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“Read your Bible!” Authoritarian Bullying

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Printed in white paint, along with some Christian symbols, on the tailgate of a dark pickup truck:

I Corinthians 14:34
WOMEN shall be SILENT
and SUBMISSIVE
READ YOUR BIBLE

Beyond noting that painting this message on his truck suggests an emotionally and spiritually insecure man, I’ll leave it to psychotherapists to explain what might motivate him to so abuse the Bible in this pitiful attempt to bully women. Decades ago I heard some women’s reactions to a man who, Bible in hand, had delivered a similar message in a adult church school class, and as I listened to them, I realized he had done more to arouse feminism than anyone could have done with a feminist message. So maybe if the guy with pickup truck were trying to awaken in more women new opposition to being bullied by the abusive Bible quoting of authoritarian Christians, he might have achieved some success.

The downside (in addition to the sadness of the man’s so publicly airing his insecurities) is that his attempt at bullying reinforces the false notion that the Bible is an authoritarian book intended for use as a club for beating down people who don’t know their (supposed) place in a soul-crushing hierarchy. I notice the sign says, “your Bible” not “the Bible,” I suppose because the assumption is that everybody has one. But whose Bible is this that so readily serves as a club for bludgeoning people? Not mine.

I have been studying Christianity’s Bible since childhood and without it would not be who I am or have the life I have lived, but this fellow’s “your Bible” is not my Bible at all. The Bible is foundational and crucial to my hopes, thoughts, values, and indeed to my whole way of striving to live, but it is not a weapon for me to use against people to subjugate them to my will under false cover of divine authority. Neither is it legitimately an authoritative way to make my opinions and prejudices sound as though they were God’s very own. So, while I’ll continue to read and study the Bible as long as I have eyesight and my wits about me, I will not be instructed or reprimanded by this man’s Bible.

Does the Bible not challenge my thinking, actions, decisions, and ways of relating to other people and to the rest of creation? Yes, it sure does. I do not expect what I read in it to reassure and comfort me when what I need is to be confronted, challenged, and changed. True, there is much in the Bible that offers comfort and reassurance, but even in such green pastures beside calm waters, it is seldom telling me that everything is “well with my soul” and my life. Even its proffered consolations confront me with the truth of an understanding and compassion that burn away pretenses and self-deceptions. Even at their best, my ways are not God’s ways, and God’s thoughts are not my thoughts.

As a Christian, I need to be reminded frequently that Jesus, whom we call the Christ, is never just what the world wants, just what the churches want, or just what I want, either. There is some continuity between my desires and God’s grace, but there is also discontinuity, and if I am going to hear what the Bible’s various witnesses to God’s truth-with-us have to say to me here and now, meeting me as I am and where I am in life, then I must hold the continuity and the discontinuity in tension, realizing that sometimes I need to hear one more strongly than the other.

Picking Bible verses to prove myself right and my ways godlier than someone else’s is an exercise in self-deception. Using carefully selected verses to clobber other people is not only misguided but sinful. The Bible challenges me and my life, not by laying down authoritarian rules, but by confronting me with the truth of God as a self-giving, redemptive love far greater than anything within me.

I have written before about the disconnect between what I have called the two different bibles Christians read and also present to the world. Book for book and word for word, the two are the same, but in effect they differ drastically. I call one the vindictive bible, the other the salvific bible. I’ll not rehash here what I’ve already posted, but for anyone curious, here it is:

I do not know the man in the truck, his hopes and fears, disappointments and experiences of shame, or what has happened in his life to move him to broadcast from the back of his pickup such anger and need for control over women. I do know his painted message bears hurtfully false witness to the truth of the Bible he seems to prize as well as to the liberating and life-giving truth of the Christ he apparently claims to serve.

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Our Need for Meaningful Questions

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Two middle school boys were enjoying a laugh and sharing a sense of superiority as they described how a woman had made a fool of herself by just standing in front of people and waving her arms around. Happily unaware of how much they didn’t know, they were describing the church’s choir director. Their judgment was of the type most absolute and self-assured because it was based upon undisturbed ignorance. It occurred to neither boy to ask what the choir director was doing and how it worked. They did not ask because they knew already all they cared to know. Nothing supports certitude so well as unquestioned ignorance.

So-called social media have become our society’s means for sharing thoughts and opinions. Leaving aside the ease with which these media enable the spread of misinformation and deliberate lies and leaving aside also the nastiness and absurdity in many of the comments made in the constant crossfire between left and right, I see a subtler problem in such easy and rapid communication. For inspiration and even insight, we use memes, a word apparently coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 to refer to that which is imitated. The meme became an element of culture or behavior passed by non-genetic means, especially imitation, and now refers to supposedly humorous or insightful tidbits passed around the Internet.

