Saturday, January 24, 2015
in this installment of reader questions, we'll take a look at this one,
Why doesn't the NT set the record straight on what to embrace and what to reject from the OT? Wouldn't it be good to state for instance that slavery and genocide are not God's will? To have these things in our Bibles, attributed to God's will, is misleading to say the least.
Still, Jesus is constantly pushing the envelope, making statements that outraged the religious authorities, pointing us away from one way (the way of bringing about good by killing in God’s name) and towards another way (the way of bringing about good by radical forgiveness and enemy love). This involves a major critique of the OT narrative of human acts of violence for God, and more importantly it involves proposing a new and better way.
The Old Testament teaches that it is good for people to kill. This was the assumption of the Jewish audience of Jesus, it was the assumption of his Gentile audience living in the Roman empire, and it is the majority assumption most of us today hold living in the U.S.A.
The New Testament is a protest against all of that. It rejects that narrative. To miss that is to miss the central point of the NT. We do have a book that rather clearly DOES say that the OT is wrong in it's view that people should kill in God's name.
But that alone is not enough. Consider this: in the past – whether this was the crusades or the slaughter of Native Americans – Christians used the Old Testament to justify their violence. However, the problem of using the Bible to justify our human violence would not go away if we just chucked the OT and only read the NT.
"Rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer." (Ro 13:4-5)
The logic here is that this entails God's endorsement of state violence as the means of bringing about justice and good. Now, in Disarming Scripture I spend quite a bit of time discussing why this is a misreading of what Paul’s point is here in Romans.
What I want to point out here in this humble blog post, however, is a simpler point. I want to ask why we elevate this tiny sentance in the NT to defining importance, while ignoring reams of stuff in the NT that makes the opposite point. If we were simply looking at everything the NT had to say on the matter it would be rather clear that the big point is about a better way shown by Jesus that works by radical forgiveness and enemy love.
But the reason so many Christians elevate Romans 13, while finding a million reasons to ignore the Sermon on the Mount (not to mention Romans 12), has very little to do with honest exegesis, and everything to do with the simple fact that we don’t get enemy love, we don’t believe in it, we don't trust it, we don't like it, and so we ignore it.
What we do get, and deeply trust in, is the idea that the way to stop evil is for the “good guys” to kill the “bad guys,” and so we pick out the verses that support that.
So even when we have a book like the NT really obviously telling us what is right and wrong, we still can find a way to completely ignore its huge point, and find proof-texts to justify ourselves. So we are back to this point I keep making:
We need to learn to think morally. Jesus wants to show us how to be moral adults.
Let me be the first to say that this can be really challenging because it goes against not only our cultural assumptions, but against some really primary defense instincts in our brains. So even when we "get it" it's hard to do it. But this is all about going from primitive morality and primitive brain reactions (the amygdala) to using our higher morality and engaging our social brain (the prefrontal cortex).
What has really helped me in this is understanding that the way of enemy love is not about ignoring the problem or neglecting to act, but a superior and more effective and powerful way to resolve conflict and make things right.
The way to "get that" is not so much an intellectual thing as it is a lived thing. That is, we will only really be able to "get" the way of grace, forgiveness, and enemy love when we experience it. That usually begins with our receiving God's grace, forgiveness, and enemy love, but it needs to lead into a life of our showing that same grace, forgiveness, and enemy love to others too. We can begin to practice this in the our every day conflicts of our daily lives -- in how we deal with our colleagues, our spouses, with our kids. Truth, to be understood, must be lived. The only true faith is a lived faith.
If the Bible's purpose is to bring us through competing views of God and morality along a trajectory that leads us to love, and if that trajectory is to continue past the New Testament, then why continue to use the Bible after God's Spirit of love has given us this new heart?