Of clobber-texts and anti-clobber-texts: The Bible is not a card game

In a recent “Smart people saying smart things” post, I quoted from Letha Dawson Scanzoni’s recent Christian Feminism Today piece “There Is More Than One Christian View on Homosexuality.” That post is taken from a 2005 talk Scanzoni gave at a “Faith Beyond Boundaries” interfaith conference. I suppose  describing it as a sermon might make it even less appealing than describing it as an address from an interfaith conference, but really that’s what it is — a sermon (a good one) on Micah 6:8.

When I was a kid, riding to church (twice on Sundays and on Wednesday nights) we’d usually get stuck at the light on West Seventh Street and from the back seat of the car I’d read the words from that verse carved on the wall of the synagogue there:

DO JVSTICE · LOVE MERCY

WALK HVMBLY WITH THY GOD

The full verse is just as good: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

I love the blunt simplicity of that. This isn’t complicated, Micah is saying, here’s the whole deal in a nutshell. Boom — that’s it. The rest is just details. More can be said, but no more needs to be said. You could preach on that for a year and still not be done with it, but if you preach for a year and never arrive there then you’ve probably been wasting your breath.

This is good stuff, is what I’m saying. The best stuff.

Yet I fear that when Letha Dawson Scanzoni invokes this passage in direct response to a specific challenge, the person making that challenge still won’t be satisfied. It’s a far better answer than what he expected, but because it’s not shaped like the answer he expects to hear, I doubt he’ll be able to hear it.

Here’s her description of the challenge she was presented:

People for the most part appear to subscribe to a proof-text approach. Thus, after a favorable review of the book I wrote with Dave Myers appeared on an Internet blog, one reader entered this comment in response to that review:

“Please, if you could, give me a verse or passage in the Bible that plainly casts homosexuality in a positive light. Just give me one. Because, when Leviticus calls homosexuality an “abomination” I have a hard time seeing the pro-homosexuality biblical argument. If one wants to make a secular argument, fine, go right ahead. But when you try to establish a “Christian” case for being in favor of homosexuality you’ve left the realm of Christianity entirely.

“However, if you can, please cite me a passage that displays Yahweh’s affection for homosexuality. It should be fairly simple if it’s there.”

Referring to the subtitle of our book, he went on to say “there is no ‘Christian case’” and had some harsh words to say about those of us who think otherwise. Nevertheless, today I am going to take him up on his challenge. I am going to suggest that “one verse” that I think we people of faith can use in applying our faith to this topic.

The “one verse” she cites is Micah 6:8, and she goes on to build a convincing case as to why this one verse, even all by itself, compels her to advocate for the full equality of LGBT people (read the whole thing).

Artwork from Kelly Stephens’ Etsy shop (click for the link).

But the problem, in her inquisitor’s eyes, is that this passage is not itself a clobber-text. He reads the Bible like a child playing the old card game of “War.” He puts down his card — a clobber-text from Leviticus. And now it’s her turn to play her card. If she doesn’t have a corresponding clobber-text that trumps his, then he wins.

The idea that maybe the Bible is more than a collection of clobber-texts is beyond his imagination. The idea that a text could be anything other than a clobber-text is not a possibility that he can accommodate. Scanzoni’s argument, like Micah’s, is about cutting through distracting side issues to get to the core of what matters most: What does the Lord require?

But “what does the Lord require?” was not the inquisitor’s question. His question was “Do you have an anti-clobber text that overrules my clobber-text?” Like the prophet Micah, I think that’s a dumb question. It’s the wrong question — a question as irrelevant to everything as any possible answer to it would be. It’s a question that can only serve to distract us and to help us hide from ourselves the question that does matter — the question that the prophet asks and answers in Micah 6:8.

“But that verse isn’t about homosexuality!” the inquisitor protests.

Really? So there are certain subjects or realms or “issues” for which justice, mercy and humility do not apply?

I used to run into this weird objection when I spoke in churches or at conferences representing the Evangelical Environmental Network. My standard talk for the EEN was based on Galatians 5:22-23:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

Every once in a while someone would complain that this passage isn’t about the environment. That’s narrowly true, I suppose. St. Paul did not say, “Don’t dump mercury in the river because poisoning your neighbors doesn’t demonstrate love, joy, peace, etc.” But surely this passage is obviously relevant to matters like mercury pollution, or to climate change, conservation, recycling, waste, etc.

