I’m currently reading a book called The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family by Andrew Himes. I snagged the opportunity to read it for review before publication, and I am loving it. American history, religious history and family history are all bound up together in ways that would be true in many of our personal stories, except that we rarely recognize the intersections and influences. I look forward to writing about the book after I finish it. There is one passage in the book that’s on my mind today, though. In a chapter entitled “The Civil War as a Theological Struggle”, Himes discusses the ease with which supporters of slavery were able to make the “biblical” case for their position. As Himes writes, “The abolitionist argument that slavery was contrary to the Bible was much less straightforward.”
Coincidentally, I read an article this morning at USA Today online making the same point. Henry G. Brinton, writing In Civil War Bible Became a Weapon says,
In the 1860s, Southern preachers defending slavery also took the Bible literally. They asked who could question the Word of God when it said, “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear +and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5), or “tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect” (Titus 2:9). Christians who wanted to preserve slavery had the words of the Bible to back them up.
The preachers of the North had to be more creative, but they, too, argued God was on their side.
What I keep pondering is the idea that the straightforward, common-sense reading of scripture seemed to come down on the side of slavery. Few of us can see it in the same light at this point in history. Even if we can readily acknowledge the passages that seem to support the slave system, we are still reading them through a social lens that find slavery both immoral and repugnant. How can I really understand the way it must have seemed to the Christian slaveholder, in, say, 1820, reading passages of scripture like the ones Brinton cites?
And that leads me to further questions. Do those of us who are Christians derive our ethics from scripture, from shared social mores, from natural law, or some combination of factors (including ones not listed in this sentence)? I’m not a sola scriptura Christian, and never have been, which makes the questions more complicated. I hold dear the Wesleyan concept of examining questions in the light not only of scripture, but also of tradition, reason and experience. As I said, though, it makes things more complicated. And I’m okay with that. The less complicated approach leads to exactly the sort of thing Himes is talking about: supporting slavery. And more. It also leads to silencing women, and to seeking the execution of homosexuals and blasphemers and rebellious children. No, I’m not just taking pot shots at the Bible by citing absurd exaggerations. There are people today promoting the return (or continuation) of such practices because they can find passages of scripture that “plainly” support them.
So at least we Christians have all come to agreement on slavery, right? Well, no. There are still Reconstructionists suggesting the return of that institution in the U.S. It really does make you wonder how we come to our moral commitments as believers. Is good simply what God says is good, or is it an expression of who God is? If we find directives in scripture that seem to conflict with our understanding of the character of God, what do we do with them? Are there “control texts” that serve as interpretive lenses for difficult passages? How much of what we find in scripture is prescriptive, how much is descriptive, and how much may have been prescriptive in it’s original context but has a different application today?
I’m not providing answers today, just asking questions. I love the Bible, primarily because, as Luther said, it’s “the cradle of Christ.” But there’s no getting away from the fact that the Bible has been used in ways that I find not just troubling but downright evil. And sometimes the people who have used it for (what I perceive to be) evil have had the “easy” read on their side.
Maybe I can’t resist offering a few answers – at least my own. I am a Red Letter Christian, by which I mean – I have no problem giving primacy of place to the words and actions of Jesus within the larger body of scripture. So, for example: some Reconstructionists want to be bring back stoning adulterers. It is in the Bible, after all. But Jesus had a chance with a woman caught in adultery and handled it in an entirely different manner. I come down on Jesus’s side.
Another thought. When I consider the Bible in its entirety I find certain values rising to the surface over and over again, even through the dark, confusing passages : compassion for the suffering, justice for the oppressed, inclusion of the marginalized, love that is costly and persistent, faithfulness to promises made. I let those values override individual passages which seem to conflict with them.
And undoubtedly, I get it wrong sometimes. Our perceptions of how the Bible should be read are always tangled up in our particular lives and circumstances. But if I’m going to get it wrong, I want to err on the side of compassion, justice, inclusion, love and faithfulness.
Preesh. 🙂 If ever there was a subject on which I feel like I’m biting off more than I can chew, it’s this one.
Thanks. This was really, really good. I cut and pasted your quote “Do those of us who are Christians derive our ethics from scripture, from shared social mores, from natural law, or some combination of factors (including ones not listed in this sentence)?” because it was so crystal clear. If I can use it I’ll be indicating you and your blog. I’ts very, very great.
