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.