Barganing for Admah and Zeboyim

The phrase “separation of Church and State” is perhaps the most important phrase in our country that does not appear in either the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence – it instead comes from a letter penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, where he points out that the First Amendment is designed to “build a wall of separation between Church & State.”  This is also reflected in Roger William’s writings in 1644 where he talks about “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world,” and can even be traced further back to Jesus of Nazareth (circa 30 CE), who said, “Render unto Cesar that which is Cesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.”

Even with this wall of separation, however, it is also important to realize that we ask for morality in our leaders, and morality is often derived from religion and philosophy.  For many religions, there is a reward for moral behavior, and thus a significant amount of time is devoted to determining what “moral behavior” is.  Philosophy as well spends time thinking about this – just without the reward aspect that religion offers.  Thus, we can consider the actions of our leaders in light of these moral guidelines provided by whatever religion and/or philosophy we so choose, but may not force others to use those same guidelines.  When it comes to the matter of the law, in fact, this “wall of separation” ensures that we as a society are all living under the same set of rules (our system of laws) and those therefore have a primacy over whatever our moral views of the subject are.  But there is nothing preventing us from applying our own sets of morality when choosing our leaders, and we are free to look to our own religions for guidelines on how to make those choices.

This, of course, is fraught with peril and potential hypocrisy.  In doing this, we should remember that we have that wall of separation, and in order for us to not force our own morals onto other people, we must have laws that permit actions that we ourselves would not choose.  Our legal system must protect the rights of the individual – the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – but yet also ensure that we have a society to participate in.  This, of course, is the fundamental basis of differences of political opinion in this country:  where and how do you draw that line?

I am not here to answer that question.  I have my own opinions, of course, but they are not relevant to what I want to discuss here.  What I want to discuss is perhaps one of the most interesting passages in any religious text that I have encountered.  In the book of Genesis, chapter 19, we find the text describing the destruction of the Cities of the Plain – Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zaboyim.  Of the five Cities of the Plain listed in chapter 14, only Zoar was spared (for Lot begged for that small city to be the one that he would flee to).  But it is not the destruction of the cities in chapter 19 that is the important part here; it is the lead-up to that in chapter 18  that I find fascinating.

In verses 11-33 of chapter 18, God discusses his plans of destroying the cities with Abraham, his chosen one.  The cities, we are told, are to be destroyed because they are wicked (what the wickedness was is a debate that is centuries old, and again is entirely beside the point).  Then – and this is the amazing part – Abraham talks back to God, pointing out the problems with this plan.  For God’s plan would have destroyed the righteous along with the wicked, and Abraham could not stomach that.  First he pleads for the sake of 50 hypothetical righteous that the city not be destroyed.  Then he pleads for the sake of 45, the 30, then 20, and the gets God to agree that if even there are 10 righteous people in the cities, the whole of the cities would be spared.  God sends investigators to the cities; they find just one righteous family, and that family is sent out of the Cities of the Plain before the destruction is effected (except, as I mentioned above, they pleaded to not run to the hills but instead to one city that would then be saved).

Of course, I am not just here to relate that story.  Current events in our nation have had me thinking about that story for some time now, and specific current events in Georgia have driven those thoughts to the page.  It has been the fashion recently for certain leaders to push an agenda of “reducing voter fraud,” that is, ensuring that only people who are eligible to vote are the ones actually voting.  This is, on its surface, not a problematic goal.  The real problem is that this isn’t really a problem of voter fraud to begin with.

In a certain respect, these politicians are acting as God in this story – they think they see a problem, and decide to implement a solution to remove problematic people (ineligible voters).  There are many ways of doing this – voter ID laws, purging voter rolls, etc. – but they all have the same effect of removing those problematic people.  And, like God destroying whole cities, there is the possibility of removing righteous people (those who are indeed eligible to vote) along with the wicked.  The problem is that there is no one to play the role of Abraham and negotiate on behalf of the righteous.  Or, rather, no one that these politicians will listen to.  Who can speak on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah; who can bargain for Admah and Zeboyim?  And these politicians are not acting like God – not only do they do not care that they may be removing the righteous along with the wicked, they also do not perform investigations.  For God sent angels to perform an investigation and made His decision based on that investigation.  These politicians neither pay attention to the results of investigations already done nor do they perform an investigation of their own – their hearts have been hardened, if you will permit language borrowed from another Biblical story.  If they did pay attention they would find that the data is in fact the reverse of their expectations – it is not the righteous that number low, but the wicked.

The complicating factor, of course, is that the people being removed by these politicians are those people who are likely to vote against them.  I call this a complicating factor because these politicians generally describe themselves are moral, upright citizens who typically emphasize their faith and religion in their campaigns.  One commonly-held precept in Anglo-Saxon religions is imitatio dei – the imitation of God, doing what God would do.  (This is seen in the “WWJD – What Would Jesus Do?” phenomenon of the 1990s.)  These politicians, as I observed, are not imitating God, and therefore this must just be a simple oversight on their part.  Otherwise, they could only be considered manipulative, conniving, power-hungry cowards who are doing this because they don’t believe they can win in a fair election, where everybody who is eligible to vote can do so.

I was always taught to act charitably to people, and assume the best of them.  But by these politicians recent actions, I no longer think that I need to assume anything about them; the latter description appears to be correct.