When you greet a stranger look at his shoes
Keep your money in your shoes …
A few times a week I get an e-mail or a drive-by comment from someone very upset that I'm defending or advocating for a position they regard as contrary to the Bible. This happens often. Regularly. Constantly.
Yet as often as it happens, none of my accusers has ever been angry that I seem to be "glibly dismissive" of the clear biblical teaching of Luke 3:11. No one has ever suggested on the basis of this Bible verse that I am a fraudulent sham and an enemy of the true faith. Nor have they ever suggested that my failure to heed and revere it's clear instruction constitutes an attack against the sacred "authority of the scriptures."
And that's odd, because I would seem to be vulnerable on this point.
"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none," the Bible says in Luke 3:11. And I have a lot more than just two coats. I have a closet full of coats, jackets, suits, shirts, dress pants, jeans, sweaters and nearly a dozen different pairs of shoes. My wardrobe would seem to be a sinful extravagance that's biblically indefensible.*
And it's worse than that. I'm also actively trying to lure others into this lifestyle of selfish superfluity. I have over the years recommended or urged the readers of this blog to acquire all sorts of things beyond what they need — the Louis & Ella box set, a USB turntable, Diamond Cut jeans, No Sweat chucks, the complete DVD collection of The Wire and dozens and dozens of books. I'm even wantonly displaying advertising here — messages explicitly designed and intended to seduce readers into further acts of acquisitive superfluity.
Now it's true that the person speaking in Luke 3:11 is John the Baptist — an ascetic who wore a hair-shirt and lived on locusts and wild honey. In general, John the Baptist's teachings on diet and dress aren't regarded as authoritative.
But it's not just bug-eating John who gives us this teaching. Variations of his statement can be found throughout the entire Bible, in the law and the prophets, the Gospels and the epistles. This is a unified, unambiguous, relentlessly repeated commandment not just of John but of Moses, Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter … of everybody, really.
We're not talking about just a handful of scattered verses — not just a few obscure texts plucked from the lists of Leviticus and one or two Pauline tangents. This is a major, dominant theme of the entire Bible: Whoever has more than they need must give to whoever has less than they need.
And yet as I said, despite regularly receiving angry condemnations for the ways in which I supposedly deny "the authority of the scriptures," I have never even once been challenged on the matter of my personal superfluity or my advertising and enticement urging others to acquire.
None of my interlocutors has ever accused me of flippantly disregarding Luke 3, or Matthew 6, or Amos, or 2 Corinthians 8 — even though my lifestyle is clearly and wholly incompatible with what those texts have to say. I have never received a single question from these Guardians of Biblical Truth as to how I manage to reconcile my lifestyle with the vast multitude of scripture passages condemning it as sin. My supposedly conservative inquisitors have never challenged me on this point or accused me of promoting a "liberal" approach to the Bible that hand-waves away the clear mandates taught in the more than 2,000 verses dealing with wealth, possessions and the poor.
Instead, they're mainly just upset about the Gay Thing.
That's odd. Because the Bible doesn't actually have a whole lot to say about homosexuality. The sum total of all it says on that subject is just a tiny fraction of what the Bible has to say about sex in general and even all that put together is, at most, a minor sub-theme.
Think of it this way: Picture a seesaw. Take all of the passages you can find in the Bible that might possibly be construed as condemning homosexuality and gently place them on one seat of the seesaw. Now take all of the passages and parables and sermons and stories in the Bible that deal with wealth, possessions and the poor and drop them onto the other seat.
That seesaw just became a catapult, launching that little collection of verses on homosexuality high into the air.
The popular emphasis on biblical teaching on homosexuality distorts and inverts the emphasis of the text itself. When my e-mail accusers cite the Bible, or when it is cited by the loudest of the evangelical advocacy groups, they're almost always talking about sex, usually gay sex, and almost never talking about wealth, possessions or the poor. They've allowed the tiny fraction of the minor sub-theme to eclipse the importance of the major theme discussed throughout the text itself. That's backwards. That's contrary to what the actual book says.
I'm being too polite here. I need to state this more vigorously because I need to put it in a way that will make my accusers fruitfully angry. So let me try this:
The Bible is not a book about homosexuality and it will not allow itself to be treated as a book about homosexuality. Nor is the Bible a book about sex. But the Bible is, in fact, very much a book about wealth, possessions and the poor. That is not the central theme, but it is a massively important theme that pervades every portion of the book. If you don't agree with that then I don't know what it is that you've been reading, but it surely wasn't a Bible.
Did that work? That last sentence was deliberately confrontational and accusatory — did it make you angry? Because I want you to get angry. I want you to become so angry that you won't rest until you prove me wrong.
