I received a comment yesterday on an article that suggested I was being “theologically irresponsible.”
In other words, I’m a bad theologian.
At first, I was a little offended. I wanted to respond mimetically. That is, my instant reaction was to think, “I’m not being theologically irresponsible. You’re being theologically irresponsible!” Then I thought of ways to prove my point that he was the one doing bad theology.
Mimetic theory claims that once we begin this cycle of accusations, they escalate until real damage is done. These accusations take on a life of their own. In Hebrew, the name “Satan” means accuser. And so, when we get caught up in a cycle of accusations, we get caught up in a satanic spirit.
Fortunately, before I responded by defending myself and accusing my interlocutor, I took a step back. After a few minutes, the sting of being called “theologically irresponsible” faded and I had an epiphany.
He was right! I am theologically irresponsible!
Here’s the statement that was “theologically irresponsible” and made me a bad theologian:
When we use the Bible as a means to accuse others of immorality, we have turned the Bible into a satanic idol.
I loved that line so much that I put it in italics! But, I must admit, I can understand why someone would think it’s an irresponsible statement.
It’s thought to be irresponsible because, let’s face it, the Bible has God making some pretty serious accusations. The atheists are right. God can seem like a violent jerk. And it’s not just the Old Testament where God seems to demand sacrificial violence against Israel’s enemies. God is often portrayed as a pretty big jerk in the New Testament, too. Accusations are made in the name of God in both testaments.
So, was I being a bad theologian? Was I theologically irresponsible? Maybe. After all, making accusations against others appears to have Biblical precedent. But I stand by my statement. It may be theologically irresponsible to say, but when we use the Bible to accuse others, we have turned it into a satanic idol.
Jesus’ Theological Irresponsibility
Who gives me the right to be “theologically irresponsible?” Jesus does.
Jesus had a particular way of interpreting the Bible that many of the religious elite thought was theologically irresponsible. Many today would accuse him of being a bad theologian. In fact, Jesus “was numbered with the transgressors.”
For example, some Pharisees came to Jesus and were upset that he was hanging out with sinners and tax collectors. In other words, they thought he was being theologically and ethically irresponsible. After all, much of their scriptures said that they should avoid such sinners.
Jesus cut through their theological rigidity by quoting the prophet Hosea, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
From within his Jewish tradition, Jesus had a particular way of interpreting his scriptures. Following Hosea, Jesus interpreted through the lens of mercy, not through sacrifice.
In his book, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, James Alison offers this reflection on the importance of this passage. James writes that the Hosea verse,
… is a reading instruction, a hermeneutical key. Whenever you interpret anything, you can read it in two ways: in such a way that your interpretation creates mercy, and in such a way that it creates sacrifice. Whenever you interpret anything morally, whenever you engage in any act of religious discrimination, as in your disapproval of the people I hang out with, are you obeying the word ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice’? It is perfectly possible to interpret the law in such a way that demands sacrifice, creates a group of the good and casts someone out. As also it is perfectly possible to interpret the law as something always to be made flexible for the benefit of those who need reaching and bringing in to richer life, leaving the good to look after themselves and going after the lost sheep. But only one of these two is acting in obedience to the word in Hosea.
As in Jesus day, choosing to interpret the Bible through the lens of mercy, not sacrifice, will sound theologically irresponsible to many today. But that’s what we’re called to do. Some may call it bad theology, but Jesus calls us to interpret the Bible through the lens of Gods merciful love that seeks to include, not through a satanic lens of sacrificial violence and accusation that seeks to exclude.
Was Jesus theologically irresponsible? He took responsibility to interpret his scriptures through the lens of God’s radical, nonviolent, merciful love. And for that, many accused him of being an irresponsible transgressor.
I’m hopeful that more Christians are following Jesus in interpreting the Bible through the lens of mercy, not sacrifice. Some will accuse us of being theologically irresponsible. And that’s okay. Mercy, not sacrifice, is a hard lesson to learn because so much of our world is constructed on sacrifice. The way of Jesus, as Paul said, is foolishness to many. But that foolishness, that irresponsibility, is an essential aspect of following Jesus.
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