Letter to the Editor – Response to Pastor Steve Viars’ Op-Ed in Journal & Courier

13 September 2019

We write as Christian leaders in the greater Lafayette area to bring a different perspective on the Biblical letter from James that Pastor Viars quotes in his recent editorial

The letter from James does indeed call its adherents to refrain from snap judgment. There is however a difference between snap judgment and a requirement that corporate entities at Purdue must abide by the stated values of the University. Let us not conflate snap judgment with speaking the truth in love. 

Really, the letter from James is a call to love our neighbor with acts of grace and compassion, to reach out to those in the community who are truly marginalized.  This includes LGBTQIA people, people of color, our interfaith neighbors, the homeless and hungry, and all who have been excluded simply for being who God created them to be. As Christians, we are called to proclaim that God’s love is about welcoming and accepting everyone and to speak out on behalf of those on the margins.

James also calls us to work to eradicate hunger. “If a brother or sister lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”  Rather than defending corporations, our energy is better spent supporting the important work of organizations like Food Finders and LUM.  Join us on September 22 at the Hunger Hike as we answer James’ call.

The Rev. Deanna Brown

The Rev. Kevin Bowers, Bethany Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Dr. Hilary Cooke, St. John’s Episcopal Church

The Rev. Lisa Williams Hood, First Baptist Church

Joe Micon, Lafayette Urban Ministries

The Rev. Rosemary Morrison, Unitarian Universalist Church

The Rev. Lucia Oerter, Central Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Dr. Bradley Pace, St. John’s Episcopal Church

The Rev. Kevin Bowers, Bethany Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Dr. Hilary Cooke, St. John’s Episcopal Church

The Rev. Lisa Williams Hood, First Baptist Church

The Rev. Dr. Bradley Pace, St. John’s Episcopal Church


ILGL Statement on Recent Mass Shootings in the United States

The Interfaith Leaders of Greater Lafayette are horrified and heartbroken over the mass shootings in Gilroy California, El Paso Texas, and Dayton Ohio.  We, and our partner organizations and congregations, send strength to the mourners and peace to the cities once again broken by the plague of gun violence in our society.  

As a coalition of religious leaders, we look to the Bible for guidance, and remember that we are commanded to pursue justice and peace on behalf of humanity.   We hear the words of the Prophets Isaiah and Micah, who tell the people of the world to “beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4/Micah 4:3)  We are commanded by the Divine, not only to mourn the victims of violence, not only to offer our prayers, but to transform weapons of destruction into tools for the greater good of society, and we must work together to do so.  Additionally, we read in the creation story of Genesis: “And God created human beings in the divine image, in the image of the Divine, God created them…”(Genesis 1:27)

The taking of any human life, therefore, is an attack on the Divine image itself and upon God.  Every life is sacred, regardless of race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, or citizenship status.  All of us carry within us the spark of the Divine and when a light goes out, a part of all of us is chipped away.

 We urge those with power to not look away at these senseless, preventable acts of hatred, violence, and evil; we ask them to not only offer thoughts and prayers, but to provide action to curb this pandemic of gun violence and the loss of innocents on our streets, in our city squares, and in every corner of our country.

May the memories of the lives lost be a blessing, and may the One who makes peace in the high places, make peace over us and over all of humanity, as we say, Amen.   

ILGL Statement on Synagogue Shooting – April, 2019

At six months since the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue, and on the final day of Passover, we, the Interfaith Leaders of Greater Lafayette are heartbroken to hear of another attack against Jews in the United States, this time at Congregation Chabad in Poway, California.  We mourn the death of Lori Kaye, and we pray for the recovery of Noya Dahan, a child of only 9 years old, Almog Peretz (34), and Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein (57).  This deadly and bloody hateful attack is yet another indication of the rise of White Supremacy in our country, when, for the first time in our nation’s history, Neo-Nazis, KKK members, and other hate groups feel validated and emboldened by those who serve in political leadership in our government. It is the hope of the ILGL that this incident, as well as the many other incidents that occur each day in our country, fuels a serious conversation about antisemitism and all forms of hate that are rising to the surface. 

Additionally, we cannot ignore the fact that this incident occurred with the use of an assault rifle, causing yet another active shooting incident in America, now the world’s capital of mass shootings.  It is the hope, as well, of ILGL, that this incident triggers a thoughtful conversation in our government about access of civilians to weapons of warfare.  The Jewish community in the Greater Lafayette area thank the outpouring of support and grief from neighbors, and look forward to future interfaith work to bring peace and positivity in our city. 

