Saturday, October 27, 2012

Biblical Literalism Kills -- Literally

For God's Sake

Biblical Literalism Kills -- Literally
Leilani and Dale Neuman stood by as their diabetic daughter slipped into sickness, then acute illness and finally death from diabetic ketoacidosis. As followers of an online faith community called Unleavened Bread Ministries, which rejects medicine, prayed for her recovery but they did not take her to a doctor or call for an ambulance as their little girl died of an entirely treatable condition. Tell me these people should not be punished.
According to some of our beliefs, God may have had a hand in the tragic death of 11-year-old Kara Neumann, but it was her parents who let her die. Now they have been charged with reckless endangerment by authorities in Marathon County Wisc., where they live and their daughter died, for their role in her death. Can anyone really be upset about this?
There are moments when faith becomes so fanatical that it consigns others to a death not of their choosing and that is when we should all get worried. It's not that I don't treasure freedom of religion. I do. But as Judge Vincent Howard, who ordered the couple to stand trial remarked, "The free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment protects religious belief, but not necessarily conduct".
However one construes the free exercise of faith, there are limits, and this is surely a case of two parents who have burned right through them. In fact, it is precisely because I value the free exercise of our various faiths, that I am so disturbed by this abuse of that freedom.

And it's not that I don't have compassion for these parents who are suffering a pain which I pray no parent ever knows. I am sure that they didn't want their child to die, and there is room to mourn with them even as we condemn them.
It's not even that their community is wrong in claiming that medicine is not well thought of in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. Like it our not, neither of these texts thinks much of medical doctors, preferring faith in God to the practice of medicine. In fact, the only physicians mentioned in the Hebrew Bible are the embalmers called by Joseph to preserve the body of his father, Jacob. And we know what scripture thinks of the Egyptians!
But none of these facts excuses the Neumanns or should give us pause about their being prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The simple fact is that literalism, especially biblical literalism, kills.
To be clear, I am writing not about Fundamentalism, which refers to a specific faith in the perfection of the text as the revealed word of God. There can be, and often is, room for Biblical interpretation within that definition. And I even realize that as an orthodox Jew, I might be labeled, by some, as a fundamentalist.
This case is not about who is, or is not a Fundamentalist. It is about people hiding behind a claim of reading the Bible literally, which nobody does anyway. A great example can be found among those who claim to follow every word of the Bible and use that claim to explain their rejection of homosexuality and witchcraft, but have no problem violating equally biblical bans on pork or cooking on the Sabbath.
Of course, they will point to a new scripture which extends the prohibition on the first two, and frees them from the second set of proscriptions. But that is an interpretive move and that means that they are no longer literalists who are freed from the consequences of their actions simply by invoking the Free Exercise clause.
The case of Kara Neumann and the parents who allowed her to die, is about the dangers of any group of people, of any faith, refusing to admit that they too are part of an interpretive tradition, making decisions about the meaning of the text which they revere. When they fail to acknowledge their role in interpreting the text, they are creating an excuse to check their consciences at the door, and end up deeply hypocritical at best and murderous at worst.
Be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Pagan or anything else, any insistence on the literal reading of any ancient holy book, in contemporary times, quickly devolves into ugly and dangerous behavior. In fact, the reason that both early Christians and the first rabbinic Jews were able to create new communities was because the literal reading of the Hebrew Bible had ceased to be a functional approach to that text.
In each case, believers anticipated that a new reading of their revered scriptures was needed in order to maintain the authority of the text. This kind of re-reading was actually a mark of fidelity to the faith, not a betrayal, and literalists' inability to appreciate this fact is what brings them down every time. They end up defending ridiculous, and in this case criminal, positions because they fail to appreciate that sometimes, re-reading the text is more faithful to it than not.
The case of Kara Neumann is clearly one of those times. Now it is time for the faithful to stand up and make sure that there never is another case of this kind again.

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