Faith Thinking Aloud

Hail Caesar!


[8th and final post in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

[For the first post in the series, click here.]

In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul makes the following statements.

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:14 NRSV)

But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Romans 7:6 NRSV)

For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4 NRSV)

What might a Roman official think of such statements? Hopefully, the Christians reading Paul’s letter will understand that Paul is speaking of God’s Torah as he, a former Pharisee, understands it. He writes repeatedly in this letter that the law of God itself is good but he himself is not good and so cannot keep the law. Instead, for all his efforts to keep the commandments, he stands condemned under the law.

Paul’s arguments require understanding of his struggle to please God and his persistent failure (see Romans chapter 7). But, again I ask, what might a Roman official make of the declarations, “. . . since you are not under the law . . . ,” “But now we are discharged from the law . . . .” and, most dangerous of all, “Christ is the end of the law . . . .”? Do those statements apply to Roman law? Are these Christians, then, scofflaws, rebels, outlaws? After all, their leader, their avowed Lord and Savior, was executed by Rome as a supposed rebel against the empire.

There is danger in Paul’s distinction between law and grace, two-fold danger. Yes, Roman officials might grow suspicious of this new religious movement, but some Christians themselves might misunderstand Paul as declaring them free of obligation to Roman civil laws.

So, Paul writes the now infamously abused paragraph we find in Romans 13:1-7. The very first sentence declares the apostle’s message to believers and government officials alike:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1 NRSV)

There it is, the Bible quote people pull out when they want to support a particular “ruler” and raise that individual above criticism. Here we are, back to the notion of “king by the grace of God” (see my earlier post on that subject here). In the misuse of Romans 13:1-7, we find false biblical support for the latest “anointed one” of some political movement tending toward totalitarianism. Here is the attempted elevation of a Henry VIII above all other authority. Here is fraudulent support for the deified or nearly deified dictator, from “Hail Caesar!” to “Heil Hitler!” Supposedly to question the dictator is to question God, to oppose the dictator is to rebel against God, and to reject the dictator is to reject God and God’s will for the nation.

In both the Old Testament and New Testament, there is much that contradicts such an interpretation or Romans 13:1-7. Leaders that fail to make justice happen for the poor and vulnerable are condemned and rejected. Particularly in the book of Revelation, the Roman emperors themselves are declared evil servants, not of God, but of Satan. Paul’s hopeful statement, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” in verse 3 proves at many points in history to be mere wishful thinking, although it truly is more because its declaration of what authorities should do turns into judgment upon those authorities who do not measure up.

Paul is not freeing Christians from civil authority and secular law, but he does set a standard for that authority and its laws. Authority’s charge from God, whether the officials know it or not, is to uphold and shelter what is good and to oppose and punish what is bad. But what happens when the authority itself does what is evil? When good behavior is punished and bad rewarded? Does God support corruption, brutality against the vulnerable, and lawlessness on the part of the authorities themselves? The Bible as a whole overwhelmingly declares, “No!”

Now, let’s take a step back and survey our own situation in the United States of America. To form this nation, our ancestors rebelled against a “king by the grace of God” they came to regard as a tyrant. Since then, authority for this nation is lodged, not in any person or small group, but in us, the American people. “We the people” are together the authority Paul declares has been appointed by God to keep order and to reward what is good and to prevent or punish what is bad. No president has that authority in, by, and for himself. No president can rightly claim or have claimed for him such authorization from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. We the people through our elected representatives are responsible for the maintenance of justice. It is our duty to keep power out of the hands of swindlers and liars. We together stand accountable to God, whether we acknowledge God or not, for cruelties inflicted by our elected officials and their appointees. We are answerable for institutionalized bigotry, persecution, and self-serving greed.

The misuse of Romans 13:1-7 in support of evil, of the tyranny and lawlessness of a president, and of the abuse of power for self-enrichment, is a terrible corruption of scripture. Such an abuse of the Bible opposes God and brings shame and infamy upon the name of Jesus Christ.

A Convenient Half-Truth


[7th in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

“God,” people say, “never gives you more than you can handle.” The comic strip character Ziggy replies wryly, “I wish God didn’t think I was so strong.”

