The basic premise of my recent book, The Violence of Scripture, is quite simple: the Bible should never be used to harm others. One might imagine such a “profound” truth to be self-evident and hardly worthy of a book length treatment. But the sad reality is that the “good book” has been bad news for far too many people.
This is not a new or novel observation. Believers have been saying this, and writing this, since at least the 6th century BCE. And for just as long, other people have been responding with exactly the sort of denial and condemnation that Siebert is now being subjected to by the gatekeepers of the white evangelical tribe.
This argument has been going on for millennia. So the rest of Siebert’s essay ought to sound familiar:
The Bible has been used to inflict enormous pain upon others and to endorse all kinds of evil. It has been used to hurt and even kill people. Specifically, it has been used to justify warfare, oppress women, condemn gays and lesbians, support slavery, and legitimate colonization, to name just a few of its troubling legacies. When the Bible is used for such evil ends, there is no mistaking the fact that something has gone terribly wrong.
Most Christians would attribute this misuse of the Bible to faulty interpretations and misguided interpreters. And this certainly is part of the problem. But, unfortunately, the problem runs deeper than this. It runs right through the pages of Scripture itself.
To put it bluntly: not everything in the “good book” is either good, or good for us. I realize this may sound blasphemous to some people and flies in the face of everything they have been taught to believe about the Bible. When the Church grandly proclaims the Bible to be the Word of God, it gives the impression that the words of Scripture are above critique and beyond reproach. We are taught to read, revere, and embrace the Bible. We are not taught to challenge its values, ethics, or portrayals of God.
But this way of reading the Bible is problematic, to say the least. At times the Bible endorses values we should reject, praises acts we must condemn, and portrays God in ways we cannot accept. Rather than seeing this as a sign of disrespect, we should regard engaging in an ethical and theological critique of what we read in the Bible as an act of profound faithfulness.
Also all-too-familiar is the utterly predictable response from the tribal gatekeepers. How dare you? They rant and rave. They accuse people like Siebert of setting themselves up as God or as the judge of God.
The response to Siebert’s piece has been exactly the same — sometimes verbatim — as the response to Steve Chalke’s long, thoughtful argument earlier this year in favor of the church affirming the marriages of same-sex couples.
The Bible, Chalke argued, confronts us with “a hard choice; a choice between the current dominant view of what Scripture tells us about this issue and the one I honestly think it points us to.”
I’ve often written of that choice in terms of the proverb/koan about the finger and the moon. The Bible is like a finger pointing at the moon. Some of us are focused on the moon. Some of us are focused on the finger.
This argument has continued for so long because the opposing sides do not agree on the nature of the dispute. People like Siebert and Chalke (and me) propose one approach to dealing with conflicts in the Bible, places where particular passages or specific laws or clobber texts contradict the larger themes of the whole of scripture. The other side of this argument does not simply disagree with our approach to such conflicts, it denies that any such conflicts do or can exist.
And so round and round we go in this never-ending argument. The particulars change, but the pattern is always the same whether it’s Eric Siebert talking about violence, or Steve Chalke talking about same-sex relationships, or Jonathan Blanchard talking about slavery, or Paul talking about circumcision, or Peter talking about unclean Gentiles, or Jesus talking about the Sabbath, or Isaiah talking about feast days.
We’re looking at the moon. They’re shouting, “How dare you take your eyes off the finger?”