.

There are good ways and bad ways of making revolution happen. In the case of God’s choice in the Noah and the Flood story, God comes to see that his choice was the wrong one. In describing God’s choice in the Noah story, we see a couple other big differences between it and the original Babylonian story. In the Noah story, God chooses to save a few people, the just and honorable Noah and his family. God still maintains some hope for a big turnaround in his creation. In the Babylonian story, the god wants to annihilate absolutely everyone so he can get some sleep.

In the Noah story, after the flood has done its deed, God reflects on it all and seems to regret his decision. He then promises to never act so harshly and drastically again. This is where we get the lovely image of the rainbow as representative of God’s promise of grace here on out.
In the Babylonian story, the only regret the god has is that his plan didn’t work, that some escaped his wrath. Instead of vowing against such violent actions again, the god vows to finish the job.

So, we can safely say, the God portrayed in Genesis 5 is one that marks a step-up in its view of God. This God has some sense of justice and is not fickle. This God seeks to save the just. This God is reflective and even regretful when He sees the devastation sown. This God promises to never fall into such depth of despair and wrath again. This God re-creates the world anew in the wake of his regret.

It is hard for some of us to look at God in the Bible as a being that is evolving and growing and capable of a change of heart. But this is the God we see, especially in Genesis. We will later see God and his intimate friendship with Moses and how that relationship often moves God to make more compassionate decisions. We see the Flood doing this in Genesis 5.

Lastly, as we muddle through the election of our country’s leader, we see in God pre-Flood a being, a being a little too comfortable with and casual about his power. We see a leader that lacks a certain degree of self-reflection and self-awareness. You know that saying, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We see this in the being of God.

But after the Flood, God learns. There is coming to terms with God’s own power. There’s a certain degree of self-reflection and awareness in God. So God vows to never engage in such destructive God again. And what does God do after this to assure absolute power doesn’t corrupt? God goes about sharing some power with a people. God chooses Abraham to be his conduit for this people called Israel. Abraham becomes the first patriarchs in a line of patriarchs that God partners with to forge a nation devoted to God’s work of justice and equality. 

This is to say God’s dangerous use of power and the destruction that resulted in the Flood teaches God the necessity of sharing power in relationship with others.

This is what the authors of this rendition of the Flood myth seems to be showing us. And in this election season, it helps to have the reminder that power needs to be shared and not placed absolutely in one being’s hands.

The larger lesson that we see is God’s vow to forsake violence in his dealing with creation. The rainbow God moves represents God’s peace-covenant, God’s promise to now deal with the world in life-affirming ways.

This was a huge step forward in understanding religious truth. In a world where angry, wrathful, bloodthirsty, warpath gods were seen everywhere and presumed as a part of the way things were, the God presented in the Noah story is indeed a radical one. The Noah story, as hard it is in our modern context to read and be okay with, points to a radically new view of God and religion. In the Noah story we see a God forsaking the way of violence and promising a way of peace.

Sounds applicable now, doesn’t it? 

Trump is No Working-Class Hero

I have been reading the new autobiography of Bruce Springsteen titled Born to Run. The first part of the book details the town Springsteen grew up in, a down and out, blue-collar town in New Jersey named Freehold. The description of his family and his town – hardscrabble with a departing manufacturing base, little to nothing replacing it, and a future in question – could easily be applied to my family and the town I grew up in (Hudson, New York). It could also apply to the town I with my wife and son now live in, Orange, Massachusetts. (Neighboring Athol meets the description as well.)

Also like Springsteen, beginning in my early adulthood up to even now, I have carried a simmering anger toward the unfairness and inequity that seems so rooted in modern American life. I experienced firsthand the financial dire straits and stresses of my family. I experienced my father losing his job and not knowing where the next one would come from and worrying about putting food on the table. I experienced all around me a crumbling town and disappearing jobs. I sometimes drive from Orange into Amherst and see the posh houses and the thriving businesses and feel angry at the incredible disparity. 

I share these things to say I completely understand the surface level appeal of a candidate like Donald Trump. I understand the anger and the frustration that says it’s so thoroughly bad why not put someone in there to tear it all down.

However, like Dirty Harry said, “a man’s got to know his limitations.” It is important to look past the hype and deeper than surface level, and acknowledge there is a line we cannot cross.