It took me a while to realize what this complaint really meant. They were disappointed that I hadn’t recited an environmentalist clobber-text. Without a specific clobber-text on the specific topic in question, it seemed, they were unable to regard anything in the Bible as meaningful.

If forced to do so, I can recite a host of “environmental” clobber-texts, but while those might help these folks to win a hand or two in their games of Bible War, that won’t address the larger, deeper problem, which is that they remain unable to think of the Bible as anything more than an anthology of discrete, unrelated clobber-texts addressing various subjects.

And as long as that is how they read the Bible, they will never be able to ask Micah’s question. And they will never be able to hear Micah’s answer.

  • swbarnes2

    The thing about Fred’s take is that he is arguing that Mercy and Justice are good things because that’s what that text says. Both sides agree that the first thing to do when trying to figure something out is to read a text. Not to look at the world, not to ask people what their experiences are, but to read a text. Fred doesn’t want to play War, but he’s still insisting on using cards one way or another. We can’t solve 21st century problems like that.

  • Eric Boersma

    The entire point of being a “culture warrior” is to de-humanize those who disagree with you. Homosexuals aren’t people, they’re Political Issues.

    The whole point is not to think of them as people. This is why so many start to do 180s when they form close friendships with those who are gay, since it’s not an abstract Political Issue any more, but now, for them, there are Real People being hurt by this.

  • Wednesday

    They’re also at the forefront of the “spare the rod and spoil the child” bullshit.

    Fun fact*: That phrase does not occur in the bible (although the concept does), and instead originates in the poem “Hudibras” by Samuel Butler. In context “spare the rod and spoil the child” seems to be about spanking, but, um, not the kind used to discipline children. *cough*

    *I consider this a fun fact, because it gives me a little bit of grim amusement when fundies use that phrase to justify hurting children, and leaves me tempted to make comments about how they accuse _liberals_ of corrupting children with kinky sexual practices.

  • steven919

    As a pro-gay atheist I’m conflicted here. In the short run I hope you win your argument with the homophobes, even if I find your arguments terribly unconvincing. I’ve read the bible and it can easily be used to promote economic eqaulity, but to get the bible to promote sexual equality you have to do an awful lot of twisting and lawyering.

    I have it much easier. I can just say that we should completely ignore the bible with all it’s bigoted content.

  • Wednesday

    The translations I’m seeing of Deuteronomy 5:17 render it as “don’t murder”, meaning don’t kill people _unlawfully_ (in this case, the law being the at-the-time Jewish law and its definition of murder**). Deuteronomy 13 would be an example of lawful killing, as would all of the “put them to death” requirements in Leviticus.

  • http://musings.northerngrove.com/ JarredH

    Yeah, but come on. A law that says “Don’t kill people unlawfully” doesn’t strike me as a very useful law.

  • ReverendRef

    I think there’s a translation issue. This list has a variety of different words throughout the translations. What I typed as “factions” comes through as “heresies” in other places.

    Regarding “anger,” William Barclay uses “uncontrolled temper;” and another commentator used “fits of rage.”

    What they seem to be getting at here is the hot-headed, temper tantrum-type of behavior, where if you don’t get your way or are questioned or simply faced with a dissenting opinion you fly off into a fit of angry rage.

    Which brings me to “dissension.” It’s a translation thing again and doesn’t necessarily mean to dissent or hold a differing opinion.

    Again, William Barclay points to this word as “standing apart,” where the members of the church are focused on selfish desires so that there is no unity. Another source I have says that dissensions refers to “selfish striving for position and power.”

    So, yeah, the list doesn’t necessarily condemn how we understand or use those words; although most of them do carry over.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Are you telling me there aren’t writings of Ben Franklin tucked away between Colossians and Jude? If there aren’t, there should be.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    those clobber-verse types

    So…I just read that as “Clobberverse types.” Now I’m trying to decide how one would live in the Clobberverse. I’m assuming everyone there would be somehow related to The Thing. Or have severe head trauma.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    My question is this: why have Judaism, Catholicism and the religions of the state churches of northern Europe moderated?

  • http://www.facebook.com/tomstone Thomas Stone

    Yeah, you don’t have to think at all

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    WTF? Elaborate, please. How does ignoring the Bible entail not thinking?

