2014 Religious Trends
Weightier Matters of the Law: Biblical Authority for Progressives
Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Progressive Christian community here.
As someone who was long self-exiled from religion and the Bible, it took me quite some time—many years, actually—to become comfortably reacquainted with the scriptures. Biblicism—the worship of the book rather than worship of God—forms such a huge part of bad religion that my vehement youthful reaction to toxic Christianity included within it a particular aversion to the pious practice of assuming that all biblical texts have something useful to teach us. Even as a newly-fledged minister, I would often barely reference the "Ancient Testimony" (what, at New York's Judson Church, we called the biblical text) and base my preaching more on the New Testimony: often a poem or a snippet of an essay or article. Friends correctly observed that I preached like an amputee; I had forgotten Barth's advice to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. All I was working with was the newspaper!
What my overly-fastidious effort to distance myself from brainless biblicism failed to see for far too long is the Bible's own internal critique of bad religion. I completely missed how Jesus and the Hebrew prophets are perpetually at odds with conventional piety and conventional ritual observance, warning repeatedly that God doesn't give a fig for the outward forms when the basic alignment is missing. By alignment I mean an ethical alignment with God's expectation that we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. Now, much later in life, it is as plain to me as the nose on my face that the clearest and strongest denunciations of everything I loathed—and still loathe—about smug, self-satisfied rule-bound Christianity can be found within the very book that conservative Christians revere to the point of idolatry.
In the Hebrew Bible, the prophets are all at pains to say that honoring the covenant means treating the poor and vulnerable with special respect and care rather than afflicting the already-afflicted. It means remembering that the gift of freedom requires attending to the freedom and dignity of others. It means remembering that deliverance from Pharaoh's oppression demands that we also avoid the ways of oppression. Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah especially have savage things to say about people who imagine they can to draw near to God through ritual observance while every single day they are practicing violence and greed. Probably the best known of these oracles is found in Isaiah 58, where we read God's declaration that the only worship that matters is active compassion and active resistance to oppressive systems.
In the New Testament there is no doubt that Jesus is placing himself within this same prophetic tradition, even (according to Luke) opening his public ministry in his home synagogue with a rousing proclamation of jubilee, using Isaiah 61 as his text. But the case of Jesus is clouded for us by the fact that the editors of these texts, writing long after the death of Jesus and reflecting their own contemporary quarrels with Jewish communities, over-emphasize and overdramatize Jesus' opposition to the "scribes and Pharisees." That Jesus of Nazareth sparred with the religious authorities of his day is not disputable. Whether the texts we have constitute reliable accounts of this sparring is another matter.
Rev. Peter Laarman is an ordained UCC minister and long-time activist in progressive Christian circles. He was senior minister of New York's Judson Memorial Church between 1994 and 2004, and prior to his retirement last December he headed LA's Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of congregations and individuals committed to rooting redemptive social action in progressive theology. Peter is currently volunteering his time as project coordinator for a PCU-initiated project on race and mass incarceration.