I have blogged before about the problems in this pseudo-biblical declaration. First, it’s usually spoken to someone else (the sufferer) and so tends toward the judgmental and dismissive: “Don’t bother me with your problems, just buck up.” Second, it implies that our troubles come from God, which is a bum rap. Third but derived from the first, it minimizes the need for compassion since, well, your problem is your problem not mine. Fourth and most pertinent to this series of blogs, it calls for patience and endurance on the part of the sufferer rather than either personal deliverance or societal justice. In a similar vein, we are told frequently that real harm is not done to us by outside circumstances or forces but by our own responses to them and handling of them, which is a half-lie told to blame the cheated and injured for their own pain. Sure, part of the problem and, sometimes, all of the problem can lie within me, and we all know people who blame everyone and everything for problems they are causing or exacerbating themselves. Certainly, I can be my own worst enemy, but suggesting any complaint I might make about terrible circumstances or forces of human evil doing me harm is mere griping that reveals weakness in me does no more than add insult to injury. The message is, “You’re on your own. Make it or break, but don’t trouble me and don’t rock the boat by challenging family, community, or society to change.”

It is popular these days to reduce faith to a matter of what people call spirituality, a vague term that frequently implies the matter is my own and all about me, an internal strengthening or pacifying with no necessary external implications. Faith becomes a retreat into myself where God, the universe, or something deep and wonderful supposedly resides. So, it seems, my true home is within myself.

The falsehood is, as often, a corruption of a half-truth. Yes, faith should strengthen us internally, but so we can face the challenges and troubles of the world around us and so we can strengthen others within the community of faith and beyond it, not so we can turn self into a fortress. Any spirituality that does not send me back into the messiness of the world to represent the justice, mercy, and compassion of God is not biblical.

Objection! Are there not times when a person can do no better than turn self into a fortress, retreat “under the wings” of God, and receive peace in the midst of suffering from trouble that defies change externally. Yes, there are such times and circumstances. Aging brings us reminders of the truth that sometimes inner strengthening and trust’s peace of mind are all we may have left, and faith must strive to make them enough for us. At any age, we may find ourselves unable to do more unless something beyond our control changes. But generalizing such sometimes-truth becomes very convenient for the powerful and privileged seeking to use religion to pacify people who might otherwise demand change and work for it.

Pensions are stolen. Children are caged. Women are raped and then blamed for it. Whistle blowers are threatened and silenced. Public education is sold off for profit and data collection from computerized education then sold for more profit. Earth itself is ravaged and poisoned. People are fired for being who they are rather than for anything they have done or failed to do. The cheated are cheated again and again as their lands are stolen from them. Every day we are lied to so we can be manipulated and turned against each other by fear, resentment, and hatred. Institutionalized prejudices assail people’s dignity every day. God is not doing such things to us; people are doing them, and the systems people devise for their own benefit are legalizing and maintaining the evils people are doing. So, telling us that external circumstances are nothing, that only our own attitudes and inner strengths matter, is very, very convenient for those who benefit from our silence.

Danger: God’s Plan


[6th in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

This post requires a careful distinction. We stand at a fork in the road where both ways forward are marked with the same sign: “Trust in God’s Plan.” The choices, however, lead to very different destinations. One leads toward hope, courage, responsibility, and freedom. The other leads toward resignation, purposelessness, shallow thinking, servitude and perhaps festering resentment.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:11-14 NRSV)

That passage, a favorite of many people seeking encouragement, comes from a vision beyond the impending doom of destruction and exile. Evil times are coming because the people and their rulers would not listen to the word of their God but chose instead to hide themselves in the false security of official religion. They fortified themselves with certitude that Jerusalem could never fall to an enemy, the king descended from the great king David could never be toppled from his throne, and Yahweh’s own Temple would forever guarantee security and prosperity – regardless of what Yahweh God’s own prophet tried to tell them. They had removed from their religion all commitment to faithfulness, justice, and compassion. All that remained was toxic belief that the way things were was the way things were meant to be and would remain forevermore because they were, supposedly, divinely ordained.

Looking at the passage from Jeremiah quoted above, however, we can see that God has “plans” for the people, for their turning and seeking God wholeheartedly, their restoration to being Yahweh God’s covenant people, and their future well-being as God’s faithful people, IF ONLY they will listen and seek wholeheartedly. It does NOT say God has an all-inclusive plan automatically following a script written in advance. That distinction brings us to the fork in the road.

The notion that everything happens according to a great divine plan is unbiblical and unhelpful. It comforts the rich and powerful while narcotizing the poor, cheated, and desperate. “Are you rich? That’s God’s plan for you. So, enjoy! Eat, drink, and be merry!” “Are you poor? That’s God’s plan for you. Accept it, and serve your superiors without complaint!” No! Such oppressive lies are not biblical at all!

