When good Bible reading goes bad - reading our sacred text ethically
Mark Pierson wrote a guest post on Mike Crudge's blog recently. In true Mark style, he called it 'Why the Church is to blame for what's wrong in the world.' And in it he refers to his recent experience at World Vision, after they backed calls for a cease fire in Gaza, and talked about the humanitarian crisis there. As a result, sincere Christians sent hate mail to the organisation and withdrew their sponsorship of children living in extreme poverty in other parts of the world. Because World Vision obviously prefers the needs of Palestinians over the just cause of God's Chosen People, and this clearly renders them unfit to serve the poor world-wide.
I came late to a similar troubling fact the other day. Which is that in a 2009 survey of Christians in the US, those who identified as evangelical were more likely to approve of their government using torture than those outside the church, or those in mainline protestant churches.
I could go on with a list of ways that Christians can be frighteningly judgemental, not least when trolling internet sites dealing with hot button issues. But this is not meant to be a litany of failures of the Church, so much as to raise the issue of why, when we serve Love Itself, are there such huge blind spots in our compassion?
In his blog article, Mark lays the responsibility at the foot of the way we do worship. Our services, he claims, fail to form people as Christians. We are all being formed, week by week, by our church experience, and somehow it seems that formation is failing to produce people who love justice, act with compassion, and put people before ideology.
Today, I want to make an extra suggestion. I contend that the way many of us have been taught to read the Bible makes us vulnerable to bad behaviour. That certain ways of reading the Bible can make us less humane. And that in order to live out a truly Christian and compassionate ethic in the world, we need to learn how to engage with our scriptures ethically. Christians need to stop defending the indefensible simply on the grounds that we can find a Bible text to support our position.
I think there are two main ways of relating to the Bible that lead to Christians ending up on the wrong side of peace and justice. One is to treat the Bible as a 'big book of answers', that we can go to, in order to know 'what God says' about any given topic. And the other is to treat all verses and all parts of the Bible as having the same authority, and equal relevance our lives today.
Firstly, the Bible is many things, but it is not a 'book of answers'. It would be more accurate to call it a book of divinely inspired questions. That is, it questions us, and it questions itself, and it questions God.
We might also speak of the Bible as a long conversation, with many conversation partners, some of whom agree with each other, some of whom disagree, and all of whom are keenly seeking God, and wisdom to live by.
It might also be helpful to speak of the Bible as a 'cultural library', as Brian McLaren does. Just as in our libraries today, you can go to a shelf, choose a book, and immerse yourself in it, and you'll be shaped by what you read. You might also wonder about, or feel uncomfortable with what you read. And then, you might pick up a different book - which might be written in a different language from the first, and might be poetry where the other was prose, or might be a series of stories where the other was a letter between friends. And you'll immerse yourself in this other book and realise that it offers a whole different angle on who God is and who we are. And you might like it better, or it might raise a whole new set of questions. And then you might read another book, and another, and as you go on you realise that all together, these make up the texts of a tradition.
The invitation to us as community is to step into that tradition. To let the characters become our ancestors, and their stories become our history and our mythology. To let the language shape the picture of God and God's world that we carry inside us. Over time, as we hold the different books alongside prayer and our experience, the over-arching narratives, the recurring symbols and images embed in our hearts, and become the lens through which we interpret the whole of life. And then we realise that to take just one of these books, and to read a sentence out of it as an answer to a moral or religious question, is to mistreat the scriptures by asking them to be something they're not.
In the same way as the Bible isn't meant to be a book of answers, neither is it meant to be a systematic source for doctrine, nor a moral textbook. Equally, and here again I'm referencing McLaren, the Bible is not a constitution, where every clause has the same weight as every other clause. Let's think about how a legal constitution works. Something happens - an argument between people that they can't resolve themselves. Then the lawyers go to the constitution to decide who is in the right in this situation, and what must be done. And they might decide that the relevant parts of the constitution are in clauses 2, 14 and 67. The rest of the constitution doesn't pertain to the question at hand. The language style is even across the whole constitution - formal legal prose that's designed to give clear information and rules. And clause 14.2 has just as much authority as clause 67.8. And maybe there's been a lot of cases where this same issue has been questioned, and clauses 2, 14, and 67 have been applied to it at other times. They become precedents to guide to how those clauses should be applied now.
This is a fairly good description of how, over the recent history of the church, some people have studied the Bible, and taught others to read it too. I wonder, if our Bible hadn't been divided up into chapters and verses with numbers, whether we would have fallen into this trap. But because we can quote chapter and verse, and because we live in a culture that is utterly governed by this legal approach to processing information, this is what we do to the Bible. And when we do it, we can end up causing harm to others in the name of God.
