Saturday, October 25, 2014
In discussing my new book on violence in the Bible, which focuses on reading the Bible from the perspective of peace and love, I often hear this objection,
"But doesn't the Bible speak of God's wrath?"
"But doesn't Jesus use fear and threat to motivate people?"
"What about this verse here [fill in the blank] that seems to promote violence"
All of these questions are asked by people who want to believe in compassion, who see the moral problems with fear and threat as moral motivators,who recognize the problem with the connection between religion and violence. They want to have a Bible that is just about grace and peace and love. They stumble over the way the Bible often seems to praise violence as a virtue or paints God in a way that does not seem good or loving to us at all.
The expectation then is that if we could just read the Bible right, we would see that it is really all about grace and peace, and all that other stuff is just a misreading. So when we hear someone talk about how "Paul didn't mean that like that" and how he really was this loving guy and so on... well we are drawn to that like a moth to a flame.
Heck, there is a lot of truth in that, too. I do think a lot of people really do misunderstand Paul. I do think Paul is focused on grace and that people totally misread him and that there is this wonderful wealth of good stuff in Paul's writing just dripping with grace and love, if we would learn how to hear him for what he was really saying.
But there is a much bigger issue that think we need to face first: The Bible does contain troubling parts. Parts that disturb us not because we misunderstand them, but because we do. Parts that are immoral. Parts we cannot embrace.
It is not all about a misunderstanding, as if all we need is better information, a better Bible study, better education, better exegesis, and all would be clear. There are parts of the Bible that really do say just what you are afraid they are saying.
Take for instance a recent post by Rachel Held Evans on Abraham's binding of Isaac. That's the story where God tells this dad to tie his son up with ropes, slit his throat, and set him on fire to prove his devotion to Yahweh. Rachel bravely declares that she would refuse to do that, and that you would, too. It is a post of moral courage which I whole-hardheartedly support.
At the very end of the post she poses this question:
Maybe the real test isn’t in whether you drive the knife through the heart.
Maybe the real test is in whether you refuse.
I do think this is the question we need to ask ourselves today. We need to ask ourselves if we would let the Bible override our conscience, whether we are willing to do something that we find profoundly wrong and evil because "the Bible tells me so"? If we say "no" to that question (and I hope we all do) then the next question is: How do we know what is right if we are going to question the Bible?
What I want to have us realize is that the answer to that question is not in learning some way to read the Bible that will explain away all the problematic parts. For example in the above story of Abraham and Isaac the point of the biblical author was not the point Rachel is making. It is a story about unquestioning obedience. I wish it were not, but it is.
There are many many other stories in the Bible that uphold the opposite value which Rachel is upholding: The way of faithful questioning. The fact is, we find both the way of unquestioning obedience and the way of faithful questioning in the Bible. The Bible contains multiple conflicting views, different visions of what holiness and faithfulness look like that cannot be harmonized because they are quite simply a record of dispute. To harmonize them is to misunderstand and misread them.
There are parts of the Bible that preach peace, and others that teach war. There are parts that teach love and others that uphold hate as a virtue. So if we are looking to find a way to make the whole Bible be all about peace and love we are asking the wrong question.
The question we need to ask is this: If we have a book that promotes both love and hate, both "love your enemies" and "show them no mercy" how are we to choose? The basis for that choice cannot be based solely on finding the "correct" reading of the text because the text is a record of these opposing views. The Bible is multi-vocal.
Even when we come to the New Testament where we can recognize a clear focus on the way of radical forgiveness and enemy love, we find this as being deeply situated within the religious and political culture of the time. The New Testament can be read as a protest to the prevalent religious and cultural assumptions of the day that holiness and justice would come through the sword and violence. That's a vision of justice that we still embrace today, especially in this country.
But while the NT makes these huge steps in the direction of grace, we still find in it pictures of an angry God, and we still find in it women being treated as second class, and we find in it slavery being upheld. In other words, if we freeze things at the time of the NT, rather than continuing to move in the same direction, we land in a bad place.
That means we need a way to think morally ourselves. We need to have Jesus actually be alive in us, to have the Holy Spirit actually be renewing our minds, rather than basically being a moral blank slate that is filled up with the "right" answer from reading a book.
Now someone will surely object at this point, "But aren't we fallen and sinful people? What if we get it wrong?" To that I would answer:
We will get it wrong. That is a reality that all of us as adults need to face. But I can also tell you that reading the Bible blindly is not more safe. In fact history shows over and over that we get it much much more wrong that way. This has lead religious people repeatedly to commit genocide, burn people at the stake, abuse kids, keep slaves, enable wife beaters, and wage holy wars because reading Scripture in this way entails overriding our conscience and understanding. That is profoundly dangerous.
That does not mean we throw out the Bible. But it does mean we put the Bible in its rightful place. The Bible was never meant to replace God. That's idolatry. That's Bibliolatry. The Bible is meant to act as a window that leads us to God, that leads us to the Spirit, that leads us to goodness, to a Jesus-shaped way of being.
When we read the Bible like that, we truly read Scripture as Scripture, meaning we read it through the inspiration of the Spirit in order to connect with the living Spirit of God speaking to us through the text right now. God is not some absent father who left us some instructions. God is here, right now. God's love is real and available. Jesus wants to enter our hearts and shape us into his image. Reading the Bible plays a vital role in that act of communion and growth. We participate in that however not by shutting off our minds or closing our hearts and conscience as we read, but rather by fully engaging the text faithfully with all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our strength.