Bringing Civility Back to Religion . . .

What we can we do to bring civility back to faith, and remove its thorn of toxicity? Decades ahead of his time, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber argued that one of the great spiritual challenges of our time is the process of purging our faith of all imagery that portrays the Divine as either vindictive or abusive. In his short but insightful autobiographical book, Meetings, Buber describes a meeting he had with a very pious and learned observant Jew. They had a conversation about the biblical story of King Saul and the war of genocide waged against Israel’s ancient enemy, Amalek. After Saul captures King Agag of Amalek, Saul does not kill him. The prophet Samuel becomes enraged at Saul, who places the onus of the blame on the people rather than himself. Perhaps he cannot kill his enemies with such reckless abandon, but Samuel will not hear of it; he personally hacks Agag to death. Afterward Samuel tells Saul to abdicate the throne, but Saul refuses. Buber tells the man sitting opposite him, that as a child, he always found this story horrifying. Buber recounts:

I told him how already at that time it horrified me to read or to remember how the heathen king went to the prophet with the words on his lips, “Surely the bitterness of death is past,” and was hewn to pieces by him. I said to my partner: “I have never been able to believe that this is a message of God. I do not believe it.” With wrinkled forehead and contracted brows, the man sat opposite me and his glance flamed into my eyes. He remained silent, began to speak, and became silent again. “So?” he broke forth at last, “so? You do not believe it?” “No,” I answered, “I do not believe it.” “So? so?” he repeated almost threateningly. “You do not believe it?” And once again: “No.”

“What. What”—he thrust the words before him one after the other—“What do you believe then?” “I believe,” without reflecting, “that Samuel has misunderstood God.” And he, again slowly, but more softly than before: “So? You believe that?” and I: “Yes.” Then we were both silent. But now something happened the like of which I have rarely seen before or since in this my long life. The angry countenance opposite me became transformed as if a hand had passed over it soothing it. It lightened, cleared, was now turned toward me bright and clear. “Well,” said the man with a positively gentle tender clarity, “I think so too.” And again we became silent, for a good while.[1]

Buber in the end of this anecdote mentioned how people often confuse the words of God with the words of man. To speak of God as “abusive,” is to speak of a man‑made caricature of God. Buber was well aware of the power such imagery has over people in the formation of their own personal relationships.

[1] Martin Buber, Meetings (Laselle, IL: Open Court, 1973), 52‑53.