It would be so easy to make this claim as an absolute, incontrovertible dogma for every place and for every time, if only we can revise the numerous historical records of how the Bible has been distorted to justify many oppressive and cruel ideologies and structures. To name a few:
It is known that during Hitler’s first summer in power in 1933, a young German pastor named Joachim Hossenfelder preached a sermon at the ornate pulpit of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin’s most important church, invoking the words of Romans 13 to remind the congregation of the importance of obedience to those in authority. The church was festooned with Nazi banners and Stormtrooper flags, its pews packed with the Nazi Party faithful – including men in the brown shirts of the Sturmabteilung, the Nazis’ paramilitary movement. This is one of the most explicit examples in which the German Protestant Church invoked Romans 13 to support the Third Reich. This same “biblical” argument is used even to this day in the civil religion culture of right-wing American “evangelicalism.”
A codified system of racial stratification began to take form in South Africa under the colonial Dutch Empire in the late-eighteenth century. In 1948, the Dutch institutionalized this racist colonialism by erecting a constitution based on Apartheid which became the legal system of South Africa until 1990. Apartheid was characterized by an authoritarian political culture based on baasskap (or white supremacy), which encouraged state repression of Black African, Colored, and Asian South Africans for the benefit of the nation’s minority white population. This is why Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said once: “When the Dutch came, they asked us to pray. When we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and they had the land!”
The first Europeans to arrive in America in 1607 in Jamestown, VA, included slaveholders who used scripture to erect a legal system based on racial segregation. This system defined colored people with less of a human value than white people, which then subjected colored people to a different and oppressive set of laws. The barbaric lynchings of black people in America by white supremacists called the Ku Klux Klan, were done in the guise of their so called “Christian faith.”
Christianity was introduced to the Philippines by Spanish conquistadors as an extension of the imperialistic colonial program of Spain and Portugal. The church at that time was a vassal of the state and their use of the Bible was to make it as the bulwark of the avaricious colonial agenda of the empire. Mass conversions were mandated by the tip of the sword, the lance, and the arrow. What Hernán Cortés did to the Aztecs, and Francisco Pizarro to the Incas, Ferdinand Magellan did to the Filipinos – all in the “name of God.” Genocide was inflicted upon the native peoples, especially those who resisted. Then this version of Christianity erected an oppressive, racist, and classist feudal system in the Philippines, the deleterious effects of which continue to plague the social fabric of the country to this day.
These ideologies sacralized their distorted and perverted version of Christianity by claiming, “It’s in the Bible, that’s why it’s right.” To many, the assertion that the Bible can be distorted might be difficult to accept. But history is replete with records of human injustices and atrocities that tragically used the Bible for their evil ends. Yet, how can we continue to hold on to the great claim of the Reformation that the Bible, sola scriptura, is the most reliable and authoritative guide to our faith and practice? As a Baptist, I hold on to that most cherished claim. But how?
The methodology of interpretation known as hermeneutics has taught us that every reading of sacred text – or any text for that matter – is an interpretation, anchored in the active participation of the reader who brings her/his own layers of social constructs and frames of reference into the activity.
But, alas, it is really not a new discovery of hermeneutics. Perhaps as a sound theory, its contribution lies more in systematizing its discoveries of the innate social and cultural factors that shape the formation of our perspectives, and then organizing them as a vital tool in the task of understanding sacred text faithfully.
But Jesus already addressed this innate condition of the provisional nature of our understanding of life and the world when, addressing the legalism and the literalism of the Pharisees, he declared the true foundation of all interpretation:
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5: 39-40, italics mine for emphasis).
Jesus is the prism through which we understand all of scripture, not the other way around. When light passes through a prism, it refracts the seemingly colorless light and disperses it into a spectrum of colors, revealing to the observer the full and glorious properties of light. When Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill them, he meant that the full spectrum of meaning of scripture is revealed when seen and understood through his person and ministry.
In my observation, Christians through the ages – evidenced by their countless schisms and divisions – have devoted too much of their spiritual energy to the quest for spiritual superiority and the “rightness” of its notion of what is “biblical.” Admittedly, the urge towards foundationalism is a human trait.
Bíblicism and literalism have been an all too common tool for oppressive ideologies to find justification for their absolutist agenda, and to elevate themselves beyond accountability and critical inquiry. The distortive consequence of this, however, is that it evacuates sacred texts from their multilayered contexts, merely transferring the voices of those texts into our own multilayered and complex present, even though those voices speak to us from, in our case, thousands of years past.
The Apostle Paul, addressing the church fight in Corinth over spiritual superiority, said, “Faith, Hope, and love abide; but the greatest if these is love.”
The quest for what it means to love may not always lend clarity when we are in the middle of an historical event, especially turbulent ones. Much too often the quest for clarity for its own sake only leads to the spiritually ossifying force of absolutism, that embalms the soul from the life giving leadership and sovereign freedom of the Holy Spirit. History has shown us that the Christian faith grows when it lends a space where it can question itself, and to listen to the voices of those who are “outside the cathedral”; it grows when it nurtures a safe space that allows for friendships to first be built, and upon which conversations from each other’s language of the heart can authentically take place. The Christian faith grows when it finds Jesus not only within the citadels of its familiar walls, but even more so beyond its recognizable barriers, into the utterly new that the Apostle Paul spoke about to the churches of Corinth and Galatia.
I love golf and have played the game for many years. One of the fundamental things I have learned about the game is the importance of the grip that is exerted on the club. When the club is gripped too tightly, not only are the swing muscles stiffened, but the club’s natural path in the swing arc is so impeded that it cannot rotate and release the club head properly. In golf vernacular, this is called the “death grip.” It robs the player of power, and brings the club face to the ball in a distorted fashion. We are taught by more experienced players to grip the club like we are holding a bird in our hands – not too tight, not too loose. It reminds me of how I understand our faith. The striving of our journey is animated by our desire to get as close to Jesus as we can. And I continue to grow in the understanding that if my faith is to grow and flourish, I need to eschew anything that distorts and obscures my vision of Jesus, and to read scripture through the lens of Jesus. And like what I have learned in golf about the importance of grip pressure on a club, to hold on to what I know not too tight, but also not too loose. I have learned, and continue to delight in the disclosure, that to the extent that I let go of my proclivity towards prideful self-sufficiency, the more that I discover my spiritual journey becoming open to the ever immanent, yet transcendent, formative work of the Holy Spirit in pointing me to paths that lead me closer to Jesus.
Is it right because it is in the Bible? Framed in that way, the answer to that question is predictable. But Jesus reframed the question for the learned men of the Torah by inviting them to ask instead the question this way: Does it look like (me) Jesus? Does it sound like (me) Jesus? Does it love like (me) Jesus? In the face of the challenges facing our faith, Jesus continues to invite us to ask the same questions and to discern, so that the full spectrum of colors of God’s word might be revealed for us.