If we look deeply enough, we will quickly see Donald Trump represents that line.

Donald Trump as Working-Class hero is a mirage. He grew up privileged and remains so. He does not understand nor really care for working class or poor people. Only in as much as the working class and poor are part of his voting base, does he care. If you don’t support him and are working class or poor, you quickly become a member of his loser list.

How do I know he doesn’t care for the poor? He has never evidenced such care. Trump grew up in Queens, a working class borough of New York City. He lived in a swanky neighborhood in that otherwise hardscrabble borough. As soon as he was able, Trump in a flurry fled Queens for the limelight and allure of Manhattan. He never looked back.

Did he ever invest in, build real estate in, or donate a building, such as a library or school a la Andrew Carnegie, to any hard hit neighborhood in Queens, or in Bronx, Brooklyn or Staten Island? Did he seek to better the lives of hard hit areas in upstate New York where I grew up? Did he ever, before running president, spend time in a small town like Orange or Athol just to experience the people, their lives, their hardships, their hopes and dreams a la Bruce Springsteen? Did he ever sit down with the lower paid employees of his hotels or golf courses and hear about who they were or what they were about, not to mention raising their wages?

Of course not. Even his giving to charitable organization has always been minuscule.

The other thing that tells me he doesn’t really care for poor people or working class people is his disregard and denigration of other vulnerable people. From people with disabilities to refugees fleeing genocide, Trump has exhibited not an ounce of real compassion or empathy.

In fact, it is just the opposite. Donald Trump has consistently ridiculed, dismissed, and bullied the most vulnerable among us. Those with physical disabilities. Those fleeing war and genocide and seeking refuge in the Land of Liberty. Those experiencing hardship and hunger and seeking a better future in the Land of Opportunity. Those unjustly convicted and long incarcerated (see “The Central Park Five”). Those living amid the poverty, danger, decay, yet the possibility and promise of American inner-cities. Those still facing misogyny’s and sexism’s intimidation and degradation. 
Those assaulted by a culture of possessiveness, objectification, and aggression. 

He has in the past even ridiculed poor people. In a 1999 interview with the New York Times, Trump said this: “My entire life, I've watched politicians bragging about how poor they are, how they came from nothing, how poor their parents and grandparents were. And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn't the kind of person we want to be electing to higher office. How smart can they be? They're morons.” 

In the process of ridiculing, dismissing, and bullying the vulnerable among us, Mr. Trump has been also teaching our children. Mr. Trump has been teaching the most vulnerable among us, our children, an ugliness, a mean-spiritedness, an incivility that is toxic and harmful. Our children are taking all of this in. It is no wonder schools have been reporting an increase in bullying and harmful language. 

In one of the most revered passages of the Christian Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus talks about the final judgment. For Jesus, that judgment is based on how this key question is answered – what have you done for the most vulnerable in our world?

It’s important to note that Donald Trump sees the world in a binary way. He sees a world of either invulnerable winners and vulnerable losers with no in-betweens. Trump is one of the greatest disciples of what is called “Social Darwinism.” It is red tooth in claw battle for supremacy. And the prize of riches, fame, power goes to those who are the most ruthless, the most vicious, the most willing to take whatever is remotely available to win. As for those who don’t take the prize, the sentiment is “better luck next time.”

The idea that the poor and the working class need help is novel to Trump. But is this new found desire to help merely a means to the end of winning an election? I truly believe it is. As I mentioned, 
Trump cares for the working class and the poor only in as much as they help him to win.

For me, Trump’s vision of and way of being in the world could not be any different than that of Jesus. Jesus continually exalted the most vulnerable, the least among us, the losers, the lost, the last-placers, the lesser-thans.

In turn, he sought to unmask humility in the rich, the powerful, and the arrogant. He called on them to let go of their prized-possessions, their pride, their ego, and become poor in spirit and servants at heart.

And Jesus called on all of us to let the children and the most vulnerable teach and guide us. “The last shall be first.” “The children shall lead.” “The humble will be lifted up.” “The poor” and “poor in spirit will know the kingdom of God.” A Samaritan – a Muslim, a Mexican, an African-American, a Hillary, what is Other to us – shows us what it means to be a citizen.

