I’m always intrigued when public figures quote sacred scripture to support some political policy, and there was an example of this the last couple of weeks. As you’re probably aware, the Attorney General of the United States used some verses from Paul’s Letter to the Romans to justify the policy of separating immigrant families at the border. I don’t want to spend time on the policy itself, which seems so contrary to basic teachings of both Judaism and Christianity and such a violation of common human decency, that it doesn’t bear further comment. But I would like to think a bit about the use of the passage from Romans 13, as well as more generally how we, as people of faith, approach an understanding of scripture as a whole.
The section of Romans that the Attorney General referenced is well known: it’s the passage where Paul writes that Christians should be obedient to government authorities, because they are ordained by God, so that disobeying them would be disobeying God. The use of this passage has a long and troubled history in our own country. During the Revolutionary War, guess who was quoting these verses? It was the British authorities, telling the revolutionaries that they were going against God by rebelling against the crown. The response of the Americans was that, well, but Paul only meant obedience to legitimate authority, and since the authority of the British in America was not legitimate, Americans didn’t have to obey. Problem solved.
But of course, the much more problematic use of these verses was during the slaveholding era in America, when slaveholders constantly referenced Romans 13 to attack those who sought to undermine slavery – abolitionists, helpers on the underground railroad, those who refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Slaveholders also made frequent reference to Biblical passages that condone slavery and counsel obedience of slaves to masters.
Taking a snippet from a piece of writing (whether the Bible or something else) to support an argument that one has already decided on is called “proof-texting.” It doesn’t seek to understand the broader context of a passage, it simply tries to use a short piece of text as a weapon to attack or refute someone’s else’s argument. It’s something that people of all political and theological persuasions do often. But I would suggest it’s not how Christians are meant to think about scripture and how it speaks to us.
So how should we be thinking about scripture and what’s the best use of it in our lives? I would start by pointing out the obvious – that the Bible is a very large compendium of a variety of different kinds of writings, by many different authors, composed over a period of a thousand years or so. Understandably, there are parts of it that we may find more appealing and helpful than others. We might favor the gospel stories about Jesus and turn away from the Old Testament stories of wars and violence. But I think if we really want to be faithful to the Bible, we have to read and ponder all of it, not just bits and pieces. The relationship between God and humans is complex and sometimes ambiguous, and the broad range of sacred writings induces us to keep exploring that complicated relationship.
Each book in the Bible has its own integrity and deserves to be treated as a whole. For many years I have taught a course at school on the gospels and the origins of Christianity. One of the first things I have students do is read a gospel straight through from beginning to end. Most students, even church-going ones, have never done that – they’ve only heard the gospels in short readings. They are often amazed to realize that each gospel has a coherence and some clear themes that the author intends in telling the story. They wonder why there should be four gospels, because they are all different from one another, with different emphases. Each gospel, for example, has a different set of resurrection stories – and Mark doesn’t have any, only the empty tomb. When the New Testament was assembled, didn’t people realize there were all these differences? Of course. Each gospel has a unique perspective that helps us get at the truth about Jesus. There is no one way to understand Jesus.
The scriptures are full of contradictions and passages that seem ambiguous and mysterious. It’s possible to disagree about how to understand them. I think God wants us to grapple with these difficulties to go deeper into the truth. In the rabbinic tradition, one rabbi has one interpretation of a passage and another rabbi has a different one, and they argue with one another. It’s precisely at the intersection of competing interpretations that we gain true insight.
It’s tempting to edit parts of the Bible we don’t care for, and I would suggest it’s precisely those parts we don’t care for that we need to pay attention to and try to understand. Psalm 137 is one of my favorites and a very familiar one. It’s a lament of the exiles in Babylon. It begins “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept…” and goes on to express sadness at the loss of their home. It’s very poignant. But towards the end it turns into an attack on their Babylonian captors; “Blessed is the one who takes your children and dashes them against the stones!” We don’t usually read that verse in church. But we shouldn’t avoid it. It expresses emotions of anger and bitterness and desire for vengeance, that are a real part of the human experience and that we have to learn to grapple with in order to understand ourselves.
We also need to understand that each book in the Bible has its own historical and cultural context, different from our own. As an example, Jewish society in Jesus’ time, like Roman society, was very patriarchal. Women had few rights and abuse of women was often condoned or overlooked. When we read passages in the scriptures that seem to justify poor treatment of women, I don’t think we can just say, okay, we just have to accept that. We must be willing to wrestle with how to make sense of such passages in the context of our own culture and social understanding.
Finally, as we try to understand the voice of God in scripture, we know we also have the voice of the Spirit within us, and in some sense we can engage in an inner dialogue, through reading and study and meditation, to allow the scriptures to speak to us. The voice of scripture and the voice of Spirit. That inner dialogue will lead us to new understandings. We should always be willing to entertain new insights, to be ready to change our minds about what scripture is telling us. This is part of what it means to be growing in faith, so that faith itself becomes a dialogue with the voice of God.
If we can spend time to really engage with the sacred writings, if we can grapple with the hard parts, be open to new insights and understandings, then we can hope to truly hear the voice of God in the scriptures.