Debates in church and politics can get painfully polarized, especially when participants hear only from like-minded people. Within our respective echo chambers, voices on both sides of an issue become shrill. We are tempted to demonize others who disagree.
Buildings that house the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem have architecture symbolizing such binary thinking. Underneath a white dome in the foreground are precious scrolls discovered in the desert at Qumran in the mid-twentieth century. The dome is shaped like the lid of one of the jars that stored the famous scrolls for two thousand years. Below the black wall in the background is the entrance to the underground museum.
This black and white architecture represents the ideology of self-described “Sons of Light” who collected the scrolls. In the late second century BC, sectarian Jews called Essenes opposed what they saw as corruption among Jewish leaders at the temple in Jerusalem. Some withdrew to monastic-like living at Qumran by the Dead Sea to await the Messiah. They expected a lengthy military confrontation between the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness.”
In a scriptorium at Qumran, Essenes copied books of the Bible and other literature specific to their movement. After Jews revolted against Rome in AD 66, a Roman army swept through the Jordan valley. Qumran residents apparently hid manuscripts in nearby caves for protection. Hundreds of manuscripts remained undiscovered until 1946 and following.
Suddenly in the modern era scholars had manuscripts of the bible nearly a thousand years older than anything previously available. The scrolls revealed that the Old Testament text we have today is close to what Jews knew in Jesus’ day. Scribes over a millennium had done their copy work well.
Some writing specific to the Qumran community is polarizing and dualistic. The famous War Scroll begins, “The first attack of the Sons of Light shall be undertaken against the forces of the Sons of Darkness, the army of Belial. . .” Forty years of warfare will follow, and the Sons of Light will win. A charter for the Qumran community declares that “all who are not reckoned as belonging to [God’s] covenant must be separated out, along with everything they possess.”
John the Baptist probably baptized Jesus at Bethany beyond the Jordan—within sight of Qumran on a clear day. He, too, had withdrawn from Jerusalem and had an adversarial attitude toward much that happened there. His theology sounds polarizing (“You brood of vipers!”).
Jesus called himself the “light of the world.” But he fraternized with fisher folk, Pharisees, lepers, snobs, poor people, and Roman soldiers. He taught followers to be light in the world, not light withdrawn into an enclave of like-minded people.
It is possible to have strong convictions about what it means to walk in the light and still relate in loving and respectful ways with others who see things differently.
© 2014 J. Nelson Kraybill *******************************************Join me on a journey to the Holy Land! See: From Nazareth to Rome: Holy Land, Empire and Global Mission, with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 3-15, 2014
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