This constitutional reading of the Bible flattens out all of the differences in genre, purpose, style, history, language, context and perspective. It essentially says that each individual verse of Scripture is equal to every other verse. This allows us to cut and paste, compare and quote, without reference to the wider argument in which a verse is located, and without acknowledging the other texts that might call it into question. Many have lost sight of the way individual verses - and indeed whole books! - within the Bible question, contradict, or sit in tension with others.
The truth is, there are many, many texts in the Bible that testify to a toxic, unjust, genocidal God, and that instruct God's people to do things, like stoning adulterers, that in our own time and place would be criminal. The truth is, there are many texts in the Bible that reflect a culture and time even more violent than our own - or at least without the international agreements and human rights declarations that hold our violence to greater account. These texts imply that the destruction and suffering of children and whole communities are the angry actions of a God either punishing 'His' people's unfaithfulness, or wreaking vengeance on another people for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are many texts that tell us to be afraid of this God and to obey 'His' rules regardless what we think of them, because 'His' ways are not our ways, and our disobedience will land us in the eternal fires of hell.
So even if everything in us says that 'something is wrong here', if we have have been taught a way of reading the Bible that says every verse is equal to every other verse, then we are only a short step away from condoning genocide, or the death penalty, or torture, or invasion, or exclusion, on the grounds of what "The Bible Says." We are then more easily held captive to the ideology of our in-group and its pet ideas and fears. Because the Bible can be made to justify anything.
We can only make a proper judgement about how these these violent and angry texts fit together with other parts of the story when we learn to understand them in their context. We also need to let go of the 'divine dictation' model of inspiration, and accept that the writings reflect quite a lot of the human culture and thought forms that produced them. Then, we can see how the Bible overall reveals a people whose society and concept of God is evolving and changing over time. Then we can see what bigger picture emerges from the jigsaw. And only then can we ask how that bigger picture applies to the society we live in today.
So, to give an example, in a discussion about State sanctioned torture, it is not okay to quote Romans 13 as a defence, as I have seen done. This text says: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad."
Let's just pause for a moment, and notice how the evangelical Christian culture allows someone to believe that this is a good argument in favour of torture. And let's wonder what kind of relationship to the Bible allows someone to quote this passage in defence of their government's decision to torture prisoners of war. And maybe we could also ponder the way this person might argue in other situations involving ethics or justice. Because even though we might say we wouldn't be so blinkered, or perhaps so American, as to make this argument ourselves on this issue, the general approach isn't a million miles away from how Christians argue on a lot of other topics.
I'll follow through this example a bit further to indicate some of the problems involved in using these verses from Romans in this way. They need to be subject to at least four steps of interpretation, not necessarily in this order:
They need to be compared to other parts of Scripture that show a different relationship between God's people and the various governing authorities that they were subject to. Such as Pharaoh. Such as the prophets denouncing the Israelite kings when they acted unjustly. Such as the early Christians subverting the Pax Romana by naming Jesus as Lord, and the Prince of Peace.
Also, they need to be understood in the scope of the book of Romans in general, and chapter 13 in particular. I don't have time to do that here, but suffice to say, it is not intended as a manual setting out for all time the relationship between the individual, the church, and the state. Nor is this passage addressing the question of how to treat detainees in the context of war.
Thirdly, this proof-text needs to be held in tension with other parts of the Bible that help us to see torture as an offence against the image of God in a human life. While the Bible can at times seem to hold human life cheaply, the overall thrust of Scripture affirms the dignity of persons. Our familiarity with the Bible should also cause us to hold our moral and legal judgements cautiously, rather than believing ourselves to be so infallible that we can justify cruelty against those on the other side of the argument.
And finally, we need to note the differences between the early Christian setting under the 'government' of Rome, and our modern democratic situation. For us, government 'happens' through our voting and our advocacy and our protest. Hiding behind Romans 13 doesn't make it okay if our leaders practice torture, because our system gives us the responsibility speak out against it.
So, any given verse or teaching needs to be read in the light of the whole of the rest of Scripture. We need to be aware both of those parts that directly address a particular question in different ways, yielding different conclusions. And we need to be formed by those parts that develop in us a broader picture of who God is, who we are as humans, and the nature of the relationship between us.
And verses have to be read in the light of their immediate context - the chapter, or the book of the Bible they're taken from, including an understanding of the genre, style, and intent of the surrounding passages.
And they have to be read with awareness of the distance between the culture and setting of the original hearers, and our culture and setting now.
There are no plain 1:1 correspondences between verses of the Bible, and situations faced by humans today. Every text of Scripture, no matter how simple it appears, needs to go through a process of interpretation something like what I've just outlined. And we need to be prepared to 'read against' the text, to wrestle with God, when what it seems to say betrays our sense of God's goodness - just as Abraham did, as Moses did, as Job did - and got told off by his righteous churchy friends.
