It’s been a busy few weeks, workwise. In many ways, they have been very rewarding. But the last few weeks have been disillusioning too, and I have found it very difficult to write. I feel like I am beating the same drum, over and over again. But that drum is my heartbeat at the moment, and so in order to write authentically, I suppose I have to keep drumming.
For a brief moment I understood something of what Jesus must have felt when he looked down on Jerusalem in Luke 19 and wept:
41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
It was precipitated by the attack in Manchester. People were rightly upset and angry. That is how we should always feel about violence – particularly violence perpetrated in the name of religion. The outrage that ensued was entirely legitimate. But the very next day there followed what I can only imagine was – in some way – a retaliatory reaction. A US-led airstrike in Syria, ostensibly targeting ISIS, but which killed around 80 civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. At least half of those were children. I found it utterly heart-breaking. When I heard it on the radio, driving to work, I actually cried. Partially because this kind of thing happens so terribly frequently in the Middle East and Africa but it seems that nobody on social media protests with nearly the same vehemence as they do for tragedies in Europe (and I am not suggesting that African or Middle Eastern devastations are more deserving of our attention; only that they are also worthy of it). Partially because of the flood of hate-filled justifications of these types of atrocities by Christians on social media. It sickens me.
I have said what I am about to say so often in recent weeks that I feel like a broken record, but it bears mentioning again. Not that I feel it will make any difference to the situation. It won’t. But I need to write it to purge the anger and dejection in me. As a result, maybe one or two Christian readers will turn around and acknowledge that it is high time Christian ethics began to reflect the peace-theology of the early church founders, and of the one whose name they so glibly adopt. Maybe some non-Christian readers, legitimately bitter because this type of hypocrisy, so rampant in Christianity, has hurt them deeply, will begin to understand that one cannot conflate Christianity, as it is commonly practised, and Jesus’s theology and ethics. But that would be a side effect. For now, I need to vent.
A part of the reason I feel so disillusioned is that I know that much of why this hatred exists is because of how we read the Bible. Please note that I am not blaming the Bible. That would be like blaming a knife for a murder. It is never the tool, but the one who wields it, that ought to be held responsible. I am convinced that many of the writers of parts of the Bible were irresponsible with their words, promoting violence as a Godly mandate. And for that reason I believe that sticking to the conviction that the Bible speaks with God’s voice is irresponsible too.
I won’t lie – I was incensed by the various Facebook posts and online comments that advocated “giving the bastards what they deserve” after Manchester. I was immeasurably disappointed by Christian commentators who described Islam as the bully on the playground that needed to be put in its place, who simplified a whole belief system into a simple hate-driven story. I was angry with the glaring disparity between the love-oriented ethics of Jesus to which online commentators professed allegiance, and their vitriolic rhetoric. I was disheartened because I knew that, as a result, the detractors of Christianity would similarly simplify the Christian story and place the whole peace theology movement in the same box. And so the profound truth of Jesus’ response to violence would never be heard. And I needed desperately to write – to voice my frustration, my disappointment. But I could not find the words.
I blame the way we have been taught to read the Bible (and I could probably say the same for the way any sacred texts are read, but this is the one I know, and thus the one I have the right to comment on. I will leave you to do the same for your own, whether that is the Q’uran, the Bhagavad Gita, or The God Delusion): without any form of critical engagement, where daring to question is frowned upon, and in a Christian culture that (probably unwittingly in most cases, I will concede) drives young people to be afraid to address their concerns with the dominant ethos and creeds. We have created a culture where the threat of losing heavenly real estate is so pressed onto young dissenters that they are too afraid to allow themselves to question. And worse, where those who follow blindly are heralded as heroes of the faith.
We dare not cling to the idea that the Bible speaks with God’s voice. It is glaringly obvious: how could one God hold, as Paul does in Galatians 3, that in Christ all the lines we have drawn in society to determine who is acceptable and who is not should be erased, while simultaneously demanding the genocide of anyone outside of the Israelite tribe, as He so frequently does in the Old Testament? If God is, as Evangelical theology maintains, unchangeable, how on earth do you reconcile those contradictory statements into a coherent “loving” voice? How do you not link the insistence on the dogmatically defended belief that the scriptures, which legitimise race-based violence, are inerrant to the massacre of thousands of people in US-led airstrikes in the name of Christianity and democracy and – in the bitterest of ironies – peace?! “God” does command genocide in the scriptures. It is legitimised there. And if you cannot see that this stands in stark and irreconcilable contrast to the theology and ethics of both Jesus and Paul, then you are not reading properly. Then again, I think that is precisely the problem.
I am going to take a step back to explain – very briefly and inadequately – a couple of philosophies of reading. First, there is a positivist way of understanding the world. Proponents of this philosophy would argue that the only valid knowledge is that knowledge that can be verified through empirical evidence; that which can be verified through the senses and through logical reasoning. Clearly this would preclude any form of spiritual or emotional experience, and so is not generally a framework through which adherents interpret their sacred texts. It is, as an aside, a very limited way of understanding the world. It is self-defeating, because it is illogical to assume that our senses and reasoning processes are infallible, and that the world is fundamentally knowable through the limited human modes of understanding it. But that is a debate for another time. Suffice it to say that this way of thinking has limited theological application. And so most religious readers today tend to adopt the second model, even while pretending the first.