So please do that. Prove me wrong. Go for it. Take all that anger and angrily go back to your Bible. Open it at random or start at the beginning and channel all that anger into a determined search to prove that wealth, possessions and the poor is not a major theme of the entire book and that the Bible does not contain anything like 2,000 verses on the subject. Get angry and don't stop until you've proved, conclusively, that this isn't an overwhelming, obsessive theme in the Bible.**Please note that I'm not suggesting that count-the-verses is a smart or literate or spiritually mature approach to the Bible. Just because there are hundreds of times as many verses on wealth, possessions and the poor as there are on or near the subject of homosexuality doesn't mean we can simply ignore the smaller collection of passages. But it certainly shouldn't mean we can simply ignore the much larger theme, either.
And that's my problem here with my accusers. They pay vehement attention to the smaller subtopic while they seem to completely ignore the tsunami of teaching on the larger theme. They seem to ignore even the fact that they're ignoring it.
Even this does not prove that my accusers are wrong to treat the gay verses the way they treat them. It could be that they are correct in their interpretation and application of these few verses while they are incorrect in their interpretation and non-application of the multitude of scriptures on WP&tP. If that were the case, then my more consistent approach would be no great virtue. I would be consistently wrong while they were at least partly, if inconsistently, right. (I don't think that is the case, mind you, and I'll discuss why in part 3. But I want to acknowledge that such a situation is logically possible, at least in theory.)
My accusers' inconsistency, though, does raise some urgent questions. What is the basis for this discrepancy? What is their explanation for it (if they have one)?
What is the rationale for applying one standard to one tiny subs
et of Bible verses while applying a completely different standard to a vastly larger set of passages? How do they justify treating the few verses they see as condemning homosexuality as strict, inviolable and "authoritative" while simultaneously treating a dominant theme of the whole of scripture as vague, nonbinding and disposable?
Or, put less charitably, why do they insist on the strictest and harshest application of rules governing other people's genitals while blithely refusing to apply any rules governing their stuff? (Including, for example, the rule that says there's really no such thing as "their" stuff.)
This inconsistency creates the unpleasant suspicion that they are simply people who happen to enjoy having lots of stuff but who don't happen to enjoy gay sex and who have, therefore, conveniently decided to read the Bible in such a way that it blesses the former and damns the latter. There's a strong aroma here of the old speck-and-beam hypocrisy. That sort of self-serving manipulation of the text seems irreconcilable with their insistence that they are acting as the guardians of "the authority of the scriptures."
Let me address my accusers directly. Be warned: If you come to me as a Guardian of Biblical Authority, demanding to know why I do not join you in biblically condemning homosexuals, I will before answering you look at your shoes.
Are they practical and well-worn? Are they your only pair?
They had better be. Because unless your shoes provide evidence of the reckless generosity unambiguously commanded throughout that same Bible you insist must be used to condemn our GLBT neighbors, then I'm not sure you really understand — or much care about — the "authority of the scriptures." Unless you exhibit a personal poverty commensurate with the chastity you insist from others, then I don't believe that you believe what you're saying.
Show me an American willing to abstain from luxury and indulgence and that person earns my attention. Show me a straight person expecting to be commended for abstaining from gay sex and that person earns only my pity. (That's not an achievement, that's a tautology.)
The Bible is not a Rulebook for Other People. If you're going to insist on treating it as a rulebook, then you're going to have to pay attention to the rules that apply to you as well as to the rules that apply to others. I'd suggest starting with this rule: Don't treat the Bible as a rulebook.
But now I'm getting ahead of myself. We'll save that thought for part 3.
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* Devotees of the King James Version will note that this verse, in that translation, says "two tunics." Due to a misspent youth in theater, I also have two tunics. Actual tunics. One is from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Reuben — and "Canaan Days" was a show-stopper thankyouverymuch) and one from the Jafar costume I wore to dozens of children's events before we got that cease-and-desist letter from Disney's lawyers. That costume was awesome, but of course Jafar isn't about the costume — he's all about the scowl, the voice and the eyebrow thing.
** I don't know why anger is so peculiarly effective at this, but it works. We Americans have this uncanny knack for reading the Bible without ever even seeing all that it has to say about money, wealth, possessions, property and the poor. It's a remarkable kind of cultural blindspot and really a pretty amazing trick. It's like reading everything Tolkien ever wrote but somehow missing all the business about hobbits and elves.
But somehow an angry defiance — "Oh, yeah, well I'll prove that the Bible doesn't say any such thing!" — often works to allow us to read the Bible with new eyes. I spent a decade working for Ron Sider and I saw this happen countless times in response to his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. People who were merely offended by that book wrote him off as some kind of hippie-commie socialist. But those who were infuriated by that book set out to prove him wrong and, a few months later, came back to buy additional copies to give to their friends and pastors.
Heads up — Plink. Plinkplinkplink.
(That was the sound of those verses on homosexuality finally hitting the ground after getting launched off the seesaw.)