Consider the Lilies – The CBF & Homosexuality in 2016

Calling of the Apostles - Domenicio Ghirlandaio -1481

Calling of the Apostles – Domenicio Ghirlandaio -1481 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the turn of the millennium I was present when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship voted to establish their now-infamous policy against hiring LGBTQ persons. I was there as part of the first class to graduate from the CBF’s flagship seminary, the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, located in the same building as the CBF headquarters. My studies at Mercer had taught me to hope for a future in which Baptists would be united with our fellow, mainline brothers and sisters in a commitment to social justice, progressive theology, ecumenism, and responsible biblical scholarship.

As I wrote at the time, the experiences of that CBF meeting significantly disabused me of those hopes. I listened as speaker after speaker expressed concerns that “good” churches, particularly from Texas, would refuse to join if the CBF set a precedent for inclusion. There was no discussion about the vibrant, thriving LGBTQ-inclusive congregations whose lives and work would have been validated and renewed if the policy were voted down. Instead, I watched as greyed head after greyed head nodded enthusiastically while old men who represented everything I had come to McAfee to escape played to their fears and prejudices.

When the vote was finally tallied, and I listened to the uncharitable comments directed at those of us who had argued for inclusiveness, I realized that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was not trying to make a complete break with fundamentalism. Instead, the CBF was destined to be a home for people whose far-right conservativism wasn’t quite fundamentalist enough for the fringe-right gatekeepers of the new Southern Baptist Convention, and who wanted to recreate as much as they could of their memories of the Leave-it-to-Beaver era of the old SBC.

In a concession to the common sense conclusions of the first part of the century that had already ended, they were open to the possibility of female clergy, as long as they did not become too prevalent. Nearly a generation later, the common sense of this century is also starting to intrude into CBF deliberations. Hundreds of people connected to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship signed a “Statement of Solidarity” with LGBTQ persons. (It is worth noting that this statement aligns closely with the position of the older but smaller Alliance of Baptists, which has ordained LGBTQ persons since its inception in 1987.)

In response, several CBF leaders have weighed in, with differing perspectives. Don Durham continues to preserve his prophetic voice, calling CBF to account for its sin of exclusion. He concludes, “I came to CBF over a decade ago with the unfortunate perspective that CBF was the most exclusive inclusive group I’d ever tried to be a part of. I’ve held on more or less faithfully for 25 years in hopes my tribe would prove me wrong.” Bob Setzer has written an excellent piece about why he has changed his view since his “Yes” vote of sixteen years ago. His recollection of the process that created the policy is far more charitable than mine, but I think his logic is sound that it is time to reverse this “increasingly damaging and disastrous personnel and funding policy”

Conversely, Robert Parham, Executive Director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, has written an opinion piece in which he resurrects the arguments from the meeting that closed the previous century. Subordinating the transcendent power of the gospel to the earthly priorities of denominational wealth and power, Dr. Parham asks, “Given what has happened with mainline Protestant churches, what evidence is there that such illumination will lead to church growth and expanded global mission efforts?” The answer, of course, is in Luke 12, when Jesus explains, “For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

Even more offensive than Dr. Parham’s prioritization of earthly institutional success – over the eternal priority of offering an inclusive gospel – is his understanding of the key social justice issue of this generation. His article completely ignores the heartbreaking consequences of the Church’s historic prejudice against LGBTQ persons. Instead, Dr. Parham primly dismisses an issue of justice and civil rights as an attempt to “validate [modern] culture’s sexual mores.”

Apparently the “moderate” Baptist movement’s top ethicist needs a primer on the difference between sexual orientation (which relates to either the biological sex or gender identity of one’s sexual partner) and sexual morality (which concerns itself with conditions under which it is ethical to have sex with one’s sexual partner(s)). It saddens me that, in 2016, any theological leader would write in a way that ignores this simple concept. In his defense, however, it is a distinction that would also have been completely lost on the authors of our Scriptures, whose understandings of sexuality were linked deeply to the patriarchal and misogynistic political systems that sought to control wealth and heredity, female sexual autonomy, and the commodification of women’s bodies.

