The Bible wasn’t written to provide source material for inspirational posters

The Bible wasn’t written to provide source material for inspirational posters February 8, 2015

I read this post last month — “A City in the Philippines Requires Taxi Drivers to Paint Bible Verses on Their Vehicles to Curb Crime” — and chuckled, briefly, before clicking on to the next item. But the story has nagged at me since then.

Here’s how a city official in Tagbilaran describes the purported social benefits of this scheme:

“With a Biblical message at the back of the units commuters get to see the message every day and it helps in way to preserve the peace in our city,” Lucille Lagunay, a city councilor, said.

Lagunay said the Bible of wheels idea has resulted in lower crime rates, stronger families, and a relatively peaceful city compared to other big cities in the Philippines.

This is a strange theory of criminology, but an even stranger theory of the Bible — particularly given that Tagbilaran has about 3,000 licensed taxis, and each is required to display a unique Bible verse.

The idea here seems to be that the Bible is a source of positive platitudes — the sort of vaguely uplifting moral admonitions that might somehow result in the beneficial influence of “lower crime rates, stronger families, and a relatively peaceful city.” It’s certainly possible to find Bible verses that could support this sloganeering effort. I can think of many that would seem to fit the bill of what they’re looking for here, such as, for example, Ephesians 4:32: “Be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven you.”

There are worse things for people to be reading when stuck in traffic, and I don’t think that repeatedly urging people to “be kind to one another” would have zero effect on their subsequent behavior. But I still doubt that any public message campaign of this sort is going to have any measurable impact. Just telling people to be kind to one another hasn’t ever been a very effective way of increasing the sum total of human kindness. Kindness is more than a slogan, and it can’t be learned or taught with a slogan any more than any other craft can be learned or taught that way.

Again, though, the larger problem here is the sheer number of Bible verses that this taxi-painting law requires. There are hundreds of verses like Ephesians 4:32, and anyone who has spent time attending evangelical churches could easily list dozens of them. Just go into any Christian Family Life Book Store and you’ll find numerous examples printed on plaques and posters, coffee mugs, throw pillows, pens, notebooks, greeting cards, bumper stickers, balloons and baby clothes. You’ll find inspirational devotional books that list a Verse of the Day for all 365 days of the year — all of them seeming to convey just the sort of inoffensively pious and positive message that the good people of Tagbilaran are looking for.

But while ignoring and extracting from context might allow us to come up with hundreds of such verses, we cannot possibly come up with thousands of them. Open a Bible at random and poke a finger arbitrarily at any verse and you’re just as likely to encounter something bizarre, bewildering or bloody as you are to find something sweet and soporific. Repeat that process a few times over and you’ll soon realize that the Bible is filled with the sort of thing that could provoke civil unrest and turn Tagbilaran upside-down if it were painted on every taxi in the city.

The Bible is not a collection of harmless, uplifting platitudes. It is not an almanac of pleasant sayings suitable for cross-stitching. It is not an endless catalog of slogans to be screened onto T-shirts or recited by the local Chamber of Commerce for the purpose of civic pacification.

These should not be the same thing.

One can try to pretend otherwise. One can try to use this wild and unwieldy book for other purposes — chaining it up and treating it like a tamed creature the way the city officials of Tagbilaran or the gift-shop merchants of those Life Family Christian “book” stores do. But pretending that the Bible can be used in that way means pretending that the Bible is something other than what it actually is. It means ignoring the book itself — the books themselves — and replacing them with an incoherent jumble of contextless aphorisms.

I know very little about Philippine law or that nation’s constitution. Their 1987 constitution says “the separation of church and state shall be inviolable” and it includes language based on the U.S. First Amendment, but that has been interpreted by their courts to allow for a doctrine of “benevolent neutrality-accommodation” — a vague pudding that may allow something like Tagbilaran’s taxi-Bible policy to stand.

Here in the U.S., this Bible-verse requirement would clearly be unconstitutional. The religious right activists here haven’t yet succeeded in neutering our own First Amendment into something as formless and gormless as “benevolent neutrality-accommodation.” And this story is a good example of why I, as a person who cares about the Bible, am grateful for that. The separation of church and state protects American taxi drivers from being treated like a church youth group in which everyone is required to choose their own special Life Verse. But more importantly, it also protects the Bible from being officially neutered and twisted and transformed into a fortune-cookie generator for the Powers That Be.

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