I admit that I see memes I appreciate. Some I even “like” on Facebook. But after having scrolled down Facebook’s endlessly replenished succession of postings, I find myself feeling a mental sogginess. Many of the memes I see posted have not even been checked for spelling and grammar let alone for coherence of thought or fidelity to the complexities and struggles of human life. Many pretend to be wise without even being thoughtful. Worse, some pass judgment upon people without any evidence of understanding them. What presents itself as decisive and authoritative is, rather, carelessly dismissive. Suddenly, I am back in the room with two preteen boys pontificating without knowledge about the foolishness of directing a choir.

Because theology continues to be my life’s struggle and quest, I notice especially the pronouncements for and against what people think they know of religious faith. For example:

It’s possible to be a good person without being religious.
God is not real because God cannot be proved.
If it weren’t for religions, we wouldn’t have wars.
Religious people are hypocrites.
All religions are the same.
“Etc., etc., and so forth,” as the king says in the musical.

Consider just the first one: “It’s possible to be a good person without being religious.” I recognize the self-defense here against condemnations from other people or from the speaker’s own conscience, and I sympathize. People who break free from the belief moorings of family or society or just slip loose and drift away get criticized, sometimes condemned, maybe even shunned. But freedom requires good questions asked and pursued if soggy minds and shallow lives are to be avoided.

What is religion, and what is it to be religious? Consider that biblical Hebrew lacks a word for religion. I would take that lack as a hint that we are dealing here with a concept somewhat foreign to the biblical faiths. Most theologians I read use the word religion more often in the negative, in contrast with the life of trust and discipleship lived and shared within communities of faith. The concern of the many and varied books of the Bible is life, not religion, and biblically understood life is created to be relational. The goal is the restoration of our denied relation to God and relatedness with each other and all creation. In contrast, religion has often served in practice as people’s attempts at gaining security from God (or the gods) and as rulers’ means for controlling societies by making the systems in place seem sacred. The God to whom the Bible bears witness cannot be controlled but can be trusted and obeyed in trust. This God disrupts the systems of power, frees captives, cares for the vulnerable, restores the lost, and reconciles the estranged. This God loves the world and will neither give it up nor enslave it.

What is good? This question is not simple, and while simple answers may be helpful (or harmful) as starting points, they will not take us very far without more effort at thinking. Is the good whatever feels good to me? Is it whatever might make me superior to someone else? Is it virtue? Kindness? When he was addressed as “good teacher,” Jesus of Nazareth replied: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God only.” What is goodness, and what would it mean for me or anyone to be a good person?

What is a person? Am I a person all by myself, such that being a good or bad person could be a self-contained matter of me and me alone? Is it possible for me to diminish or even lose my personhood? Can it be regained or restored? Can the way I am a person be changed, healed, forgiven? Can the person I am be known? Understood? Loved? Can I myself know the person I am? Understand the person I am? Forgive that person? Love that person?

Maybe because I am rereading Douglas John Hall’s book, Thinking the Faith,” I am taking extra notice of the superficiality of our social media conversation-by-meme. Hall writes: “Undoubtedly the existence of God, which is presupposed by biblical religion, is a vital concern for many of our contemporaries; but a much more immediate concern is whether our own existence has any purpose in it!” (326)

Learning comes through asking good questions and pursuing them, not by memorizing answers, let alone by picking the correct answer from a short list of choices. Yes, theology is thinking the faith but as such must not become merely explaining or defending doctrines but thinking life. And thinking life is not at all the same as the modern technological drive to make life artificially legible, manageable, and exploitable but is a matter of wonder that engages us with life and all the living with humility, empathy, and gratitude.

We have lived through a time called modern when we took for granted that we could prove or disprove what were presented as facts and that truth would be the sum of all the proven facts. We let ourselves imagine that the existence of God was the religious question we needed to prove, disprove, dismiss, or just ignore. But what (if anything) does it matter that I exist? What does it matter to me that you exist as you, a person distinct from me? What does it mean that you are distinct from me (a person in your own right) but not unrelated to me (not a person of no concern)? What is it to you and to me that God knows and loves each of us and both of us together, and not only us but all people, all creatures, and the whole of creation? The question is not, “How can I be a good person?” but how are we to keep becoming human in relation to God, each other, ourselves, the non-human creatures, and all of God’s creation? Within that overarching question, I may find and keep finding answers for what it means for me to be a person.