  • Wednesday

    *scratches head* Really? Well, clearly your mileage varies, but I personally support the existence of laws which prohibit killing other people under most circumstances but carving out exceptions for self-defence and defence of others in certain circumstances. I’d be happy if those laws also allowed for physician-assisted death for people with terminal illnesses under specific and carefully-overseen circumstances. And while I hate war, as a practical matter I am glad that we have laws distinguishing between soldiers killing enemy soldiers (lawful) and killing civilians (unlawful).

    The existence of laws against unlawful killing are pretty universal (even if details differ from country to country or state to state), so that would suggest that most people recognize them as useful laws to have.

  • caryjamesbond

    Yes, but as soon as you start going “well, translation, context” YOU AREN’T READING THE WORD OF GOD, ARE YOU? God said it, I believe it, that settles it!

  • DavidCheatham

    All that said, I find it darkly amusing when clobber-versers cite both Leviticus and Paul without any irony.

    The best thing about those verses in Leviticus hat the lists of things not to do _literally_ starts with God telling Moses ‘Say to the Israelites’.

    I am not an Israelite. In fact, I probably shouldn’t even be _reading_ this. It’s someone else’s mail!

    It would be one thing if they cited Paul first, and then when that’s rejected, cited Leviticus as “well, since you rejected Paul condemning male prostitutes and Christians participating in pagan orgies teh gheys, you must also reject his position on Levitical law not applying to Christians any longer, so here’s Leviticus on how gay sex should be punishable by death.”

    This is way too complicated for them to understand. They’ll just repeat what they were taught in Sunday school, that Paul’s rejection of Levitical _only_ applies to food.

    The fact will be entirely lost on them that a) This is exactly at odds with what _Paul himself_ said the message meant (Which Fred talked about in an earlier post) and b) if you take Paul’s vision ‘literally’ that only makes non-kosher animals kosher, and does nothing about the double prohibition on, for example, rare cheese burgers. (Eating blood _and_ eating the milk and meat of the same animal at once.)

    Of course, the _most_ hypocritical thing I like to point out about Leviticus law is against men who _shave their sideburns_, something that literally would not cost them anything to refrain from doing, and yet they do anyway, without thinking.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Ignoring the Bible is a head-in-the-sand approach and doesn’t really work. The Bible is an incredibly important historical document and is incredibly important to extremely powerful people and groups today. Deciding that since you’re not of a religion that follows it, you can just ignore it, is a decision that leaves you ignorant of things you really need to know.

    When you say we should completely ignore the Bible, full stop, you’re telling people to stop being the religion there are. There is no wiggle room. While saying “we should not consider the Bible when making secular laws” works, saying “we” should just completely ignore the Bible altogether is demanding other people come over to your side before you’ll discuss anything with them. I see very little difference between that and people who say we should follow what’s in the Bible simply because it’s in the Bible.

    Besides, there’s some good stuff in the Bible, just as there is in the Koran, the Torah, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Ramayana, etc.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Ah, in my translation, “fornication” is “sexual immorality”… which covers so, so much more when it’s that vague.

    I should look up the KJV to see what it is in their book. :p

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    That would make so much more sense.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Clobberverse is the Slacktiverse’s bizarro equivalent. I’m pretty sure you can find it in the orthodox Christian portals on Patheos.

  • ReverendRef

    An elderly deacon I once knew read “sexual immorality” as “sexual immortality.”

    Someone said to me, “I want some of that!”

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    You’re thinking of Peter’s vision. Paul relates a little more in Romans 14, where he pretty much says “All those old laws? Eh, screw ‘em.”

    (Edit: VISION, not VERSION. Bloody hell, I shouldn’t have mentioned this problem earlier — I triggered it!)

  • DavidCheatham

    I stand corrected. That just makes it dumber.

  • http://musings.northerngrove.com/ JarredH

    I’m sorry, I wasn’t clear. I have no problems with laws that declare certain forms of killing unlawful. But that’s not what this verse does. It simply says “don’t kill anyone unlawful.” It does not give a guide to what distinguishes a lawful killing from an unlawful one and vice versa.

    In effect, this law adds nothing. It could be removed completely, as it’s actually other laws that provide insight into what killings are lawful and what ones are unlawful. And those laws don’t need this one to “back them up.”

