[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.