Beyond Justifying: How To Read the Bible For All It's Worth

Sunday, July 17, 2016

There are two basic ways we can approach living out the teachings of Jesus and our own spiritual and moral growth and development. One is by seeking to justify the morals we have now, and the other is by seeking to grow deeper. While you can probably guess that I’m going to advocate for the second, the first approach of “justifying” is far more common among evangelicals – and that’s true for both conservatives and progressives.

A common example of this “justifying” approach can be seen in how many Christians seek to deal with parts of Scripture that they find problematic. Let’s say for example you read somewhere in Paul’s writings something like “women should shut up because men are better” (or something that sounds like that to you anyway), and you think “what the hey!?” The justifying approach will look for a way to justify your not following this. For example you might say “many scholars believe that Paul did not actually write this book, so therefore I can ignore it.”

Or to take another example you might read Jesus saying something that sounds to you like “Do not protect or defend yourself or your loved ones when they are hurt by someone. Blessed are those who passively tolerate injustice” (again, I’m expressing more how the verse feels, rather than what it actually says). Again, the approach of justifying might seek to say something like “When Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek he was not referring to personal self-defense” or if seeking to defend the military one might say the opposite “When Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek he was only referring to personal self-defense, not to the state.”

This is not to say that the justifying approach is incorrect. It may very well be that Paul did not write such-and-such book, and it may be quite true that Jesus was not specifically referring to the particular situation we have in mind today – indeed literally everything you read in the Bible was said to a different people in a different situation in a different time in a different language. However, the goal we have with the Bible is to ask “How can I apply this to my life?” and more specifically “How can I apply the way and teachings of Jesus to my life?” That’s kind of the whole point of following Jesus. That’s pretty much the main reason we bother to read the Bible at all. The approach of justifying, however, instead seeks to do the opposite of that. It seeks to find ways to justify not applying it. That’s why as a general approach I think it not a good one, or at least I think there is another approach that is much better.

I also want to stress that I am not saying that the justifying approach is illegitimate. If you as a woman don’t want to be quiet and submit, I can totally relate. I also relate to wanting to defend myself and those I love. To take it even further, I can certainly understand why a person who is attacked could respond with violence. I feel the moral drive as a parent to defend your family. I think one can legitimately claim that it is justifiable, in certain circumstances, to use violence in order to protect. We can make similar arguments with many things – for example we can say it is justifiable to get a divorce in certain circumstances.

The point is not to deny that it is legitimate to see this as justifiable. But what I want to do is ask if we can go beyond this, if we can do something better. I’d like to sketch out what that might look like.

First of all I begin with a simple rule of thumb: If the way I am interpreting the Bible seems wrong and bad and hurtful to you, then I stop right there. Don’t do something that you feel is hurtful. That means that in the above examples where you hesitate because it seems wrong to not to defend yourself, that’s a good instinct. Pay attention to that. Your life matters. Injustice is not okay. That is perhaps not where we will end, but it is certainly where we need to start.

The next step is to entertain the possibility that if it seems to me that Jesus is saying something that seems foolish, naive or even bad, that just maybe it is not the case that Jesus is naive and dumb and wrong, and quite possible that actually he is saying something that is morally over my head. So I need to seek to get to the place of actually understanding how I could take what Jesus is saying and apply it to my situation in a way that leads to moral transformation. That is, in a way that takes me out of the typical loop I get stuck in, and brings me out of that, above it. In other words, I need to appreciate how Jesus is showing me a better way, and really get how that could work in my life. If we can begin to ask this question as we immerse ourselves in the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament, if we can have this question on our lips as we open our hearts to listen to the leadings of the indwelling Holy Spirit, then we open up a whole world of possibilities to walk in the way of reconciliation and peacemaking that Jesus embodied and calls us to as his followers.

Conversely, when our only response to Jesus is to seek to justify our hurtful actions, to say “Yes, but what about...” (fill in the blank with whatever horror scenario gets you emotionally triggered, so your amygdala is flooded, and all rational conversation is completely shut down). When we do that, we close the door to finding any other possibility besides the one where we justify hurting someone else. That results in moral stagnation. It means we close the door to learning another way. We close the door to doing better, to growing morally, to making our world more into the kind of place that Jesus prayed for “your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”

So how can we move towards doing that? The first step is to get past seeking to justify not doing it. Rather than continually rehearsing all the emotionally upsetting scenarios where we think we are justified in being violent, rather than continually asking “but what about...?” what if we instead spent our energy trying to figure out how we could apply the way of Jesus in our own live contexts and situations? When groups like the Mennonites have attempted to do that, they have come up with really groundbreaking, society-transforming ideas like restorative justice. That’s exciting, and I want to be doing that. I want to be morally innovating and creating, rather than spending my time seeking to justify why I am not.

