Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to Matthew Distefano’s original article published on Sojourners. That article can be found here. To summarize, that article suggested that God is revealed completely in Jesus as nonviolent and non-retributive. In order to understand those parts of the Bible that attribute vengeance to God, Matthew Distefano suggests we apply the hermeneutic — interpretive lens — of Jesus to scripture.
I did not plan on writing a second part, but one of my friends posed such a great question on Facebook that I had to offer a detailed response. Jim Rogers asked:
I really like this. How might you address it with those who reject the obvious extremes but still get muddled in the literal translations? I am working through this too. I try not to use extreme examples because many will reject such but can’t see their way out of the thorn patch.
To begin answering this question, I would have to take my examples from the global stage to the local one. Sure, we all recognize obvious religious extremes such as the Westboro Baptist Church, Pastor Steven Anderson, and entities like ISIS. However, what are not as obvious are the more restrained examples—the type of subtle violence that one might find in many churches across America.
It can come in the form of voting, campaign donations . . . you name it! Let us take a look.
Since I mentioned Leviticus 20:13 in Part 1, I will use the anti-homosexual “clobber” passage for the first portion of this piece as well.
For the Christian Right—especially here in the United States—this proof-texting favorite (as well as a few others) has dictated their politics vis-à-vis marriage laws. Because of this, the cultural move toward equality for the LGBT community has been painfully slow. Churches large and small continue to attempt to make the moral case for “biblical marriage.” In doing so, they seem to be violating a teaching from the Bible itself, namely Matthew 20. In a July 24, 2015 article, I commented on this:
Jesus also tells his disciples to not declare themselves above the other, but in order to be ‘great,’ they must be servants. (Matt. 20:25 – 28) Jesus himself did not come to be served, but to serve. How is using the political process to enact marriage law based on ‘biblical values’ not ‘lording over another’? In this passage, Jesus invites his disciples to imitate him in serving—putting others ahead of themselves. How can Christians be called to serve all, while at the same time using the political process to interfere with thousands of loving couples (even if they think it is ‘icky’)? How can a follower of Jesus place him or herself over and above anyone, for any reason?
To vote away the right of another in the name of “biblical truth” does not seem compatible with being a leader who serves, as Luke 22:26 states. It is also a form of structural violence, one that does not allow the LGBT person the same civil rights as the heterosexual person.
It is more subtle but still oppressive.
It is as “simple” as a common vote, but its harm is far-reaching.
Just as far-reaching—or even greater—is when one’s hermeneutic directly impacts the foreign policy of a country with a military budget that trumps all others. The Christian Right—at one time spearheaded by President George W. Bush—was all too eager to go to war with Iraq after September 11, 2001. Bush was their guy—a conservative Evangelical who communed directly with God. The President even went so far as to say that God told him to “go and end the tyranny in Iraq.”
While I am confident that the Father of Jesus did not tell the President to go to war with Iraq, I am not so confident that most American Christians would agree with me.
I mean, the Bible clearly says…
- “Now go and attack the Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”—1 Samuel 15:3
- “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him.”—Numbers 31:17
- “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘the man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.’”—Numbers 15:35
Jesus’ Abba said it, you believe it, and that settles it!?
Again, not so fast!
As I discussed in Part 1, the hermeneutics of Jesus are through the lens of mercy and grace. To exegete passages like the ones above—which is not the goal of this piece, so I will not be doing so—we would have to keep that in mind.
What my last goal is, however, is to display how Jesus’ hermeneutics then match his actions. Let us take a look at Matthew 26:53, where Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, rhetorically asks:
“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”
The implied answer is “yes,” and yet, they stay at bay.
Then, there is what Jesus says in the midst of his own murder on a Roman cross. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus, in doing only what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19, 8:28, 12:49), offers mercy and grace.
And finally, even upon his return, Jesus comes with the word of peace—shalom. John 20:19 – 21 reads:
So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when he had said this, he showed them both his hands and his side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
So, all that being said—what could following Jesus in hermeneutics and in action do to change things on both a local scale as well as a global scale? What would foreign policy look like if supposed “Christian” nations like the United States followed the model displayed by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane just prior to his death? What if those trying to get in the way of non-violence were rebuked a la Peter in Matthew 16:23? What if retribution was removed from the Divine both exegetically and anthropologically by Jesus? What if the church modeled that?
I believe that a literalist reading of Scripture—as well as a nuanced treatment of Jesus’ ethical teachings—without a doubt, leads to extremists. However, it also has led to a version of Christianity that justifies the use of national violence to get a certain result in the Middle East. It has led to structural violence that oppresses entire groups of people. It has led to many more unforeseen consequences, such as the improper treatment of women as well as the justification of slavery. What we believe about God and Scripture will dictate how we view ethics.
So, Jim (and others), I hope this begins to answer the excellent question you posed above. I hope I began to offer some examples of how a literalist reading of Scripture affects the very world around us. This hermeneutic should be traded in for the Jesus-centered one—biblical ethics interpreted through Jesus’ ethics.
Grace and peace be with you all.
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