Jesus was not a fool. When he taught his followers to pray that God’s will would indeed be done on earth, he was not telling them to pray for the inevitable. There was and still is a struggle going on. The world’s ways of power, prestige, and privilege war against God’s will and do great harm. God’s desire is not simply to establish a perfect world but to win the hearts and minds of humans and of humanity as a whole so that we will accept our responsibility as the creature to whom care of the earth was entrusted. God wants willing love and willingly wrought justice, not mindless obedience or resignation to fate.

As a Presbyterian whose theological ancestors fell prey to a doctrine of predestination that was degraded into fatalism, I have long felt compelled to speak against all forms of determinism. No, everything is not predetermined, and much happens that is not in accordance with God’s will. Let me put simply. It was not God’s will that the child’s mother or father got cancer, suffered, and died. It was not God’s will that the five-year-old girl was kidnapped. It was not God’s will that Hitler and his Nazis set out to kill all the Jews. It was not God’s will that the robber barons of America’s Gilded Age grew filthy rich. It was not God’s will that Japan should bomb Pearl Harbor or that we should bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki nor that we should firebomb Dresden. It is not God’s will that parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated should then see their children get measles. Mental illness is not God’s will; neither is depression or addiction or suicide. Nor is it God’s will that Donald Trump should be president of the United States. We are the ones who vote, choose not to vote, or are blocked from voting by political maneuvers designed to steal an election. All who hold power stand under God’s judgment; none has carte blanche to do as he or she pleases, and we cannot rightly imagine that Trump or any other president may act unjustly or maliciously in accord with God’s plan and so with God’s approval. No!

But God does still have plans for us and for this created world. The poor are not called to resign themselves to inferiority and deprivation. The rich are not entitled to declare their wealth and comfort to be God’s blessings granted to them because God is either rewarding them for something or favoring them above others for some reason. The Bible is not fatalistic. Indeed, it is the very opposite of fatalistic, proclaiming release for the captives, God’s love for the poor and the sick, and God’s opposition to power structures that keep the rich increasing their wealth and the poor sinking further into their poverty. A person cannot amass wealth through cunning greed and then call that wealth God’s blessing.

Yes, God has plans for us but NOT some grand plan that reduces us to mere chess pawns or mindless slaves like ants under the sway of their queen. We are not puppets. We make choices, bear responsibility, and need the changes that come from truly seeking God’s will and way.

Fatalism is an enemy of faith and hope. Resignation to injustices and sufferings is not submission to God’s will. So-called destiny does not justify or excuse brutality, slaughter, or theft by illegal or legal means. It was never God’s will that Europeans should sweep across this continent, destroying its native peoples. Manifest Destiny was a lie.

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. . . . Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD . . . .

The Slave God


[5th in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

It started with the exodus, God’s entrance into the political history of earth. This strange God, YHWH or YHVH (representing the four Hebrew consonants of the name of Israel’s God, commonly pronounced as Yahweh or Yahveh when pronounced at all, perhaps with the accent on the second syllable although that is debated, and mispronounced as Jehovah) entered earth’s political theater as the god of slaves. As such, Yahweh rated no respect or even consideration from the pharaoh of Egypt, the ruler over a great civilization who was himself regarded as a son of the high gods. He, the pharaoh, represented the divine in human form, the presence of the gods on earth, the agent of divine will for the stability and prosperity of his realm. So, when Moses and Aaron appear before the pharaoh to present the demands of this slave god, Yahweh, the divine human ruler replies with scorn. After all, a god of slaves was, in his eyes, a slave god. So, Yahweh takes upon himself the shame of his lowly people.

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.'” But Pharaoh said, “Who is Yahweh, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1-2 NRSV, with my emendation replacing the pious substitute name, the LORD in all capital letters, with the personal name Yahweh)

Egyptian history does not record the exodus of Hebrew slaves. The biblical view is that the Creator of the world (we today would say the universe) chose to become, in obscurity, identified as the God of slaves. From the outset of the work of redemption, this God to whom the Bible bears witness has self-committed to solidarity with the lowly and to turning the world upside down – that is, the world’s social, political, and economic structures and hierarchies — not by force and power, but by powerful compassion, life-changing justice, and faithful love.