Consequently, Scripture is as useful a guide on marriage and human sexuality as it is on slavery. Which is to say that our Bible has a wealth of valuable contributions to make in helping us to develop a healthy, Christian ethos on those and many other topics; but that contribution will not be found through replicating the worldview of the people who wrote and edited the Bible. We have found a Christian ethic of human rights and dignity that rejects slavery, despite Jesus telling stories that looked favorably on masters beating their slaves, and St. Paul’s instructions for slaves to obey their masters. Likewise, when it comes to human sexuality, we have to find a way to apply the principles of Christianity to our modern social setting in a way that is not compelled to carry forward the anachronistic superstitions and prejudices of the ancient world that birthed our tradition.

Failing to separate the core values of our faith from those prejudices is at the heart of the fundamentalism which “moderate” organizations like the Baptist Center for Ethics claim to oppose. This is what makes the myopia of Parham and those who share his views all-the-more dangerous. Rejecting biblical literalism about slavery and women, but preserving it on sexuality, also preserves the underlying logic that makes fundamentalism possible, even if it does not apply that logic universally.

“Moderate” opponents of an inclusive view of marriage and sexuality often argue that sex and marriage should be treated as a separate category from the other topics whose relevant passages they re-interpret or ignore. They are quick to point out that marriage is often a metaphor for the Church’s relationship with Christ, and therefore is “unique” among the ancient institutions described in Scripture. This approach, however, ignores the fact that we do not feel compelled to continue to farm using first-century methods, nor are we obliged to preserve the first-century pearl trade.

In fact, oppressing people over hyper-literal fidelity to a metaphor seems remarkably similar to the passionate conflicts of prior eras in which Protestants found themselves the minority group arguing against the literalism of transubstantiation. That argument turned out to be more about politics and regional/generational alliances than theology, something that I suspect is always the case when one group or another claims to simply be following their religion’s Scriptures.

If the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship wants to remain relevant into the next century, they need to move beyond a tentative, piecemeal denunciation of fundamentalism. Instead, they must reject fundamentalism of all stripes and in all its incarnations. Christianity survived learning that the universe is not geocentric, and that women and men are equals, and that some people cannot own others. Christianity will survive the gradual and eventual elimination of all vestiges of the bigotries and superstitions of the era that produced it. The question is, will the CBF?

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Jesus Already Answered the Refugee Question

The Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)

The Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670) (Wikimedia)

Politicians and theologians in the United States frequently turn to the writings of the Christian Bible for guidance on contemporary political issues. Often this requires some stretched or complicated logic, and, at times, texts from the Torah have to be weighed against Jesus’ teachings in the gospels or Paul’s paranetic guidance in his epistles. This is hardly surprising, since the writings in our Scriptures span over a thousand years of different political events, all of which took place in times with radically different questions from our own. Applying those texts to modern circumstances requires some skill and effort.

That is why the question of the Christian response to the Syrian refugee crisis is so refreshing. It’s one of the few times where we have clear, unambiguous, explicit guidance from Jesus about what is expected of those of us who claim to be Christians. That guidance is found in what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous parable, that of the “Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37. The story is so widely known that in popular, secular culture, someone who goes out of their way to help a stranger is often called a “Good Samaritan.” News reporters and the general public, however, would probably think twice about using the phrase if they knew how Jesus’ original audience would have heard it.

The northern and southern regions of what was – for a brief time under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon – a united kingdom had a long history of enmity and conflict. After the death of Solomon, the northern region formed the Kingdom of Israel, and the southern region formed the Kingdom of Judah. Samaria was the capital of Israel, and Jerusalem the capital of Judah. Over time, religious practices increasingly diverged, with what would become modern-day Judaism centered around Jerusalem and its temple. By the time of Jesus, Jews had over eight hundred years of fractious, sometimes violent, conflict with Samaritans. They hated each other for political, ethnic, and theological reasons. Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem viewed Samaritans as polytheistic pagans whose scriptures and practices were, at best, a perversion of the true worship and commandments of God.

Jesus’ own teaching on scripture and practice indicate that, as an orthodox Jew, he agreed with them (see Matt 5:17-18 as an example). In fact, Jesus’ religious movement was so completely entrenched in Judaism that his closest disciples taught for years after the crucifixion that you had to convert to Judaism if you wanted to be saved (they changed their view after the Council at Jerusalem). With that in mind, and considering the centuries of hostility and conflict, if you want to hear how Jesus and his audience heard the word “Samaritan,” imagine how an evangelical Christian living in the United States would hear “Muslim.”

