A Harm Reduction Approach for America’s Addiction to Violence

Saturday, January 31, 2015

One of the most important projects to me is articulating a practical vision for enemy love. My assumption in doing this is that this needs to be something that can be understood by any thinking and reflective person, based on its merit. That means it needs to address the legitimate concerns that people (including myself) have for the safety of themselves and those they love in a violent world.

It is not about what we don't do (which is why I tend not to use the term "nonviolence" since the term describes a "non" action, rather than describing what we should do instead). It is not about a prohibition where we are not allowed to use violence, but about finding better and more effective ways to solve our problems without violence. I realize that in having this focus I disagree with many of my fellow Christian pacifists who instead stress that we need to renounce violence as Christians regardless of whether or not we can articulate how the way of Jesus actually addresses the problems of violence in our lives and world. I very much think we absolutely do need to address these things, and want to do my part to help articulate what that might look like.

Usually the place where people start when contemplating nonviolence is with the most extreme of cases, questions like "What would you do if Hitler was invading your home?" or "Are you saying we should abolish the military completely?"

What we need to realize is that behind such extreme questions (often presented more as an accusation than an actual question) is a good and very basic human desire to care for the safety of ourselves and those we love in the midst of a violent world. Because this is such a primal human drive (the drive of self-preservation) people often can become quite reactive and triggered, and it's important to realize this in our conversations. Fear is often behind anger, and it's a legitimate fear. I also want to keep my family safe. I think we all do.

The question is, what is the best way to do that?

Let's begin with a reality check: You and I have no power to abolish the military, even if we wanted to. Let's take that up a notch, if President Obama, the most powerful man in the free world, the President of the United States, decided that he wanted to abolish the military, he couldn't either. No President could. That's the reality we need to begin with, and so while abolishing the need for a military might be something we can hope to get to 50 or 100 years from now, if we want to move in that direction, we need to begin by taking a few steps beginning where we are now, and that is as a country completely addicted to and in love with the myth of redemptive violence.

When dealing with addicts, there is a concept known as harm reduction. The idea is that when an addict is not ready to recognize and fight their addiction, the best approach is to reduce harm in their lives as much as possible. This might include things such as providing heroin addicts with clean syringes, etc.

America is similarly addicted to violence. Our media helps us rehearse the popularly held belief that it is the solution to our problems, it's how we fight "bad guys" and what keeps us safe. In violence we trust. Many people cannot imagine any other way. Violence is to them not a last resort, but the only resort, the only solution they know. Either you respond with violence, or you do nothing. That’s the binary they think in.

We live in a country that can't even pass the most reasonable of gun control laws, even in the wake of one mass shooting after another. We live in a country that employs cops who have been assessed by their own police force as psychologically unstable and unfit for duty. When those same cops then go on to kill unarmed civilians at an alarming rate, rather than addressing this problem on a systemic level as needed, the police seek to justify this, villainize anyone who speaks out, and brush the problem under the rug (if that's news to you, Rachel Aviv has an in-depth report you should read).

The sad and sobering reality is we as a country are addicted to violence in a way that surpasses and shocks every other Western country, and like a typical drug addict, one of the characteristics of our addiction to violence is that we are in massive denial about what is so painfully and shockingly obvious to everyone else around us.

One reason I like the idea of "harm reduction" in regards to violence is that it takes the focus away from "just war" arguments that seek to determine when violence is "justified," and instead focuses on asking how we can find ways to reduce violence (including our own).

So what would harm reduction look like when applied to America's addiction to violence, and in particular applied to international conflict? Let me propose the following, and to keep things interesting, let's take the example of ISIS:

One approach is for Christians to refuse to participate in the military. This is a personal choice that we each must make for ourselves as moral adults. I can respect people who make that choice. I made that choice. But it still leaves open the question of how the Kingdom politics of Jesus would be applied here. Is it enough to simply ostracize ourselves from participating in the military without offering any vision of how to address such conflicts in a way that reflects the way of Jesus?

I think we need to do more. A major problem with how the decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have played out is that Americans have, for the most part, been able to distance themselves from the war. It was something that someone else's kids were involved in, over there. When kids come back, we often don't talk about it, yet all too often they come back with permanent wounds, both physical and mental.