Jesus of Nazareth contradicts humanity’s notions of leadership and greatness. He calls any and all who would follow him to take a very different way.

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 NRSV)

The upheaval that comes from God is not a power struggle, with one tyrant replacing another, but a self-emptying that seeks justice not dominion, healing not destruction, and true peace rather than enforced obedience and servitude. A Christianity that seeks to dominate a society is not of God and is not faithful to Jesus whom it calls, in lip service, the Christ.

The Great Abuse of the Bible


[4th in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

The greatest and most consistent abuse of the Bible comes from making it the unwilling servant of established authority and power. Religion has served, for as long as humans have practiced religion, falsely to sanctify the systems in place, thereby helping to justify the injustices of the rich and mighty and to keep the mass of the people from rebelling. “This system comes from the gods” has been the message, and often the next part has declared, “You have been put into your proper place in this sacred system and must remain in your place or stand in defiance, not only of your rulers, but of your gods!”

The Bible, however, is neither a manual for religion nor even a book about religion. Indeed, many Christian theologians, outside the circle of the authoritarian ones, have spoken in negative terms of religion, contrasting it with faith and the life of discipleship. Religion tends to suppress thought, control any passions for justice or for change in societies, regulate behavior to the norms that please the authorities (although the powerful may not feel compelled by religion to follow those norms themselves), and train the oppressed or suffering to accept their lot in life as the will of the gods.

The God of the Bible comes into human life and history as the disrupter of systems of power and authority, the advocate and savior of the poor and powerless, the friend of the stranger or outsider, the bringer of change-making justice, and the imparter of hope for the currently hopeless. No human institution, authority, or tradition is sacred to this God and, indeed, is acceptable only if it upholds justice and serves the people with humility.

The prophets of Israel and Judah spoke this God’s word to crush the norms and practices of the official religion whenever it had been corrupted into the sacred agent of injustice. Hear how the prophet Amos describes the authorities, including the religious authorities, in Israel in the 8th Century B.C.E.

They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time.
(Amos 5:10-13 NRSV)

We are living in such an evil time when the distressed are intimidated into silence because so many people have been whipped up into a frenzy by the lies of politicians, radio or TV propagandists, and preachers playing to fear, bigotry, and resentment. People who speak out for justice and compassion receive death threats, and the vulnerable are assaulted in public.

In this evil time, Christianity and, specifically, the Bible are twisted and corrupted into support for the fear, the bigotry, and the resentment toward those classed as outsiders or intellectual elitists. Here, from the same chapter, is God’s word about such religion.

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24 NRSV)

More to come about the Bible’s God as the disrupter of corrupt and oppressive norms and unjust systems.

King by the Grace of God


[3rd in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

What does such a title mean, “king by the grace of God”? Let me offer an imaginary but biblically faithful self-reflective prayer from someone so chosen to lead God’s covenant people in biblical times.

Lord God, you have chosen me and called me to lead your people and to rule over your land. I do not deserve such consideration from you, and I feel too lacking in strength, wisdom, and courage for such responsibility, but if you will be with me, then I will trust in your wisdom and strength. Please guide me in caring for your people, protecting them from their enemies, and providing justice for all, especially the weak and vulnerable such as the foreigner who lives among us, the widow, and the orphan, for I know that your compassion reaches out to them especially. Grant me the faithfulness and courage to do what is right in your eyes, at whatever cost to me myself. Make me a blessing to your people, a champion of the poor, and a fair judge over all. Never leave me to my own ego and desires, but lead me along the paths of righteousness and justice so your people will praise you for calling me to rule over them.

To be a leader by the grace of God is to be chosen for self-sacrificial service to the people. Such service, not the leader’s authority, is the principal issue. Tyrants sacrifice others for the supposedly greater good – the young men (and now also young women) to their wars of choice, women in distress to their desire for power over all women, people classed as minorities to the leaders’ own lust for wealth and need for support from the wealthy and from the resentful who fear being replaced by those minorities. The leader by the grace of God must prioritize justice above popularity and political advantage. The one so chosen does not thereby gain prestige so much as responsibility, and biblically, the leader’s fidelity and success will always be measured by the condition of the poor and disadvantaged, not the increasing prosperity of the already rich and powerful.

