As outrage spread in response to the U.S. policy of separating children from parents at the border, so too did a number of memes invoking the Bible to advocate for human welfare. As a humanist, I value the politics behind these posts–the deep compassion for fellow human beings, and the desire to correct the problems humans make in this world–but I wince at the implicit religious message, especially when these memes are shared by fellow atheists. When we on the non-religious spectrum act as if Bible-shaming will correct the humanity of Christians who support the separation of families at the U.S. border, we are wilfully engaging in a tangential argument we cannot win.
Why do we do it? There is a bit of smugness involved, because many atheists make no secret of the fact that we have read the Bible–thoroughly–and sometimes know more about the words than our Christian friends, many of whom are more used to receiving selective biblical wisdom through ministers and priests at church. In rallying our arguments against faith, we can usually whip out references to failed prophecies in the Old and New Testament (and some of the ridiculous and vile moral tales in both). And when Bible-shaming Christians for their attacks on other religions over, say, sexism, who doesn’t lean on Paul’s commentary on women, or Christ’s gendered discourse on the ruinous nature of divorce? So of course there is a touch of arrogance in our Bible-shaming–because in the process we’re really just trying to assert that we understand Christ’s message better than any believer.
And yet, we don’t understand Christ’s message better than any believer–because whether the Gospels are the recorded history of one person, or an amalgam of anecdotes about multiple preachers in the era, we sure as heck do not believe that Christ is a god. Ours is pure literary analysis, but believers are engaged in a living relationship with the idea of their god–and as such, the words on the page (while often important to the practice of their faith) are only one part of their religious truth. Christ’s message, to believers, exists in private conversations, and specific religious communities, and prayer, and practice.
As such, we non-believers need to remember that the Bible, with its many conflicting narratives of Christ, is a tool that can be employed to support any number of positions, precisely because humans use faith as an amplifying force for their own convictions. (A powerful set of studies in 2007 illustrated, among other things, that if you can change a person’s beliefs on a given issue, suddenly their god’s beliefs change, too.)
When we forget this–when we give into the delicious smugness of Bible-shaming–we have already lost any larger argument about our shared humanity. Why? Because in so doing, we position ourselves to be dragged into debates about biblical nuance, a messy back-and-forth about all the rotten things Christ is given to say by the writers of the Gospels, when ultimately our outrage over current failures of compassion stems from a moral code that today draws from a wider range of factors.
Let’s take, for example, the “Love thy neighbour” line so often touted by compassionate Christians and atheists alike when Bible-shaming conservative-thinking Christians. It first appears in Leviticus, in the following context:
Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.
Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.
Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee. (Leviticus 19:17-19)
I have quoted the full context to illustrate just how muddy the Bible is when it comes to valuable insight. No, Leviticus 19:19 is not just an amusing basis for atheist teasing about mixed fabrics being treated as an equivalent infraction to so many others that conservative Christians despise. Leviticus 19:19 is vile: a verse historically used by anti-miscegenation advocates, a verse with no redeeming value in any analytical formation, and a terrible follow-up to that feel-good message about loving one’s neighbour. Love them, sure, the section seems to read–but remember: all things in their separate place!
But it’s fine, right, if this one part is a bit unclear? After all, Leviticus was written for a specific population, and “Love thy neighbour” is an oft-repeated biblical phrase, and what really matters is that Christ said it, yes? From the Gospel of Matthew:
Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40, with correlates in Luke 10:26-28 and Mark 12:30-32)
And yet… Christ is given to say a lot by the writers of the Gospels, so we also find in the New Testament a common framework for conservative Christians’ belief in the fundamental vileness of human beings (as a pointed contrast to the glory and heroism of Christ and by extension their god). From the Gospel of Luke:
And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them,
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-27)
What these lines (and similar, like Matthew 10:34) allow is a different reading of “love” in the commandment that left-leaning thinkers use so liberally in political discourse. Yes, absolutely, love thy neighbour as thyself–but if Christ also calls on you to hate yourself, to hate the sin in your life in order to take up the path of discipleship, then surely being a good neighbour requires no less than this form of tough love for others, too? The Christian god, after all, is the master of tough love–a deliverer of plagues and mass eradications and jealous wrath–and doesn’t the majority of the Bible, including the parables of Christ, advocate hard punishment for deviance from divine law?
Left-leaning Christians tend to veer from Christ’s talk of hellfire and the brutal associated verses when Bible-shaming, but there is still room to understand this version of tough love in their everyday practice, too. After all, is this harder reading of love really so far removed from how more liberal persons think about love when, say, raising children? Do we not all know that raising children in a loving manner sometimes means allowing them to hurt in the moment to be stronger in the future? Do we not hope for similar in our relationships–honesty, even if honesty brings pain–with other adults, too?
Yes, conservative Christians take this “tough love” rhetoric to a different level–but their Bible-bound logic on this accord means that simply mocking them for not upholding Christ’s words is sheer folly. They are 100% convinced they understand the commandment to love better than their left-leaning Christian brethren–because, unlike their liberal brethren, more conservative-thinking Christians are including their god’s full emotional range when engaging with that term.
So where does this leave people on the non-religious spectrum? What can we do when faced with Christian arguments for the moral righteousness of certain human suffering? Well, if we truly want to “take away the stony heart out of [their] flesh, and … give [them] an heart of flesh,” here’s an idea: Let’s quit Bible-shaming altogether.
Instead, let’s focus on the humans making these arguments–not the texts they are deploying as an extension of private, personal relationships with the Christian faith. Coax empathy. Offer real-world illustrations of the desperation that compels people to put their own children on the riskiest of roads towards future safety and freedom. Draw upon immigrant stories in their family histories. Spread positive news about immigrants in your communities who make your communities richer overall.
Fellow humanists, religious and otherwise: There is great need in the world, and this latest issue at the U.S. border is but one terrible drop in a heaving bucket of suffering.
This is no time to try to win points for better biblical know-how… especially when doing so might only show conservative believers how small a slice of the Bible we really know.