So even if I have chosen to be a conscientious objector, I do not want to disassociate myself from those who have been hurt by war. Nor do I want to pretend that excluding myself from participation solves the problem. There is very real evil in the world, and we do need to do something about it. So it's not enough to simply say what we won’t do. We need to articulate what we will do to work towards peace and safety.

So let me propose something that a younger version of myself probably would not have liked. We keep the option of the military on the table, but we also seek other solutions at the same time. Looking at ISIS, as I have outlined previously, we can see rather clearly that a military solution alone will not solve the problem. The fact is, violence has not only failed to create stability, in many ways it has acted to exacerbate the situation of instability and injustice which fuels terrorism. So beyond a solely military response, we also need to do things such as (1) working towards social and economic development, (2) supporting nonviolent civil society resistance movements, (3) ending arms sales to militants and terrorists, (4) employing conflict resolution strategies, and so on. All in all, the point is to work towards long-term solutions that seek to address the deeper issues that lead towards violence.

A corollary problem is that we are so enamored with our military “solution” that our police have become militarized, and are increasingly treating citizens like enemy combatants in an occupation. Now instead of the “enemy” being someone overseas, the “enemy” is us at home if you happen to be a minority, poor, or mentally ill. Here the solutions are clear. (1) Police who have been assessed as dangerous and psychologically unstable should not be on the force, (2) misconduct should have real consequences, and (3) police should be trained how to deescalate volatile situations without immediately resorting to strong-arm tactics and violence – especially when dealing with the mentally ill. To do so would be safer both for police and for those they are sworn to “serve and protect.” The problem is that the corruption apparently runs so deep within some police department cultures that internal affairs, grand juries, and even the DOJ is running into a wall trying to fix it.

Let me stress again that I am not proposing ruling out military action, nor am I proposing disarming the police for that matter. I am however proposing that there are lots of alternatives to gunning down unarmed children with toy guns on a playground or choking people to death. I am saying that there are a host of major problems that military action alone simply cannot address and often makes worse, and finally I am saying that we need to work towards providing means to solve problems without the use of violence – both at home and abroad.

This is, I think, an immensely practical and reasonable proposal. The reason my younger self would not have liked it is because it is a "compromise" to my youthful ideals. I still like that idealistic teen I used to be. He was consequent and committed. But it’s one thing as a teen to make a personal moral choice to wait til marriage to have sex, and quite another to expect all teens to do that. Similarly, I don't think we can expect America to “practice abstinence” when it comes to its deep-seated faith in violence. What I learned as I grew older was that the questions became less “what should be the ideal?” and more “how do you lovingly address people who have fallen short of the ideal?” Harm reduction is about realistically meeting people where they are at, in their brokenness, in their mess. It prioritizes people over ideals. It does not begin with what “should be” but instead seeks to help people where they are at, even if that is imperfect, even if we need to “get dirty” to do so.

So I want to start with practical steps, thinking in terms of harm reduction. I want to start with where we are at, and seek to move forward from there. That entails becoming familiar with the idea that there are ways to effectively address real problems that do not involve killing anyone, and seeking to find practical ways to reduce violence in our world.

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Disarming Scripture: Reader Questions, part 4

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Jump back to Reader Questions, part 3

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.

The simple answer to this is: It does.

The New Testament makes a major shift away from the view that God’s kingdom is brought about by people killing in God’s name. This is a narrative that we find all throughout the OT, and that we find in the inter-testamental writings such as the story of the Maccabees. That’s why the expectation was that the messiah would be a warrior like David who would kill the enemy oppressors (the Gentiles) to bring about justice.

The New Testament instead makes it very clear that this is not the way of Jesus the messiah, and that we as followers of Jesus are not to engage in violent retaliation. This point is extremely clear and really central. The question is: Why do we ignore such a central and obvious point? Why do we find a million reasons to side-step loving our enemies?

I’ll come back to that question in a second.

First, let me point out that when Jesus says really reasonable things like “God wants to show love to everyone, not just to us” they literally want to throw him off a cliff for it (Luke 4). So this is a pretty volatile environment. Say too much and you get killed. So one reason that the NT does not make these huge sweeping statements is because they were not able to make these huge steps as a powerless persecuted minority group.

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 problem is, most Christians don’t really get that better way, and here I don’t think the problem is with the Bible so much as it is with us. I understand that it would be desirable to have an authoritative statement that “this is totally wrong.” I think we need to begin by clearly saying, for instance, that genocide is and always has been categorically wrong. Period.