I think I get to say that. After all, I’m the guy who wrote a book on how it’s okay to “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible will shape and guide us morally, and which parts do not. So one could think that I would be all for the justifying approach. After all, I am, to an extent, providing a justification for not following certain teachings which we determine are hurtful (or at a minimum, certain interpretations of those teachings). Again, those justifications are legitimate. They are a good place to start, but a bad place to stop. So I maintain that we must go beyond this. In fact, the only reason I still read the Bible is in the hopes of going beyond this. I read in the hope that I can connect with the Spirit who will lead me into a deeper understanding of the way of Jesus that can transform me and my world.

That’s the attitude, and it’s a critical starting position. But let’s get to the practical. What does it look like? On a very simple level it begins by simply asking “How can we do better?” and “What are ways to reach the goal we have without harming anyone?” or at a minimum “How can we work to reduce harm?” Yes, we can justify divorce for instance. But is there a way to save the marriage, restore the relationship, and keep the family together? If there is, shouldn’t we seek to do the hard work to get there? Yes, we can justify violence used in self-defense, but if there is a way to resolve conflict peacefully, shouldn’t we seek to learn how to do that? If there was a way to reduce the amount of deaths due to guns in our country – whether from suicides, mass shootings, gang violence, or police shooting unarmed people of color – shouldn’t we seek to do everything we can to learn how to do that?

Yet so often, rather than working together to do that, what we find are people who feel the need to instead justify keeping things the way they are, and as a result actively block others from working to make it better. What I want to state is that this is not a good way to “defend” morality because it ends up in stagnation and status quo, and prevents growth and development and healing. We need to go beyond justifying things, and instead learn how to seek to make things better. That is where Jesus was trying to take us when he said all of his “I know it says... but I say to you” and “don’t even the unbelievers already do that?” statements. He wanted us to go beyond status quo religious morality, and “be perfect” which in Hebrew means to take something to completion.

Why is it that we gravitate towards seeking to justify, rather than seeking to improve and go deeper? A big factor is the feeling that we need to defend ourselves from blame. Every child does it. You could almost say it comes hardwired into us. “He started it!” we learn to say. Yes, I absolutely am implying that justifying is an immature response because it absolutely is. I’m guilty of it, too. We all are. But I don’t want to justify that (see what I did there?). I want to instead seek to follow Jesus, who calls us instead to the way of repentance and humility, rather than the way of justifying ourselves. That’s just Gospel 101, people. Moreover, Jesus calls us to be at the forefront of working to bring about peace in our world, to be ambassadors of reconciliation, to demonstrate the same kind of love Jesus did. That’s our calling, our mission.

I think that’s an exciting possibility, to be in the place of moral innovation, to be active in pushing ourselves and our world towards being more humane, more loving, more like Jesus. I also think it opens all sorts of doors into really encountering the divine in the Bible, allowing us to read in a way that deepens and challenges us. I hope you find that as exciting as I do, and will join me in going beyond justifying ourselves. Let’s stop asking if there is a way for us to justify not applying the way of Jesus to our lives, and instead seek to find how we can. Jesus tells us that way is life. Let’s not rest until we understand why that is true.

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Christ vs the Constitution: Why Christians Do Not Have the Right to Bear Arms

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The U.S. Constitution gives Americans the right to bear arms. The basic assumption is that you have a right to defend yourself and your loved ones from attackers. It is essentially a right to kill in self-defense. From a legal perspective this interpretation was held up by the recent 2008 Supreme Court decision District of Columbia v. Heller which held that “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm... and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”

My purpose here is not to get into the legal particulars, but instead to speak of the felt values that people have associated with this. That is, Americans have a strongly held belief that they have a right to defend themselves with a gun, that it is good and right to do so. What I want to question is, is that “right” compatible with Christ?

As I’m sure you are aware, Jesus is pretty famous for saying just the opposite, that people should not defend themselves when attacked, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Mt 5:38).

What’s important to understand here is the context into which Jesus is making this statement. He is speaking to a people who, like us today, assumed that it was good and right to defend themselves. Jesus refers to the Torah, which played a similar role for people that our Constitution does today, and with his words, “but I tell you...” directly contradicts its affirmation of violent retaliation for a wrong. That is, Jesus is not simply saying this out of the blue, he is addressing the deeply held moral values that people have and challenging them. Specifically he is addressing the deeply held moral value of the right to retaliate when attacked.