So, with that as our historical framework, let’s look at the parable of the “Good Muslim.” It begins when someone comes up to Jesus and says, “I want to inherit eternal life. What do I need to do?” At this point, anyone who went to the Sunday School I went to as a child knows the answer is, “Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior!” Jesus, however, gives a very different answer. As a good teacher, he first asks the student, “What’s your read of Scripture?” The response is, in brief, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Jesus answers, “That’s right!”

Apparently it occurred to the person asking the question that if “neighbor” meant more than just the people who are like us and whom we like, “loving” them might be a bit too much to ask, even if the reward is eternal salvation. Their follow-up question is, “So, um, who exactly is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with a story. I’ll paraphrase it here. A deacon from a church in Nashville came to Atlanta for a religious conference, and was staying at a hotel near the airport. As he was walking back to his hotel from a nearby restaurant, three strangers held him up at gunpoint. They took his wallet, his smartphone, his wedding ring, and then, just for fun, made him strip naked and beat him so badly he couldn’t walk. They left him there, bloody and naked on the sidewalk.

The pastor of the local First Baptist Church was attending the same conference, and was on his way to the restaurant the man had just left. He saw the poor deacon lying there, bleeding, and immediately crossed the street, not wanting to get involved. He was afraid that the man might be an HIV-positive homeless person, and that he would be exposing himself to the disease if he got too close. A Roman Catholic priest, also there for the conference, saw the bloodied, crying man and thought it might be a trap of some kind. What if, knowing there was a religious conference in town, a bunch of thugs had disguised one of their own as a crime victim, hoping to lure a naive clergyman into coming over so that they could ambush the do-gooder? The priest decided to play it safe, and crossed the street as well.

The third person to come along was a Muslim man who was staying at  the same hotel, waiting out a layover on his international flight. It had been a long day for him. The hotel was full of impassioned Christians all attending workshops on “Muslim extremism.” The looks and attitude he had been getting from the guests had not been exactly kind. None of that mattered, however, when he saw the battered man, crying in pain, by the side of the road. The Muslim man immediately took off his shirt, tearing it into bandages to stop the blood from the other man’s wounds. He then picked up the stranger, summoned a cab, and took him to the nearest hospital. At the hospital, the Muslim man gave his credit card, to make sure that the injured deacon would get the best possible care despite his lack of identification or insurance card.

After telling the story, Jesus asked his audience, all good, faithful Christians,  “Who is the one who loved his neighbor in this story? Who is the one who will have eternal life?” They knew the answer before he even asked:  The Good Muslim.

The parallels are less than subtle. When we look at a Syrian, Muslim refugee we see someone who is politically, ethnically, and theologically a “stranger.” Jesus makes it extraordinarily clear, however, that there is only one way to see them: as our neighbor. Knowing that, Jesus’ command is clear. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is, along with loving God, the heart of all God’s commandments (Mark 12:30-31; Matt 22:37-40). Simply put, if a person claims allegiance to the teachings of Jesus, there is no other option than to help someone in need, no matter how different they may be from us, no matter how much we may dislike them, even if we think it’s a trap or dangerous, and even if they are our sworn enemy.

Few of us live up to that command perfectly, and I sincerely hope that God will be more merciful to us (in our failures to love one another) than we are toward those whom we are commanded to love. Let us pray that is the case, because, in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus taught about who would be saved, he did not say anything about what people believed regarding who was their “personal Lord and Savior.” Jesus gave only one criteria: those who help vulnerable people when they are in need are the ones who are saved (Matt 25:31-46).

Our political leaders are quick to claim religious justification for the policies that serve their interests. They would do well to remember Jesus’ words of caution. Simply claiming to act in his name is not enough (Matt 7:21-23). Jesus expects us to act, not according to some bigoted stereotype of what we think it means to be a Christian, but in accordance with his clear and unambiguous teaching that every single person is our neighbor, our brother or sister.

An entire nation of people very different from (yet remarkably like) us is lying, bloody, by the side of the road. We can cross the street and pretend it’s not our responsibility, or we can take the risks and costs on ourselves to help. For those who rely on secular sources of guidance, the appropriate response may be more complex or nuanced, but for those who claim the label “Christian” the choice is clear. Like the Good Samaritan, we must find a way to help, even if it means reaching deeply into our national resources of ingenuity and wealth to do so safely, effectively, comprehensively, and quickly. It’s the neighborly thing, the loving thing, and the Christian thing to do.