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“They brought it upon themselves.”

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A recent letter to the editor complained that our local newspaper had printed six letters decrying the Trump policy of taking children from their parents at our southern border. The writer, doubly annoyed because an editorial in that same edition had also criticized the “zero tolerance” policy, hedged somewhat by offering up a self-absolving contradiction: I’m not in favor of taking children from their parents, but they brought it on themselves!  What I see is the moral equivalent of football’s double reverse: start toward one side of the defensive line, hand off the ball to feign changing direction (we’re not really running that way), then hand off the ball again to, yes, really run that way.

To brutalize a group of people and feel justified in brutalizing them, one must first discredit empathy which is most easily done by telling lies about them. What makes people flee their homes and set off on a hard trek into dangers known and unknown, especially people with young children who will, beyond doubt, be frightened and unsettled? The plain answer is desperation akin to that which forces a family to flee their house which has caught fire, but that realistic answer could evoke empathy and so must be contradicted with slander. Paint these desperate people as opportunists or even invaders scheming to take away from us what is rightfully ours. Portray them as a horde of barbarians or savages so cruel that they will endanger their own children to attack us. The absurdity of such a depiction, while obvious to many, eludes detection by those who despise brown-skinned people who don’t speak English, who become enraged by the very sight of them in their communities or, perhaps, in more controlled reactions just bristle inside.

First dehumanize and other-ize, then blame the others who are not like us, who don’t fit into our mental pictures of our own communities and our nation, whose very presence makes us uncomfortable. “One of these things is not like the others” on the prejudiced mind’s picture page. How can desperate people be blamed for fleeing their homes to find refuge? Draw them as calculating, as people so bereft of moral decency that they would use their own children as shields to protect themselves from justice. It is, after all, about the law and only the law, is it not? No, it is not. Seeking asylum from violence, rape, and murder is not illegal, but when the desperate people fleeing such violence are not wanted, their action can be made illegal or made to appear illegal. Stop them before they reach the middle of the bridge. Jam up the process so they are tempted in their desperation to seek some way around. Do they understand the ramification of what they are doing in their desperation? I doubt they do, but prejudice just knows they have planned it all out.

The parents fleeing three frighteningly violent, destabilized Central American nations (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) are mostly indigenous people whose native language is not Spanish but some other, older on this continent, that most of us have never even heard named. These are peoples the Europeans displaced, slaughtered, or subjugated. They have been here far longer than we have. Without even going into the question of how these nations have been so destabilized (hint: back in the Reagan years, we played a significant role in the process), people who allow themselves to feel empathy can easily see how confusion and naive expectations of asylum add to desperation and the vague hope of somehow finding refuge and being safe. There is a land of safety. The way there may be hard, but reaching it offers some glimmer of hope. If only. So parents come with their children and try to present themselves to the border guards for acceptance as refugees seeking asylum.

But hope is cheated, and the children they are trying to protect are taken from them, shipped like cargo to unknown places, by night in secret. Put into detention camps. Caged. Not touched, not comforted. Damaged for life.  Mr. Kelly tells us this way of treating children should serve as a strong deterrent.

But, “they brought it upon themselves.” How can such callousness justify itself? The law! They are illegals (not a word in English)! They are invaders! They are lesser human beings. Always the abused must be painted as lesser people, if human at all. Call them animals, then cage them. Blame them. Always blame them so we ourselves need accept no blame for what we are doing to them.

It works. It has always worked, and Donald Trump knows how to work it.

Lack of empathy is evil. Without empathy, a person has no compassion and feels no need for any. Without compassion, we become inhuman and as far away from God as people can get. God’s compassion is the driving force of the entire biblical story and, for Christians, the only hope we have in life or in death.

