In the late 1600’s, Arthur Bury published a work entitled, “The Naked Gospel.” In it he urged a return to prayer, to a less corrupted form of scripture, and a rejection of the Trinity. It may also have associated the monotheism of Islam with the theology of Socinians or Unitarians. It was deemed to be so offensive that it was condemned and ordered to be publicly burnt by the Convocation of the University of Oxford in August 1690.
While the book desecration and burning aspect of the history of Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, when on November 9, 1938, nearly fifteen hundred synagogues were set on fire in Nazi Germany, while this book burning aspect is often overlooked it is a part of a multipronged process of elimination. The Torah was torn to shreds, scrolls cast out into the streets where they were ridden over. In some cases, Jewish people were forced to tear up their sacred books and burn them. In Berlin, Hebrew scriptures were carried into the square and publicly set afire.
And lest we think this is a practice for the history books of bygone eras only, in 2010 Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida announced plans to burn a Quran on the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, a plan he later canceled, however some six months later he did oversee such a burning, provoking Islamist condemnation and rioting in Afghanistan.
These are only three of what are likely countless historical events where texts considered to be sacred to various traditions were destroyed. It is an extreme step in a progression that begins with simple opposition. Books are typically banned due to moral, religious, or philosophical content that is deemed too obscene or controversial. Books that explore race or sexuality or new concepts and ideas are still often prohibited by certain communities even if they can be easily purchased. But the question that arises for me, which is so often the case, is, “According to whom?”
It is not often that I will bring you a reading from Hebrew or Christian scriptures, but the concept of forbidden fruit gets at the heart of the matter. Let’s take a look. When we think of fruit, we think of something healthy, nourishing. To be fruitful is to produce good or helpful results, to be productive. Fruitful people produce many offspring, be those children or in the form of other facets of being and doing that are prolific. Think writers and musicians. Mary Oliver was a prolific poet. The fruit of this tree in the center of the garden was knowledge – not just factual knowledge, but a sense of knowing – understanding – awareness. And in the case of this particular tree, the knowing would put one on par with the divine beings, so a higher authority operating on a level above humanity. And it was one of those divine beings who issued the edict, so again I ask my question, “How come?”
The most obvious answer is that this has to do with power – power over as opposed to empowerment. In order to maintain that distance, that fear or respect, the God of the Hebrew people created humanity a little less than and was intent on keeping it that way. Or perhaps, having endowed them with free will, had a sense that there would be a chance they would take matters into their own hands, become more knowledgeable and thus have to bear the burden of such knowing. Their God was either jealous or protective as I see it, but the basic principle remains – it was about control.
According to Alon Confino, writing in 2014 for The Commentary, the banning and burning of Hebrew sacred texts was about something more than just ridding the world of Jewish people. It was about rooting out all evidence of Judaism as a whole. We often think of the Nazi’s attempted elimination of Jewish people as racial or biological in nature. But the burning of scriptures was about something deeper, about the destruction of a people’s story. It was about creating a new German history that did not contain any other stories beyond the Nazi narrative. It was not about fixing the present, he says, but instead about fixing the past. It acknowledged
the power of the books themselves in the lives of Jewish people and the communal destruction of that power by individuals caught up in the visceral excitement of it all – like folks who would gather in the town square here in the US to watch and cheer on a lynching, those who gathered up the Indigenous people on these lands, stripping them of language and culture and meaning, engaged and complicit by their presence, their willingness to turn a blind eye . It was ‘an awesome display of superiority’ that sought to shift the identity of a Chosen People from the Jews to the Reich. 1
Ours is not an oral tradition. What is considered historical is what is written and for much of our time, especially here in the West, what is put into the history books serves those in the place of power, elevates them and their story above that of those they intend to displace. We have all seen this evolve in our lifetimes, what we were taught in school being only half truths at best about any culture considered other that the dominant white privileged class. It is only recently that some of the layers of oppression associated with this practice have begun to be peeled back. And the knowing that has been unveiled has left the powers that be scrambling to
rewrite again the history of this nation.
Banning books is not new, as you can see, and there have been many iterations over the past century. Books that many of us recall reading in school, placed on lists because the story they tell threatens the partial story we would be fed as a whole truth. I was surprised to discover that there is actually an annual “Banned Books Week” which ended yesterday!