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When Not To Act on Behalf of God

Cover of L'Indépendant

Cover of L’Indépendant – 08 Jan 2015
SRC: Huffington Post

People are dead because a few idiots thought that a particular god was offended by their actions.  Unfortunately, this is not a novel occurrence in human history.  On a scale from the denial of basic civil rights to genocide, the list of atrocities committed in the name of God is endless.  For as long as humans have anthropomorphized our understanding of the metaphysical world, some of us have used the ostensible will of our particularity deity or deities to rationalize behavior that would otherwise be completely indefensible.

The problem with this “logic” is that reprehensible behavior, even if justified by a perceived divine command, is still inexcusable.  Here are three reasons why.

We Do Not Hear Directly from God

Whatever specific claims a religion might make about their deity, all religions claim some level of supernatural ability for their god(s).  My own faith, Christianity, claims omnipotence.  We believe in one God, who can do anything God wants to do.  Curiously, however, neither our God nor anyone else’s uses this supernatural power to communicate with us in obvious, incontrovertible ways.

Considering the claims some make about how strongly their particular god feels about things, this is a little surprising.  If, for instance, the bark on every single tree read “Give to the poor or I will be angry,” charitable giving might go up considerably.  If the words “Keep the Sabbath holy” hung in fiery letters in the sky every Friday evening at sundown, Shabbat meals would be the norm all over the world.  I shudder to think of the impact of creating us with warnings against promiscuity pre-inscribed on certain parts of our bodies.

Yet this is not how God communicates.  We do not have obvious proclamations that are unquestionably of divine origin.  What we have is tradition, the history of the members of our community of faith constantly seeking to know the will of God and recording that very human effort in scripture and liturgy.  Human writings created by human hands using human language and mediated by human teachers, that is all that we have.

Some members of some traditions claim otherwise.  They assert that their scriptures were actually composed, or dictated, or directly and verbatim inspired, by God.  This assertion is fine for comforting and reassuring the faithful, and for guiding adherents in the management of their interior life of faith.  If, however, a person wants to act in a way that restricts the rights of another person, harms another person, or – God forbid – kills another person, an unsubstantiated claim of divine authorship for a religion’s teachings is not good enough.  If an all-powerful God, or even a moderately powerful hedge deity, really wants you to oppress or kill someone, then God had better make it abundantly clear in some supernatural and indisputable way.  Holding up a piece of paper and claiming “God wrote this” is simply not adequate justification for harming another human being.

People of Faith Constantly Reinterpret Their Teachings

Besides the obvious reason to question the sanity of committing murder based on unproven claims of divine authority, there is justification for caution from within our faith traditions as well.  Even the religions that make the most strident claims about the immutability of their scriptures have modified their interpretation of those Scriptures over time.  The Roman Catholic Church now recognizes that the Sun is the center of our solar system.  The Southern Baptist Convention, despite being founded solely for the purpose of defending slavery, has repudiated both slavery and racism.  Even the most doctrinaire of faiths change their normative interpretations over time.

Beyond the proven history of reinterpretation, there is also the matter of a lack of consensus even (or especially) among the most devout.  Gather any three Orthodox Jews together and ask them about halakah and the use of electricity on the Sabbath, and be prepared for three different answers – all based on the Torah.  Ask a Sunni  scholar and a Shi’a scholar about taqiyya in times of oppression, and their Koranic interpretations will likely take very different directions.  Try getting the aforementioned Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists to come to a biblical consensus on the Eucharist.

Even if one were to concede the unprovable assertion that a faiths’s scriptures and/or traditions were divinely authored, there remains the inarguable fact that the contents of those scriptures and traditions are sufficiently ambiguous that even the most devout cannot agree on what they mean.  This is fine if the topic at hand is whether or not to flip a light switch on Saturday morning.  It is problematic, however, when the topic is murder.  Simply put, if the purported claims of a deity are not so abundantly clear that every single person who encounters them agrees on exactly what they mean, then those claims are not clear enough to justify oppression, violence, or murder.

Speaking as a member of the clergy who has also served as a soldier, this seems like an obvious minimum standard.  If a military order came down about a building, and three different officers read the order and came up with three different interpretations –  attack the building, leave the building alone, and protect the troops inside the building – moving forward with an attack would be unjustifiable.  The same is true with any act of violence or oppression committed in the name of God.

