What we see happening in many state legislatures in the United States is nothing new: Creating rules that keep out people we wish we didn’t have to deal with in our country’s population has been going on since biblical times.
When it comes to living in community, there are two story lines that run through the Bible:
1) Protect and defend our national/group interests (one of the reasons that the laws regarding “clean” and “unclean” were implemented—see Leviticus 11-15)
2) Live by the Spirit of divine justice and compassion (see any of the 17 books of the prophets–Isaiah thru Malachi–and the words of Jesus)
There is plenty that the Religious Right can read in the Bible that justifies what they are doing in statehouses across the country in lining up new bills to be passed in their congresses that will make it harder to have access to voting in political elections. (To date, we have set the highest record of new laws like this: 14 states have enacted 22 new laws between Jan. 1 and May 14 already this year, with hundreds more waiting in queue) https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/policy-solutions/congress-must-pass-people-act
These lawmakers read verses about being “holy like God is holy” and interpret this to mean that we need to focus on “restoring this ‘Christian nation’* to its former glory.” They think that by keeping the vote strongly in the hands of people who are like them, the people who have been running the show for the last few hundred years, namely WHITE people, that greater freedom and equality will be inevitable (for who, I’m not sure).
*(It is questionable whether the U.S. was created as a Christian nation, since it was deemed unlawful for the state to support one religion or any religion—see the establishment clause within the First Amendment).
Other lawmakers who are religious, but not xenophobic, might favor the strong injunctions in the book of Exodus over those in Leviticus. (There’s a lot more directions given to Moses after the Ten Commandments!) Of course, we don’t see any explicit directions about ballot boxes or recount procedures in the ancient world. But read these verses which are referred to as “Justice for All” in my Harper Collins Study Bible (NRSV) beginning in verse 4 of Exodus, chapter 23:
“When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free. You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty. You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Much of the Bible is like this: two steps forward, one step back. Two steps toward deepening humanity’s heart and mind with lessons of compassion and justice, and then inevitably we will hear other words that take us backward into fear and egoic thinking once again. Which is why reading sacred text is a lifelong adventure.
Here’s something I have found helpful as a follower of Christ (though I’m sure Jews and Muslims have other equally brilliant ways of discerning truth about how to follow an A/Ibrahimic understanding of the divine):
Use Jesus as your colander.
I learned this from United Methodist pastor, Adam Hamilton. He points out that most of us have prepared spaghetti noodles at one time or another, and poured the cooked noodles through a colander to let the starchy water flow out and away from the good stuff we want to keep, right? So, if you are a Christian, use Jesus as your colander. Whenever you have a sticky idea or confusing directive from the Bible, simply pour it through the colander of “What do I imagine Jesus would say about this?”
If I pour the directive from Exodus 12: 17 through the Jesus-colander (“Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death”), I imagine Jesus would likely say that the verse’s meaning has more to do with negating violence of all kinds rather than actually trying to create more violence with the death penalty. Let that one rinse through the colander.
However, if I pour the directive from Deuteronomy 6: 4, 5 (“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”), this is something we can imagine being held firmly within the colander, right? (see Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27)
If you’re interested in learning more about how to help build a democracy in the U.S. where the bulk of its citizens sees its needs better cared for within the country’s social policies, learn more from New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/policy-solutions/congress-must-pass-people-act) about For The People Act 2021. Then contact your local senators and reps to let her/him/them know your thoughts, as it is still needing our support.
Jesus was both a high priest and high prophet…and more. He knew that loving God with everything you’ve got meant caring more deeply than you would want to, about people you will never meet—but that are as important to God as you and your own family are to you.
Those of us who refuse this wisdom do so at our own peril.
Peace, Shalom, Salaam to you, my friends.