Every year a list is produced of the most challenged writings and from that list I will issue a challenge in a bit! In the past year we have been witness to an unprecedented rise in the banning of books from schools and libraries. State after state have enacted laws preventing the use of texts in classrooms and their availability on library shelves. Between March and July of this year, 1,145 books have been banned in school districts, primarily targeting LGBTQIA+ and diverse authors. They are caught in the struggle we are calling ‘the culture wars’ that pits those who want to limit access to certain histories and narratives against those who believe that any form of censorship should be done away with. Most often cited are books with explicit sexual content – read here, “LGBTQ relationships or depictions,” and anything that smacks of critical race theory.
While speech is presumptively protected under the First Amendment, it becomes less clear when we acknowledge the right of state governments and departments of education to determine what can be a part of the curriculum. Book banning leaves a noticeable void in lower income communities where access to all forms of media and resources is already limited. 2 It is, again, about who holds authority.
The recent uptick in censorship is brought about by this sense of losing power, by a fear that a way of life that has been protected for so long is giving way to something new and different and that difference is given a negative connotation by those who fear the loss of what they have known as true, whether or not it holds any real truth. In the meantime, people whose stories have been suppressed for so long continue to challenge the status quo. This is not so much a new phenomenon as it is one that is being painted with the brush of white supremacy and heteronormativity as an uprising in our midst. The counter narrative that sees an attendant evil in greater understanding of people’s stories is being ramped up, instilling fear and that complicit behavior that puts up roadblocks to knowledge and relationship.
As Unitarian Universalists we are taught to cherish doubt, the attendant of truth, as Robert Weston explores in our responsive reading. With greater knowing comes increased clarity of truths long held at bay, hidden, forced underground. We needn’t fear truth, he says, because it ultimately stands the test of time. There is a fruitfulness, he posits, associated with knowledge, a wider perspective on our human experience that is inclusive of all of humanity.
So, what are we to do? We find ourselves appalled at the recent rulings banning books. We are not so blind that we can’t see connections to the Nazi regime and its need to rewrite history. We are a thinking people – sometimes too much so – but we are feeling the visceral nature of this recent wave of suppression. We talk about building a more just world – a place of right relationship among all peoples – bringing about beloved community. And sometimes we feel a powerlessness in the face of it all. We have been on this path for most of our lives, many of us, and for a lot of you that has spanned nearly a century of activism.
Here is what I propose. In the basket at the back of the sanctuary are nine or ten books that are on the list put forth annually by the Office of Intellectual Freedom whose censorship is condemned by the American Library Association. I invite you to take one home and to read it. Tomorrow’s eblast will have a list and you can purchase one directly yourself if you wish. Also on the list are books that have made the list over the decades of our lives. You could choose one of those instead. There are literally hundreds to cull through! I am setting aside some time on Friday, October 21st for a discussion of these books. What did we discover to be the root fear in each of them? Where does the power dynamic come into play? And what did we learn from these authors about lives lived differently from our own? What will we embrace going forward, based on what we have learned? Once we have finished with these books, I want to invite you to join me in donating them to our local library as a statement of our belief in a broad spectrum of knowledge and story, in the fruitfulness of a deeper knowing, as a way of demonstrating the justice, equity and inclusion that we espouse.
Gandhi’s vision of a nonviolent world recognized that those who intend to hold power over must first convince those who they wish to dominate of their helplessness and dependency.
Breaking that lie is an act of power and truth. 3 Are we not called to listen to people’s stories, to hear people into empowered being? As we read these stories and others can we be changed by them and use our voices to lift up the stories of the so-called marginalized?
On this eve of Rosh Hoshana, the Jewish high holy days that celebrate the beginning of the universe and so the beginning of their new year, may we consider the story that has been their guiding light, perhaps explore its meaning for us as a people striving to be allies with those who have been cast to the margins.
Story by story, truth by truth, may we come to know one another as diverse expressions of our common humanity. May ours be a house where all are truly welcome, where we are changed by each being who enters into fellowship here. May our small acts reap volumes in the ever-expanding story that is our life here on the hill.
Blessed be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson, UUMH Chatham, September 25, 2022
1 Alon Confino, from Commentary(Vol. 137, Issue 6), Commentary, Inc., June 2014
2 Christian Thorsberg, Matt Stiles, Anna Deen; https://www.grid.news/story/politics/2022/08/27
3 Nonviolence Daily: 365 Days of Inspiration from Gandhi; Michael N. Nagler and Stephanie N. Van Hook; Person
Power Press, 2019; p. 245.