God Does Not Need Our Help

This is even more evident in view of what it means to be God in the first place.  Assuming that a deity is worthy of worship, they must have some level of power over the world in which we live.  In decades of studying religion, I have yet to encounter any group that burned incense to Bernard the Ineffectual, God of Weakness and Passivity.  For a being to be worthy of our worship, they must have power.  We seek the divine because we want to draw closer to the metaphysical power of creation, to our own Creator, to the guiding forces of the universe.  We only worship gods who have power.

If a being with that level of power finds something offensive, then – by definition – they have the ability to do something about it.  If God thinks blasphemers should be struck dead, then God, who has the power of life and death, has the option of doing so.  If God thinks those who dress in revealing ways should suffer excruciating pain, God has the ability to make that happen instantly and incurably.  If God is the one who is offended, God has the power to act.  God has no need of us taking offense and acting of our own accord.  Besides, even our best efforts would pale compared to the power of divine wrath, assuming that’s what God really wants.  Any god incapable of divine retribution for blasphemy – and who therefore relies on puny humans to do the dirty work – is a weak and impotent god in the first place, one unworthy of worship or sacrifice.

People of faith might recognize a flaw in this argument.  Presumably the power of any god worth worshiping is not just limited to divine retribution.  Such a god is also capable of performing miraculous deeds of beneficence, curing all illnesses, feeding all who hunger, and protecting all who are in need.  If God wants these things done, shouldn’t we also leave them to God?  If we are not expected to emulate or embody God’s wrath, why should it be necessary for us to act as instruments of God’s benevolence?

As a person of faith myself, I would like to propose a simple way to resolve this inconsistency.  Recognizing the previous points about the inherent ambiguity of religious tradition, the only instances in which we should act towards others on behalf of God are those times when those same people ask us to do so.  If we believe God wants everyone to be fed, and someone asks us for food, we should feed them.  If we believe God values mercy, and someone comes to us seeking a second chance, we should offer it.  If we believe God is a God of hope, then our words and our actions should restore those who come to us because they feel hopeless.

Setting this simple distinction, that it our duty to act on the will of God only when it does not impose violence on another person, or act in some other way against their wishes, allows us to continue to have a living faith that requires us to act, but prevents us from allowing our flawed human intellect from bringing more evil and cruelty into the world.  If everything our respective religions have taught us about God is true, then that’s a line God would never want us to cross in the first place.

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Pop Theology from Garfunkel and Oates

Garfunkel and Oates

Garfunkel and Oates (source: YouTube)

I’ve written several times about the hypocrisy, ego-centrism, and inconsistency with which many people interpret the Christian Bible (see also here and here).  Riki Lindhome (Twitter) and Kate Micucci (Twitter) – the geniuses behind Garfunkel and Oates – have written a very, very funny song that communicates many of my critiques, but with considerably more pithy eloquence.

This song is incredibly vulgar, and very much not safe for work or for anyone to whom you would not want to expose a graphic discussion of sexual acts.  It is also brilliant in its biting critique of the fundamentalist obsession with sexuality and purity.  There’s a lot of depth to the lyrics, and it is well worth your time to listen a couple of times through.

Here’s a link to the video.

I’ve done my best to reproduce the lyrics below (with no intent of commercial gain, solely for the purpose of allowing readers to catch the things they might miss because of the speed of their delivery).  Obviously Garfunkel and Oates retain the copyright.

I think my favorite verse is “Let’s cherry-pick the part about losing my cherry….and circumvent any real sacrifice, but still feel pious in my arbitrary parroted positions.”  That is, in fact, exactly my point.

Loophole

by Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci

All my life, I’ve been good
Do what my mom, and dad, and God say I should.
Go to church, and Bible school,
To live by God’s rule.

So whatever people tell me,
That the Bible tells me,
I will do.

Walk the halls of my school with my purity ring,
Unlike those other girls, I’ve got my morals in check.
It was easy to do until I got a boyfriend,
And pardon my French, but he’s cute as Heck!

And I made a pact
To keep my hymen intact,
And Jesus and I are tight.

I’ve learned about the birds and the bees.
I was taught to keep an aspirin between my knees.
‘Cause the Bible says premarital sex is wrong.
But Jason says that guys can’t wait that long.

I don’t want to lose him
To someone who’ll do him!
I need to figure something out!

Well there’s a loophole in the Scripture that works really well
So I can get him off without going to Hell.
It’s my “Hail Mary, Full of Grace…”
In Jesus’ name we go to fifth base.