We can see this in the fact that his own disciples were armed (Lk 22), and that they used these weapons when they were attacked (Mt 26). Like their contemporaries, their assumption was that it was good and right to defend oneself against an attack. This was the beginning religious/moral assumption of the time that Jesus spoke into and challenged. It is the same religious/moral assumption held by Americans today. The words of Jesus step on our toes, just like they stepped on the toes of the people he originally preached to. If Jesus were speaking today he might say “You have heard it said ‘you have the right to bear arms’ but I say to you...”

What does it mean to take the words of Jesus seriously here? One place where we need to begin is by recognizing that there clearly is a conflict. Jesus is directly challenging our moral assumption that we have a right to kill in self-defense. If we pretend otherwise, we are seriously kidding ourselves. We need to face that challenge head-on. There is a conflict between Christ and the Constitution. Jesus knew this was not a popular message, and that it was hard to take. That’s probably why he said the road was narrow that leads to life, and broad that leads to destruction. The question for us as American Christians is, will we continue to take that broad road? Are you willing to take the narrow road of Christ? How will you and I respond to Jesus here?

One approach that will not do is to find some proof-text verse that allow us to ignore the teachings of Jesus here. This cheap approach is also used to justify people ignoring the challenging things Jesus says about riches, and frankly to ignore pretty much everything Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount. People will find some text, like Jesus’ statement “if you don’t have a sword, sell our cloak and buy one” (Lk 22:36), pull it out of context and take it to justify what they already want to do, ignoring everything else Jesus says on the subject. As SNL’s “church lady” used to say “Well, isn’t that convenient?” It’s an especially lame way of reading the Bible that allows one to keep doing whatever they want, rather than letting the way of Jesus actually shape their lives. 

The approach of the early church here is telling. They interpreted the teaching of Jesus quite literally, and when they were attacked and killed they refused to defend themselves. Instead they were martyred. The word martyr means “witness.” and these martyrs saw their death as bearing witness to the Lordship of Jesus in their lives. They saw their refusal to take up arms as an expression of faithfulness to Jesus and his way. Again, it’s important to keep in mind that this was not something everyone did. The assumption then was the same as it is today, that people should defend themselves. The early church broke with religious and cultural tradition here. Their answer to the question “What would you do if someone attacked you?” is simply “I would die.” If that is not a hard pill to swallow, I don’t know what is.

Now, I am not proposing that we take the same literalistic approach of the martyrs. I think actually that the early church -- as much as it is romanticized by some – actually got a lot of stuff wrong. In particular, they ended up glorying suffering, rather than providing an alternate means to end it. I believe we need to go beyond simply forbidding retaliation, and to dig deeper to find an alternate means to resolve conflict based on the teachings of Jesus.

The bottom line here is that as a Christian, as someone who calls Jesus Lord, you simply do not get to appeal to your “right” to kill someone with your gun in self-defense. You lose that right when you give your life to Christ. It is really that simple. To hold on to your gun as Charlton Heston says, until it is “pulled from your cold dead hand” is to hold on to your sin, just as much as it would be to hold on to your riches or hold on to your sexual exploits instead of following Jesus. This needs to be said. We should not kid ourselves and think we can hold on to our swords and still follow Jesus. There is a clear and direct conflict here, and to ignore it is to ignore Jesus as Lord.

Now, if you want to take a conservative literalist approach to this, then you get to die like the martyrs. That’s your option if you want to read literally. If instead, like me, you want to take a progressive approach to interpreting Scripture and following Jesus, then we can talk about what it means to follow Jesus in this in a nuanced and complex way. But here also there is simply no room for justifying any “right” to lethal violence. This is precisely what Jesus is challenging.

While I see problems in the approach of the martyrs, the lesson I do want to take from them is this: While it is not where we should end, the prohibition on lethal violence is where we need to begin. Jesus does clearly say that the way of the sword, the way of killing, is not an option for us as his followers. I do not want to follow in the path of the majority of conservative Evangelicals and simply ignore the clear teaching of Jesus here, just because it is hard and goes against my own culture and country’s values. I want to find a way to make Jesus Lord of every area of my life, I want to allow the values of Jesus to shape how I see, what I value, and how I live. I don’t want to find some cheap proof-text way to simply ignore Jesus. I don’t want to just be a cultural Christian whose values are shaped more by my culture and country than they are by Christ.