But that alone is not enough. We need to learn how to think morally ourselves. We cannot be dependent on a book or a pastor to dictate to us what is right and wrong. We need to be moral adults who can discern and question and grow. That is ultimately what Jesus models, and what having the “mind of Christ” as his disciples entails.

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.

The fact is, today, when Christians seek to justify state violence, (including torture, assassinations, civilian bombings, etc) the texts they reach for are in the New Testament, a common example being 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." (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.
What this practically means is that instead of letting the higher morality of the NT shape and change how we see... instead of letting Jesus teach us his way... we instead come to the Bible with our way and find texts to support it. That way we can remain in our worldly view, but feel we have God’s blessing in doing so.

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.

We don't need a better book with better rules as if that would alleviate us from the need to think morally. Rather, we need to really seek to understand Jesus’ radical way of enemy love, and that ultimately means that we need to do the hard work of understanding why Jesus says what he does.

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.

Next time,

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?

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Disarming Scripture: Reader Questions, part3

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Jump back to Reader Questions, part 2

This time we'll take a look at this reader question,

What is Scripture? What is that which is referred to as "God's word" (though I now understand that Jesus is the total expression of God, not the Bible)? Why did the OT writers record the things they did as if it were commanded by God's very spoken word if they were in fact wrong and what they were doing was something which could only have been inspired by a voice or force of darkness?

We heard a similar question posed last time by "friendly atheist" contributor Rachel Ford,

What is God’s role in the Bible? If it is really His book, or its formation governed by His will, how does it further the Divine Plan to accumulate a number of really horrendous things, that (He must know) people will use as the inspiration for further atrocities, and pass it on to humankind without at least some word of caution?"

As we can see here, this is question asked both by those on the outside of the faith and by those in it. In a nutshell the question boils down to this: If there are things endorsed in the Bible like genocide or slavery which we can and must clearly recognize as wrong, then in what sense can we say that the Bible, and in particular the Old Testament, is inspired, let alone infallible or inerrant?

The conservative take is to read the Bible unquestioningly. So for them the answer is simple: If the Bible endorses genocide and slavery, then they must be good. The problem of course is that this results in people bending over backwards to find ways to call things "good" that they would clearly recognize as moral atrocities in any other context. It makes good people less moral as they find themselves doing things that are deeply hurtful (like beating their children) and that destroy relationships (like kicking their gay kids out of the house) because their pastor tells them the Bible commands them to. It makes smart people into fools as they use their intelligence to justify moral atrocity in a misplaced desire to "defend" the Bible. This is a morally bankrupt way of reading Scripture that leads people to justify and perpetuate harm and violence.

Those of us who recognize this need to find a better way to read the Bible, but often we don't know what that would look like. The way we have learned to approach Scripture is to trust what the text says, despite what we may think, and let it define our morality.

Let me caveat this by saying that in some cases we can do exactly that. For example when the Bible says things like "forgive people when you don't want to, love your enemies, give to the undeserving" and so on -- that is, when it says stuff that stretches and challenges us morally -- then we can and should let that shape us morally. It is certainly true that Jesus stretches us to grow our love and change our perspective. We still need to work through what a healthy application those teachings looks like of course, but this is a matter of finding the correct interpretation.

With the troubling texts in the Old Testament such as genocide and slavery however we are dealing with something different. This is not a matter of finding the right interpretation. Genocide and slavery are simply morally wrong and never God's will. Such texts present us with a picture of God's will that we must declare as wrong.

The Hebrew Bible itself says this in its multi-vocality. We find one place where the Bible says that God did something (2 Samuel says God told David take a census), and another place in that same Bible that says this was not God but the devil (1 Chronicles). Elsewhere, we find one prophet declaring "God says..." and then in another place we find another prophet contradicting them and declaring "I, the Lord, declare, I never said such a horrible thing!"

That's what the Old Testament is like, and because of this reality it makes no sense at all to have a "I accept as truth whatever it says" approach because it says conflicting things. It does not contain a single view, but rather is a record of opposing views.

So then how do we regard the Old Testament? In what sense can we regard a book like that as inspired Scripture? Certainly if we think inspired means "whatever this says is from God" then we need to re-assess our definition of inspiration. So if that's not what inspiration means, how do we define it?