  • dpolicar

    Similarly, “honor your father and mother” doesn’t specify what constitutes honoring, “don’t steal” doesn’t specify what constitutes theft rather than lawful property exchange, and so forth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tomstone Thomas Stone

    I was responding to “I have it much easier”- in other words, he apparently doesn’t need to wrestle with questions of spirit or text, of how to construct a viable morality, or any of the questions at issue here, because of the blissful ease that evidently comes with atheism

  • AnonaMiss

    Though Franklin himself was paraphrasing an older source – “The gods help those who help themselves” shows up in Aesop’s Fables.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    There’s no need to wrestle with the Biblical text if one’s an atheist. I accept the text as it is, unless I want to show the Bible does not support some political agenda I don’t like. Also, there’s no “blissful ease that evidently comes with atheism”. Questions of morality still exist whether or not one accepts the Bible as the Word o’ Omnipotent Brainless Thinker.

  • http://musings.northerngrove.com/ JarredH

    Well, no. But there’s no second law saying “stealing unlawfully is against the law,” either.

    That’s what having a law that says “don’t kill unlawfully” is effectively doing: It’s saying, “hey, this thing that this other law already says is unlawful? It’s unlawful. Don’t do it.”

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    But there’s no second law saying “stealing unlawfully is against the law,” either.

    Er… you’re forgetting taxes, JarredH.

  • http://musings.northerngrove.com/ JarredH

    I’m not going there, and I resent the attempted derail into “taxes are theft” bullshit.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    I sense we’re talking past each other.

  • http://www.owlfolio.org/ Zack Weinberg

    As a (nonpracticing) Jew, I concur with this but I think it’s also important to recognize that Jews themselves have been wrestling with the vile chunks of the Old Testament for millennia. It _is_ a little too easy to say “ha ha, look at that giant list of obsolete regulations” if you don’t know what rabbinical interpretation has done to it. (The basic principle is to try to find an analogy whereby each rule can be transformed into something that makes sense in the modern world. To take an obvious example, the _point_ of the rather lengthy set of rules about what to do with excrement is to prevent contamination of one’s drinking water. Modern sanitary sewers are therefore in keeping with the spirit of the Law.)

    … Personally, the parts of the OT I find most problematic are not the legal code, which is dealt with by the above sort of logic, but the many incidents where G-d commands the Israelites to go slaughter their neighbors. This, too, rabbis wrestle with; I unfortunately don’t recall what the conclusions are.

  • MarkTemporis

    It would be really funny if the ‘put them to death’ requirements triggered the ‘don’t kill’ proscription and mandated an unending line of executioners standing ready to execute the previous executioner.

  • dpolicar

    (shrug) In the same sense that “murder” means to kill unlawfully, “steal” means to take property unlawfully.

    Therefore, if “don’t murder” is a useless law because it doesn’t specify what is lawful and unlawful killing, it seems to follow that “don’t steal” is a useless law because it doesn’t specify what is lawful and unlawful property-taking.

    Conversely, if we can assume that “theft” and “murder” were common Hebrew words and that members of the relatively small nomadic tribe had a common understanding of what those words meant, then maybe we can accept that “don’t murder” and “don’t steal” were perfectly meaningful injunctions.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Interesting. I noted while going through the Gospel of Thomas that it referenced a proverb attributed to Aesop.

  • Katie

    There are also some Jews who argue for interpreting the prohibition in Leviticus as a narrow prohibition on anal sex, rather than as a broad one on forming a loving partnership with a person of the same sex and engaging in permitted sexual acts.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    I seem to recall Exodus or Leviticus having a law that says “Follow the laws,” if that helps. ~_^

  • http://musings.northerngrove.com/ JarredH

    “steal” means to take property unlawfully.

    Except that’s not how I define “steal.” I define stealing as “taking that which belongs to someone else and claiming it as your own.”

    I don’t think that stealing or murder are wrong because they are against the law. I want stealing and murder to be against the law because they are wrong. Ultimately, proposing a definition of either word in which the law itself becomes central to its definition defeats that important distinction, in my opinion.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    It would be if Leviticus had the equivalent of the ninth amendment.

  • Wednesday

    Well, a lot of people have a functional definition of murder that does not match the legal definition, the central idea being something along the lines of “killing innocent people” or “morally wrongful killing”. PETA and other militant herbivore groups say “meat is murder” not because they think killing animals for food is unlawful, but because they want to argue it’s wrongful killing.

    I emphasized that murder in the context of Deuteronomy, murder meant unlawful killing according to the OT law, because the King James mistranslation of that commandment is a favorite attempted-clobberverse of anti-legal-abortion activists, who with rare exceptions don’t seem to be concerned that, without the context of OT law, there’s no reason to limit “thou shalt not kill” to just killing humans….

