Slaves, Women, and the State: How Inerrancy Perpetuates Systemic Oppression of Minorities

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Last time, discussing Romans 13 and state violence, I stated that Romans 13 is not a model for what Christian political influence should look like. Proposing some sort of Christian model of government was not even on Paul’s radar at the time. It would have been inconceivable for Paul to imagine that his little band of Jesus-followers would be able to tell the Roman Empire how to run things.

The fact is, the NT does not tell us at all what it would look like to run a society based on the values of Jesus. It was just not something that was on their radar. That does not necessarily mean we should not pursue this in our time some 2000 years later, finding ourselves in a very different political situation. I think we should. I don’t think it is easy, but I think it is crucial that we are engaged in working for justice in our world.

The answers, however, will not be found by flipping open the Bible to a verse or chapter that tells us the formula for how a Jesus-shaped society should look. There is no blueprint or proof-text. That’s because the New Testament writers did not even begin to think about this.

We see in the NT the first steps in a new direction, the direction of Jesus. These are ground-breaking, earth-shattering first steps, but they can’t be the last steps. We need to keep moving forward. That entails deeply understanding the values of Jesus so that we can work to creatively apply these values in our world.

The key here is creative freedom. Jesus shows a tremendous amount of creative freedom in how he approaches Scripture. We need to learn to do that, too. That means moving away from reading the Bible in the unquestioning way that is so characteristic of conservative Evangelicalism—blindly following it without any thought or moral reflection. But it means more than this. It also means being able to question the NT authors—or to state it differently, to be able to engage with them in a moral dialog.

For example, let's focus on a subject that the NT does address, which is how a suffering and mistreated minority should respond to unjust treatment by those in power. In a passage very similar to Romans 13, Peter writes,
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” (1 Peter 2:13-14)
Note that, as in Romans 13, we have here the same description of state violence having the God-given purpose of “punishing those who do wrong.”

Peter then moves from state violence to slavery, again calling for submission. Note how he goes from speaking of state violence in one sentence (which we still believe in today) to speaking of slavery in the next (which we no longer believe in),
“Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” (1 Peter 2:17-18)
It does not work to maintain that one thing (state violence) is a God-given order, and another (slavery) is a bad thing. The fact is, both of these were equally part of the unquestioned reality at the time. Just as we today likely cannot imagine a world without state violence, they could not imagine a world without slavery.

Many have made the assertion that the form of slavery that the Bible condones was not as inhumane as the sort of slavery that was practiced in the American South. That is profoundly wrong, not to mention naive. Slavery, as it was practiced in Rome, was inhumane and brutal. Note that Peter speaks of slave masters “who are harsh” here. Just in case there was any doubt as to what Peter means, he clarifies this in the next sentence,
“For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it?” (1 Peter 2:19-20)
This was a time where beating slaves was considered par for the course, and Peter does not question it as wrong. He does not question the institution of slavery, nor does he demand that one cannot hold slaves as a follower of Jesus (can you imagine a pastor saying today that it was okay for someone in their congregation to be involved in human trafficking?), nor does Peter say that it is immoral to beat someone if they have “done wrong.” In fact he says the opposite, reflecting the moral assumptions of his day. Slaves were beaten for disobedience. If you want to know how slaves were beaten in Rome, the Gospel accounts of how Jesus was beaten by the Roman soldiers can give you a pretty good idea. It was brutal and bloody and ugly. Let's not kid ourselves about that.

Peter then goes on to speak of women submitting to their husbands,
“Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands” (1 Peter 3:1)
Note the phrase “in the same way” here. That is, in the same way as slaves should submit to their masters beating them, wives should submit to their husbands. This is not an unfair parallel. It was common for husbands to beat their wives at the time. After all, wives were considered property just as slaves were (as a side note, if you want to uphold the idea of "biblical marriage" you might want to reconsider that one). We might forget that this was the reality, living in the West some 2000 years later where domestic violence is considered a crime, but that was the reality in biblical times.

Now, in all of this Peter is speaking to oppressed minorities. He is himself part of that group. He sees them as a people who are suffering and mistreated. He does not think this situation is good or okay or right, but he counsels them nevertheless to endure suffering for the sake of Christ, and to return good for evil,
“All of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8-9)
Note that, in addition to using words throughout like “mistreat” and “suffer,” Peter calls what they are enduring here “evil”. The violence of the state they endured was evil. Slavery is evil. Domestic abuse is evil. It would be a profound misreading to think that Peter is here saying that state violence, or beating slaves, or submission of women, was God’s will for all time that we should regard as good and right.