As Christians, the obvious place to begin here is to look at how Jesus and the authors of the New Testament approached the Old Testament as their sacred Scripture. What we will find is that they simultaneously regarded it as inspired, yet did so in a way that allowed for faithful questioning. Let's take a quick look:

The book of Hebrews speaks of the Torah and the Mosaic covenant as being "obsolete" and "fading away" (Heb 8:13), and Paul describes Torah as a temporary measure, never intended or capable of making us holy, "for if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law" (Gal 3:21). Paul differentiates between the promise to Abraham, which he says is fulfilled in Christ, and the law given later to Moses, which he describes as a temporary measure, a stop-gap until the real thing came in Jesus.

That's how the New Testament authors viewed the Old Testament. Even verses like 2 Timothy 3:16 "All Scripture is God-breathed..." need to be read in that context. We can see this by looking at the verse right before this one which states that the purpose of Scripture is "to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim 3:15). The purpose of the Old Testament is to lead us to Jesus. That is what the New Testament repeatedly tells us.

Put differently, the Apostles encounter with the living Word of God in Jesus caused them to completely re-assess everything they had understood in Scripture in that light, and so it should with us. We need to learn to read the Old Testament in the light of Christ and to ask "Does this reflect Jesus and his way?"

Further, as we've seen, the New Testament does not view the OT as perfect and eternal, but as limited and obsolete, stressing that we are "not under Torah, but under grace" (Rom 6:15). That in itself is a rather huge NT revision since Moses says the law is eternal. The fact that we refer to the Hebrew Bible as the "Old Testament" reflects this view. We are under the new covenant, not the old. "For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another" (Heb 8:7).

Now, let me say here that Paul stresses over and over that "the law is holy and good" (obviously anticipating the objections of his religious audience to the view of Scripture he is proposing). So we should not misunderstand this as the NT authors just chucking the OT out with the bathwater. It is however a nuanced view that recognizes limitations, and has a clear focus of seeing the aim of the law as pointing us towards Jesus. In other words, the Bible is not our Lord and savior, Jesus is. The Bible is not central, Jesus is, and the purpose of the Bible is to serve a servant function leading us to Christ. We may learn of Jesus through the Bible, but it cannot replace that vital living connection. In that sense, Jesus alone is the very living eternal Word of God (Jn 1). "I am the truth" Jesus says. Truth is not a book or a law or a set of propositions, truth is a Someone.

What this ultimately gets down to us how we interpret the text. You can read the Old Testament and use it to justify slaughtering and enslaving people (as people have done throughout history), or you can read it like Jesus and have it lead you to loving your enemies and caring for the poor. It is therefore not simply a matter of what the text says, but of how we read it. Judaism, and the Old Testament itself, shows a developing record of the changed ways that people interpreted and applied the law. This development, which often took the form of conflict between opposing positions, continued within the Jewish faith during the time of Jesus, as we saw last time with the conflict been the schools of Shammai and Hillel.

Continuing in this Jewish tradition of interpretation characterized by faithful questioning, Jesus read Scripture as having the purpose of leading us to love. As a consequence he felt free to break laws when love called for it. He healed people on the Sabbath. He could've waited one day. No one's life was in danger. But he thought it was absurd to wait. He thought it missed the purpose of the law of Sabbath rest, which was intended to be a gift not a burden. So he broke it in the name of love. He did that constantly. That is certainly not an unquestioning way to read. Jesus did not see himself as breaking the law when he did this, but as fulfilling it. The Pharisees saw it as breaking it. The take away here is that Jesus saw that faithfulness to Scripture, fulfilling the law, involved at times breaking it, and taking it further, for example by overturning an eye for an eye with the way of enemy love.

So what I am proposing is that we take a clue from how Jesus and the NT writers viewed and applied (and didn't apply) the Old Testament. They all regard Scripture as Scripture, and yet did so in a way that allowed them to question, to reject, to revise, to add, to grow. That's awesome because it allows us to read Scripture with our minds and consciences intact in a way that lets us grow morally, rather than in a way that "enslaves us," as Paul puts it.

next time we'll look at this question,

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.
jump to reader questions part 4


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A Friendly Progressive Response to a Friendly Atheist

Sunday, January 11, 2015

So it appears that Friendly Atheist over on Patheos, via contributor Rachel Ford, has an article about me and my work on violence and the Bible.  The article is based on a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post recently called Questioning Genocide and Slavery in the Bible

It's worth noting that her article, while it speaks of me "tackling an issue" is not referring to my book Disarming Scripture where I actually have the space to really tackle the issue, but to a single article I wrote, where I can really only skim the surface of such a huge topic at best.