During the “golden age” of the northern kingdom, Israel, under King Jeroboam II, the rich were getting much richer and the wealth measures of the kingdom were certainly rising (or would have been if such measures as Gross National Product or Gross Domestic Product had been in use). Yet, the prophet Amos declares the nation bankrupt in the eyes of God because the poor are being cheated and their small parcels of land stolen from them (legally, of course).

When Judah’s king Jehoiakim has his palace freshly paneled in fine cedar from Lebanon, the prophet Jeremiah has this to say about his majesty’s opulence:

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; who says, “I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms,” and who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting it with vermilion. Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the LORD. But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence. Therefore thus says the LORD concerning King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah: They shall not lament for him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” or “Alas, sister!” They shall not lament for him, saying, “Alas, lord!” or “Alas, his majesty!” With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried – dragged off and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 22:13-19 NRSV)

The poor and disadvantaged are God’s measure of the faithfulness of the leader. What would such a prophet as Jeremiah say in our time to the United States of America and its leadership? The foreigner (immigrant or migrant worker), the widow, and the orphan stand as evidence for or against those in power. The cheated offer the testimony to which God listens. The leader who fails to hear their cries and provide justice for them deserves only to be buried with the full pomp and ceremony accorded to a dead donkey.

What being a leader “by the grace of God” decidedly does NOT mean is being due honor or loyalty no matter what. No one has divine authority to be cruel, ruthless, self-serving, or greedy. No one. No leader is protected from criticism by some divine right. Always the called or chosen are subject to stricter judgment than the people in general. More is expected from those to whom more has been given. Besides, those who seize or steal power by their own cunning or treachery are not anything “by the grace of God,” except still alive and so able, perhaps, to find in themselves some remorse and to repent.

The Everlasting Poor


[2nd in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

How convenient that the New Testament gospels tell us Jesus said, “The poor are with you always”! By a perverse misuse of that brief sentence, the financially comfortable (not to mention the truly rich) can excuse themselves from concern over the large number of poor and desperately poor people in our nation and our world. Reading slightly further in the Gospel of Mark, we find, “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” (Mark 14:7 NRSV) There’s the perfectly convenient combination of assurance that there will always be poor people (as though it were right and proper that there should be) with a reminder to give them charity at our leisure, right? No, dead wrong!

The brief quotation, “For you always have the poor with you,” has been taken out of context to produce a falsehood radically at odds with the overall message of the Bible and, especially, with Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God and with his ministry. Context matters. Context always matters.

Below is the context within the passage in Matthew’s version. The tellings of the story in Mark and John are much the same except for identifying differently who it is that objects to the alleged waste of the expensive ointment (in Mark it is a vague “some who were there” and in John none other than Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would become the traitor).

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.”                              (Matthew 26:6-9 NRSV)

I have chosen to use Matthew’s account to point out that the objection does not have to come from non-disciples or a bad guy.

Clearly within its context, Jesus’ remark about the poor does not mean there should always or must always be poor people. It does not justify any system that by design keeps some people poor for the benefit of others. It does not say it is okay with him that some people should be poor. It certainly does not suggest that poor people have a place in society ordained by God, a place where they belong (in poverty and servitude), a place they have no right to leave. Nothing could run more contrary to the message of the Bible, from Exodus to Revelation!

What is the message in context? If I want to help someone, give that help at my own expense. The woman acted at her own expense in devotion to Jesus. In effect, disciples, mind your own business in such a personal matter! She has not instituted a program throughout the land for lavishing expensive stuff upon the rich while ignoring the poor. No, she has given a one-time gift for a very special reason to someone she regards as a very special person.

Two very popular but extremely wrong and dangerous beliefs are fed by the misuse of Jesus’ comment about the poor. One is the belief that conditions within society are as they should be, that the status quo is right, proper, and likely ordained by God, and that nothing should therefore be done to change the social, political, and economic systems that keep many people in poverty. The second is that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Jesus rejected both beliefs in his own society, and as his followers, we need to reject them in our own. People are not poor because they deserve to be poor. Neither are the financially successful rich because they deserve to be rich or because God has rewarded them with wealth.

The New Testament gospels provide us with many teaching of Jesus that bring hope to the poor and warning to the rich – not because poverty is some weird sort of blessing but because the coming reign of God means conditions and systems on earth will be changed. The first will be last, and the last first. The hungry will be satisfied, and the rich sent away empty. The lowly will be raised up, and the high and mighty cast down. It is not the will of God that some (indeed, many) should endure poverty so that some (relatively few) may live in luxury.

Thy will be done on earth! That is a prayer for change.

