Wednesday, June 03, 2015
This post is part 2 of a series on violence and the New Testament. So to get some context, if you haven't already, go read part 1 first, and then come back here. It's okay, I'll wait.
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Okay, great, I see you're back, so let's continue...
In the above clip from the Daily Show there are two great lines. The first is from Jon Stewart who quips,
"You know I've always said, religion has given people great comfort... in a world torn apart by religion."
The other awesome quote is from religious scholar Reza Aslan who says,
That's a tremendously important insight. Consider for example this passage from Romans 13 where Paul writes,
"Rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Rom 13:14)
That passage is used by conservatives today to argue that the state has a divine mandate to kill people. Whether this is in the form of the death penalty, cop shootings, drone strikes, or a host of other things, the state operates under the idea of that police and military have the right to kill with impunity.
Now we can look at Romans 13 and think that this reading is a very straightforward interpretation of it. State violence has God's blessing. That's the plain reading. However, when Jesus says "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor" (Mt 19:21) or "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 5:39), then all of a sudden these same conservatives don't want to follow a straightforward reading, and will do exegetical back-flips to find ways to not read these things in a straightforward way. "You need to look at the original Greek" they will say. Or "You need to understand the context" and so on.
So why is it that they will read some things in a straightforward way, and other things not? Why is it that some things are taken at face value, while other things get the "it's complicated" treatment?
Now, I get that there is a place for these complicated exegetical arguments. I have a whole section on biblical exegesis of Romans 12-13 in Disarming Scripture where I spend around 10 pages looking at the cultural and political context at the time. I think it offers a very solid understanding of how we should understand what Paul was saying, both in the context of the rest of Romans, as well as in the larger context of the way of Jesus. If you want to dig into that, go check it out (spoiler alert: Paul is not endorsing state violence as God's will in Jesus).
However, what I want to say now is something much bigger, and this is where Aslan's insight comes in:
The reason conservatives embrace Romans 13, but ignore the Sermon on the Mount, really has nothing to do with biblical exegesis at all. It has everything to do with embracing those passages that fit into the values one already holds, and side-stepping those that do not.
Conservatives get the value of state violence. They believe deeply in it. They see how it benefits them. So when they see something that confirms this in Scripture, they nod and take it at face value. On the other hand, if they do not get something -- like how they do not get why enemy love is good -- then they will find ways to read it that lets them off the hook. So we get arguments like "Jesus did not actually want us to practice anything on the Sermon on the Mount. He just said that to show how impossible it was to be perfect so we would realize how much we need grace." Well isn't that lovely. Feel free to ignore all of that, you know, "for the gospel."
This is not just a conservative thing. It's something we are all prone to. As Aslan says,
"There's this misconception that people derive their values from their scriptures, and the truth is that it's more often the case that people insert their values into their scriptures... I mean, that's the thing about scripture. Its power comes from its malleability. You can read it any way you want to. If you are a violent misogynist, you will find plenty in the Koran or the Bible to justify your viewpoint. If you are a peaceful feminist, you will find just as much in those scriptures to justify your viewpoint."
So, again, this is not something that only conservatives do. We all do it. All of us follow some stuff, and don't really follow other stuff. All of us pick and choose. You do, too. The real issue is learning how to pick and choose well, and the place to start is recognizing that you are doing it, and then learning to do it in a reflected way, rather than in an unreflected way.
Where I disagree with what Reza Aslan says in this interview is his implication that the Bible is simply a sort of tabula rasa, a blank slate, so it's only about what we bring to Scripture, like a mirror we look into that reflects back our own values and morals.
I don't think that's quite what's going on. Instead, I'd say it is more that we can only see what we understand. So if we don't understand enemy love (and most people don't) then we will not get it. If we don't get it, we will find ways to read around it. That's when we start talking about "context" and what not.
So here's what I would propose: Rather than simply coming to the Bible with our own morality and values, and then embracing whatever we find in Scripture that fits with this (as conservatives do in the example above, but liberals do as well), instead I propose we try and really get the way of Jesus so that we can truly understand it, and then seek to live it out.
With that in mind, next time we'll take a look at why conservatives believe in state violence, and how the way of enemy love offers a superior approach. That is, we'll look at why state violence is good, and why the way of Jesus is better.