Note To The Reader: This is the second post in a series on being honest about the Bible, especially as a pastor. To keep things simple, each post will have thoughts about only one aspect of the Bible and its use in our congregations. You can read the first post here.
This series of posts was inspired by my years of teaching Bible to university students. And since mine is the first in a run of required courses in the Biblical Studies program, I have had a front row seat in watching students engage with the Bible at an academic and theological level, many for the first time. It has taught me a great deal about the various ways students learned the stories of the Bible in their home churches from their pastors, youth leaders, and friends. And what I’ve found is that most students enter my course with a binary view of the Bible’s place in the world, seen as something of a dividing line between sinners and saints, of who’s in and who’s out. And with somewhat of a careful tread, this always leads us into a discussion of Biblical interpretation history that is both uncomfortable but necessary, which is how the Bible has been used as a tool of division, oppression, violence, and hatred.
No. 2 – The Bible Has Been Used As A Weapon
When people in my church tell me they’re going to read straight through the Bible, I usually respond with, “Call me when you get to the Book of Joshua.”
More than any other book of the Bible, Joshua has repeatedly been the muse for all sorts of unneeded violence and oppression in the world. In 1099 C.E. Christian Crusaders mounted a Jericho-style attack on the city of Jerusalem. After a failed attempt at circling the city with hopes that the walls would come down (cf. Joshua 6:15-20), they took matters into their own hands, breaking over the city walls and killing Muslims in the streets. Jews were locked into the synagogue and burned alive.
The Conquistadores of the sixteenth century used Joshua as a justifying text for subjugation of indigenous peoples in the Americas. Their guiding analogy was: “Just as Joshua was willed by God to destroy the people of Canaan because they were idolaters, thus God willed Spain to destroy the Indians.” Scholar Ellen F. Davis points out how the English settlers of the seventeenth century identified America as “The New English Canaan”, and how at the 1783 inauguration of George Washington, Yale College President Ezra Stiles identified the nation as “God’s American Israel” and Washington as “This American Joshua.”*
It’s not just the Book of Joshua. We can move well beyond those stories and list off all the ways Christians have used the Bible to marginalize people based on their race, gender, sexual identity, ethnic origins, and more. (Lest we forget that even slavery in our own nation was seen as a justified system, one that was largely based in the Bible’s teachings.)
While this is not an exhaustive essay on interpretation practices, I will offer a few ways forward for how pastors might better help people navigate these issues:
- We must first acknowledge the ways the Church has gotten so much of this wrong, and to be honest with our parishes about those dark places in our past. On a small scale, this can even take place in preaching when you’re working through a potentially difficult text where you might say, “This passage has been at the root of many different tragic misreadings.”
- We can help our people understand the differences in how the Bible describes certain realities of its time versus how it prescribes a way of life in the world. Just because the Bible describes things doesn’t mean those things are to be normalized. Helping people learn to distinguish between the two is a worthy task. Remember: the prophets had a way of pointing backwards and saying, “Hey, we got those things wrong.”
- We can, in our own personal study, do the work to better understand such troubling passages. We live in a time of extraordinary scholarship and advances in Biblical exegesis. The resources are out there for all to use, and if the hard work of study on my end can help turn down the energy around weaponizing the Bible, it’s a win.
A final word about power versus weakness.
The very first crisis in the Bible is around the desire for power. The temptation at the base of the tree in the garden was rooted in a fear that God was holding out on the couple. “You will not surely die”, the serpent says, for “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)
In my reading of the Bible I have noticed that it carries almost no concern for a person’s weaknesses. Not in the sense that it denies personal weakness, it doesn’t. It’s just not as concerned about it as we tend to be. We focus quite a lot of energy on dealing with what’s less-than in our lives. But the Bible’s concern appears to be with a person’s handling of power, or worse, their unmitigated desire for power. The pursuit of power and influence and a stronger social platform is at the root of so many downfalls. Power, not weakness, is humanity’s problem. In Biblical parlance, it is through weakness that grace comes alive and makes most sense; power, on the hand, has a deafening influence on grace – we can no longer recognize it.
The church must recall and retell the story of Jesus’ dealings with power, seen most visually in his death at the hands of power. God’s response to a world unhindered by advancement and cruelty and unreserved power was, in fact, an act of weakness: an uncontested dying. Perhaps this is some of what Paul meant when called followers of Jesus to be “living sacrifices” in the world.
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
– 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 –
*From Opening Israel’s Scriptures (Oxford Press, p.129)