The second approach is a more solipsistic one. It centres all understanding of the world around the self. There is a long philosophical history behind this way of seeing the world, which is prevalent in the West today – heavily influenced by ideas from the likes of Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsche. Of course, Christians won’t (often don’t know enough to) acknowledge this, because it is a manifestation of an “evil” postmodern mindset that challenges our exclusivity, but this self-oriented approach has come to define how we worship, and how we relate to our faith and the Bible.
It is through this lens of “what-does-it-mean-to-me” that we give expression to the doctrine that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. We make a number of potentially problematic assumptions, most notably that God uses the Bible to speak directly to individuals (specifically, me) today. The message the text contains, therefore, was written not only for the people of the time the writer was transcribing God’s revelation, but was intended for all people everywhere, in all times (most importantly, for me). What was applicable then must therefore be equally applicable (to me) now. It is a reading that completely disregards context, which is why preachers are so happy to expound on only a few verses at a time, developing entire theologies around isolated verses. After all, if the whole thing is God’s word, then each word, each sentence must be granted equal weighting. And God is timeless (and therefore contextless, in a sense), and by extension the decrees in the scriptures must be so too. It is irrelevant in modern popular theology then, almost (certainly it is never seriously considered) that the verses and chapters were added later for ease of reference, and that it would be foolish to preach on any given passage independently of the context of the argument in which the ideas were raised. It is why we have been so blind to what Paul was arguing in his epistles. We can quote the bits where he cites the church in Jerusalem (which he regards as the false teacher), and attribute the ideas to Paul, when in fact he was paraphrasing the beliefs of the Jerusalem church and critiquing them– mocking them, even – not promoting them. We have to decontextualise Paul’s writings if we wish to construct a coherent, unified voice of God in the New Testament, when in fact there are two very sharply contrasting theologies presented.
Anyway, in assuming that God is speaking directly to us through the Bible, we ascribe to the writings a single, universal interpretation, and neglect the fact that reading is a dialogue. That we are always active in making meaning from texts. We forget, or at least disregard as irrelevant, the fact that our own worldviews (ideas underpinning how people of our time and place see the world) and mindsets (how we interpret those worldviews personally) influence what we read. In other words, we tend to regard ourselves as passive recipients of divine revelation rather than active (if unconscious) participants in the creation of it. The danger is this: by refusing to see how we shape our own readings, we refuse to see how the God we find in the texts is a projection of ourselves. To (over)simplify what is undoubtedly a complex phenomenon, the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture encourages Christians to worship themselves. That is why we see no problem with God-inspired violence to protect our own self-interests: we have already drawn the conclusion that our own interests are God’s too.
As an interesting aside, in the book of Joshua, Chapter 5, just before the battle for Jericho, there is an interesting cameo appearance by “the commander of the army of the Lord”, presumably an angel. When Joshua asks him whether he is on Joshua’s side or the enemy’s, the angel responds by saying neither. That is all we hear from this angel. Thereafter, the writer recounts how the Lord delivered the city into Joshua’s hands and commanded a wholesale slaughter of its inhabitants. I often wondered why that pretext was included at all. It seems in stark contrast to what follows. Did a later writer include it to suggest that the writer’s interpretation of what was God’s will in describing the fall of Jericho might be misleading? I don’t know. But it is an intriguing (and suspiciously overlooked) little piece.
Maybe what we need to learn to do is adopt what Tom Wright calls a hermeneutic of love. “Love”, he states, “ is the deepest mode of knowing because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality” (Surprised by Hope, 73). In, The New Testament and the People of God he states: “In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself: and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed…[With respect to texts] this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the complement of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. But however close the reader gets to understanding the text, the reading will be peculiarly that reader’s reading: the subjective is never lost, nor is it necessary or desirable that it should be. At this level, ‘love’ will mean ‘attention’: the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change in oneself in relation to the other.” (p. 64)”. We do not read the Bible through a lens of love. Instead, we read to find ourselves. And, tragically, we do.
It is only by responding in love that we can end the cycle of violence. Forgiveness or tragedy are the only possible endings. And we must choose. It is, I believe, why Jesus capitulated to the cross. It was the lived expression of his teachings, as captured in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), and all of his parables. But we have refused to listen. That cross is too difficult to carry. We cannot deny ourselves the right to vengeance, to “justice”. To tragedy. How I wish we would choose the way of love for a change. The alternate doesn’t seem to have served us too well. But we won’t, of course. We like the concept of love more than the practical reality of it. Love is too hard, it asks too much. The sacrifice that love demands, and which Jesus warned us about repeatedly, is just so inconvenient. And so history repeats itself: the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, British and Spanish imperialism, slavery, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Idi Amin, Apartheid, Orlando, Manchester, Syria. As I watch the chaos that dominates the news headlines, I recognise the patterns. There is an awful familiarity about our responses to that chaos. I can see where it is all going, and I suddenly have no more words.