Oh thank you for making me holy,
And thank you for giving me holes to choose from.
And since I’m not a godless whore
He’ll have to come in the backdoor.

Therefore…Fuck me in the ass because I love Jesus!
The good Lord would want it that way.
That sweet sensation of a rock-hard rationalization
Is just between you and me,
Because everyone knows it’s the sex
That God can’t see!

It’s hard to be as pure as me
To resist the urge to lose my vaginal virginity.
To wait until my marriage bed
To give my husband my unsullied maidenhead.

So take your cock out
Shove it in my ass
Fuck me until you cum!

Whoops!

I mean…

Let’s find our souls
And unite our bodies
And fly on the wings of love!

Whatever you do don’t touch my clitoris
If you ring Satan’s doorbell God can’t ignore this!
And no prophylactics when you put it in
‘Cause birth control’s for sluts and it’s a sin.

I’ve emptied my bowels
And laid out the towels,
I’m ready for romance.

Now I’m prayin’ to the power that’s the highest,
But of all of my holes, this one’s the driest.
[pause for wincing]
And we can’t procreate, if we anally copulate,
And God’s okay with sodomy, but only if you’re straight.

And I’m staying pure no matter what,
So I’m okay with everything but,
Everything but, everything but…

Whoa, Fuck me in the ass because I love Jesus!
The good Lord would want it that way.
That sweet sensation of a rock-hard rationalization
Is just between you and me,
Because everyone knows it’s the sex
That God can’t see!

I do whatever the Bible tells me to
Except for the parts I choose to ignore
Because they’re unrealistic and inconvenient
But the rest I live by for sure.

So let’s not talk about how the Good Book bans:
Shellfish, polyester, and divorce,
And how it condones slavery and killing gays,
Because those parts don’t count of course.

Let’s cherry-pick the part about losing my cherry,
And line over ambiguities and omissions
And circumvent any real sacrifice
But still feel pious in my arbitrary parroted positions.

And don’t you dare question my convictions!
And don’t look closely at the contradictions.
Just focus on the sacrificial crucifixion,
And have faith in its complete jurisdiction…
as the only way to measure if you’re good or not.

And when you don’t have faith just say, “Have Faith!”
‘Cause when up against logic it’s the only card you’ve got!

So close youre eyes, take a deep breath, and…

Fuck me in the ass because I love Jesus!
The good Lord would want it that way.
That sweet sensation of a rock-hard rationalization
Is just between you and me,
Because everyone knows it’s the sex
That God can’t see!

Yeah my chastity belt has locks,
So sometimes you have to think…
Outside the box!

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Let’s Talk about the Bible

Still Life with Open Bible - Vincent van Gogh

Still Life with Open Bible – Vincent van Gogh

Disagreements with fundamentalists ultimately end with a discussion of the Bible, an area that should be fertile ground for debate.  Unfortunately, social progressives, mainstream Christians, and non-Christians all-too-often surrender the high ground to those who claim to “believe the Bible,” operating on the assumption that social conservatives probably believe more of the Bible than they do.  This is very likely not the case.

The Christian Bible is not a single book, it is a collection of 66 canonical writings, divided into the Hebrew Bible from before the time of Jesus and the New Testament from after.  Those writings span over a thousand years, with input from multiple sources and multiple rounds of editing for purposes both theological and political.  Cultures can change a lot in a thousand years, and the writings of the Christian Scriptures consequently contain a number of different perspectives on every major issue they address.  As a result, nearly any idea can be supported “biblically” simply by privileging one text over another.

Think that women should not be allowed to be ordained?  I Corinthians 14:34 says that “women should be silent in the churches.”  Think they should?  Galatians 3:28 says that “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Believe there is one God?  Monotheism was well-established in Jerusalem by the time the  second half of Isaiah was written, and Isaiah 43:10 states that there was no god before or after the god of Israel.  However, there’s still some polytheism lingering in the biblical writings.  The plural pronouns and verbs in Genesis 1, for instance, or the poetic references to the “gods” in the Psalms (82, 86, 95, 135).

Whether you want to defend or oppose predestination (Ephesians 1:4-5 vs. Galatians 5:4), pacifism (Matthew 5:39 vs. Luke 22:36), or poverty (Matthew 6:19-21 vs. Malachi 3:10)  as Christian virtues (or vices), you can take a “biblical” stance simply by privileging one verse over the other.  If you privilege the right texts, you can even defend child sacrifice (Judges 11:29-40)  or genocide (Joshua 8:24-26).  Of course, if you do, people will think you are a “nut” or a “fanatic” for taking the wrong texts literally.

