Clobber-texting isn’t a principled hermeneutic: A horrifying case study

Clobber-texting isn’t a principled hermeneutic: A horrifying case study May 26, 2016

So here’s a terrible, awful story from the great state of Idaho.

Trigger warnings for gyaaah, and for ick, and for grrrr, as this story involves heartbreaking, disgusting, and rage-inducing incidents of rape, victim-blaming, patriarchy run amok, etc. The local news station’s headline sums up all of that: “Dad admits he took pregnant 14-year-old daughter to marry her 24-year-old rapist.”

Screenshot from East Idaho News report (click pic for link to video).

An Idaho man who took his 14-year-old daughter out of state to marry a 24-year-old man will spend at least 120 days in jail.

Keith Strawn was sentenced on one felony injury to a child charge Tuesday afternoon. …

In August 2015, Strawn took his 14-year-old daughter and then 24-year-old Aaron Seaton to Missouri to consent in their marriage. Seaton, now 25, pleaded guilty to a rape charge in April and is believed to have impregnated her. The victim miscarried.

Seaton is serving a 15-year prison sentence. Court records show Strawn “harbored and protected” Seaton by allowing him to live with his teenage daughter.

“If you get them pregnant then you marry them,” Strawn told [the judge] during the hearing. …

Strawn’s defense attorney, Douglas Knutson, recommended a sentence of six days in jail and probation. Knutson told the court that his client’s decision to allow the marriage “might have been a religious motivation.”

I suspect Knutson is right about the existence of “religious motivation” for this parenting atrocity, but I disagree with him that such a motivation should be any kind of mitigating factor here. Given the toxic nature of the substance of that likely religious motivation — purity culture and illiterate, bibliolatrous proof-texting — I’m inclined to think it actually calls for an even harsher punishment than the four-year suspended sentence and 120 days in jail his client escaped with.

Over at Friendly Atheist, Terry Firma cites chapter-and-verse to explore some of what “the Bible clearly says” that seems to have contributed to Strawn’s abominable “religious motivation.” First there’s Deuteronomy 22:28-29:

If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.

And then there’s a similar divine commandment and divinely ordained law in Exodus 22:16-17:

When a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to be married, and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. But if her father refuses to give her to him, he shall pay an amount equal to the bride-price for virgins.

Let me be clear: The overwhelming majority of Christians — including most religious-right culture-war fundraisers — would not want to say that those two passages require Christians today to follow the example of this Idaho man. I expect that most of them would be just as horrified at Keith Strawn’s actions as you probably are.

And I’m fairly sure that most of them, if confronted with those two Bible passages above, would recoil from the idea that Christians today should treat them as binding commandments.

That’s good. But it’s also, for these “social conservative” brethren of mine, wildly inconsistent, unprincipled, and indefensible. Their purported system — the logic they otherwise employ every day for everything else — doesn’t seem to allow them to reach the laudable conclusion of agreeing with us that Strawn’s actions were cruelly immoral.

Note that both of those passages come from the Pentateuch, which is also the source of all those verses from Leviticus and Deuteronomy that anti-LGBT Christians love to cite as authoritative and unambiguously binding for all Christians for all of time. That’s their hermeneutic — their interpretive principle. Moses’ law is binding and authoritative. Anyone who rejects what the law of Moses has to say about gay sex is “denying scripture” and “rejecting the authority of scripture” etc. etc. That’s their rule, their guiding principle.

But that rule goes out the window when they trip over passages like the ones above, and especially when they see the consequences of some appallingly misguided Idaho father attempting to apply those passages as inerrant, infallible, unquestionable dogma.

Why? Or, more to the point, how? 

This brings us back to the God-hates-shrimp dilemma, and to the whole rickety superstructure of folklore that white evangelicals have constructed to retroactively justify their picking-and-choosing which clobber texts to revere as binding and authoritative for all time and which to ignore and dismiss as irrelevant for “biblical Christians” today. None of that folklore — “ceremonial” law! New Testament reaffirmation! — actually functions as a principled guide to approaching what the Bible has to say, and none of it stands up to closer scrutiny.

That’s not what it was designed to do. It wasn’t designed to provide a principled way of discerning between “authoritative” verses (gays are an abomination!) and now-inconsequential passages (shrimp are an abomination!). It was designed to allow us to reassure ourselves that surely we must have some such system and maybe this is it and if we don’t look too closely or think about it too much we can pretend it is and just continue condemning gays while eating cheeseburgers.

Or, in other words, it wasn’t designed to be a functioning hermeneutic. It was designed to distract us from the fact that we haven’t got one.

Contrast all that ret-conned folklore and after-the-fact defense of arbitrary picking-and-choosing of (usually self-interested) clobber-texts with what the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

There’s an actual principle that can be used to guide our interpretation and understanding of the passages above, or of any of the other clobber-texts about shrimp or gays or anything (“any other commandment,” Paul says).

Yeah, that’s a love-based hermeneutic — the very suggestion of which sends clobber-texting fundies up a wall, howling with outrage about how such a squishy, sentimental approach can only lead to a bunch of dirty hippies singing “Kumbaya” and “Anything Goes” and if-it-feels-good-do-it.

But don’t complain to me about that. Take it up with Paul. And if anybody wants to say that’s squishy or sentimental or libertine or in any way easy, well, they should go read what all else Paul has to say about love.

It’s not surprising that he would argue there in Romans 13 that love is the only credible basis for our hermeneutic, because he also suggested in 1 Corinthians 13 that love was the only credible basis for our epistemology. “Now I know only in part. … But love abides.” For Paul, love is the only principle by which we can know what “the fulfillment of the law” means because, for Paul, love is the only thing we can know fully about anything.

But “the Bible clearly says …” — no it doesn’t, Paul insists. Not to you, you know-only-in-part, glass-darkly, sad little human. “Clearly” isn’t among the options available to you. “Clearly” ain’t on the menu. Only three things are: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

Love does no wrong to a neighbor. The fulfilling of the law does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore, wronging a neighbor — or a daughter — is not the fulfilling of the law.

You have heard it said that if a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, she shall become his wife; but I say unto you, screw that. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Get that rapist behind bars and keep him as far away from his victim as possible. Love is the fulfillment of the law.

You have heard it said that if a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; but I say unto you that God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean, and can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?

– – – – – – – – – – –

P.S. Mr. Strawn took his daughter and her rapist to Missouri to get them married because Missouri law is perfectly fine with 15-year-olds getting married, provided there is parental consent — which apparently also means parents can consent on behalf of the child, which apparently means that word “consent” means something other than it should in the Show-Me State. WTF Missouri? Get your act together.

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