A harrowing recent news story offers sobering lessons for how people use the Bible, and how it can be horrifically misused.
You may have seen the much-publicized story from the London underground. Some monster approaches a Jewish family with a series of threatening statements, and then proceeds to read a Bible verse at them, to which I shall return shortly. The man in question is aggressive and potentially assaultive, but even so, several other passengers try to take him on, at real risk to their lives and safety. By far the boldest is a Muslim lady in a hijab, Asma Shuweikh, who is an excellent argument in favor of the human race. Interviewed about her role, she offered inspiring words about tolerance and good citizenship, and explained how her Islamic faith left her no alternative but to intervene. She is an undisputed heroine. If she ever runs for elective office, anywhere, anytime, vote for her.
One nice touch: this modest lady is so far from seeking publicity that she is basically a stranger to social media. She had to set up a brand new Twitter account to read everything being said about her. There is now a hashtag, #bemoreasma.
Going back to the Bible. The verse in question that was read was this, from Revelation 3.9:
Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.
The harasser explained that Jews are impostors, that they have stolen his authentic heritage, and that one day they will be his slaves. That’s not my opinion, he says, it’s God’s word!
It is not clear what kind of “authenticity” he is preaching here, which those Jews are supposedly appropriating. The ideas fit well with the White Supremacy movement known as Christian Identity (Aryan North Europeans are the true Jews! The Old Testament is all about us!) but the culprit in this incident was black. Perhaps he was drawing on a particular school of radical black nationalism, and Afrocentric schools of Bible interpretation do exist, although most would have nothing to do with craziness of this kind. But whatever the origins, the result is a racially-grounded supersessionism of the most vitriolic and dangerous kind.
Assume that you hold no such crackpot or extreme ideas, and you are a regular Christian using the Bible. What do you do with this verse, and its near-exact parallel in Rev. 2.9? This condemns “the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.” I seriously wonder: for many Christians watching this video, their first reaction would be to doubt that such texts could possibly be in the real Bible, and clearly not in the New Testament! After all, we have never heard them in church. But yes indeed, there they are.
Reporting the London incident, the Guardian used powerful language. It noted that the man “read antisemitic texts from the Bible,” that he was “reading anti-Jewish Bible passages.” How do you confront such a devastating charge, that the Bible does contain passages that are explicitly anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish? Can you possibly find some kind of alternative reading or interpretation?
Obviously, you absolutely have to put the words in context. The author is addressing the seven churches of Asia Minor, and the particular problems and challenges they face. But for questions of authority, it is worth noticing that the words are credited to the inspiration of Christ himself. The order to write comes from one who says “I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia.”
The only way it can or should be read or used is to place it firmly in the context of its time, that it represents what this particular Christian body said about those particular historical Jewish communities. You can debate whether it might be a legitimate categorization of the Philadelphia synagogue at this time, and who was in the right in the battles between the synagogues and the churches. We’ll never know for sure. But it is absolutely, categorically, not a statement about Jews as such, nor can it ever be used for those ends. The language reflects a historical moment – and a moment that was radically different from the equally canonical writings of St. Paul, for whom a phrase like “synagogue of Satan” would have been inconceivable.
It raises an interesting question about Biblical literalism. If you are a strict literalist, are you required to believe that Christ, the Alpha and Omega, commanded the writing of that brutal passage condemning the neighboring Jewish community as a synagogue of Satan?
More broadly, this gets to the whole issue of violent and genocidal passages in the Bible, which I discuss in my 2011 book Laying Down the Sword. I draw the critical distinction between applying those words to events at the time, and extrapolating them to modern circumstances. But most important of all, we must not ignore these verses. If we do, then we even forget they exist, and if we do that, we are not able to respond when some monster carries out a verbal assault like that on the London Tube.
So the main lesson: don’t ignore the potentially ugly and dangerous Bible passages. Seek them out, understand them, confront them, and defuse them, before somebody really sinister grabs them and weaponizes them.
A modest proposal for Christian clergy, of any and all denominations: how about setting the lectionary aside sometime, and preach instead on one or more of these explosive verses? There are more of them than you might think.