And therein lies the difficulty.  If you are a Christian, and have an opinion on any of the issues I raised above, you already know the arguments used to minimize the texts that disagree with your position and privilege the ones that agree with you.  If you are a person of any faith, it’s “common sense” to you that the texts that support really heinous things are not intended to be interpreted literally.  Regardless of what the text actually says, or meant to its original audience, our natural instinct is to explain away that which fundamentally disagrees with our respective ideas of who God is.

None of this is logically consistent, but it doesn’t matter because – for almost everyone – sacred texts work more like a mirror than a lamp; we see our own beliefs reflected clearly in the book open before us.  As a result, some people get away with making ludicrous claims like “God wrote every word of the Bible” and “God’s Word never changes” and “I believe the Bible is literally true.”

If that’s the case, then God thinks that victims of rape should be executed if they do not scream out during the assault (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), and that otherwise they should marry their rapists (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).  God thinks that genocide, including the massacre of children, is justifiable (Joshua 8:24-26, 10:37).  God sends spirits into the world to lie to us (I Kings 22:19-23) and do evil (I Samuel 19:9).  God advocates rape as a legitimate form of acquiring wives (Judges 21:10-24), and even promises to give a king’s wives to their rapist, so that they can be raped “in broad daylight” (II Samuel 12:11-14).

Again, those who are raised with the claim that being a Christian means “believing every word of the Bible” have a stockpile of ready explanations for each of these texts.  “Things were different then.”  “These are very specific circumstances.”  “God doesn’t approve of this, it’s just what they believed or did.”  None of these excuses are consistent with actually believing that an unchanging God wrote every word of the Bible, but that is not really relevant to their argument.  They want to believe two mutually exclusive things: “God holds the same basic values I do” and “Every word of the Bible is literally true.”  Rather than resolve the conflict with critical thinking, these well-meaning believers simply re-interpret – against all evidence and logic – that which is inconsistent with their idea of God.

Nearly everyone does this on the really heinous material (of which I have given only a few examples, above).  This then lays the groundwork for privileging some texts over others on the more controversial theological claims (also mentioned above) while still claiming to believe every word of the Bible is from God.  The end result is that anyone can come up with any idea and claim it is “biblical.”  That adjective is as meaningless (and persuasive) as the claim to “believe the Bible, every word,” and both claims are hard to challenge in a way that persuades the claimant, so they rarely are.

In fact, cultural biases actually help those who want to make these claims.  Most people think “conservative” and “traditional” means what their grandparents or great-grandparents believed or did.  They lack the historical literacy to know what Christians believed or did a thousand or two thousand years ago.  As a result, when fundamentalists claim that they are the “traditional” Christians who “believe the Bible” because they oppose homosexuality or women’s rights or social welfare programs or whatever their cause du jour is, most folks – conservative or otherwise – let them get away with that claim.

In reality, their claim is absurd.  They are ignoring just as much of the Bible, and just as much Christian tradition, as the “liberals” they oppose; but, because the general assumption is that the social conservatives must be the ones who take the Bible literally, no one calls them out on it.  Unfortunately, the claim to biblical authority is surrendered on all fronts.  Their fellow fundamentalists assume that the social “conservatives” are taking the Bible literally because they are already in their camp, and they are already picking and choosing in the same fashion.  Everyone else takes the fundamentalists at their word because there is a general belief in the wider culture that the biblical writers must have been socially conservative themselves.

In other words, even though no one, not one single person, takes everything in the Bible literally, fundamentalists are allowed to make the claim that they are the biblical literalists because their fellow conservatives refuse to admit their own cognitive dissonance, and because their opponents lack the historical or biblical knowledge to fully deconstruct the absurdity of the claim.

And so, there is a continual process in which biblical “literalists” selectively ignore the things with which they disagree while simultaneously vehemently quoting the Bible to fight progressive changes in the culture.  Then, when those progressive ideas become “common sense” in the culture, the biblical “literalists” add the passages they previously quoted so passionately to the list of texts they now ignore or reinterpret, and then move on to a new battle in the culture wars.