Jesus not only spoke to the hopes and fears of the most vulnerable among us, he lived among those hopes and fears and among the down-and-outers replete with those hopes and fears. He dined and walked with outcasts, punks, and has-beens. He became one of them. Not to lift them out of some gutter but to show them that they, in their glorious diversity, were the ones worthy of God’s kingdom and the ones to build that kingdom right where they were.  

Simply put, Donald Trump represents everything Jesus stood against. Trump represents the win-at-all cost and belittle-at-every-turn mentality that Jesus rejected and was rejected for.

(If there were a 2016 that most closely mirrored the principles and path of Jesus it was Bernie Sanders. Since he did not win, we are left with the candidate Sanders himself supports.)

To close, I share a verse from Bruce Springsteen’s 2007 song titled “Long Walk Home.”

"Your flag flyin' over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't"

This election has hopefully forced us to do some soul-searching as Americans, a soul-searching that will outlast the election. Who are we? What values for us are etched in stone? What do those words etched in stone say about what we will do and what we won’t?

If we are in any way a nation that values the good teachings of Jesus; if we are in any way a nation that sees innate value and worth in all people, beginning with the weak, the loser, the last, the lost, the least; if we are in any way a nation that sees kindness, neighborliness, and humility as virtues etched in stone, we will choose on November 8th accordingly. We will make our forefathers and foremothers – and our kindergartener teacher who taught us all we needed to know - proud. Our children, the most vulnerable among us, are counting on us.

Seeking Justice and Practicing Forgiveness

I don’t know about you, but I am still reeling from the murders in Orange. It is hard to imagine the viciousness involved in killing a 95 year-old and trying to kill his 75 year-old wheel-chaired wife. Yes, we rationalize it by saying it was the drugs. But not drug-addicts do not all go around killing people and stealing their cars.

When innocents are killed, there is an innate desire, actually, there is a built-in need for justice. Such heinous injustice turns our world on its head. We feel deep in our bones the need to turn the world upright again. The etymology of the very word justice points to this. “Right order” and “uprightness” are words linked to the French origins of the word. 

It is important to note that the underpinnings of justice are collective. In other words, justice is not simply a need to correct the wrong to an individual or two individuals or to feel a sense of justice without our individual selves. Justice is more expansive than this. 

When evil is done, the whole world is affected. The world is put into imbalance. Justice in its deepest sense means putting things back into balance, making things right again.

Now, another intuitive thing we feel is the desire for retribution. Let’s be honest, this desire for retribution goes deep. If we are honest, especially if we are the victims, we want to strike back. It is a strong urge in us.

The creation of legal systems and governments come in here. Legal systems and governments are meant to guard against the dangerous urge within us to strike back, to seek vengeance and retribution. Law and governance is meant to take it out of individual hands and hatred and rationally and righteously make things right and establish justice. 

When they don’t do these things, we must work to make sure they do. That is the work of justice many of us here are called to. That is what Christians and Unitarian-Universalists are called to.

Fine and good. But how do we individually deal with injustice or the harming of innocents? How do we come to terms in our hearts and minds with our need for justice and our desire to strike back? Here we bring to the table the dimension of forgiveness.
Lord's Prayer in Syriac

Jesus calls us to forgive. Human psychology points to the importance of forgiveness. How do we balance working for justice and forgiving those who do injustice? That is the question I want to look at a little bit.

First of all, when we seek to balance working for justice, which we are all called to do, and forgiving those who do injustice, we must continually remind ourselves this: forgiveness cannot be rushed. Forgiveness is a spiritual practice. It does not come automatically, especially for victims. Forgiveness takes work, it takes practice, and it takes time. 

We might understand forgiveness as a muscle. We must build that muscle if it’s going to serve us. We must build that muscle of forgiveness so when we face very demanding and difficult situations we can rely on that muscle to forgive. And muscle building takes time.

And even when our muscles are strong, forgiveness doesn’t always happen right away. For friends of Tom Harty, expecting forgiveness right now in the wake of all the pain is unfair expectation, even a hurtful one. There is a process to forgiveness and it takes time. 

Swift forgiveness can be as harmful as swift justice.

