In 1859, an 11-year-old boy in a Boston Public School refused to read the daily lesson from the Bible. He was beaten across the knuckles with a bamboo cane for more than half an hour before he gave in and betrayed his Catholic faith. The school, it seems, was using a Bible authorized by King James as he was leaving the Catholic faith. For young Tom Wall, that version was a heresy. Tom Wall’s father and his priest were terrified for Tom’s soul after such a betrayal of his faith. Mr. Wall filed an assault charge against the teacher and challenged Bible reading in court. He lost. The court affirmed the Protestant Bible would be the Bible of public school.
In 1869, the school board of Cincinnati, Ohio, voted to honor the request of Catholic parents to end daily readings of the King James Version of the Bible, only to have a group of Protestant parents take them to court, where a three-judge panel overturned the school board 2 to 1. And the fight moved to the Supreme Court, which said, “When Christianity asks the aid of government beyond mere impartial protection, it denies itself. For its laws are divine and not human ... history shows us that the more widely and completely government and religion are separated, the better it is for both.” In response, riots broke out in New York City, and 13 Catholics were mercilessly killed.
Truth be told, this story is a rerun of the difficulty humanity has ordering community life throughout all of history. We will be ordered by faith or creed? Power or gender or philosophy or wealth or ethnicity? Transformation of religious institutions can lead to church wars just as quickly as transformation of civil institutions can lead to factions warring against factions. Transformation is about change, and change creates anxiety, especially when we cannot see the future. And if the Bible holds the sacred memory of our journey in the company of God, then we should look again at God’s holy ordering.
Holy speaks of God’s freedom. Holy ordering begins with God separating the waters of chaos and causing dry land to appear; the cosmos transformed to house living creatures. The image of God in the human spirit reflects God’s life-giving power to create and send us forth without bonds or chains. Touched by the Holy One, the human spirit thrives in a freedom that reflects God’s desire for the least of us to be as free as the most powerful. We are freed when we accept the gift of holiness from God, who is holy. In the Epistle of James, we read, “Listen...favoritism does not indicate faith in the Lord Jesus. If a person with fine clothes and gold jewelry comes into the assembly along with a poor person in dirty clothes and you make a distinction between them, you become judges with evil thoughts. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be heirs of the kingdom? You do well if you fully live the royal law, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Speak and act as those who are to be judge by the law of freedom – of God’s holiness. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
Holy ordering is shaped by mercy and kindness. The rules for community life found in the book of Proverbs are ancient and simple, “The rich and the poor have this in common, the Lord God made them all.” “Those who are generous are blessed for they share their bread with the poor.” “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or oppress the afflicted at the gates of justice, for the Lord God becomes their advocate.”
In the end, the human family will be measured against God’s holy order. And the righteous will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink or saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing or saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the Holy One will answer, “...Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”