ILGL Statement on Violence in Sri Lanka – April 2019

We as the Interfaith Leaders of Greater Lafayette wish to condemn the tragic acts of violence in churches and hotels in Colombo, Negombo, and Batticaloa, Sri Lanka.  We respond with a sense of deep sadness and grief that nearly 300 worshipers were killed and countless more injured on Easter, the holiest day for most people of the Christian faith.  We believe all people have the right to worship as they please and deserve to do so without fear of violence. 

While the individuals and groups who perpetrated this horrific act are still being sought by authorities and will likely be brought to justice by the authorities in Sri Lanka, it is also well to remember that radical factions of any group do not represent the broadest and best of any group or faith.  We continue to encourage people to work towards the freedom of all people in all places to worship as they see fit, and for all of us to work for justice and peace.   Let us join in prayer for the families touched by this tragedy and work as we are each able for a better world for all people. 

ILGL Statement on Fires at Holy Sites – April 2019

A church building is not the same thing as a church community. A Mosque cannot fully embody the prayers of the faithful that gather there. A holy site is holy because of the way it brings worshipers together. And yet, our buildings, our community centers, our holy sites provide space where we connect with one another and to the divine.  No matter the religion it houses, a place of worship is holy to those who keep it holy, and thus the Interfaith Leaders of Greater Lafayette (ILGL) mourn along side those of any religion who see their sacred spaces damaged.

Members of ILGL watched with great sadness as the great Cathedral Church of Notre Dame was heavily damaged by fire yesterday. We were also saddened to see that the Al Aqsa Mosque—one of Islam’s most holy sites—was also damaged by fire. We offer prayers for the church community that worships at the Notre Dame in Paris and for all those who have glimpsed the beauty of God there. We pray also for the Muslim community in Jerusalem and for those who answer the call to prayer at the Al Aqsa Mosque.

ILGL Statement on Biblical Literacy – March 2019

This Op Ed is co-authored by a Rabbi and Hebrew Bible Scholar and an ordained Christian Minister and New Testament Scholar. This week, among the tens of news alerts, one in particular caught our attention as a clergy and scholars. On Monday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted the following statement: “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!”

The president’s tweet was a response to a Fox & Friends segment where North Dakota Rep. Aaron McWilliams (R) discussed a bill he was co-sponsoring a bill to allow Bible classes in public schools. This bill, as it turns out, is not unique. The ACLU has reported that Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Alabama, Iowa, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky have all introduced similar legislation and, in Kentucky and Tennessee, this legislation has passed. There has, unsurprisingly, been strong pushback to such bills, in particular because they blur the lines between Church and State. As Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, recently stated “State legislators should not be fooled that these bills are anything more than part of a scheme to impose Christian beliefs on public schoolchildren.” While we fully agree with Laser, and all others who warn about the challenges such bills represent to non-Christians in our public schools, as scholars our concerns also follow a different track.

Fair warning: this Op Ed will contain some very technical information. This is because both Christian and Jewish biblical studies is a very technical endeavor, and that is the crux of the problem with “biblical literacy.” The idea sounds simple, and to most legislators who may be unaware of the technical issues, it likely seems quite simple. However in practical implementation the many technical problems with “teaching the bible” make it a very difficult endeavor to implement fairly and in a balanced way in a public school setting. So this Op Ed will seek to highlight a number of logistical problems with such a seemingly straightforward endeavor, and will seek to demonstrate that such an undertaking will inevitably be one sided and will ultimately elevate one religious tradition above others.

The first question when one is presented with this kind of legislation is “Who’s Bible?” No doubt the initiatives listed above have the Christian, most likely the Protestant Christian, Bible in mind. However there is no one single bible (collection of sacred writings called a “canon”). Jews have a canon with the same collection of writings, or biblical “books” as what protestants have traditionally called the Old Testament, although the books are in a different order. Catholics have more books in their canon that include writings from the time between the Hebrew Bible and what Protestants call the New Testament writings. The Orthodox Christians (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.) also have a different canon than the Protestant and Catholic Christians. So in a public school, where all voices and traditions are equally important, who’s Bible will be taught? All this, not to mention the fact that other religious traditions such as Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, to name a few, have entirely different sets of sacred writings! Who’s sacred writings should be taught in a public school where all voices and traditions are equal? 

The next question is, “Which Bible?” What most people (and perhaps most legislators) do not know is that any modern translation of “the Bible” is based on a compilation of various ancient manuscripts. No one has the original writings of either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament! What we have available to us today are copies of copies of copies (and so on) called manuscripts. The printing press had not been invented and to preserve deteriorating sacred writings they were hand copied by scribes who were subject to human error and engaged in intentional changes. Although the vast majority of these manuscripts agree with each other, there are also many differences. 