The whole subject matter was great.
In regards to Moral Theory here is some additional information.
There is a website called MoralFoundations.org that is by Jon Haidt a Professor of Psychology in Virginia that specializes in Moral Theory. He talks about the “Tribal Moral Community”. His research deals with how people make moral decisions. It’s kind of heady but very good and very educational. In one of his papers he highlights why liberals and conservatives see things differently(their morals). It’s at
It’s had a great effect on me in that I understand more about how some people make their decisions. Liberals mainly use just two criterion: Harm/Care and Fairness/Justice. Most Conservatives also use Authority/Respect, InGroup/Loyalty, and Purity/Sanctity in addition to the criteria used by liberals. This is why conservatives value Tradition, Loyalty, Authority, & Purity and inversely why Liberals don’t.
Thanks again, sorry I was so wordy. Keep Blogging, Keep Writing.
Thanks for the input! In that framework, I’m not sure where I fall – liberal or conservative. In the middle, probably, which shouldn’t surprise me.
Sorry, More. I’ll definitely be getting that book “The Lord And The Sword”. Thanks again.
Provocative topic, Sharon, and your post was well worth reading. You convey a struggle many of us have over how to interpret the Bible and in what way it should be incorporated into our lives. This is entirely appropriate, for issues of faith often lack certainty.
In a column I wrote a few months ago, I referenced how slavery was treated in the Bible; here is a link (http://www.mysuburbanlife.com/features/x1791706783/Jerry-Moore-Civil-rights-is-more-than-just-genetics-scripture).
There is no getting around the fact that slavery, both in terms of limited servitude (for male Israelites) and perpetual bondage (mostly everyone else), was widely practiced in the ancient world and condoned in scripture. One Christian defense I read of the Bible’s position on slavery claimed that since it was so common, God merely tolerated slavery among the Israelites until such a time as they could weaned off the practice. Really? God tolerated some sinful behavior because it was so widespread? What made slavery so different from other common acts condemned in the Bible like sodomy or idol worship?
At other times, some Christians turn their heads and claim to not see what’s obvious. After I wrote my column, the pastor of a local church wrote an email to me and said, “… I had no idea that the Bible teaches us that it’s acceptable to own slaves! This is not a true statement and I think you know that …” I felt sorry for this man, as he is an ordained minister in an established Christian denomination — and he is unaware of what’s in the sacred work that he’s defending!
The problem with the argument that we must appreciate the historical and cultural context in which slavery was practiced in biblical times is that God, according to Judeo-Christian teaching, transcends history and culture. For believers, that’s the one thing that makes the Bible authoritative. God was, is and shall always be — right? God’s will is eternal and universal.
So, when the Bible puts vulgar statements in God’s mouth, believers must choose between two unpleasant facts: Either these hideous comments are universally and eternally true, or the Bible is wrong and they are not God’s words. Now, I’ve never had trouble acknowledging the Bible’s flaws. I accept it as the wonderful yet imperfect work of ancient literature that it is. Obviously, as I indicated in my column, Judeo-Christian morality has transcended biblical ethics regarding slavery. That’s a good thing.
Thanks for the link, Jerry. I just reread the column you wrote. Interesting….I guess I’m thinking about your second to last paragraph most, because I’m not sure I agree with the premise. I think the Hebrew & Christian scriptures are rooted in history in a way many “sacred” texts are not. The Bible isn’t just precepts or wisdom sayings, although it includes those, it’s primarily stories. And the stories are so recognizably tangled up in the world in which they were written….that doens’t make them irrelevant today (not to me, anyway!), but it does mean we can’t just look for pithy quotes and think we’ve gotten to the heart of scripture.
Also, I think some of the Greek philosophical categories we’ve put on God (like impassibility or immutability) are not really helpful in understanding the relational character of God.
So: one of the things I think about is whether the Bible is univocal or multivocal on a particular issue. In other words, is there one, consistent, message sent on a particular subject throughout all of scripture, or do there seem to be competing “voices” on a specific subject. I lean toward pacifism, for instance, and I can find scriptures which seem to support my position (“love your enemies and do good to them who spitefully misuse you”, “you have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, but I tell you, do not resist an evil person….”). But there are plenty of scriptures that DON’T promote pacifism. The Bible is clearly multivocal on the subject.
