It would be nice if positive language did it for us all the time. And yet, it's not quite sufficient.
At the opening of Shrek, the Musical, the young ogre’s parents sing him a song, “it’s a big bright beautiful world...but not for you.” At the age of seven, they warn him against men with pitchforks. They let him go out on the road, telling him, “Just keep walking…and you’ll find somewhere to go.” There’s something a bit warped – broken - about a world in which parents have to put those images into their children’s heads, for their own protection. It’s enough to drive you to live in a swamp. By yourself. With a ‘Keep Out’ sign.
There are good reasons to frame things in the positive. But sometimes, for the most compelling reasons, we have to identify ourselves in the negative. In the story of the nation of Israel, a good portion of the law is occupied by statements of, “we are the people who do not ___.”
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the LORD your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the LORD.
- from Leviticus 18
Among all the thou shalt nots, there was a particular kind of sacrifice that was singled out for attention in the law of the Israelites, as given to them by God - child sacrifice:
You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech,
and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.
- Leviticus 18:21
For the nation of Israel – our faith ancestors - child sacrifice was utterly forbidden. And yet, it was apparently common enough that God needed to say it, over, and over again – through the law and through the prophets – with the strongest language imaginable. An abomination, it is called. Something that defiles. Something that cuts you off from the worship of God, from the sacred assembly.
… I myself will set my face against them, and will cut them off from the people, because they have given of their offspring to Molech, defiling my sanctuary and profaning my holy name. And if the people of the land should ever close their eyes to them, when they give of their offspring to Molech…
- Leviticus 20
Never was this commanded by God. Never did it come to God’s mind, the prophet laments. Through Jeremiah’s voice, the Holy One tells us what happens when the children are turned over to the fire:
I will silence in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth,
the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.”
When you present your gifts and offer up your children in fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, declares the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you.
- Ezekiel 20:31
The Children of the Drug Wars: A Refugee Crisis, Not An Immigrant Crisis, NY Times.
The messenger will bear witness against those who thrust aside the alien.
- Malachi 3:5
Being made a Christian means getting a heart transplant, and a new identity to go with it. We become the ones who clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned. We become the people who do not neglect the stranger.
We are the people who do not turn away the children.
We are the people who do not send children back into the sacrificial fire.