I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
--Psalm 34:4 NRSV
In this week’s emails, I’ve been sharing about how my understanding of what the Bible is and how it should be used has changed along my journey. I’ve also been reflecting on Rachel Held Evans’ book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again. Evans does a great job articulating the ways her understandings of the Bible changed along her journey, and she offers a helpful way for Christians to make use of the Bible that doesn’t force it to be a biology textbook, a personal handbook or a political policy paper.
In a chapter titled “Deliverance Stories,” Evans begins talking about the Exodus narrative and its annual reenactment at Passover Seders. This story has sustained Jewish people through unimaginable persecutions, pogroms and the Holocaust. Then she notes how the same story inspired African American slaves and the Civil Rights Movement centuries later. This powerful story of God being on the side of oppressed and enslaved people transcends culture and time to speak anew to those who need it.
Yet, the Bible doesn’t just contain stories of inspiration and deliverance. It also contains verses and narratives of violence, subjugation and abuse. Among abolitionists like Frederick Douglas there was concern about making the Bible a part of their movement, because of how Ephesians 6:5 had been used to justify slavery: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” Yet, they ultimately chose to hold onto the Bible rather than throw it away. Evans offers this explanation from scholar Allen Dwight Callahan:
African Americans found the Bible to be both healing balm and poison book. They could not lay claim to the balm without braving the poison. . . The antidote to hostile texts of the Bible was more Bible, homeopathically administered to counteract the toxins of the text.
This move of using the “more Bible” to “counteract” texts used to hurt and oppress is the answer for those of us who wish to make use of the Bible for liberation and love rather than judgment and hate.
The rabbinic tradition of Judaism has always been about putting different parts of scripture in dialogue with one another rather than forcing a nonexistent consistency or agreement as conservative Protestants do. Jesus answered his critics in this way by citing scripture to defend healing or picking grain on the sabbath. The apostle Paul, himself a good Jew, likewise cited scripture to justify his message in the face of critics. The insistence that scriptures can only mean one thing and they all must agree with one another made by so many Christians flies in the face of scripture itself.
Evans is quick to note, however, that “just because a single biblical text can mean many things doesn’t mean it can mean anything.” She cites segregationists using the curse on Noah’s son to justify calling African Americans subhuman, the Puritan’s use of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan to justify the slaughter of Native Americans, and recently politicians using the example of King David to justify their candidates’ assaults on women as wrong uses of Biblical texts.
Anytime the Bible is used to justify the oppression and exploitation of others, we have strayed far from the God who brought the people of Israel out of Egypt.
So, how do we make use of the Bible to counteract the “poison book?” Evans says, “there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, What does this say? But, What am I looking for?” The question is not whether or not we pick and choose from the Bible (everyone does that whether they admit it or not), but rather how we pick and choose.
So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: are we reading with the prejudice of love, with Christ as our model, or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed? Are we seeking to enslave or liberate, burden or set free?
We will find whatever we are looking for in the Bible, so we’d better be looking for love.
For 21st century Christians who want an alternative to the abuses of the Religious Right, the answer is not to be found in discarding the Bible but reading it with the “prejudice of love.” As people have done throughout Christian history, the answer to Bible texts that oppress and harm is not tossing the whole thing out but rather responding with the texts that liberate. This is what African American Christians have done, LGBTQ Christians have done, feminist Christians have done, Christians with disabilities have done and Christians from developing countries have done again and again. Rather than throwing the whole Bible out, we must “pick and choose” with humility and love.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851