Because Scripture has been hijacked by religious, cultural, and political forces, we need books like this one that free it from its conscription as justification for oppression.
Jennifer Butler is uniquely positioned to offer readers a primer on progressive Christian organizing, and I would have anticipated such a primer from her. That she instead reclaims Scripture, offering nine new entries into ancient texts, comes as a pleasant and welcome surprise.
Let me start with a simple recommendation. If you are recently emerging from conservative Christian frameworks and looking to gain your footing, or if you have one foot out the door of the church and Christianity because of the ways it has been co-opted, I recommend this book as your first stop.
If you are wary of Scripture, this book is for you. If you love Scripture, but sense that what you have been taught in church doesn’t always add up, this book is for you. If you are on the verge of leaving your church because of the intolerance and bigotry you see among Christians, this book is for you. If you want to learn how to connect your faith and understanding of Scripture with your commitment to build a more just and compassionate world, this book is for you.
First, it’s immensely readable. It’s not long. It follows a simple structure in each of its chapters.
- Our past
- Understanding the text
- America today
- A lesson for us
- How we resist
In other words, she first introduces a specific biblical text as part of our shared past, then inhabits the text attempting to read it as first readers would have heard it, then describes the contemporary situation in America today in which we read such a text, draws a lesson for us, and then shares how this text offers us in the present moment ways to resist tyranny.
Butler does not attempt to lay out a comprehensive commentary on all of Scripture. Instead, she selects nine passages as focus: Genesis and creation, the Exodus account, the Golden Calf, Israel’s desire for a king, Solomon’s complex legacy, women in the gospels, Pilate’s post-truth pre-fascism, misunderstandings of Romans 13, and John of Patmos’s Revelation.
The book is organized around biblical stories that help readers see the overall arc of Scripture as a call to resist tyranny.
The effort to control and misrepresent faith is an age-old tactic used by tyrants. Abolitionists went up against slaveholders who cherry-picked certain verses to uphold white supremacy. The Confessing Church movement sought in vain to stop Nazis from taking over the German Church and replacing its doctrines with Nazi beliefs of white racial superiority.9 LGBTQ people of faith have consistently and successfully defined themselves as children of God and have refused to be defined as “sinners” by a handful of misinterpreted biblical texts.
Let’s take one chapter as representative. Not too long ago, Jeff Sessions rolled out Romans 13 as a supposedly biblical text to back his regime’s abuse of immigrant families and children.
Butler points out the wider context of the much abused passage in Romans 13 is actually that of love, and in particular love of ever-widening groups of people, including one’s enemies.
Sessions hoped to use Romans 13 to reinforce slavery logic and white supremacy. But as Butler points out,
The grammar of the phrase in verse 6, translated as “for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing,” would be more accurately translated, “they are God’s servants only to the extent they are busy doing this very thing.”5 Christians give the authorities the respect they are owed only to the extent that the authorities are acting in appropriate ways in the first place.
Butler goes on:
That an attorney general would use Scripture to tell us to tolerate human suffering is sickening. But it is also good news. His need to rebuke us revealed that our moral voice was a threat to the imperial reality—to the reality that a tyrannical administration was trying to shape.
In this case, Sessions was met with resounding condemnation from religious voices across the political spectrum. From the Southern Baptists to LDS to progressive Christian groups, a resounding “No” came out, reminding us that Scripture tells us to welcome the stranger and to oppose the government when it deviates from our values. Jack Jenkins, a top religious reporter, said, “It was, without question, the single most uniform theological denunciation of a policy I have ever encountered as a religious journalist.”
Butler’s book, from beginning to end, is a succinct and compelling introduction to such passages of Scripture, reclaiming them for our context by listening to their original context, and discovering in them practical resources for resistance.
In this sense, the book is both inspiring as a witness to faith, and a primer in the practice of faith.
You can learn more about Jennifer Butler and Faith In Public Life here.