Hermeneutics, Consistency, and “Christian Values”

The concept of “Christian values” is playing a prominent role in the public arena today, but my Facebook® feed lately suggests very little agreement among those who call themselves Christian concerning the identification of these values or the definition of them individually. No one should wonder that people outside the church view it with suspicion and dismay.

At the danger of over-simplifying, I contend that the loudest voices espousing “Christian values” champion values that largely correspond to the mores of 1950’s America. By way of example, I cite only three: (1) personal responsibility for one’s success or failure; (2) families consisting of a father, a mother, and a couple of children; and, (3) insistence on the right of self-defense as a moral virtue (gun rights for the protection of self, family, and property; military interventionism chiefly for the protection of the country’s economic interests; and restrictions on immigration for the protection, I fear, of white-male-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant privilege). Of course, this viewpoint overlooks the underside of American culture both in the 1950’s and now.  It fails to acknowledge that, for some people, the system presents obstacles to the free exercise of personal responsibility. It denies the importance of granting human dignity equally regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and social status. It mistakenly identifies coercion and violence as the means toward peace. Above all, it perversely orients Christian values to the benefit of the claimant, although the Gospel message calls upon believers to be sources of blessing, to love even our enemies, to prefer serving to being served.

Arguably, these champions of “Christian values” have fallen prey to at least two errors: confusion about the source of their positions and a degree of logical inconsistency. To identify a value as “Christian” is to link it directly or indirectly to the biblical witness, of course. To be sure, the focus on individual responsibility finds some support in biblical statements such as “every one shall die for his/her own sin” (Jer 31:30) and relates to the Protestant idea of the priesthood of all believers by way of the Protestant “work ethic.” Yet, that very work ethic contradicts the tenet of salvation by grace through faith. It makes an awkward partner for other biblical assertions that God takes particular interest in the poor, the orphan, and the widow, for the biblical reminder that God blesses those who do not deserve blessing, bestowing manna on murmurers, and for the biblical call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner.

Biblical Christianity does not value self-protection, self-ishness, or self-promotion. These are all either instinctive behaviors or the product of post-Enlightenment egocentrism.  To the contrary, the Bible mandates that believers make disciples, make peace, and minister reconciliation. It does not call for the erection of walls of division, but for reaching out to others, especially, those most unlike ourselves.  Since “God so loved the world,” believers cannot despise, diminish, or denigrate any for whom God “gave his only begotten son.” Mere toleration of others breeds ghettos of people living alongside one another, but not with one another. Jesus was an unemployed, itinerant, trouble-making Jew with disreputable friends.

As a biblical theologian, perhaps the most jarring feature of these (selfish!) “Christian values” involves the way in which their proponents interpret scripture with a logical inconsistency that often spills over into hypocrisy.  Leviticus mandates lending to the poor without charging interest (25:36-37) and prohibits at least a form of (male) homosexuality (18:22).  Greedy Christians cite the latter and ignore the former.  First Timothy relates Paul’s practice of prohibiting woman from teaching or exercising “authority over men” (2:11-12) and, only two verses earlier, it states Paul’s desire that women refrain from braiding their hair and wearing jewelry or expensive clothing (2:9).  Chauvinistic Christians cite the former and ignore the latter. Clearly, the Bible contains material that reflects a specific time and culture. Any Christian who eats pork or works on Saturday enacts the recognition that such biblical texts require interpretation and application in order to be relevant to a different time and culture.  The important question is whether Christians interpret scripture according to a well-conceived hermeneutic and, above all, whether they do so consistently. The letter of the text will kill if the interpreter has not perceived the spirit of the text. It is dangerous to take “literally” only the texts that support one’s preconceptions, prejudices, and preferences and to dismiss all others.

The truly important “Christian values” do not protect those who hold them from others; essential “Christian values” call upon believers to risk loving others.  The truly important “Christian values” do not major on condemnation; essential “Christian values” drive toward redemption.  The truly important “Christian values” do not seek to promote the interests of Christians above the interests of all others; essential “Christian values” see all others as bearers of the image of God, as those for whom Christ died, and as (at least potential) citizens of the kingdom of God.