Gender roles? More multivocal than most people acknowledge, particularly when we understand the context in which it was written.
Slavery? I’d say, closer to univocal, but not completely. Homosexuality? Really, really close to univocal.
That’s not the end of the thought process, but it’s a beginning. I also look for whether there is a trajectory in how a specific issue is handled in the Hebrew scriptures and on in to the New Testament. And, as I said, I give greater weight to Jesus on every subject. And, of course, I look for overarching “values” in scripture that may undo certain passages. For instance, I think the letter to Philemon is the unraveling of any Christian justification for slavery.
That’s just me, but I think when we’re talking about issue like slavery, women’s right, homosexuality – issues that impact countless people – I think EVERY believer is responsible to be constantly working out these issues. We can’t just accept what we’re told – by either wooden literalists or those who would just reject all of scripture as outdated and irrelevant. We have to be open, honest, teachable, but ultimately all in the context of love for God and our neighbor.
Breakfast table tangent now over. 🙂
Sharon, here is a side note I failed to mention in my comment above. As I began reading your excellent post on this topic, I suddenly thought of the song “With God On Our Side” from Bob Dylan’s 1963 album “The Times They Are A-Changin’!” I don’t know if you’re familiar with the song. And although Dylan wrote it as a comment on war rather than slavery, the song came to my mind as I read your thoughts on the different ways people with opposing viewpoints justify their actions.
You’re right about our need to pursue these issues in love. For if we do this, we will maintain the appropriate perspective even with people with whom we disagree. That’s what is most important.
My philosophical skepticism has led me to a position of disbelief when it comes to religion, so obviously we differ in how we view the authority of the Bible. But I appreciate how you promote the four-pronged Wesleyan approach to addressing vital issues: scripture, tradition, reason and experience (I recall you mentioning this concept to me sometime last year, and I responded that I had never heard it put in this way before). Wrestling with uncertainty can be unpleasant, but it’s crucial in examining these questions. So, thank you for the food for thought.
Revelation is an ongoing process . I find truth in the Bible consistent with my interpretation of how what it says fits into today’s culture. Telling slaves to be dutiful and respectful is good advice for people who work under others. Paul wasn’t familiar with women and would probably have a different take on them were he writing today.
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Theists select which scriptures to regard as sacred. In short, they pick and choose.
No one frets too much about the injunctions in Leviticus regarding seafood and tattoos; however there are whole groups of Christians dedicated to working against the abomination of homosexuality at every turn.
No one would consider handing over their daughters to a gang of rapists to protect a house guest, but many would point to Sodom and Gomorrah as a scriptural condemnation of homosexuality. Everyone seems to forget that Lot, the so-called hero of this story, later had sex with the same daughters he was prepared to hand over to the rapists.
The Apostle Paul considered homosexuality unnatural, but he also considered men with long hair unnatural. Clearly, Paul failed to notice that if left to its own devices, hair will naturally grow longer.
My point is this. I would like to encourage Christians to embrace those scriptures that advocate love and tolerance and compassion.
If you are currently involved with organizations that seek to deny others equality under the law, please ask yourself why you are not also working against Red Lobster or tattoo parlors or long haired men. I posit that is possible that you are embracing scriptures that provide confirmation for your own biases, while rejecting others that you consider outdated.
You are going to pick and choose. Why not pick and choose the nice scriptures?
Thanks for the comment, Donald! It was a nice treat to receive it, since I haven’t been able to write recently.
I’d also like to encourage Christians to embrace scriptures that advocate love, tolerance and compassion. But compassion carries with it trying to understand where “the other” is coming from, trying to really hear what they’re saying. Most Christians I know – and I include myself in this – are not trying to “pick and choose”. We’re trying to follow the movement of the Spirit. And sometimes we’re guilty of confirming our own biases with scripture, but sometimes scripture challenges mine. Wrestling with the word is difficult because I consider it a worthwhile endeavor. Otherwise, I’d say, “Screw it,” every time I hit a troubling passage.
Btw, I don’t know anyone who’d call Lot a hero. Dude was a jerk. As for Paul, I take every opportunity to recommend Sarah Ruden’s book “Paul Among the People”. Very helpful in understanding what might have been behind Paul’s strong statements on homosexuality.