For progressive Christians, Christ is easy. The Beatitudes. The Golden Rule. Love, grace and acceptance. Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Any of us can see our best selves in the Gospel stories, and everything we know about love and justice and speaking truth to power follows.
But God—God is hard. God can be jealous, and vengeful. God commands genocide. God condones rape, and slavery, and all manner of crimes against humanity. God creates humans with sinful hearts, then punishes them for acting out their sinful nature. God contradicts himself over and over again. God chooses winners and losers, and the winners aren’t always the good guys.
So we hedge. We speak of new covenants relegating old laws. We look to the Hebrew and parse words. We talk about hermeneutics, and new “readings.” We fill volume after volume of modern theology with our excuses for the violent, volatile, abusive creator that lies plainly on every page of our Bible, until we convince ourselves that our God is good and just after all.
But this is a small comfort to the Canaanites. Or the Baalists. Or the Christian-subjugated continents of Africa and America. Or the altar boys with PTSD. Or the descendants of chattel slavery. Or the victims of domestic violence told again and again to submit to their spouse.
This is not a god that any righteous Christian could possibly accept.
Which is where Christ comes in.
In the person of Christ, we see again and again an open defiance of the god who is taught by the Pharisees and scribes. From the wilderness to the temple, Christ is tempted and confronted with the old, familiar scriptures again and again, but Christ resists, knowing that context matters, and the facial reading is not always the correct reading. And when Christ is killed by a police state, only to rise again in sacral triumph, it is not the pagan Romans who condemn him to death, but God’s own nominal authorities.
Of course, this is not a condemnation of Judaism. Progressive Jews also resist the violence and abuse that lies on the pages of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, for many, that resistance is the point.
The Hebrew Bible, and the Christian Bible which rises from it, are both complicated and often contradictory texts. They represent the story of a people—one people among many—as told by their own writers. They also represent an evolving covenant between that people and God. And no story included in either Biblical canon has only one layer.
Take creation, the first two chapters. There are two distinct creation stories, and neither is possible. In fact, in several places they contradict each other. But historicity is not the point. The first story shows that all of creation is good. It says this plainly over and over again. The second story shows God’s connection to humans, humans’ connection to the earth (from which they came) and each other, and so on. We are all good, and we are all connected.
Those who get bogged down in the details of Genesis 1-2 have, over time, used this scripture again and again to oppress. They find here complementarian gender roles that require women to submit themselves to men. They find justification for homophobia and transphobia in the sex and marriage of the first two humans. They find a rationale for exploiting the environment and the other creatures over which they were given dominion.
So which is it? Is all creation good and connected and loved by God? Or do cis straight men sit atop a patriarchal power structure that gives them license to control and exploit everything else in the grand scheme?
Certainly, there is support for either of these interpretations if these two chapters are taken alone, and at face value. But the Bible is not a collection of discrete elements to be cherrypicked by men. It is one long story, made up of many stories, meant to inform the way Christians understand and function in the world. And somewhere near the Gospel climax, Christ tells us directly how we should interpret all of it. When he was asked directly by an “expert in the law” what the greatest commandment was, he replied:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
The Bible is an exploration. Jesus might have used the word midrash. It tells and retells the story of a people in order to learn from their struggles—their triumphs and failures. And the guiding principle is love. As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, “the arc of the moral Universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I believe in Christ. I believe in God. I believe in the intention and inspiration of every Biblical source who put pen to paper to wrestle with the question of existence in their own way. And I believe the arc of the story is the story.
Love wins. Justice wins. Everything else hangs on these.