Monthly Archives: August 2017

Plain Language is Difficult to Misinterpret, but Easy to Ignore

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deut 30:11-14 RSV)

This summer, I have been blogging about the harm done by propagating misinterpretations of scripture. In most cases, the scripture passages in question have at least been tricky enough to open the door for such misinterpretation – although not enough to excuse it.  Recent events at Charlottesville, just a few miles to the west of my Richmond home, prompt me to suspend the series to comment on another abuse of scripture:  willful ignorance.

More to the point, the events in Charlottesville themselves have evoked a discussion that troubles me as much as the recent violence. Sometimes I wonder what disturbs me more, the fact that social media damages civil society by providing a medium that nurtures fringe thought, or the fact that, through it, people whose views might otherwise remain unknown express degrees of sympathy for acts that they would never themselves commit. In the days since Charlottesville, I have read FB posts, tweets, etc. authored by friends and family suggesting that the KKK and other white supremacy groups somehow bring balance to our society’s efforts to establish “justice for all.” The problem with rights-based thinking, of course, involves its tendency to view issues as zero-sum propositions. Understood in this way, my rights inevitably impinge upon yours; the more I get, the less is available to you. Getting it and keeping it – or getting more and keeping it – become the central objective. In its noblest form, this view reduces to the concession that, since you are also trying to get and keep, stability requires attaining equilibrium of selfishness.

The Bible does not endorse this approach to ethics and politics, which is why I feel shame when I recall that many of the hate groups in the news claim some basis in Christian theology for their bigotry. I feel greater shame when I hear or read statements by people whom I would expect to see in a local church on any given Sunday, statements that excuse, even if they do not blatantly endorse, racial tribalism, blaming the poor for poverty, gender insensitivity, and more.

I also feel dismay because, as Moses told the ancient Israelites – and I paraphrase – it is not that hard to know and do God’s will as revealed in scripture and in Jesus Christ. It is plain and simple. Admittedly, people find some simple things difficult to want to do (Moses addresses that, too, in Deut 30, when he talks about circumcision of the heart). Still, while it may be impractical to love your enemy from the standpoint of personal priority and personal aggrandizement, it is not impossible.  It requires only the love of God.

I offer only a sampling of the scores, if not hundreds, of passages from both Testaments (all cited from the RSV) that state plainly God’s will that God’s people love sacrificially instead of demanding their rights; that God’s people erase the boundaries of race, class, and culture in their practice of this love; and, above all, that they guard themselves against the temptation to disregard the claims of God-like love as too difficult, too impractical, too “soft.”  Any one of these texts has the power to derail hate politics, if people who claim to believe in Jesus and to cherish scripture would simply trust and obey. These texts need no interpretation other than that of lived example.  Think of them as a lectionary of texts for the instruction of nominal Christians.

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry… (Exod 22:21-23)

You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exod 23:9)

You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lev 19:18)

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19:33-34)

When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow; that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this. (Deut 24:19-22)

He who despises his neighbor is a sinner, but happy is he who is kind to the poor. (Prov 14:21)

He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is kind to the needy honors him. (Prov 14:31)

He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed. (Prov 19:17)

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isa. 42:6-7)

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:34-40)

And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again.  And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:28-36)

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? If the dough offered as first fruits is holy, so is the whole lump; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. (Rom 11:13-21)

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies,  they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. (1Cor 13:4-10)

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal 3:26-29)

My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while you say to the poor man, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has romised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name which was invoked over you? If you really fulfill the royal law, according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors … For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment. What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? (Jam 2:1-16*)

He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling.  But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (1John 2:9-11)

Let us be doers, not just hearers, of the Word!

Perpetual Poverty?

“…you always have the poor…”

(Mark 14:7; Matt 26:11; John 12:8)

The two most recent entries in this blog have examined how people have used poor biblical interpretation of, admittedly, difficult texts to justify and undergird racism and misogyny. This entry turns attention to the ways in which some have perverted a saying of Jesus – who elsewhere called the poor blessed and equated how one treats the poor with Continue reading Perpetual Poverty?