Rachel begins with what she appreciates, which is always nice,

"Unlike many apologists, [Flood] doesn’t try to sugarcoat the slavery, genocide, etc. ... It’s more honest than many in that it does not attempt to whitewash horrors, and more compassionate in that it does not attempt to make them seem just."
She also notes that she is "not criticizing [Flood's] rejection of hateful and brutal elements of scripture or an outlook 'motivated by love and compassion'" which she shares with me. So there's more things we agree on. 

From that point of agreement, she then explains where she disagrees,

"If the purpose of the Bible is not to provide actual moral guidance, but to mix a lot of terrible things that humans have done with good things humans have done in order to teach us how to sort the horrible from the good… well, frankly, we don’t need it.
 Furthermore, what is God’s role in the Bible? If it is really His book, or its formation governed by His will, how does it further the Divine Plan to accumulate a number of really horrendous things, that (He must know) people will use as the inspiration for further atrocities, and pass it on to humankind without at least some word of caution?"
Now, if I was actually proposing this, then her critique would be spot on. But I am not. The key factor here is the idea of a "purpose" for the Bible, as if the good parts, along with some really morally disturbing parts, were all intentionally put there by God as a kind of divine multiple-choice test for us to learn morality. That's what she says I am proposing.
So let me clarify: I am not proposing that God purposely wrote a book with right and wrong answers so we could figure it out. Rachel and I both agree that that would be pretty silly. Rather, I am observing (as many biblical scholars have) that the Bible -- and in particular the collection of books that we Christians call the "Old Testament" was written by multiple authors with differing views, each presenting their view as the right one. As a result it contains both things that are morally good and bad because it is a record of conflicting moral visions. That's just what happens when you have people in a moral debate, you get opposing views.

What is remarkable about the Hebrew Bible (and this is something that you do not have to have any sort of faith to appreciate) is that it contains not only the majority view, but also contains the voices of protest against that majority view. As Rene Girard has pointed out, that makes the Old Testament unique in world literature of the time. The writings of the Old Testament were the first in world history to allow for the voice from the margins to be heard, crying out against oppression, calling out for compassion.

For example the majority voice claims in Ezra/Nehemiah that foreigners were bad and corrupting and thus commands Israelite men to send their foreign wives and children away into the night, never to see them again --  possibly sending them to their deaths, considering the harsh realities of the time. They do this, the text claims, in order to be faithful to the Torah, and to avoid God's wrath at their impurity for having mixed their seed.

In contrast, the book of Ruth -- which scholars date as being written at the same time as Ezra/Nehemiah -- instead tells a story from the perspective of one of those despised foreign women. The story is set in an earlier time before the birth of king David. This story of protest from the margins tells of Ruth, a noble and kind woman who encounters mercy from an Israelite man who marries her and who finds "shelter under the wing of Yahweh." Ruth becomes the great grand mother of King David. So that foreign "seed," as the book of Ruth argues, is what their hopes all hang on as they looked for a Messiah to arise from the line of David in the time of Ezra/Nehemiah.

Let me stress once again, that I am not proposing that God decided to put both stories side-by-side so we could choose the better one. Rather we have two opposing human voices, both claiming to speak for God. In this case, two opposing moral visions from the same time. One can be seen as a xenophobic treatise against inter-racial marriage, and the other as the opposite -- focusing instead on having compassion for the "other" and the vulnerable among us. 

Our headlines today present us with that same choice. We hear some voices (Fox News anyone?)  drumming up fear towards those who are the "despised foreigners" of our time, Muslims. They do the same with the vulnerable among us, painting for example the poor as "lazy freeloaders." Their position is presented as the true patriotic American view, and as the Christian and godly view. Those same voices also seek to justify violence, whether in the form of drone strikes or torture, appealing to those same claims to be doing so in the name of God and country.

Now, if we hear that voice the way it wishes to be heard, as the voice of authority, then we will swallow that moral vision unquestioningly. That's why I say we need to reject the way of unquestioning obedience to anything, and instead learn the way of faithful questioning. We need to learn to join the voices of those from the margins like Ruth or the Psalmists or Job who cry out saying "Wait a minute! That's not right!"