However, I think we can legitimately question whether Peter’s advice here is even good advice for those in a situation of oppression. Should those who are oppressed and mistreated simply passively submit? Is that really the best expression of what being faithful to Jesus means? Is our only choice between either violent action or passive inaction? Does this mean that women should remain in abusive marriages “for Christ”? Does this mean that people of color should not protest police brutality and abuse, and instead just keep quiet?

If we want to apply what Peter is saying, then the answer to all of the above questions would be yes. I would instead maintain that following the way of Jesus must involve actively working towards an end to suffering and injustice. However, we will only find seeds of that in the New Testament. We need to learn how to take those seeds and make them grow, and to do that we need to look to people like Gandhi and MLK who have taken the way of Jesus further than the New Testament was able to.

It’s important to recognize that they are going further than the NT goes. Often progressive Christians will act as if this is not happening, as if one should be able to just pick up the NT and arrive at what Martin Luther King did straight out of the box. But this does both him and us a disservice, because it acts as if moral creativity and innovation in our reading of Scripture is not necessary, and an on-the-page reading of the Bible is all we need. That simply isn’t true. We need to be able to take the ideas of Jesus and really make them fly. This approach to Scripture is captured quite well in this quote by Jürgen Moltmann,

“I noticed how critical and free I have become towards [the biblical writings]. Of course I want to know what they intend to say, but I do not feel bound to take only want they say, and repeat it, and interpret it.... In other words, I take Scripture as a stimulus to my own theological thinking, not as an authoritative blueprint and confining boundary...
[God’s Word] is not bound to a patriarchal culture and the disparagement of women, or to a slave-owning society... even though all this is the context in which the biblical writings were framed. Only what goes beyond the times in which the texts were written and points into our future is relevant—God’s history of promise, and the history of [God’s] future.
This ‘matter of Scripture’ gives us creative liberty towards the utterances of Scripture which are subject to their time. It is along these lines, I believe, that I developed my use of the Bible”  Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology, p. xxii.

Moltmann is able to do such groundbreaking theology because he allows the Bible to give wings to his creative thinking, rather than having it become a tether to keep us earth-bound. As I argue in Disarming Scripture, I see Jesus as an example of exactly this kind of morally innovative approach to Scripture. If we want to read Scripture like Jesus, then we need to exercise that same kind of freedom.

That involves learning to not be afraid to think and question in the name of compassion, even if we need to question the NT to do that. So, yes, I am saying that Peter was wrong about this. It’s okay to say this. Paul told Peter he was wrong, too (Galatians 2:11), so I even have biblical precedent here! But kidding aside, I would think that Peter would actually rejoice to see how the way of Jesus could be applied in a way that leads to an end to suffering and the furthering of love.

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Justice is What Love Looks Like in Public

Saturday, June 06, 2015

In part two of this series on violence and the New Testament I discussed the tendency we have to embrace parts of Scripture that fit into the values we already hold, and side-stepping those that do not. I proposed that instead of doing that, we should instead have our values shaped by the way of Jesus.

The difficulty is that the way of Jesus, expressed in his teaching on enemy love, is something that is seldom taught in church, and largely not understood. As I explained in my previous post, if we don't understand something, we won't do it and will find ways to side-step it in how we interpret Scripture.

We see this in how conservative Christians embrace Romans 13 as a God-ordained societal model, but reject Jesus' understanding of the kingdom as one. This has little to do with biblical exegesis, and a lot to do with projecting one's pre-existing values into Scripture--using the Bible to support what we think is good, rather than having the Bible shape what we think is good.

In the case of Romans 13 the reason conservatives take this one small part and uphold it as a God-ordained societal model is that they are taking their pre-existing values of empire and projecting these onto this text. In other words, they defend state violence, not because they read the whole New Testament and concluded that this was its message, but because as part of the privileged class in America, they deeply believe in state violence, and so they use whatever snippet of text they can find in the Bible to support that.

So why do they embrace state violence? The basic idea behind state violence is we give the state the right to use force, including lethal force, with the idea that this will reduce violence. If you can call the police when someone takes your stuff, you don't need to take the law into your own hands, and that means less violence overall. It's a version  of Paul's statement in Romans 12:19, except it replaces the state for God, saying effectively,
Do not take revenge, citizens, but leave that for the police take care of it, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the state.

The result is that we feel safe in our homes knowing that the police are there to "serve and protect" and part of that is that they are permitted to use force, including lethal force if needed, to do this. That's the idea behind state violence, and why it is seen as "good." When people defend state violence, they do so because they believe that it keeps them safe. I recognize this. I'm glad we have police. I feel much safer knowing that they are there.