    So, having commandments against theft and murder make sense even in advance of issuing definitions of theft and murder. You then go on to hammer out the fine details of these things, including not only definitions but punishments. Which is exactly what seems to be the case in the OT.

  • dpolicar

    I suspect we’re altogether failing to communicate.

    For my own part, I would say that when I purchased my car, I took something that belonged to someone else and claimed it as my own. I wouldn’t call it stealing though, because the way I went about doing it met various other criteria (e.g., it happened with the owner’s consent).

    I suspect you, also, would agree that I didn’t steal my car. So I suspect that the quotation you provide above isn’t quite how you define “steal”.

    Of course, you could certainly say that you instead define stealing as “taking that which belongs to someone else without their consent and claiming it as your own,” for example.

    And I could point out that if the owner were unaware of the transaction but had previously authorized the seller to sell it, it still wouldn’t be theft… and you could add “…or the consent of their authorized agent…”

    And I could point out that if an unauthorized agent fraudulently sold me the car, I would still not have stolen it…. and you could add “…or a good-faith presumption of such consent…”

    And we could keep going along these lines.

    Or I could say “Don’t steal!” and rely on our shared understanding of what that means.

    And I could say “Don’t murder!” and rely on our shared understanding of what that means.

  • Patrick

    Fundamentalists can’t just cite clobber texts and claim that all conversation is over.

    But if your “biblical case” for something contradicts the clear and obvious content of its clobber texts, then somewhere you’ve gone wrong.

    At best, you can say that there are multiple biblical cases, of which yours is one. But that’s often just a kind way of saying that you’re BOTH wrong.

  • Dave Empey

    And so we straight let out on bail
    A convict from the county jail,
    Whose head was next
    On some pretext
    Condemned to be mown off,
    And made him Headsman, for we said,
    “Who’s next to be decapited
    Cannot cut off another’s head
    Until he’s cut his own off,
    His own off, his own off,
    Until he’s cut his own off.

  • http://musings.northerngrove.com/ JarredH

    Or I could say “Don’t steal!” and rely on our shared understanding of what that means.

    And I could say “Don’t murder!” and rely on our shared understanding of what that means.

    Well yes, we could avoid the rules lawyering altogether. But that’s my point. Trying to define murder as “unlawful killing” and theft as “unlawful taking” is rules lawyering (and self-defeating, self-referential rules lawyering at that) too, and I think it’s best avoided.

  • FearlessSon

    Considering that sex is the means by which humans and many other species propagate genes beyond the lifespan of the mortal organisms they both inhabit and shape, we might indeed say that sexuality is immortality.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Bzzt, heteronormativity.

  • FearlessSon

    Ouch! My bad.

    Excuse me, I just hit myself hard enough that I started bleeding.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tomstone Thomas Stone

    The explanation is that the Bible is a work of thousands of years of oral history mashed into a series of narratives and automatically contradicts itself over and over again. It is literally impossible to say that one believes ‘what the Bible says’ and have a totally self consistent worldview. Therefore, one must choose to assume that various parts of the text cannot or should not be taken at face value- and since, like, the whole second half is about maybe not being such an asshole, that seems like a reasonable way to differentiate between what means what.

    I mean, honestly, finding a throughline and using it to read a work for its overall meaning, despite various contradictions, is necessary to examine, like, Lawrence of Arabia. How is that not going to come up for something written by hundreds of people over millennia?

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Which, er, anal sex is often part of a loving partnership among people of any gender, so.

  • http://musings.northerngrove.com/ JarredH

    I emphasized that murder in the context of Deuteronomy, murder meant unlawful killing according to the OT law, because the King James mistranslation of that commandment is a favorite attempted-clobberverse of anti-legal-abortion activists, who with rare exceptions don’t seem to be concerned that, without the context of OT law, there’s no reason to limit “thou shalt not kill” to just killing humans….

    I totally get that. I will note, however, that the person you responded to with your definition of murder wasn’t trying to use Deuteronomy 5:17 as a clobber verse against abortion. Zie was juxtaposing it against Deuteronomy chapter 13. Deuteronomy 13 says to kill people who try to get you to follow other gods. That’s a “lawful killing” (at least lawful according to Deuteronomy) that I’d personally still consider murder.

    Again. I have no problem saying that there are those instances where killing is neither murder nor immoral. I just have a problem with the idea of there being a law for or against it being the deciding factor.


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