I fully acknowledge that atheists like Rachel are doing this, and I applaud that. What I want to point out however is that this kind of moral protest has a long history which begins with the Hebrew prophets, and which was continued by Jesus. So I very much disagree with her assertion that the Bible has "[no] relevance or usefulness to the pursuit of a more reasoned and moral approach to life."

Perhaps that is true if we read the Bible through a fundamentalist lens as Rachel appears to be doing (which is understandable since, as her bio states, that is the background she was raised in before becoming an atheist). However, as I argue in my book, we can learn a great deal from the Bible if we can get a hold of the radical way that Jesus read it, as well as getting hold of Jesus' message and way of enemy love. Our current culture is very far away from that way of enemy love today. We do not know the way of enemy love, and we desperately need to.

One of the arguments I make in my recent book Disarming Scripture is that we should evaluate things on their merit, and I maintain that Jesus' way of enemy love stands on its own merit as a powerful and much needed way to deal with the many conflicts in our lives and world. That's true for atheists, just as much as it is true for Christians like me, because it's just true, period.

That brings me to a second way that Rachel is misunderstanding me, which is that she assumes I am an "apologist" and that consequently my goal is to present an "attempt to explain away the less-than-savory aspects of the Bible."

That is most certainly not my goal.

My goal is to promote love which I see as the teleological aim of Scripture, and specifically my aim is therefore to work to end religious violence. That is precisely why I do not, as Rachel notes, "attempt to whitewash horrors" or "attempt to make them seem just."

That's what fundamentalists do, and I am most definitely not a fundamentalist, nor am I an apologist for that matter. Apologists, as I see it, are a lot like marketing people who want to make things look nice.

That's not how I roll. If I answer a question, it is not to do PR for God (which strikes me as a rather arrogant thing for a mortal like me to do). Rather, it's simply because it is a question I really struggle with myself that I have worked through and want to share to help others who are struggling with the same questions. I don't think that being a Christian means I have all the answers, or that questions are things we need to all have answered so we an stop asking them. Rather I insist that learning to question is essential to a healthy faith and moral life. Questioning is the mark of moral character which we need to cultivate.

Let me conclude by saying that Rachel does raise an important question: How do we understand God's role in Scripture?

She (perhaps based on the assumptions of her former fundamentalist background) asks that question with a lot of assumptions that go along with a fundamentalist perspective -- assuming that God is the author of the Bible and that it's all there -- even the parts we find deeply morally problematic -- on purpose.

If we wish to move away from a fundamentalist view which maintains that everything in the Bible, no matter how profoundly immoral it seems to us, is all written by God and God's will... If we want to get away from the very morally dubious position of needing to justify the slavery, genocide, xenophobia we find in the pages of the Old Testament as God's will, then this begs the question:

In what way is God involved in the Bible? In what way is the Bible "inspired"?

As progressive Christians we need to have an answer for that question. I'll have to leave that for a future blog post. Or if you just cant wait, you can go buy my book  :).

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The World's Best Pharisee

Saturday, January 10, 2015

When the Gospels speak negatively of the "Pharisees" and in John's Gospel more generally of "the Jews" one can easily get the mistaken idea that all Jews were legalistic, angry, and opposed to Jesus and his ministry of caring for people.

That's simply not true. 
 
What makes this misunderstanding especially tragic is that the general impression of Jews being "legalistic" and "hypocritical" that we can get from (a misreading of) the Gospels has led to Christian persecution of Jews over the centuries. That means this is not only a wrong way to read the Gospels, but one that has led to real harm.

So let me set the record straight: Jesus was a Jew, and the conflict we see in the Gospels between Jesus and those identified as "the Pharisees" is more properly understood as an intra-religious debate within Judaism between two competing ways of understanding faithfulness to Torah.
More specifically, what we see in that conflict is best understood as a conflict between Jesus and the fundamentalism of his day. That conflict was real, and the Gospels record that conflict.

What's important to understand here is that fundamentalism -- then and now -- is not so much about what particular doctrines one holds to (indeed, doctrinally Jesus and the Pharisees had a lot in common), and much more about one's character and maturity -- about how we act and treat others.

