I read The Christian Century, which carries the tagline “Thinking Critically, Living Faithfully.” In the current issue (June 3, 2020), in an article with which I largely agree, Dorothy Sanders Wells writes, “[T]here’s a difference between the Bible describing something and condoning it.” She is talking about slavery and ideas of racial purity. Her claim is that using the Bible to justify slavery and racism is a misuse of the text.
But it’s pretty clear that the Bible does condone slavery. It does condone racism. When you read opposing arguments leading up to the Civil War, both slaveholders and abolitionists tried to use the Bible to support their cause, and it’s clear that the slaveholders were on much more solid ground Biblically than the abolitionists. All the way through the Old and New Testaments, slavery is an accepted part of life, with considerable rules as to how it is to be conducted and no allowance for its abolition. Likewise with racism. The overwhelming sentiment throughout the Bible is “Judah first!” Even those passages that urge the Israelites to treat foreigners fairly do not go so far as to treat them equally.
Progressive Christians use this “describe, not condone” mentality with regards to other problematic Biblical texts as well. I have read gay and trans Christians dancing around the so-called “clobber passages”—those verses used against them—in an effort to soften the message, but to borrow an unhappy phrase from the loathsome Westboro Baptist Church, it really does seem in the Bible that “God hates fags.” No matter how we try to read our progressive viewpoint into it, the Bible remains a misgynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, racist text.
So what are we to do with this? Do we throw the whole thing out? I happen to think the Bible is an endlessly fascinating book, both in and of itself and because of the oversized roles it has played in history. I do not advocate throwing it out. But I do advocate acknowledging its shortcomings.
One of Roger Ebert’s movie rules is that whenever two characters are talking and one of them quotes the Bible, the other will immediately respond with book, chapter and verse, as if everyone in the world had the Bible memorized. I’ve noticed this too, including in one of my favorite musicals, Guys & Dolls. Memorizing Bible passages is a neat parlor trick, and can make one appear intelligent, like people who randomly quote Shakespeare but never read his plays, but mere memorization does equal understanding.
Worse, memorizing quotes to support a pet belief or bias—prooftexting—weaponizes the Bible in a manner that is misleading and dangerous. You want support for slavery? It’s in there. You want some “proof” that homosexuality is a sin? It’s there. In short, if you need backup for just about any prejudice you may harbor, you can find it in the Bible if you look hard enough and don’t worry about the larger context.
It was only a few generations ago that slaveholders turned to the Bible to justify their inhumane “peculiar institution.” Abolitionists were hard-pressed to find any Biblical support for their cause. Now we look back at those slaveholders waving their Bibles and say, “How could those people be so wrong, so bigoted, so hateful?” Now Mike Pence and a whole band of anti-gay pastors are pounding their Bibles to justify their homophobia. The current trend among this crowd is to blame the COVID-19 pandemic on gays, claiming it is punishment from God, and using the Bible as “proof.” There will come a day—not soon enough—that the world will look back on these folks and say, “How could those people be so wrong, so bigoted, so hateful?”
“The portrayal of the Bible as a source of infallible truth does not arise from a reading of the Bible itself, but is a monstrous imposition upon it…Perhaps the greatest irony in the history of the Bible is that it itself has so often been treated as an idol, and venerated with a reverential attitude while its message is ignored.” (John J. Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism at Yale University, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 3rd edition, p. 393)