What to do with our differences, that is the question. Of course, there are different kinds of differences. Some kinds of differences are relatively neutral. Objectively, they’re neither good or bad, better or worse. Like salty or sweet, blonde or brunette. Sometimes we make value judgments about our differences, and sometimes we should. Sometimes we compare the quality of our differences, at other times the morality of our differences.
I recently read a book about Abraham Lincoln called And There Was Light, by Jon Meacham. Most Americans in Lincoln’s day believed that black folks were inferior to white folks. Some believed that slavery was immoral, while others believed it was a moral imperative, that God designed black people to be slaves. More than one southern clergyman called Northerners atheists for doubting the morality of slavery. Lincoln doubted the morality of slavery, but he failed to doubt the inferiority of black people. I was saying to my wife the other day that if Lincoln hadn’t been a racist, he probably wouldn’t have been in a position to abolish slavery. Voters wouldn’t have trusted him if he’d said that black people were equal to white people. (He did grow in his estimation of the black race over the years.)
I’ve been thinking about the Civil War in relationship to another war that’s been brewing for decades within my denomination. Like the Civil War, this war hasn’t always been civil, and has led to a significant number of churches seceding from our “union” or denomination. The bleeding will likely continue for the next few years during a five-year window when congregations can separate from the denomination without their losing property. In my last church, in spite of my best efforts to help people understand each other’s positions, several people decided to leave.
During Lincoln’s Civil War, the primary issue was slavery; in my own denomination it’s been same-sex marriage. In the 19th century the issue was whether people of a particular skin color should be excluded from the rights and freedoms of ordinary Americans. Today the issue is whether people of a particular sexual orientation should be excluded from the right to be married.
Lincoln avoided demonizing his opponents, in spite of the horrific loss of life and property rising out of a war sparked by the secession of Southern states. He’d hoped that slavery would be gradually abandoned over time without bloodshed. Southern leaders reacted with visions of expanding slaveholding territory not only into Western states, but Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. They felt unjustly judged by Lincoln’s insinuation that slavery was an evil that eventually needed to run its course.
A lot of Bible quoting happened before and during the Civil War, mostly by Southerners. There are over 300 references to slavery in the Bible, all but a handful of which seem to accept, if not condone, slavery. Commonly cited were passages in Leviticus that authorized the buying, selling, holding and bequeathing of slaves as property. Methodist Samuel Dunwody from South Carolina documented that Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, and Job owned slaves, arguing that “some of the most eminent of the Old Testament saints were slave holders.” The Methodist Quarterly Review noted further that “the teachings of the New Testament in regard to bodily servitude accord with the old.” While slavery was not expressly sanctioned in the New Testament, Southern clergymen argued that the absence of condemnation signified approval. They cited Paul’s return of a runaway slave to his master as biblical authority for the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the return of runaway slaves. More than once Paul told slaves to obey their masters. Even Jesus used slaves in several of his parables. (He also referred to himself as one.)
Granted, the Bible can be a confusing book, in large part because it was written thousands of years ago with languages and cultural assumptions that seem foreign to us today. Most Christians believe in some form of progressive revelation within the Bible. Lincoln read the Bible and also quoted from it. There were parts of the Bible he disagreed with – for example, its description of how the world was created. But he also saw a lot of wisdom in the Bible, and believed there was a liberating and leveling current in the Bible that justified and required the eventual abolition of slavery.
Recently there was a mass shooting at a gay bar in Colorado. It wasn’t the first. While society in general has become more accepting of same-sex marriage, and many Christians and Christian leaders are trying to take a more conciliatory approach, for many Christians, especially in the Evangelical camp, opposition to same-sex marriage remains a red line that true believers cannot cross. What’s been interesting to me is that an enormous amount of weight is being given to an issue that the Bible never directly addresses. It talks about same-sex sex, but never about same-sex marriage, which, of course, didn’t exist in any culture or nation until recently. I’m not suggesting that this fact should settle the issue one way or another. I just find it interesting that churches and denominations are fighting and dividing over an issue that’s never directly mentioned, much less discussed, in the Bible.
