Public status of religious speech and instruction must remain separate

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I am about to enter my 86th year, and through those years, I have sought, and continue to seek, to worship and serve the God who was manifest in Jesus of Nazareth, and to remain open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and have tried to convey this heritage to my children, and to the congregations which I have served as minister.

But I am weary, and not a little angry with the sort of "God-talk" which has been voiced in response to last week's tragic slaughter of innocents in Connecticut: either that this tragedy is a result of failure to teach about God, prayer, and the Ten Commandments in the public schools, or that this is God's "punishment" of our society for its separation of public education from such religious instruction and practice.

I grew up in Alabama during a time in which prayer and Bible reading began every school day, and the Ten Commandments hung on many classroom walls. And yet this was a time of "Jim Crow" and racial segregation, and it occurred to few that God or the Commandments would have any problem with this. At my sainted grandmother's knee, I was taught that "the Bible teaches that the races should be separate." My Mississippi forebears were constant in prayer and Bible reading ... but were also slave-holders.

In the first congregation I served in East Mississippi (before "Civil Rights" legislation was passed), while we were holding special services in the church one morning, a couple of black men were beaten bloody in the square outside because they had tried to register to vote.

The story of my transition to the pastorate of a largely black congregation on Chicago's South Side is too long to tell here, but over decades of ministry, I learned that there are many and diverse sorts of "God-talk," and that "God-talk" in itself has to be assessed for its deeper meaning, and for its implications for the complexities of the particular situation.

Even in the Bible there is a diversity of "God-talk." In one place, God is said to have told Saul to slaughter the Amalekites and destroy them -- "Spare no one; put them all to death, men and women, children and babes in arms, herds and flocks, camels and asses." (I Samuel 15:3) -- and yet Jesus advised: "Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; pray for those who treat you spitefully. When a man strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other cheek too." (Luke 6: 29)

It's interesting that people are being beaten and killed in Egypt today because religious adherents are trying to force a certain sort of "God-talk" into their new constitution. Our forefathers saw the danger in that, and so took a different course respecting the public status of religious speech and instruction.

So, over the years, I have grown to believe that the deeper issues, challenges, and threats of life are complex, and cannot be reduced to "formulas" of whatever religious, or non-religious tradition; that the practice of leaving instruction in prayer, Bible reading (including Ten Commandments) and "God-talk" to families and communities of faith is a sound practice in our diverse society; and the suggestion that the roots of the horrendous event of last week are due to this separation is simply small-minded.

Harold Walker, Jr., Kent

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  • Mr. Walker, Thank you.