First, it is a lie that the asylum seekers have brought it upon themselves, that they deserve to have their children taken from them and sent off into a nightmarish limbo. All asylum seekers are doing is running out from the burning building their homeland has become for them, from the danger that drives them from their homes into an uncertain future. From a Christian perspective, however, even if the lie were the truth, it would not excuse us from empathy and compassion. Claiming we are so excused from empathy and compassion denies and renounces the gospel we declare we believe. As Christians, we confess that our hope for salvation is based upon God’s grace – that is, God’s unearned and undeserved compassion and mercy – not upon any assessment of what we deserve or have brought upon ourselves. We affirm that God takes no pleasure in the grief or death of anyone. Such commitment to empathy and compassion does not mandate so-called open borders, as Mr. Trump falsely asserts the critics of his policy want, but it does require the recognition of people as human beings loved by God, the administration of justice without cruelty, and humane treatment of the desperate and vulnerable. Surely special care should be taken with children. The tactical cruelty of the Trump administration, which brutalizes children and their parents to fire up the prejudice and hatred of his base and to extort Congress into wasting money on a wall, has no justification in a Christian view of life or in Christian treatment of people. What is more offensive to God than blatant cruelty? Perhaps the answer is pious cruelty that claims not to favor tearing children from their parents’ arms even as it mutters, “They brought it upon themselves,” thereby approving the policy and the damage it does. Double reverse.

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What Part of Illegal?

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Regularly these days I read the words on social media: “What part of illegal do you not understand?” Sometimes the words come in all capital letters, the online equivalent of shouting; always they refer to undocumented immigration.

So, today I try to answer, to say what are the parts of illegal I do not understand. There are several.

I do not understand the word illegal when applied to a person, a human being. In the English language, there is no such word as “illegals.” My word processor just flagged it correctly as misspelled. A person cannot be illegal because that word applies to actions that violate a law. Driving more than five miles per hour above the posted speed limit is illegal (I suppose driving above it at all is technically so). Deliberately failing to report income on Form 1040 is illegal. Cutting through our backyard uninvited is illegal. So are grand larceny, murder, and human trafficking illegal. Clearly there are degrees of illegality, which is the reason we have the distinction between misdemeanors and felonies as well as grades of violation (involuntary manslaughter, capital murder, etc.). BUT (pardon my shout), a person cannot be illegal. Use of the term “illegals” is designed to dehumanize human beings, to label people as not-us, not our kind, not our equals, not in the same category of creature as we are. It is bigotry. That part of illegal I suppose I comprehend but do not understand.

How does commission of a misdemeanor offense render a person unworthy of protections under our law, unworthy of humane treatment, unfit for even normal human consideration as a person? First-time illegal entry into the United States is a misdemeanor. How is it that people so desperate to flee violence that they will risk the suffering which may be inflicted upon them here, when they cross our border illegally in hope of safety, come to be regarded as animals (by our president), as subhuman scum, as invading enemies? Do we think that way of people who cheat on their income taxes? Who litter our roadways? Who fish without a license or commit any other misdemeanor? One person breaks a law casually, for his or her own convenience or just through disregard for public safety or public goods. Another breaks a law fearfully but does so out of desperation. Why do we so furiously despise the desperate one? That part of illegal I do not understand.

The next part is harder: unjust laws. The reality of unjust laws is nothing new. From the prophet Isaiah come these words:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth, so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain?
(Isaiah 10:1-4 NRSV)

Laws get written for various purposes. Some protect the public, others insulate the privileged, while still others enable the greedy and even the ruthless. The rich and influential can get laws passed that benefit them unfairly. People who differ in unpopular ways from the society’s current norms are oppressed by cruel laws designed to hurt and exclude them. It has, in its time, been illegal to free a slave, to marry a person of another race, or to vote without being male. It has also been quite legal to beat a wife or to sucker students, poor people, or the elderly into hugely oppressive borrowing of money. It was legal to redline cities and towns, preventing non-white buyers from purchasing homes in “white” areas. Also there have been offenses that were illegal but winked at by the public and by law enforcement, perhaps depending upon the perceived identity of the person breaking such a law. A back-alley crap game might lead to arrests but not a 50-50 at the local swim club, even when both violated the same gambling statute. Loitering has long been selective, as Starbucks has learned recently.

Police officers, prosecutors, and judges must use their heads, and they do. The basketball situational rule of, “No harm, no foul,” must sometimes prevail if an injustice is to be avoided. The police can’t pull over every driver who cuts a corner a little or strays slightly over the center line; neither can the IRS try to go after every taxpayer who fails to report a $10 tip. BUT the true problem comes from the iniquitous decrees and oppressive statutes of the kind against which Isaiah cries foul. Laws passed to protect the supposedly right people from the presence of the supposedly wrong people they despise just for being who they are, those are iniquitous laws. Statutes written and imposed to enable the greed of the already rich by exploiting the vulnerable are oppressive. Laws can be evil. They can be written to support and safeguard injustices. Many Americans have paid to see productions of Les Miserables, the story of a poor man imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. What part of hunger and wretchedness do we not understand? What part of desperation eludes us and blocks our empathy? What part of “yearning to breathe free” do we not get?