So what’s going on?
Clearly, a lot is being invested in what the Bible says about same-sex sexual activity, which, unlike slavery, is only mentioned a handful of times. I think another concern for many conservatives is how the Bible itself is treated. Conservatives often view progressives as playing fast and loose with Scripture to serve their own agenda. That may be true in some cases, though I suspect it’s a problem with both sides. Prejudices and agendas can easily color how we read the Bible. That was certainly the case with Southern Christians in the 19th century. And medieval Crusaders were told that by fighting to take back Jerusalem from Muslims they would be taking up their cross! (Talk about a perversion of the meaning of Jesus’ death – a supreme act of non-retaliation and nonviolence.)
I think a lot of confusion about the Bible has to do with a lack of clarity about how the Bible actually works. I admit to having a lot of passion around this issue. I love the Bible – more and more all the time. I find it to be a fascinating and exciting book. I have a very high view of Scripture as being God-inspired. But what that means is where the rub is.
What I’m going to attempt to do over the next several posts is articulate and demonstrate how the Bible actually works. Instead of encouraging a more modern reading of the Bible, I’m actually going to encourage a less modern reading of the Bible (while using modern tools to help us get there). I believe that honoring the Bible requires that we read the Bible on its own terms rather than through modern lenses. The Bible is a much more nuanced and sophisticated book than many people realize. It’s entirely comfortable with paradox, while its story moves at a pace that encourages us to take our time and resist jumping to conclusions based on a surface reading of the text.
My wife and I are reading Louise Penny’s most recent murder mystery. (She’s by far our favorite mystery writer.) Sharon keeps going back to earlier parts of the book in order to refresh her memory and to read past sections in light of what she’s learned later in the book. (Actually, the main reason she keeps going back is because she doesn’t want the book to end.) This is exactly what the biblical writers are expecting us to do. It’s fine to speed read to get a sense for the overall story, but then one really needs to go back and view each part of the text – even parts that seem unrelated to the story – in light of the overall story.
As I’ll try to show, the Bible is meditation literature much more than a rule book. Whatever rules there are need to be understood in light of the overall story (and they often change within the story). The Bible contains both true stories and truth stories, and sometimes a combination of both. I try to come to the Bible in much the same way I come to a murder mystery – being always on the lookout for clues, because the Bible is full of them, many of them providing hyperlinks to other parts of the Bible. The Bible is made for chewing and savoring, not for swallowing whole. It’s the only book I’ve ever read that I never tire of rereading.
How we read the Bible as a whole, not just how we interpret particular passages, is going to affect how we approach an issue like same-sex marriage, or slavery, for that matter. So over the next few posts I’m going to talk about how the Bible actually works. I have two audiences in mind: people who make a regular practice of reading the Bible; and people whose views of Christianity have been negatively affected by how Christians often use the Bible. Actually, I can think of a third audience: those of you who believe the Bible is inspired, but hardly ever read it because it makes you feel uncomfortable when you do.
Because of many misunderstandings about the Bible, based on modern assumptions, I’ll be spending a couple of posts talking about how not to read the Bible, because they don’t correspond with how the Bible actually works. Unfortunately, I think many of us have a lot of unlearning to do. I’ll then offer a way of reading the Bible that in my experience fits with how the Bible actually works. Finally, at the end of this series I’ll talk about the implications of what I’ve written for how to approach the issue of same-sex marriage.
This is going to be a pretty long series, and many of my individual posts will be hefty as well. What I’ll be offering is a distillation of what I’ve been thinking, reading and praying about for decades. Of course, the beautiful thing about a blog – unlike listening to a sermon in church or sitting in a classroom – is that no one has to read it, or read any more than they want to, or more in one sitting than works for them. I hope you’ll consider reading it all, because I believe that learning how the Bible works is important for appreciating what the Bible actually is and offers, and for providing a foundation for how to wrestle with the issue of same-sex marriage. As usual, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have, especially if you disagree. I trust that we can dialogue civilly and with lots of curiosity.