There is a famous story about two of the key leaders of the Pharisees at the time of Jesus, i.e. the Second Temple Period -- Hillel and Shammai. Both were given a challenge by a Gentile who said,
 
"I'll convert on the condition that you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand here on one foot." 
 
Shammai's reaction was to try to beat the person with a stick for his insolence. Hillel in contrast responded,
"That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn."    (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)
Note, first of all, how in-line Hillel is with Jesus (or rather I should say how much Jesus was influenced by Hillel, since Hillel pre-dates Jesus). It's easy to see why many scholars believe Jesus got his "golden rule" directly from Hillel, and one can certainly also observe that Jesus' approach to Scripture mirrors Hillel's focus on it leading to love. For Hillel the law is there to serve people, not to burden them down. To paraphrase Jesus, the law was made for people, not people for the law. 
 
If all of the Pharisees had been like Hillel there would have been no conflict. But with Hillel’s death (10 CE) the Shammaites (followers of Rabbi Shammai) took control of the Sanhedrin and remained in control until the destruction of the Temple. The Pharisees we encounter in the Gospels appear to be ‘Shammaites’ rather than followers of Hillel (as Jesus arguably was). 
 
It did not stay this way however within Judaism. Just as the Gospels record constant disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees, within Rabbinic literature there are over 350 disputes recorded between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai, and just as in the Gospels, in the Rabbinic literature the focus is always on Hillel's way of love over and against Shammai's harshness. As the Zohar puts it (Ra'aya Meheimna 3:245a), Shammai's way was based on severity and power (guvurah), while Hillel's was based on grace and mercy (hesed). Sound familiar?
 
Let's notice a second thing about Hillel's response to the Gentile standing on one foot. Hillel's answer is not only focused on love and grace, but he does so with a sense of humor. That's so important. Our political and religious debates are desperately in need of that. Humor is a crucial element of Jewish theology, and we can see a lot of that humor in the teaching of Jesus and Paul if you have your eyes open for it.
 
In contrast to this response of wisdom, compassion, and good-willed humor exemplified by Hillel, Shammai instead gets really angry and wants to hit people.
That's fundamentalism. 
 
Again, fundamentalism at its core is not about particular beliefs so much as it is about a way of dealing with people that is characterized by anger, judgmentalism, and close-mindedness. We constantly read stories in the Gospel where we are told that the religious leaders "tried to throw Jesus off a cliff" or "tried to kill Jesus, but he escaped into the crowds." That was what the fundamentalism of Jesus' day looked like. 
 
I hope the irony is not lost on you that rabbinic Judaism, in siding with Hillel over Shammai, has a lot in common with Jesus and his way, while many conservative Christians seem to have adopted an approach that looks a lot more like that of the Pharisees we encounter in the New Testament.
As the example of Hillel shows, not all Pharisees were fundamentalists, just as not all Evangelical Christians are today. Being a fundamentalist is not connected to one particular group or belief. We see fundamentalist atheists, too. (Bill Maher seems to be moving more and more in the direction of fundamentalism lately). Of course, let me hasten to say, not all atheists are like that either!
The question then is, are we focused on love like Hillel and Jesus? Or are we judgmental, close-minded, and angry? Do we feel it is more important to treat people right, or to be "right"? Are we trolling the internet, looking to put someone in their place, looking for someone to beat with our metaphorical sticks?
I know it's really easy to read that above paragraph and think of someone else who fits that description, someone over there who does this. But remember Hillel's words, don't become what you hate. Instead of pointing fingers and shifting blame we need to instead put the searchlight on ourselves, to remove the plank from our own eye, as Jesus said. 
 
Properly understood, the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees as it is presented in the Gospels is not at all about a clash between two religions, rather it shows how all of us can easily get our priorities wrong, get focused on the wrong thing, and as a result we can be total jerks and think we are in the right, that we are fighting the good fight.

This applies to how we have treated our LGBT brothers and sisters. It applies to how we treat our Muslim neighbors. It's about a way of being, and that way should be one focused on love, on seeing the one we regard as "other" and even as "enemy" as a human being beloved by God. We need to stop otherizing people, and start humanizing them. That's at the heart of Jesus' way, and if we read the Gospels and instead end up otherizing and blaming some other group like the Pharisees, then we've missed the whole point of the gospel.
 
