A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Reading the Bible Will Make One More Progressive... Conservative... Republican... Democrat... NOT!

Benjamin Corey recently wrote a post on how reading the Bible (which I interpret him to mean really studying the Bible and taking its context seriously) will make one more progressive. I appreciate the fact that Mr. Corey's Bible study has had a transforming effect on his life-- would that such an endeavor change more followers of Jesus. The problem, however, is that Mr. Corey employs a faulty hermeneutic which excludes the church (God's people) as the primary community being addressed. Mr. Corey assumes that the Bible makes one more progressive because he seamlessly translates these words directed to God's people Israel to the nation state, forgetting that only the nation of Israel was called to be God's people bearing witness to the ways of God. No other earthly nations can rightfully claim such a responsibility. In other words, while the people of God being addressed in the Old Testament is Israel and in the New Testament it is the church, the belief that reading the Bible will make one more progressive can only be sustained if the moral admonitions of the Bible translate smoothly as exhortations to individual Christians and their involvement in nation state politics and policy. Corey has employed a Christendom hermeneutic. And because of this, what Corey is in reality arguing is that a careful reading of Scripture promotes a progressive version of civil religion. By the way, Christian conservatives suffer from the same faulty hermeneutic. As I state in my book, The Politics of Witness:

The civil religion of the religious right should be obvious to everyone paying even superficial attention to religion and politics in America,... but the religious left has a civil religion that is basically the same in character as Christians on the other side of the political aisle, and both groups are centered on a faulty hermeneutic (method of biblical interpretation). 
James Hunter in his excellent book, To Change the World makes the point bluntly:
The problem, of course, is that Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and the other prophets were living in a Jewish theocratic setting. The only way that Wallis and others can make these strong statements is to confuse America with Israel and the political dynamics of modern American democracy with the divine laws mandated for ancient Israel. It isn't that the wisdom of scripture is irrelevant for the formation of political values, but one can only make the close associations and specific political judgments Wallis does by turning progressive religion into a civil religion of the Left.... Both Right and Left, then, aspire to a righteous empire. Thus, when he [Wallis] accuses Falwell and Robertson of being "theocrats who desire their religious agenda to be enforced through the power of the state" he has established the criteria by which he and other politically progressive Christians are judged the same (p.147).
If the religious right and the left want to get the target of their hermeneutic correct, they need to understand that the commands of Scripture in the Old Testament are, by and large, directed toward the people of God Israel, and in the New Testament it is the church. It is the people of God that is to embody the prophets' concern for justice and the Torah's concern for morality and purity. And it is by that biblically based way of life that the church engages in the politics of witness that it is God and not the nations who rules the world. The church by its example bears witness to the nations what God wants of them as well. The church by its witness is not a prop for the state, but its alternative. Once the nation becomes the primary hermeneutical target of Scripture, the primary community of faith becomes the state. The church is eclipsed in this world and so is the kingdom of God, and thus Christians will in the end functionally identify more with what it means to be progressive or conservative than with what it means to be the church. (Moreover, such an argument cannot help lead to a caricature of the group one stealthily seeks to critique.)

This is not to say that God will not hold the nations accountable and expects them to act justly. In the Bible there are some harsh words from God to them (Amos 1:2-2:3). But when admonitions, which are clearly directed to God's people, are interpreted primarily as referring to the nations, one cannot avoid the conclusion that such a hermeneutic assumes the nation state to be primarily God's people, while the true people of God, the church, are left as nothing more than cheerleaders to support the state's agenda with the goal of being power-brokers on Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill.

It is important to note that most of Corey's list on how reading the Bible has made him more progressive betrays this faulty hermeneutic. For example:
The more I read my Bible, the more I realize "redistribution of wealth" wasn't Obama's idea-- it was God's.
That redistribution of wealth stuff? Yeah, it's in the Bible and was actually God’s idea. In the Old Testament we have years of Jubilee, restrictions on gleaning your garden more than once, a command from God that there should be "no poor among you", and prophets who came to denounce the nation when the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer. Let’s not give Obama the credit-- God thought of it first.
Notice how Corey assumes a seamless connection from how God insists that his people Israel keep from wealth shifting permanently to the hands of a few to a nation state policy on the redistribution of wealth. When I read these passages about the poor and about wealth in Scripture, my first take is how we the people of God the church, first and foremost embody this Jubilee in the church, where there should be no poor among us. To be fair, in the next paragraph, Corey recognizes that the early church did practice such redistribution of wealth, but why should that knowledge move him left and what does this have to do with nation state politics? Rather such knowledge should make him more generous. In the Book of Acts, generosity is not a leftist virtue, but a way of life consistent with discipleship. (By the way, I have met stingy christian conservatives and liberals, and I know Christian conservatives and liberals who are very generous.)

Thus, the hermeneutical posture the church must take is to understand that the admonitions of the prophets and the Sermon on the Mount (just two examples) are directed to the people of God, and we the church must embody in our corporate worship and service and in our individual discipleship lives that witness to the nations what God wants of them as well. "If my people, which are called by my name" (2 Chron. 7:14) should not be read in church on the Fourth of July; it should be referred to instead on Ash Wednesday. "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8) should not be employed when Christians argue over whom to vote for; it should be read to remind Christians of how their materialism leads to injustice for others. When we lose the fundamentally ecclesial context of the Bible, all we are left with is arguing over whether reading the Bible makes one more progressive or conservative or a Republican or a Democrat. And then it's only a short step to manipulating Scripture to serve our own progressive, conservative, Republican, Democratic agendas.

Should careful Bible study make us more sensitive to the poor and those who are on the margins, including the unborn? Yes. Should careful Bible study make us faithful sexually? Yes. Should careful Bible study make us better stewards of God's world and its resources. Yes? But that does not means that reading the Bible will make us more progressive or conservative. What it means is that reading the Bible should make us more faithful Christians and it should lead to a more faithful church-- God's people, God's chosen nation, and God's politic in this world (1 Peter 2:9).

And please note... before I get accused of arguing that Christians withdraw from society, I am making no such claim. As I have said before, and I will say it once again: It is not a question of whether or not the church is political; it is a matter of how it is to be political. And for me the how is as a witness, of embodying in its life and mission God's Kingdom so that it might be a light to the nations of what God expects of them.

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