A Battle of Two Drunks


[1st in a series of posts on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

One night decades ago I looked out my study window to see two very drunken men swinging wildly at each other, neither coming even close to landing a punch but both staggering after each roundhouse swing and nearly falling to the pavement. I find in that memory an analogy for the present conflict over the Bible.

The rise of scientific method and its impressive successes at making sense of our world set off a furor that unleashed the backlash of biblical fundamentalism. The more scientists suggested alternatives to Medieval assumptions and verities, the more adamantly fundamentalists hunkered down on supposedly absolute truths lifted uncritically from the Bible in ways that were not faithful to the Bible itself. As fundamentalism fought to justify itself, it became increasingly authoritarian and cruel. That combination of absolutism in its truths and cruelty in its unyielding judgments upon people caused a double backlash from the other side: (1) the increasing absurdity of fundamentalism’s insistence upon “facts” which were not facts but literalistic misreadings of the Bible set up fundamentalism as an easily discredited straw man some modernists attacked as though discrediting Christianity as a whole, and (2) the cruel judgments upon people in which the Bible was used to bludgeon the “sinners” drove from the churches people who were at least learning tolerance if not full-blown respect and compassion.

Yes, the paragraph above offers a very rough sketch of the series of backlashes by which we have been buffeted into our present situation with regard to the Bible, the former “Good Book” which is now alternately weaponized and demonized into either a collection of absolutized truisms (with scarcely any message left except divine authority not to be questioned) or a compilation of silly superstitions and petty prejudices. Ironically, modern critical (meaning analytical, not unfavorable) study has opened the Bible for us in ways that can enable us to understand it better than ever and to hear its truth for leading us to God and each other, to healing, reconciliation, freedom, wholeness, and life lived with hope not only for ourselves but for our endangered earth with all its people and its non-human creatures as well. Sadly, the opportunity to hear the biblical witnesses more clearly has been largely ignored by the Bible’s opponents and rejected vehemently as satanic by its fundamentalist defenders. So, now we have biblical ignorance on both sides of the battle, one side erecting absurd facts which must be accepted “on faith” and the other side knocking them down with scientific facts which are irrelevant to the actual meanings of the biblical witnesses the two sides are disputing. Hence I am reminded of the two drunken men swinging wildly at each other in the night.

So it is that people who favor science and people who favor faith continue to battle over Adam and Eve, Noah and the Great Flood, miracles, and harsh regulations in the Holiness Code within the book of Leviticus as well as some of the opinions and foibles of the apostle Paul and his successors. Meanwhile, the biblical stories of Adam and Eve, of the Great Flood, and of the Tower of Babel (to name some examples) continue to offer profound insights into our human condition in our broken relationship with God, our often denied and violated relatedness to each other, and our anxiety about ourselves, but who is listening?

More to come. I’m especially concerned about current abuses of the Bible in the service of power.

Going Forward (final post in this series)


When misconceived, faith hardens into rigid formulations held to be eternal and immutable truths. Then Christians live “by the book,” but without the Spirit who brings to life the book’s witness to the redemptive truth of God. Biblically, faith is a living relational matter of growing trust inspired and renewed by hope. Truly, faith and hope sustain each other back and forth, and both are living, relational matters. Our trust is not in having the right answers or the perfect commandments but in the living God who has committed to being our God, God with us. So, faith and certainty are opposites, not synonyms. Doubt can draw us closer to Christ and strengthen our faith more than certainty can. Doubt questions God’s promises and struggles with the difficulties of continuing to trust; certainty (or, as I like to say, certitude) takes possession of truths as principles and holds them as a shield against all questions, especially the believer’s own. But I need to question both the content of my beliefs and the integrity of my own faith. The prophet Jeremiah tries valiantly but in vain to break through his people’s religious certitude so they can learn to trust God and seek God’s ways, loving justice and mercy rather than their own security and self-assurance.

Trust needs a source and a living mainstay, and hope needs felt reasons to continue hoping for what is not yet seen or attained and cannot be verified empirically. Both faith and hope need a teacher who is also a guide, and it certainly helps to have companions along the way.

All my life I have studied the Bible, reading it both devotionally and critically. It is familiar territory for me but ever new, often correcting or expanding what I had thought I understood. But the book is not itself the truth of God I can hold in my hand, for God’s truth is always and forever God’s, not mine or the church’s to possess or master. For this reason, our Presbyterian (PCUSA) ordination vow that speaks of our relation to the Bible contains a crucial phrase without which it would become false and idolatrous:

Do you accept the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the church universal, and God’s word to you?