In Jesus' version of the Golden Rule he alters the focus from Hillel's. Instead of not doing what we hate having done to us (which is already a huge moral advance), Jesus says to treat others the way we want to be treated. This is preemptive love. It's not just refraining from evil, but actively sewing good. It's a way to break the cycle of blame and hurt. Being the first to forgive, the first to say "I'm sorry."

Okay, I'm done. You can stop standing on one foot now.

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Disarming Scripture: Reader Questions, part2

Saturday, January 03, 2015



This time well take a look at the question,

"If Jesus is the key to identifying what moral vision to embrace in the Old Testament, why not simply read the New Testament and discard the Old?"

Let's begin with the idea of a "canon within the canon." Pretty much all of us do this. For those from an Evangelical background like myself, there are certain parts of our Bibles that are covered in multicolored highlighters and underlines, and other parts that have none. Mainliners are the same. Phillip Jenkins notes that the liturgy readings in Mainline churches systematically have left out violent parts from the Scriptural readings. So the fact is,  we all, in one way or another, "vote with our feet" and end up for all practical purposes having a very different canon within the canon, based on what we feed ourselves on, what we spend time with.

I think that is probably healthy. What I stress in Disarming Scripture is that need to honestly face those violent parts that so many of us ignore. We need to do that because they have been, and continue to be, used to justify harm in God's name. They illustrate how religion can be used as a vehicle for evil. They thus shine a light on us, and how this is a human temptation we all must be aware of.

That does not mean however that we should read passages that promote hurt (like the genocide narratives) as part of our devotions. Here I'm reminded of Paul's words in Philippians,

"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." (Philippians 4:8)

I can certainly also understand that people would want to focus on New Testament, rather than on the Old. After all, the New Testament is not multi-vocal in the way the Old Testament is. So doesn't the New Testament provide what we were looking for? Isn't it our source for the right answers from God?

The problem is when this is done from the perspective of unquestioning obedience, history demonstrates that it has led Christians to endorse the institution of slavery based on an unquestioning reading of the New Testament.

That is, if we read New Testament, hoping that we now have all the right answers, which we can follow unquestioningly, we are placing ourselves on path towards violence and hurt. Not because the New Testament promotes things that are wrong, but because we missread it. 

Here's the bottom line: The issue is not ultimately between a bad Testament and a good New Testament. On a much deeper level the real issue is that even when we read something good, if we read it unquestioningly and without understanding, this inevitably leads to harm. We therefore need to learn to read everything like Jesus did, with the approach of faithful questioning motivated by compassion.

This is true even for the words of Jesus.  An unquestioning reading of the words of Jesus has led some Christians to perpetuate cycles of domestic abuse, in a tragic attempt to be faithful to the way of self-sacrificing love. 

The answer therefore is not to find a perfect text that we can read unquestioningly, but to learn how to faithfully question ourselves, our culture, our religion, and our sacred texts.

This is what Jesus models for us, and as his disciples it is simply not enough to thoughtlessly copy his answers, like a poor student copying answers to a test without understanding them. We need to understand what motivated Jesus to ask the questions he did; we need to learn how to think morally, critically, and creatively as Jesus did.

The simple fact is, obedience absent of reflection or understanding inevitably leads to abuse. We therefore cannot unquestioningly follow the New Testament or even Jesus. Rather, if we really want to follow Jesus we need to learn to adopt his method of faithful questioning motivated by love and compassion.  Jesus does not want us to blindly obey him (making us into a sort of Jesus-Pharisees), Rather, he wants us to really get what he is saying and learn to question injustice and work towards compassion as he does.

As moral agents, we must not unquestioningly accept whatever the Bible says (including the New Testament). Nor should we accept without question whatever our culture says is right (whether from the left or the right). Rather, we must learn how to step into the dispute — both within the pages of the Bible, and in the public square — and make our case for what is good. This is exactly what we find Jesus doing in his time. For those of us who call ourselves his followers, we need to learn how to do the same in ours.

Next time I'll address a question that get's at the very nature of how we understand Scripture,

What is Scripture? What is that which is referred to as "God's word" (though I now understand that Jesus is the total expression of God, not the Bible)? Why did the OT writers record the things they did as if it were commanded by God's very spoken word if they were in fact wrong and what they were doing was something which could only have been inspired by a voice or force of darkness? 
Go to question #3


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