A Hermeneutic From Below

The problem with believing that God was punishing Jesus on the cross for our sins, as Michael Hardin points out, is that it doesn’t take sin nearly seriously enough. It limits the power of sin to the personal. In other words, it implies that the primary problem with sin is that I will be harshly punished for what I have done wrong. By reducing sin to actions, we negate the power of that which drives the actions. By focusing on the outward manifestation of the disease, we neglect the far more perilous causes of the disease. In other words, if the primary purpose of the cross was for God to punish our sins through Jesus, then the atonement is incomplete and superficial. And I don’t believe that God would settle for that.


I think we need to step out of the spiritual complacency that the “personal salvation” gospel engenders, and start to actively seek God. Only then will we find him. And for me, the logical starting point for that is the Scriptures. Now I know that statement may seem to contradict what I said in my previous post, but it does not. I have not been arguing that we must dispense with the Bible altogether, only that we must approach it in the proper way, or else our theologies will inevitably become rooted in fear and violence. Much of the modern Western approach to reading the Scriptures is entirely passive. Because the Bible has come to be regarded as the inerrant word of God and the only worthy guide for our lives, we have become entirely uncritical of it and assumed that our readings of it are accurate. God speaks to us through it and it only remains for us to obey.


But this approach is deeply flawed, as I explained in my last post. And it makes us lazy. We forget that interaction with a text is never a monologue, but always – at least – a dialogue. The reader is integral to the meaning-making process, not simply a passive recipient. Reading is never a neutral process. We always approach a text with our own cultural filters, and make sense of it through the lenses of our personal experiences, fears, desires and expectations. Even if the Bible was the inerrant word of God, we ourselves are far from infallible, and so could never experience an inerrant reading of it.


There are, for instance, numerous terms that Jesus and Paul use, which we understand in very different ways, because we live two thousand years later. We have come to understand ideas like “resurrection” and “born again” in ways that Jesus never did. But our cultural filters, which have become more attuned to 16th Century Protestant theology than 1st century Judeo-Christian theology, have normalised our understandings of these concepts in very different ways. Unless we immerse ourselves in the ideas that shaped the ideas of the time, we can never understand fully what Jesus’ teachings, or Paul’s writings, are saying.


One of the unhelpful modern layers in Biblical hermeneutics (how we interpret the text) is privilege. Among the unfortunate consequences of growing up in relative comfort is the tendency to develop an inflated sense of one’s own importance. And so it becomes easy to make the assumption that one’s own personal purity is somehow important to God. Let me posit this: that if God is so affronted by your sin that he feels compelled to act on it or else He cannot be at peace, then He is as much a slave to sin as you are. It is below God to be affronted by your sin. But in a universe that revolves around you, that understanding of the cross would seem perfectly logical.


But now try to imagine a different hermeneutic. Forget about reading the Scriptures in a way that allows you to feel complete after you have sung a few choruses on Sunday and let the preacher’s words assuage your guilt. Forget a church that can exist for middle-class fellowship and home groups and tea after the service. Forget a reading of the Scriptures that requires of you only that you reflect on your own failure to be perfect, and where the primary purpose of discipleship is to grow in personal holiness, and where if others are necessary at all, it is only to hold you accountable on the quest for personal piety. Forget the temporary vindication you feel when you participate in a church outreach programme, or the validation of your goodness you experience because you listen to “Christian” music or read “Christian” books. Dare to imagine that God’s purpose for your life demands more of you than imposing your version of faith on “sinners”. Try to recognise your hermeneutic of privilege for what it is. It is a reading of the Scriptures that perpetuates a mindset of empire. It is designed to legitimise your power, and to render it invisible and natural. But empire is always built on the exploitation of others, through the blood and the sweat of those who are powerless to resist.


Now imagine a hermeneutic from below. Imagine how the Scriptures would be read by the homeless, by the prostitutes, by the racially marginalised, by the disabled, by the LGTBI community, by the terminally ill, by the hungry, by the poor, by those under the heel of your boot as you justify their suffering in the name of pleasing your God. How comfortable would these people feel if they walked into your church?


Do you want to know which reading Jesus supports? Look at the company he kept. Jesus’ ministry did not centre around the temple, the church of the day, but around the tables in the homes of the tax-collectors and the prostitutes, in the company of the sick and the illiterate and the Other. Jesus constantly affirmed the marginalised. He was no cultural imperialist. In his life and his teachings, he consistently challenged the notion that godliness was the domain of the holy elite. It was an idea he died for.


The truth is that we need to be delivered from our righteousness. We need to stop thinking in terms of “I used to be sinful but now I am saved; I used to be on the wrong side of God, but now I am in His good books”. We ought to remind ourselves that it was precisely in their best moments, when they were being most obedient to their laws, that the Pharisees demanded the crucifixion of Jesus, or that Paul was converted on the road to Damascus. Discipleship means more than merely believing about Jesus or even in him. It means believing him. We love him when we do what he commands: love one another (John 15). We cannot claim to love him if we do not obey him, if we refuse to love.


So we need to critique the Bible. It is absolutely essential that we subordinate it to the true Word of God, Jesus. Any reading of the Scriptures that does not do more than promote a holiness code has no place in the Kingdom. The problem of sin is not so insignificant that it pertains only to our personal salvation. It is a systemic problem – it is rooted in the nature of society, of our interactions with other people – and it delivers only death. As long as our spiritual purpose is to be holy, then we can allow ourselves to divide people into the good and the bad (isn’t it coincidental that we are always somehow among the good?), and on that basis to justify violence and exploitation. As long as our spiritual goal is a ticket to Paradise, how we think about and treat others is irrelevant,


But if you read the Scriptures carefully, if you filter it through Jesus , who said: I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you (John 15:15, my emphasis), you will begin to see how God speaks. And what She says is unmistakeable. It is the promise of the most difficult journey you can make, of a cross that you must bear with Jesus if you are to call yourself his disciple. But it is also a promise of hope: a renunciation of blood sacrifice and vengeance. It is the picture of God, dead on the cross at the hands of a humanity that believed it was doing what was right. It is how God forgives us our righteousness. When you look at the Scriptures through the eyes of Jesus, one word resonates clearly (let he who has ears, hear): Shalom. Peace.

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