For example, when Jewish scholars read “the Bible,” meaning the Jewish canon, they read it in the original language, Hebrew. The manuscript they use is the Masoretic Text, which has been deemed the authoritative manuscript for Judaism. As mentioned above, the original text of the Hebrew Bible has never been found. Instead, between the 7th and 10th centuries CE, the Masoretes took many manuscripts, including the Ben Asher, and the Ben Naphtali scripts, and created an authoritative text. This manuscript, what we now call the “MT,” differs from the texts found at Qumran, as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It also differs from the manuscript that was used to translate the Bible into Greek, known as the Septuagint. Furthermore, it differs from the Aleppo Codex, the Peshitta, and the Samaritan Pentateuch, and it differs from the manuscript used by the rabbis of the 2nd – 5th centuries CE in the Mishnah and Talmud. What we as biblical scholars see when we read the MT, in other words, is just one perspective of the Hebrew.

New Testament scholarship has a similar issue. Because we do not have the original manuscripts of the New Testament, scholars sort through the plethora of currently existing manuscripts and compile what is most likely the original text. So, what does all of this mean? Those who translate both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament into English have made choices about what manuscripts they believe are most likely to represent the original writings. These choices are seen in the (more than just stylistic) variation among translations of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

This leads to a third question, “Which translation?” Once we have established the lack of consistency in the “original” biblical texts, we can and should move on to the problems in regard to translation. If you are a typical Jew, you read an English translation from the Hebrew, perhaps the translations by the Jewish Publication Society, Robert Alter, the Plaut Chumash, or the like. A Christian might read from the New Revised Standard Version or New International Version or another of the plethora of different English Translations available. All of these translations differ, as they should, because of the vast ambiguity of the original biblical languages, (Hebrew for the Jewish bible and Greek for the New Testament) and the problems of the scribal errors and indecipherable Hebrew phrases that exist in the MT and other manuscripts. You’ll notice, in all translations of the Bible, many footnotes that point you to the all-too-common phrase at the bottom, “Meaning of Hebrew uncertain,” or “meaning of Greek uncertain.” Anyone who has translated anything into another language knows that there are ambiguities, nuances, and double meanings that simply do not translate well. Translators make choices and these choices reflect a particular theological preference. 

Just in relation to the Hebrew Bible, one can imagine that the bills making their way through state legislatures aren’t actually advocating for students in public schools to read translations rooted in Jewish interpretive traditions. Rather, they are advocating for translations containing Christian interpretive traditions, which contain not only the New Testament, which is not authoritative for Jews, but the Christian translations of the Hebrew Bible through a Christian translation lens. In other words, if these bills pass and the “Bible” is taught in public schools, it will be taught through a Christian lens because the translation that they will be using is a Christian one. 

Hebrew and Greek, as stated above, contain many ambiguities, but translators do not. Rather, they frequently push their subconscious or conscious agendas on the reader by choosing meanings of words that fit their theologies. [BL1] Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahai, and many others would be subjected to a very particular “Bible literacy,” meaning a Christian interpretation of the words of the Bible by Christian translators, with Christian theology packed into the choices of the words on the pages. 

Along these same lines, within Christianity, Christians would also be subjected to a particular theological interpretation. Although Jewish and Christian scholars typically read the original languages, when they do read the Bible in translation, they do so with several in front of them, including those that have been shown to be academic and those that have varying translations so as to see the differing theories behind verses. The goal, in this case, of reading and teaching the Bible, then, is to share the many interpretations of this document. This is not, however, what would be presented to the young minds in our public schools.

Which brings us to our final question: “Who is going to teach it?” Bible study is incredibly difficult; it takes years to master, and far too many “teachings” on the Bible come from unlearned men and women with particular agendas. Just as the translator shows his or her hand by choosing particular words, the teacher has the ability to share his or her interpretations to students, whether they be educated or not. Are these teachers going to be trained to teach the ambiguity and differing opinions about the Bible, or are they going to be reading lesson curriculums meant to teach literal understandings of the texts? We all know that the New Testament contains anti-Jewish sentiment, and the Hebrew Bible contains problematic and outdated laws which challenge our moral and ethical outlook today, such as the verses on slavery, homosexuality, marriage, the roles of women, and the like.

To that end, we should note that the world of reading the Bible is far greater than opening up the Kings James version, and these bills that are being introduced place our children in danger of learning skewed perspectives, ill-informed interpretations, and morals and ethics that are no longer relevant to 21st century society. In our diverse world that thrives on science and logic, we can think of no greater threat to the learning of public-school children than a class on “Bible literacy.” In Indiana and throughout our country, we need to keep bibles where they belong: in our houses of worship.