So I ask myself, “What does it mean to love my enemies?” and I try to be open to the Holy Spirit to show me how I can live this out in my life. What does that look like? It begins with recognizing that Jesus is speaking to my country’s assumption that it’s okay to kill someone who is threatening us, and is challenging that way. On a broad level, Jesus is pointing us to another way to resolve conflict. I’m convinced that this does not simply mean doing nothing (simply forbidding retaliation), but entails an alternate way to resolve conflict and overcome evil without mirroring it. The New Testament repeatedly says, do not return evil for evil, harm for harm (1 Pet 3:9; Rom 12:17). This way is the polar opposite of the NRA’s mantra “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The New Testament would counter “Good guys, don’t become a bad guy by using your gun to retaliate and return evil for evil.”

If we want to follow Jesus here, if we want to truly make Jesus Lord of our lives, then we need to renounce the way of retaliation, and learn the way of Jesus. Rather than responding to Jesus argumentatively with “but what about...” looking for excuses not to follow, I want to instead ask “What are areas of my life where I can seek to go against my tendency to want to retaliate and use force, and instead find ways to reconcile and make peace?”

How would you answer that question? How have you learned to practice this in your every day life – for instance in how you deal with conflict in your marriage, or at work?

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Gun Rights... and Responsibilities

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

I read an article on Vox where a guy tries to explain why so many Americans like him own assault rifles. The article assumes that those opposed to these weapons of war think anyone who would own one is “inhuman or insane.”

This is a straw man argument. Of course I don’t think that. No reasonable person would. I don't think you are a criminal or a nut. I get the appeal of owning a big gun like that. It’s like wanting a fast car. They are both kind of awesome. I want one, too.

The problem here is one of people needing to show moral responsibility. Driving fast is fun, but that does not mean you can race your car 90-miles-an-hour down a little suburban street. The reason is obvious, your fun endangers the lives of lots of people.

The same is true with people who want to own a weapon made for mass shooting people in war. I get why they want it. It’s cool. It's a power tool. But what is lacking here is moral responsibility and social conscience.

A long time ago Amitai Etzioni said that what we need in this country is to learn to balance rights and responsibilities. Having an assault rifle is not a right. No one needs it. It is a cool toy, like a smart phone. The question is: are you willing to be mature and responsible enough to give up your fun toy for the sake of others, for the sake of public safety?

I think a lot of people probably would be. Once we take fear out of the picture, people are often able to be considerate and social. But creating fear has become a major factor in the gun debate. People are constantly told that they need to fear having their guns taken away. They tell people they need to fear home invasion, terrorism, rape, a violent government, and every horror scenario you can think of, all calculated to play to people’s deepest fears.

This focus on fear is no accident. Fear engages your brain’s amygdala, which makes you defensive, reactive, and physiologically unwilling to compromise. It literally overrides your brain’s prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that is thoughtful and concerned about the needs of others – your social brain.

As long as a person’s brain is in that reactive threat-state, there is a huge physiological pull that keeps people from thinking of the needs of others, and of doing something good and unselfish – like giving up their dangerous toys.

So what we need is to move away from fear, away from demonizing the other, and -- this last one is maybe the hardest for us Americans -- away from unbridled me-focused consumerism. We need more people who can show self-restraint, and who can care more about other people’s safety than they do about their possessions.

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On Not Throwing the Bible Out With the Bath Water

Saturday, June 18, 2016

When we read the Bible we want to read it in a way that speaks into our lives, and helps us to be more moral. We want it to challenge our assumptions and values, to push us to go beyond the lame morality of our culture, and to be more like Jesus. But at the same time a lot of us have noticed that the Bible is often read by people in ways that justify them in being really terrible people who do inhumane and immoral things.

The Bible has been called a two-edged sword, and unfortunately that means it can cut both ways – it can do great good and great harm – depending on how we use it. So the question is, how can we know that we are reading the Bible in a way that makes us more moral, not less moral?

The Bible is a means not an end. Love is the goal, and the Bible is supposed to be a servant to lead us to love. If we are reading it in a way that leads us away from love, it would be better not to read it at all. That’s where a lot of people end up. They see all of the yucky stuff in the Bible – the parts that promote racism and oppression and violence and so on – and they just want to chuck the whole thing. So why do I keep reading? I can answer that in a single word.


I read the Bible in the hopes of understanding what Jesus was about, learning to see things like he did, think like he did, love like he did. In particular Jesus’ idea about loving your enemies is something that has captured my heart and mind. It is something that is still needed and radical today some two thousand years later. I want to learn what it means to do that. So I immerse myself in that book (including reading Paul, who I see as trying to figure out how to live out that Jesus-shaped love).