However, as we have seen in protests across the country in response to police shootings of unarmed black men, women and boys, many people of color do not feel safe around police. They do not feel protected, they feel afraid, harassed, mistreated, and in danger.

The reason conservative Evangelicals support state violence is that, as part of the privileged majority class of American society (and I should note that when I say "conservative Evangelicals" here I really mean white conservative Evangelicals), the system works for them. That makes sense. It works for me, too as a white male.

This however is not the perspective of Paul or the New Testament. Paul is writing to a people who are a persecuted and oppressed minority in the Roman Empire, not to those who are the privileged in that empire. The situation at the time of Paul's letter was an impending revolt against abuses surrounding taxes. The church in Rome was considering taking part in that revolt, and Paul in Romans 12 & 13 is telling them not to resort to violence, telling them that this is not God's way in Jesus.

At the time, it was inconceivable that Christians could have political influence in Rome. So Paul is not saying in Romans 13 "here's how Christian government should operate." Romans 13 is not intended to be a model for what Christians should do if they have political influence (which was not the situation they were in), it's a model for how a persecuted minority should act under oppression (which was their situation). Most of all this is about rejecting the solution of violent revolution and revolt that had been their script for centuries. Paul, and the NT in general, want to change that script of violent revolt. Paul rejects the way of the Maccabees.

So if we read Romans 13 today, from the very different context of a people of privilege living in the world's biggest empire, rather than seeing this as an affirmation of the values of empire, what the gospel and the way of Jesus call us to do is look beyond ourselves and what works for us, and to look to how our system is hurting others--especially the disenfranchised. I truly do understand why white conservative evangelicals embrace state violence as good. As a white male myself, the system of state-sanctioned violence indeed works for me. But Jesus shows me I should not only care about my own welfare, but especially for those who are marginalized, oppressed, and condemned in our society. For those people the system does not work, and these are precisely the ones Jesus tells me I need to pay attention to. As I care for them, I care for Jesus. And as I disregard and dismiss them, I do the same to Jesus. "As you have not done it unto these, you have not done it unto me. Depart from me!" 

That's quite the wake-up call. As Brian Zahnd puts it in A Farewell to Mars, Jesus judges nations on how well they care for four kinds of people:
The Poor. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink … I was naked and you gave me clothing.” 
The Sick. “I was sick and you took care of me.” 
The Immigrant. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” 
The Prisoner. “I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt. 25: 35– 36)

Jesus did not identify with power and privilege, but rather identified with the "least"--the poor, the sick, the immigrant--in short, he identified with those who were regarded as unworthy and even as enemies. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Over and over again in his parables, the good guys are those who are dismissed and despised and seen as "other" by those in power, and the bad guys are those with power and privilege who shut the door on them.

Romans 13 is not a model for what Christian political influence should look like. The fact is, the NT does not tell us what that would look like at all. This was beyond their horizon, just as the abolition of slavery was beyond their horizon at the time. So to move away from slavery, or to move towards lessening state violence, we need to go beyond where the New Testament writers were able to go. That's where a trajectory reading becomes so important.

Charting what that trajectory may look like is our task for today, and a place to start is to begin by seeing people as Jesus did, through the lens of compassion. The big problem with (white) conservative Christianity is that it is a theology that appeals to those in a position of privilege, to those for whom the system works. That's why the wealthy and powerful like and support it--because it does not call them out for their oppression, but upholds them as noble benefactors, focusing on private sins (usually sexual sins), and ignoring systemic sin. Both personal and systemic sin are important of course, but systemic sin is more important for the simple reason that it hurts more people. When conservative evangelicalism ignores the problems of systemic sin it misses a major aspect of the gospel. It is their persistent stubborn neglect of this major aspect of Jesus ministry and heart that led me to leave conservative Evangelicalism, as I found it incompatible with the way of Jesus and far too comfortable around Caesars and CEOs.

In regards to state violence, I'd say it is still beyond our horizon today to imagine how society would function without the use of state violence and force. However, there is a lot we can do to reform police brutality and abuse, to reform our profoundly unjust and broken prison system, and to reform the systemic abuses of our military from Guantanamo to the NSA. Just as it is a part of the gospel to care for the poor, it is equally a part of the gospel to care about justice, and to look for a better way of creating justice in our society today than simply mirroring Rome. In the words of Cornell West,

"Justice is what love looks like in public."

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The Problem with Violence and the New Testament (You're the Problem)

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.

. . .

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,

"How you read Scripture has everything to do with who you are. God does not make you a bigot. You're just a bigot."
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.

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