And some situations, some injustices are so grave, our muscles cannot withstand it. We will sometimes come up against something that our muscles cannot endure. We will fail to forgive. This amounts to falling down and tearing our muscle of forgiveness. This is a pain of its own.

But healing must then happen. This healing will take time. Hopefully, after the healing and after rebuilding our muscle of forgiveness, we can in the end forgive, if only for our full healing.
In the case where full forgiveness cannot happen, when we simply cannot forgive the wrong done to us or the wrongdoer, what are we left with? First, we must be gentle on ourselves and forgive ourselves. Second, we must continue practicing forgiveness where we can.  The rest will take care of itself.

What does the practice of forgiveness mean? What does it look like? It begins small and continues small. Micro-forgiveness we might call it. When we confront micro-aggressions all around us, when we read horrible things on Facebook, when we see rudeness on the road or in the grocery store, we are given great opportunities to practice “micro-forgiveness.”

I am getting good practice these days with this. Amid this vicious campaign, I find it very hard to understand and be civil toward supporters of a particular presidential candidate. I want to judge, condemn, lash out at anyone remotely favorable of that candidate. Micro-forgiveness would mean seeking to forgive these supporters, seeking to feel compassion for their fear and their sense of isolation which gives rise to their blindness.    

Only when I can forgive that candidates supporters can I ever possibly learn to forgive that candidate while justice finds its way toward that candidate.

This all amounts to approaching life with a sense of softness and gentleness. As Bruce Lee once said, “be like water, be water.” Fluid, soft, and powerful when we need to be.

The last thing I want to discuss is another spiritual practice that exists alongside the practice of forgiveness. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer which mentions, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The very act of praying the Lord’s prayer points to that second practice. We might call it the practice of Prayerfulness.  

Now, the following thoughts are new and I am still processing 
them, so take them with a grain of salt. But as you may know I am a long time practitioner of mindfulness meditation. I am not as faithful as I used to be but it is something I still rely on and go to. 

So I ask myself what is the difference between prayerfulness and mindfulness? One certainly doesn’t negate the other. I am not going there. But how is prayer helpful to forgiveness, even more helpful than mindfulness?

Well, prayer includes expressing our pain, our needs, our questions, our struggles with forgiveness. We express these things to an infinite presence there to listen, there to receive our pain, our needs, our questions, our struggles. Prayer amounts to a kind of spiritual talk-therapy. This is not to say practical, person-to-person is not important or necessary for some. But prayer is a powerful practice that is always available and free. It is a practice where we from the couch of our pain can give voice, internally or externally, to that pain and present it to the presence of love there to listen.  

Now, in my understanding prayer is more than this. Prayer includes our listening back. We listen to the still small voice of God speaking to our spirits. This looks like mindfulness. It feels like mindfulness. In a way, it is akin to mindfulness practice.

The prayerfulness practice includes our presenting our pain to God in prayer and listening prayerfully to God’s still small voice within us. That is the practice of prayerfulness.

How does prayerfulness help us to forgive? Well, it helps to have an ally. It helps to know we are not alone in our struggle to forgive. God walks with us, beside us, before us. God, and for me, God working in the heart of Christ is the perfect example, the perfect exemplar of forgiveness. The most essential characteristic of God we see in the Bible is that of a forgiving God. God, who is love, by nature forgives. And God, Love with us, the exemplar of forgiveness, is a presence we can internalize. And when internalized, God, Love with us, the exemplar of forgiveness, then teaches us, guides us, moves us, strengthens us.  

I finish with our question, do justice and forgiveness contradict. Of course, no. Justice must be done. Justice must be sought. Without seeking and doing Justice collectively, as a people, the world cannot ever be made right.  Let me emphasize Justice is a collective act that seeks to make straight and righteous the community we all share.

But in the process of doing the work of justice, we can engage in the practice of forgiveness. Forgiveness begins individually, in our hearts, in our souls. It is a practice, it is a spiritual practice we are called to build within ourselves and towards one another.

And, we should know that forgiveness is a byproduct of Compassion. And Compassion and Justice go together if justice is lasting and shared. This, Compassion and Justice being two sides of one coin, is a discussion for another time. Next week, to be exact.

I end with these words: let us practice forgiveness, let us practice prayerfulness, and let us practice justice, seeing that these things are part of the whole we call the Beloved Community.