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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At 5:37 AM, Blogger Juan C. Torres said...

Excellent stuff, Derek. I can't wait to read the next question's answer.

At 12:55 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

thanks Juan :)

At 12:07 PM, Blogger David McK said...

I appreciate your clarity on this. Am reading Disarming Scripture and finding that it is "scratching where I itch".

At 7:55 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Like this. I have read, "Healing the Gospel" and now reading, "Disarming Scripture."


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