Actually, there are two crucial phrases in the question. The first is, “by the Holy Spirit.” Without the Spirit, the Bible is easily weaponized to foment quarrels within and among the churches, to suppress the vulnerable and victimized, and to “lay down the law” not only in a church but in a society or nation. Whenever the Bible is used as a weapon against the vulnerable, it has been snatched away from the Spirit of God and has no truth in it, except its denied truth which seeks to rise up to correct those so misusing it do evil in its name.

The second phrase without which the question’s call to be guided, led, and corrected by the Bible would be falsified is, “witness to Jesus Christ.” He is for us the truth of God, the Word made flesh. Some Christians are quick to claim they “have Jesus.” No, not if “have” implies possession. We cannot possess any other person and certainly not that person. He is always “Thou” confronting my “I,” as Martin Buber insists. Faith in him is always relational, and so it is my trust in another I cannot control and to whom I am accountable. If I grab a Bible verse, perhaps a commandment from Leviticus or an admonition from a New Testament epistle, to use as a weapon against someone I wish to condemn, repress, or exclude, I am misrepresenting Jesus Christ and tearing the Bible away from the Spirit of God.

Christendom (imperial Christianity) demanded that the Bible and the doctrines of the church support its authorities and powers. So the faith was made imperious, and for that reason the people it long suppressed now speak out against Christianity and sometimes call for its demise. I agree that it is high time for imperious Christianity to pass away, for Christendom in all its forms (including its unofficial but culturally powerful establishment in the United States, the “Christian nation”) to be cast off so the followers of Jesus Christ can respond to his call to follow him on the way of redemptive love, the way of the cross.

As I look again, I see that this ordination vow about the Bible has a third phrase that matters greatly, “in the church universal.” I cannot go forward alone. We need the whole church, the people who trust and hope in Jesus Christ, to find our way forward. Yes, that church will be smaller than we have thought, as cultural Christians depart and our children are no longer automatically and often carelessly initiated into the identity of Christian. Beyond Christendom, following the way will become costly to Jesus’ disciples because being Christian will no longer grant power, prestige, privilege or even acceptance; it will not be the norm. It was never meant to be the norm. Neither was it ever to hold the power to dictate norms to societies. So, the individualized and almost privatized Christianity popular among Americans will not provide what we need if we are to be more than vaguely “spiritual,” whatever that word means for people who want convenience and good feelings about themselves. As the word “universal” suggests, we need people of other cultures, experiences, and histories to help us find our way together.

The Bible is not always pleasant reading, and I’m not talking about its bloody and brutal stories of warfare in the ancient world, but about its continuing challenges to my way of thinking and living. I do know that if I find that Bible affirms all my opinions, practices, and prejudices, I’m doing something wrong in the way I read it. If what I get from the Bible is a whole matched set of authoritative declarations about the way everybody ought to live and think, I have made of the Bible an authoritative witness, without the Spirit of God, to my ego and will to dominance.

Humility must rise above our desire for authority. Compassion must outstrip our wish for correctness. Wonder at the grace of God must overcome our pretenses to being in the know about God and other people. Service must outrun the churches’ thirst for success and prosperity. For love does not conquer all; it conquers us, and then we can go forward without power but with the quiet strength that comes from faith and hope.

Truths We Need to Rediscover, three: Humility


How can humility be a truth? Is it not closer to being a falsehood, the pretense to being less than one is, so as to appear unimpressed by one’s own superiority? When I was a teenager, my parents and I were watching a Miss America pageant, and for the section in which finalists gave short extemporaneous speeches, the overall theme that year was personal qualities. The contestant selected to speak first looked over the list of qualities and wisely chose humility as her topic. As soon as she made her choice, I remarked to my parents that she would win at least that section of the competition. If I remember correctly, she won the title of Miss America, “the Queen of femininity,” “your ideal,” as Bert Parks sang while she took her victory walk. We admire in the great (or merely famous for a moment) the appealing virtue of understating their superiority and seeming unimpressed with themselves.

