By SUSAN K. SMITH
Crazy Faith Ministries
Before I entered seminary, I was warned that over the years there have been reports that some students cannot handle the study of the Bible – that they lose the comfort of the way they have read and understood the scriptures all their lives and that exegeting the Bible – a necessary skill taught the first year, dismantles many students, resulting in some leaving seminary and others to suffer nervous breakdowns.
I did not pay the warning much attention until one of my classmates, an African American who was already a pastor, left seminary after the first year. He was with us all as we studied the art of exegesis, referring to scriptures that we had studied and already written papers about or which had been hinted by professors that we might see them on our final exam.
Our sessions were long and intense, but when finals came, we were ready … except for this one classmate. I don’t remember what was said about why he left. I don’t remember if he even took the final. I just remember that he was with us that first year … until he wasn’t.
Exegesis involves tearing apart the scriptures, learning what they said in their original languages, learning the sitz en leben of the time, and understanding what certain words meant at the time the scriptures were written, which were and are often different from the way we understand those words – and therefore the meaning of the texts – in the present time.
Once we took the scriptures apart, we were to put them back together, using our new knowledge. It was always challenging, but as we began the year, I remember saying to myself, “just make sure your bottom line is intact – i.e., I believe in God. I believe in Jesus. And I always will.”
Belief, though, was not enough for our friend. Dismantling those texts and challenging the way you have always believed is difficult. There is such a thing in reading the Bible as a belief in its unalterable truth – ie., everything we read is as we read it, not as it was written. What we read becomes our own Bible; what we read becomes our beliefs, and we hold onto those beliefs for dear life. Believing in that way becomes a ritual.
I remember doing a Bible class as a pastor, where I shared that many of the plagues sent by Yahweh to get Pharaoh to let the Israelites could very well have been natural occurrences that had happened before, not necessarily a specific dump of misery on a contentious ruler. That did not take away the spiritual substance of the plagues, I said, nor did it undermine the power of God, but some of my students could not even begin to accept my approach. One student said, “Please, don’t dismantle the stories.” I never did again.
But I thought about all of that – about how ritual is so important to us and to the way we live and survive, as I listened to a podcast, “Over My Dead Body – Fox Lake” on Wondery. The death of a beloved police officer lead to the uncovering of some painful facts, including that though it was supposed that he had been murdered, he had actually staged his homicide and killed himself. The investigation carried out revealed that he had been laundering money, had been taking funds from program he created that trained new officers, and had basically done things that investigators identified as white collar crime. They had been saying that he had been murdered for two months. That description fit the narrative that holds well in this country: that police officers are heroes. The people of his town wanted those who had killed him to be found and brought to justice.
But when, after a couple of months, the lead investigator had to do another press conference and share with the public that they had found out that he had staged his own death and had actually committed suicide, in addition to the white-collar crimes that had been uncovered, the public was infuriated.
They could not wrap their heads around this new information. It violated their ritualized beliefs in law enforcement, and that ritual was necessary for their well-being. The violation of that ritual was more than many could stand.
It hit me that the rituals called belief – be they in religion or law enforcement, or in the overall belief in the exceptionalism of America – are what holds people together. They need their beliefs to hold – no matter what, which is why I think it is safe to call them “rituals.” Rituals are sacred; we would rather hold onto rituals than upset our own equilibrium by evaluating them and leaving room for change, alteration, replacement of or elimination.
Rituals keep us comfortable.
As the information about this police officer was released to the public, there was resistance and angry backlash. It couldn’t be true, many said. This police officer was a hero! That’s all they could believe, facts indicating otherwise notwithstanding.
We saw in the Jan. 6 insurrection people attacking police officers, but I daresay that they have been proponents of the “blue lives matter” mantra. I see a strange, schizoid way of thinking; their actions on Jan. 6 show they have as little respect for law enforcement officers as other groups, but they would still say, and some have, that “blue lives matter.” It’s the ritual of belief they are holding onto. If police are not as pure as the driven snow, where does that leave them? They have to be right in the way they regard police officers, even as they attack them because of being caught in a political rhetorical maelstrom.
I don’t think a lot of White people are able to take “the truth” about the behavior of the White power structure in this country. In order to protect their own psyches, they have to spout off the ritual beliefs they have grown up with. If “the other side” is correct in its evaluation of American law enforcement, where does that leave them? Where do they go? The belief in the “pure as the driven snow” police force is a myth they hold dear. They cannot “leave” this culture as my classmate left seminary. That being the case, they hold onto which many very well may know is a belief in something that is just not true.
Myths exist to make us feel good and safe. They are seldom based on fact. And the sad thing is that nobody cares.
Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith is the founder and director of Crazy Faith Ministries. She is available for speaking. And she is an award-winning author for her latest book, “With Liberty and Justice for Some: The Bible, the Constitution, and Racism in America,” available through all booksellers. Contact her at email@example.com.