There are two obvious examples of this.  The first is the idea of a round Earth in a heliocentric solar system.  In the early Renaissance, one of the few things that the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Christians could agree on was that any Bible-believing Christian knew that the Earth was the center of the solar system, and the Universe.  The Bible was definitely on their side.  Joshua 10:12-13, Habakkuk 3:11, I Chronicles 16:30, Psalms 93 & 96 and many other texts describe a fixed Earth resting on sold foundations, around which the Sun and Moon orbit.  The very oldest story in the very first book even describes how the Earth was formed with a clear dome above it to hold back the “waters above” – beyond which the Sun and Moon orbited.  An omnipotent God, writing an infallible text, certainly could not have made such an egregious and repeated error, and the biblical literalists of the Early Renaissance knew this for certain.  Eventually, however, the scientific evidence made a heliocentric solar system indisputable for every person with even a minimal education, and the biblical “literalists” now interpret those texts allegorically.

[As an aside, they often do so with wonderfully circular logic.  “How do you know it’s intended allegorically and not literally?”  “Because it’s not literally true, so God must have meant it to be an allegory.”  “So, anything in the Bible that is not literally true must be an allegory, because the Bible is always literally true?”  “Yes!”]

A more recent example is the issue of slavery.  The biblical writers are very clear about their perspective on the issue of owning someone and using them as your property – they are fine with it.  Slavery comes up regularly in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and none of the writers take the opportunity to condemn the institution.  Slaves who are not taken from the Israelites (who are specifically exempted from the “harshness” of slavery) are property – plain and simple (Leviticus 25:44-46).  Exodus gives rules for parents who sell their daughters into sex slavery, but it never condemns the practice (Exodus 21:7-10).  The Pauline epistles are very clear that slaves are to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, I Timothy 6:1-2).  Jesus himself talks of slaves getting beaten, with the ones who didn’t know what they did wrong only receiving a light beating (Luke 12:42-48).  Also in Luke, Jesus is quoted as noting that a person does not invite their slave to come in and eat with them after they have worked in the fields; instead they are told to also fix supper.  “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done!” (Luke 17:7-10).

Prior to the nineteenth century, good biblical literalists knew what these passages meant:  God was fine with slavery, and even set rules for how to go about selling your daughter into sexual slavery and the importance of being an obedient slave.  Of course, the culture has shifted since then, and now even those who claim to believe that an unchanging God wrote every word of the Bible refuse to take these passages literally.  They can’t ignore the references, so they try to make claims that the “slavery” of the Bible was somehow different from the abusive slavery of more recent eras.  Of course, in the biblical version of slavery, a slave could be beaten severely, as long as they did not die immediately “for the slave is the owner’s property” (Exodus 21:20-21); and the penalty for raping a slave was only financial, not capital (Leviticus 19:20-22), so those claims seem more than a little disingenuous.

This pattern – of selectively quoting some passages and ignoring others while claiming to “believe the Bible” – has been repeated for centuries and will likely continue for as long as the Bible is read and quoted.  Ultimately, however, any claim about what is right or wrong, good or evil, holy or sinful, healthy or destructive – any such claim can be defended with Scripture.  “I know this makes no sense otherwise, and I know it seems mean or spiteful or bigoted, but I only believe it because I believe the Bible” is the refuge of cowardice and ignorance.  Not only is the person already ignoring or subordinating everything in the Bible with which they disagree, the Bible can be used to support any position.  People don’t argue from the Bible; the argue using the Bible.

So then, is the Bible useless?  Certainly not.  Even while denominations were forming to defend the institution of slavery, and slave-owners were using the Bible as a tool for oppression, the slaves working in the fields heard in the story of Exodus their own story, and found hope of deliverance.  Like any versatile and finely-made tool, the Bible can be used to create or destroy, to oppress or give hope.

To use it effectively, however, we have to let the Bible be what it is:  a collection of writings shaped by the wisdom and the prejudices of a plentitude of different authors and editors.  Once we make that admission, when we find something in Scripture that we might be inclined to use to oppress, to harm, to wound, or to exclude another of God’s creatures, we are much more likely to recognize that it is best to err on the side of compassion and common sense.  Recognizing that no one takes the Bible literally, and that every generation changes what they are certain it means to understand the Bible, we must all accept the possibility that we are wrong.  Once we realize that we have no choice but to live with that level of ambiguity, then we are obligated to err toward inclusiveness, kindness, and love – because “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13), for God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7).

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