The word humble itself, however, is related in its origins to humus, earth or ground, telling of that which is “low, lowly, small, slight, mean, insignificant, base.” (Oxford English Dictionary). Like the word modest, humble can identify a lowly condition, rank, or estate rather than the virtue of non-arrogance. With tongue in cheek, we may say it is no virtue for the humble to be humble. From my childhood, I recall the cartoon character Yogi Bear blurting out, “I have a lot to be humble about!” then looking nonplussed as he tried to figure out the meaning of his words.

We admire humility when distinction shines through it, but we insist upon humility from the lowly, especially in the presence of their superiors. Shows of pride from the poor annoy people who regard themselves as the poor’s superiors, just as assertiveness from women arouses hostility, not only from men, but from other women.

So, what am I talking about when I say that humility is a truth Christians and Christian churches need to rediscover? These days, as Christendom continues to disappear from Europe and the cultural establishment of Christianity wanes in the United States, we find ourselves, like Yogi Bear, with a lot to be humble about. Along with our loss of prestige and the questioning of our assumptions of privilege for our religion, come revelations of greed, corruption, and sexual predation. So, at one level, Christian humility would be merely acceptance of our real standing in society as our churches close up and we realize we are becoming a minority in a society increasingly secularized and religiously diverse.

Acceptance of our reality would be a good thing but not good enough. Such acceptance would be good for us because we Christians would then stop acting as though our religion should be in charge of the society, stop supporting politicians who promise to force the nation to accept our authority and our rules, and stop demonizing and trying to suppress other religions and non-religious ways of life. Mere acceptance, however, would not go far enough because it would give us nothing positive to inspire and enable ministry and service, nothing to share with a world in need of redemptive hope.

“Blessed are you poor,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. God’s reducing the great and powerful while elevating the poor and lowly is a dominant biblical theme throughout both testaments. The Magnificat attributed to Jesus’ mother echoes Hannah’s prayer in I Samuel 2:1-10:

He [God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53 NRSV)

Humility may be society’s falsehood, a refinement for the noble but a demand upon the lowly, but it can be for us a relational truth of our shared humanity and our call from Jesus to follow him in his way. As long as we Christians and our churches confront people with our presumed authority (ecclesiastical, doctrinal, biblical, or moral) and our power (political or economic), we cannot unite with Jesus in his way of the servant. We Christians are not called to be in charge. Now that we are, increasingly, in fact not in charge, maybe we can find our way back to the humility that accepts our own humanity and respects the humanity of others.

This kind of humility shows in respect for other people. It is not timid about confronting injustices done to others. It is not submissive to tyranny. It does not retreat from the world’s needs for redemptive love. But this humility does put the needs of others before the desires of self, and it does not seek to conquer. Only when Christianity was made imperial did it become a conquering religion rather than a serving, ministering faith.

The churches are called into being because God loves the world, and their calling is to serve, not to prosper. The faithful concern of a church is not what is good for that church in terms of its own growth and prosperity as an organization but what is good, on Christ’s terms, for the community and the world. Humility as a relational truth for human beings is the antagonist of arrogance and a sense of entitlement to superiority, honor, and privilege. Humility leads us away from power and glory.

For the individual Christian, this truth of humility means giving prominence to Christ’s call to service rather than to religious self-gratification. It means respecting the image of God in the other person, even when that person does not respect it in herself or himself. It does not mean giving people whatever they want; respect may well require that we do not give in to people’s wishes or demands. Humility is not self-hate or self-denigration. It does not make us toadies.

Humility is for us a truth to take to ourselves, not for us to demand from others in submission to us. The churches ought not be telling the already suppressed to be submissive to those suppressing them. Wives and girlfriends should not be told to take their beatings and try to be better, more submissive Christian women. Black people should not be told to be patient with white supremacy and humble in accepting what they are “given” by white-dominated society. Workers should not be told to be grateful for whatever management and ownership choose to give them in return for their time and labor. It is not the already humbled who need to humble themselves.

The relational truth of humility separates service from charitable donating, ministry with people from authoritarian control over them, worship from showmanship, witness to the grace of God from bragging about how awful one once was and how wonderful that one is now (by the grace of God, of course). It distinguishes sharing hope from telling people what they had better believe or else, standing with people in distress from looming above them, being honest with self and others from imagining and so projecting self-superiority, devotion to God from sanctimony, and compassion from contempt. We will not find it easy, as churches or Christians, to accept for ourselves the form of a servant and take the way of our Servant Christ, but such is the way we must go, not only for Christianity to survive, but for it to be authentic.

He [Jesus] called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 18:2-4 NRSV)