So that’s why I still read the Bible. But still the question remains, how can I read in a way that makes me more moral as opposed to making me less moral? How can I read the Bible in a way that challenges my own blind spots and the blind spots in my culture?

Something that I hear a lot as an evangelical is conservative Christians who maintain that they are going against the grain of their culture today and upholding the Bible and tradition. So if we all think something is bad, but the Bible says it’s good then we need to trust the Bible. The basic assumption is that the Bible should override what we observe and experience in life to be good.

The logic behind this seems straightforward enough: If we want to have the Bible and the way of Jesus act as a corrective to the broken values of our society, then shouldn’t we let the Bible trump what seems right to us? The problem is this is an argument based on authority, and as long as we are basing something on authority alone (including the authority of the Bible) we are by definition not really understanding it. This authoritarian approach inevitably always leads to hurtful interpretations because it has no means to differentiate between what is hurtful and what is loving. In fact, what happens is we disregard what we can observe about life, we disregard our hearts (and the Holy Spirit in us!) saying “this is wrong, stop!” and we disregard people saying “Hey you are really hurting me, please stop!”

In short, the absolute worst possible way to read the Bible is in an authoritarian way, and that is precisely the way most of us have learned to read it. What I want to propose instead is that it is possible to read the Bible in a way that informs our morality, and that goes beyond simply mirroring the values of our culture. That includes by the way mirroring the entrenched values and assumptions of our particular faith tradition or of our culture from a couple decades ago in “the good old days.”

Typically one is either on the side of tradition and the Bible, and dismissive of the voices of those who are marginalized in society by religion, or one is on the side of those who are marginalized in society by religion, and dismissive of the Bible. If we look at how Jesus read Scripture however, what we find is that he read it in a way that was connected to real life and our observed experience, and in particular by giving voice to the voiceless. He interpreted the law in a way that did not ignore the injustices of his day, as the Pharisees did, but interpreted the law in a way that resulted in loving those who were being harmed by an authoritarian interpretation of the law.

The law was the servant of the people, Jesus said, and so he therefore saw no problem in changing the law to accommodate the situation so that the end was love – breaking the Sabbath to help someone in need, ignoring the command to punish in favor of promoting reconciliation and restoration instead, going beyond commands for retribution and calling people instead to the way of enemy love.

What is key here is interpreting and applying Scripture not in a way that ignores what we can observe about what is good for people and how life works, but in a way that is integrally connected with our lived reality. This is the opposite of an authoritarian approach because instead of saying that we will obey without understanding, we say we need to seek to understand so we can obey (i.e. follow, live as a disciple) well.

That means we need to really get what the way of Jesus is about, and the only way to do that is by living it out. We will never understand what the complex reality of forgiveness looks like until we actually walk through it – both as individuals and as a community. We won’t ever get what reconciliation looks like until we learn to practice it. It can’t just be theoretical, it needs to be practiced and lived.

I also have to say that the more I walk in this the more I find words to describe the Bible like authoritative, infallible, inerrant, and even inspired to be really unhelpful. I know that make a lot of people nervous, so let me explain why I dislike them all. The reason is that they are almost always used in a way that promotes an authoritarian reading. They are used to shut down questions, and shut down people. I have no time for that.

That’s not to say that I reject these concepts, but simply that I want to be able to have a productive and practical conversation about how to read and apply the Bible in our lives, and want to work with words and concepts that help that, rather than hinder it. So I find it is much more helpful to simply approach the Bible, and in particular the words of Jesus, like I would any other idea – not blindly and unthinkingly following it, not treating it like it was sacred and untouchable, but seeking to really understand it. I strip away everything romantic and just ask “is there something good here?” which is the way I would approach reading any book.

That does not mean that I think the Bible is just “any” book. But I find that “any” book approach actually helps. My goal, after all, in reading the Bible is to go beyond the book and to reach the person behind the book. The way I have come to understand inspiration is that it is about encountering the Holy Spirit – inspired = in-Spirit-ed. The book is not the Spirit. The words on the page are not the Spirit. The Bible is a vehicle, a window, through which we can encounter the living Spirit of Christ speaking straight into our heart, personally and powerfully. So the Bible is not in itself inspired. An atheist can read the Bible and not encounter God at all (and so can we). The Bible is a means for us to encounter the Spirit, but that takes our heart being open to that encounter with the living Word of God, Jesus.

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