But. Don't we then just have a situation where we decide in advance what we believe, and what 'justice' or God's character looks like, and then emphasise the bits of Bible that fit with that, and ignore or argue against the bits that we don't agree with? Aren't we then putting some secular or personal, or cultural notion of the 'good' or 'ethics' above the divinely inspired text? Where do we get our ethical judgement from, if not from Scripture? And am I not then "picking and choosing" which bits of the Bible I call ethical, and which bits I don't?
These are all fair questions. And to respond to them, I'd like us to go back to the very first ethical problem I referred to - the one in Mark's blog where people who believe in the Divine sanctioning of the modern day state of Israel are choosing to end their sponsorship of children living in poverty because World Vision is also helping Palestinian children. Just take a moment to reflect - how would you, from within a Biblical world-view, make the case that there's a lack of basic humanity at play in this decision? On what biblical basis might you set consistency toward suffering children above a commitment to the idea of Israel's chosen-ness? (Pause)
Let me hazard a guess that some of you thought about Israel's prophets, who consistently warned the Chosen People that their lack of compassion for the poor was impeding their ongoing 'chosenness.' Some of you perhaps went to parts of the New Testament that set out the new covenant, as something radically separate from land and nationhood. I suspect though, that most of you went somewhere in the gospels - to the beatitudes perhaps, or Jesus' teachings about hypocrisy, or loving one's enemies, or extending his healing to those people rejected by Israel's leaders, or the justice manifesto in Luke 4 and so on. And, perhaps you decided that what you find in the gospels, and in the other texts that anticipate the Christ, or interpret his life and death, these things trump whatever other religious or political idea it might be possible to construct from the rest of the Bible.
Along with the principles I've already outlined there is one more crucial interpretive principle. And that is that the written word of God must always be interpreted by and through the Living Word of God - Jesus the Christ, and the texts that most directly speak of him.
We do not worship the Bible, we worship God by way of the Bible, and most particularly the Image of the Invisible God that we discover in Jesus the Christ.
We do not have a saving relationship with the Bible, we are grasped and held and spoken to by God, often by way of the Bible, but often in other ways too.
Not all parts of the Bible are equal, because not all parts equally illuminate and image Jesus to us. All can be said to be equally God-breathed, and 'useful' because they were authored by spiritually 'inspired' writers, but they are not themselves the source of the Inspiration. The Risen Christ stopped Paul on the road to Damascus with a word that changed his life. All of Paul's writings must then be understood not on a level with Jesus himself, but as Paul's grappling to describe the Way of Christ as a forgiven and flawed human just like us. Paul is not a pure conduit of absolute truth, he is someone who surrendered his life to the Spirit of God, who shared his vast vision as a teacher of the Way, and whose apostolic teachings have been recognised as bearing the stamp of the living Christ. But they are and always will be secondary to the living Christ who, through the Spirit, is as present to us in our reading, as with Paul in his writing.
We also have to be aware that the writers of the gospels sometimes put words into Jesus' mouth in the same way that the Old Testament prophets said 'thus saith the Lord' of their revealed convictions. So again, we can't be naive about our reading of the gospels. But still, they are the closest thing we have to mediate the transforming teaching and practice of the Christ who lives in us. So they are the first place we need to go when we want to put other parts of the Bible into perspective, and when we want to determine whether our reading of the Scriptures is likely to make us more, or less, humane, if we put it into practice.
It is absolutely urgent that the church of those who follow Christ change the way we treat the scriptures. This is not just an urgency about being relevant, or being liked by the culture, or being more intelligent in the way we think and talk. This is a moral urgency, that recognises that how we relate to the Bible affects people's lives. In some cases, it affects them to the extent of determining if another human lives or dies. There is a sickness in the church, that reduces deep issues of human dignity and personhood to arguments and positions, where Bible verses are flung about like weapons in a war of ideas. And meanwhile people made in the image of God and loved by God are degraded and hurt by the refusal to see them as anything other than representatives of this theory, or that argument.
I am so grateful that I have not seen or heard this here at Cityside. But we are all affected by the way of relating to the Bible that we were taught, or grew up with, and many of us have some un-learning and re-learning to do. Even if we all agreed together about how to relate to the Bible, that doesn't mean we'd all agree with one another. This isn't a plea to all read the Bible and come to the same conclusions as me! But it is a plea for us to become part of the process of influence and change, where we continue to respect the scriptures, but refuse to argue chapter and verse as though the Bible were a constitution. I want us to find and promote a different way to wrestle with the text that centres around the presence of God in our midst. God help us as we do so.