The Many Ghosts of the Revised Common Lectionary

A specter is haunting the lectionary — the specter of violence. It’s a specter made of an obvious absence: what the editors relegated to the shadows of scripture. This absence can have an important effect on how we understand our faith and how we handle its challenges. We’d be wise to remember one of the most important lessons from ghost stories: Ghosts will continue to haunt us until we’ve listened to them.

Each Sunday, millions of Christians worship at churches around the world that are using the same selections of scripture readings. Usually there’s one from the Psalms, one from the Hebrew Bible, one from the gospels, and another from the epistles; some churches select two or three of these, rather than using all four in a single worship service. These readings, centered around the liturgical year, are the weekly components of the Revised Common Lectionary, an ecumenical series of readings that many churches use as the backbone of their weekly worship services. The Roman Catholic Church created the Ordo Lectionum Missae in 1969; the Revised Common Lectionary emerged as a revision of this from a collaboration between Catholic and Protestant churches, developed through the 1980s and officially released in 1992.

In many ways, this lectionary is a brilliant tool. It nudges preachers to expand their repertoire, inviting them to preach on passages that might be outside of their homiletical comfort zone. And it offers a great overview of the Bible in its three-year cycle, covering most of the major stories, giving generous selections from all the books, and placing passages alongside one another in ways that enrich all the texts.

But the lectionary has some limitations: Since the lectionary aims to keep each week’s readings down to a manageable size, suitable for reading in church or for the foundation of a sermon, there are large swaths of the Bible that the lectionary skips over. And while there are lots of reasons for not including certain passages, it doesn’t take too long to notice one major pattern: Passages that are uncomfortably violent (or just angry) are frequently left on the cutting room floor, and consequently left out of Sunday worship.

Sometimes, entire stories have been removed: In the lectionary, we never hear about the priest Phinehas and his violent response to an Israelite’s sexual relationship with a Midianite woman (Numbers 25) or the horrible atrocities inflicted upon the unnamed Levite’s concubine (Judges 19). But at other times, texts are sliced up with scalpel-like precision. For the fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C), the gospel reading is Luke 10:1-11 and 16-20; both portions of this passage include Jesus’ instructions to his disciples for traveling to other towns to spread the gospel. What’s cut out are four verses in the middle where Jesus curses cities who have rejected the message. For instance: “I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town” (10:12).

Perhaps even more obvious is the lectionary’s assignment of Psalm 104, verses 24-34 and 35b. Most of the psalm is a sublime hymn in praise of the wonders of creation. But here’s verse 35a, the half-verse that is so clumsily excised: “Let the sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more” (KJV). It’s easy to see why this half-verse has been cut out. In comparison to the sublime imagery of the rest of the psalm, its wish for vengeance seems small and nasty, unbecoming of a hymn of praise to the Creator of all the beauty the poem describes. And theologically, it’s not the aspect of our faith most churches want to focus on; We’d much rather talk about God’s love than God’s wrath.

Except, when a partial verse is removed so obviously, the removal only serves to call attention to the jettisoned verse. In this case, verse 35a speaks loudly from its absence. These excluded texts become ghosts, an absence that lingers.

Philosopher Jacques Derrida, often thought of as the patron saint of deconstruction, coined the phrase “hauntology” in his influential book The Specters of Marx, in which he describes a world haunted by foreclosed opportunities. The word plays on the philosophical term “ontology,” the study of being. Phonetically, “hauntology” and “ontology” sound pretty similar in English, and identical in Derrida’s native French — they can only be distinguished in writing. But if ontology is the study of being, Derrida imagines hauntology as the study of non-being, or the study of absence. Ghosts are those presences that are really absences, born of a death or omission.

Furthermore, ghosts linger into the present as a reminder of a past injustice. Sometimes, they come as a warning from the past, as in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. (In this story, ghosts also come from the future — a powerful example of Derrida’s idea of ghosts as representative of “time out of joint,” where we can be haunted by the lost possibilities that never occurred.) They might also come to cry out about a terrible injustice that occurred in the past that needs to be brought into the present and named — one might think of the 2012 thriller The Woman in Black, in which a young woman had her child taken away by a cruel social system that had no sympathy for unwed mothers, so she returns as a ghost that takes the children of others. Ghosts are the (non-) living embodiments of past injustices and pains that have gone unheard.

In the Revised Common Lectionary, Psalm 104:35a stands as one of many ghosts. These passages of anger and violence are uncomfortable in our tradition. At best, we might think of them as places where the text doesn’t live up to its own standards of grace and forgiveness; at worst, these kinds of retributive thoughts feel totally out-of-bounds for Christians, at odds with Jesus’ emphasis on forgiveness.

Many of us would rather these uncomfortable psalms just weren’t there. At times, I’ve included myself in this group. But they are there, and to pretend otherwise is to ignore the ghosts that haunt our weekly readings. Ghost stories also give us a clear procedure for getting rid of ghosts: they won’t leave until we listen to them. After Ebenezeer Scrooge’s ghosts have delivered their message, they leave him alone to decide his own course of action; once young Cole realizes that the presences who are haunting him in The Sixth Sense are just trying to communicate, he’s able to hear what they have to say, and help them find rest. In the same way, these texts of violence, repressed from the lectionary, won’t find peace until we listen and acknowledge their presence.

Conversely, it’s easy to see how ignoring these texts prepare us to gloss over the violence that happens in the real world and in our churches. We can easily fool ourselves into thinking that the Bible has no place for these expressions of violence, so our churches must be a similar kind of space. But when we listen to these passages, we can admit that the people (and divine beings!) who inhabit the biblical text don’t always act the way we wish they would, and maybe that’s an important message to internalize — because neither do we. Rather than trying to banish uncomfortable scripture passages through clever editing, perhaps we need to listen to them, as a way of beginning to learn how to live with these ghosts.

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