The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia is disturbing. It is more than disturbing. It is deeply disturbing. The “Alt Right” is a recently coined moniker of extreme racists. It is used by extremists (and indiscriminately used by the media in general), in order to make an old ideology of white (Eurocentric heritage) racial superiority more palatable to a population who are genuinely (and willfully) ignorant of their own racist orientation.
“Alt Right” is an easier, gentler way of referring to this insidious movement, because it makes what they stand for sound less insidious. After all, it’s okay to be conservative, on the “right” politically, right? So a seemingly harmless moniker makes it all the more acceptable to have individuals with extremist racist ideologies in the cabinet of the office of President of the United States, like Steve (Brietbart) Bannon and Stephen Miller, both of whom have an open history of racist activism.
Without throwing a single fist, racism itself is a form of violence. Racism is a form of social violence in that racism divides on the basis of a person’s skin color or a person’s community of origin (the ultimate expression of conservative identity politics). Racism is a form of political violence by suppressing the voting rights of people of color. Racism is a form of economic violence by systemically engineering fewer opportunities for people of color, by making it harder to get loans for businesses, home purchases in specific locations (the presently active gentrification of Detroit), and on and on.
The violence that we are witnessing in Charlottesville is only one form of violence. It is indeed egregious. The other forms of racial violence may not be as egregious, but they are just as harmful. This is the first point I want to make.
There is another. And I think it is just as, if not more, problematic. Many of the Alt Right claim to have religious convictions. They identify themselves as Christians. (Disclaimer, if you want to know my own perspective, see the about tab on this blog.) They use the Bible to justify their hate.
I’ve included a photograph in this post that shows an African-American police officer protecting Alt Right protesters in Charlottesville. Irony of ironies, right? (This was originally posted by Shaun King on facebook.) The obvious contrast is the KKK protester with his red hood and regalia you can see just over the police officer’s right shoulder.
What is not as immediately obvious is the sign carried by the protester holding the “Confederate flag” (not here being used as a symbol of heritage, but for this group a symbol of racist hatred). Do you see the sign? It has written on it, “JEWS ARE SATAN’S CHILDREN … JOHN 8:31-47 … JOHN 10:22-33.” Those are the only two that I can make out with certainty. It looks like the next one may be “LUKE 12:11,” so I will look at that one, too.
For those who are sympathetic with the Alt Right and are still reading this (I hope) and for anyone else reading, let’s look at John 8.31-47. The first principle of reading any text, especially (especially!) biblical texts, is to read everything in context. The context has Jesus in the temple precincts (beginning of chapter 8). A group of Scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. After deftly handling these religious authorities with “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” Jesus turned to the woman and said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” The basic lesson Jesus taught the religious authorities was not to judge others. Now, I don’t want to get into a longer discussion of the authenticity of this text, since it is not in the earliest manuscripts of John, but I essentially agree with Raymond Brown that this is fully in line with the spirit of John’s gospel, and should not be dismissed as a later tradition without any merit.
This is followed by Jesus addressing the Pharisees with “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8.12). When the Pharisees challenged Jesus’ claim, Jesus expanded on the issue of human judgment. “You judge according to the flesh. I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone that judge, but I and he who sent me” (8.16). Jesus said to them, “the Father who sent me bears witness to me.” The Pharisees then asked Jesus, “Where is your Father?” Jesus said, “You know neither me nor my Father; if you knew me, you would know my Father also” (8.18-19). The exchange is clearly between Jesus and the Pharisees. And Jesus has made a clear contrast between his judgment and the judgment of the Pharisees, continuing the problem at issue in the previous context.
In the next section (8.21-30), Jesus said to them, “I go away, and you will seek me and die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come” (8.21). The response to this is interesting. “Then said the Jews, ‘Will he kill himself, since he says, “Where I am going, you cannot come”?'” (8.22). Jesus then replied to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (8.22). Without going into the many details of Johannine theology, this is a typical representation of the kind of dichotomy or binary contrast that appears all over the place in the Johannine literature (Gospel of John, 1, 2 & 3 John, Revelation) … light / darkness, above / below, of the world / not of the world. And here Jesus has specifically applied it to “the Jews.” More to say about “the Jews” shortly.
John 8.31-47. This is the (clipped out of context) citation on the sign. Here Jesus and “the Jews” have an exchange about who their father really is. They claimed to be children of Abraham. Jesus said if that were true, they would believe in him. Since they do not believe in him and seek to do violence against him, they are children of the devil (hence the hateful claim on the sign). So who are these “Jews” referred to in this text and its context?
The author of John’s gospel makes it clear. In John 1.19, “The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask” John the baptizer, “Who are you?” In John 1.24 the author makes it clear, “Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.”
The point to make here is that the sign in the photo is intended to use this context as religious conviction that all “Jews” are condemned by God for not believing in Jesus. But in John’s gospel the term “Jews” and “Pharisees” are used interchangeably. Jesus was himself a Jew. (So was Paul, by the way.) Alt Right (racist) individuals who claim Christian identity by waving hateful signs with biblical citations quoted out of context do the very thing Jesus condemned his Pharisaic opponents for in the very text they cite. Jesus referred to them as children of the devil for planning to commit violence against him. The irony is excruciating. This is what happens when hatred for others weighs so heavily on your heart that it brings you to misread (and misuse) your own “scriptures.” In Romans 11 Paul warned Gentiles (wild olive branches) not to boast against the natural branches who have been cut off the olive tree, and that God is just as capable of grafting the natural branches back into the olive tree.
Shall we do this again? John 10.22-33. This is also cited on the sign. And it requires that we use both chapters 9 and 10 for context. John 9 is the well known narrative about the man born blind who was caste out of the synagogue by “the Jews,” who were also the Pharisees (9.13, 15, 16, 18). This point is fairly easy to make, since it is the same as what I wrote above regarding the first citation and its context. It is not referring to “all” Jews; only Pharisees. On to chapter 10.
In John 10, Jesus continues his engagement with the Pharisees, the religious authorities who in chapter 8 threatened to kill him. In chapter 10 Jesus used the well-known metaphor of a shepherd with his sheep, a common metaphor in Jewish literature of the Second Temple period, with reference to faithful and unfaithful religious leadership, sometimes applied to kings, sometimes to priests. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber, but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep” (10.1-2). This is the well-known “I am the door for the sheep” passage. Jesus is not talking about sheep. He was talking to the Pharisees about legitimate religious leadership. Jesus is that. The Pharisees are not. It is a misuse of this passage to make it about sheep. It is not.
The passage cited on the sign, John 10.22-33, has “the Jews” in the temple gathered around Jesus to ask him, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I told you, and you do not believe.” Same story as above. This is not about sheep. This is about shepherds and leadership.
Luke 12:11? A single verse. Really? A blatant violation of the context rule. Red card that man! I’m not going to spend much time with this one. This is what we have … “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; …” So the misuse here is that this saying of Jesus is intended to gin up fear of “Jews” who will persecute Christians for believing in Jesus. In fact, this passage reflects a post-70 CE environment of chaos and confusion about 15-20 years after the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple. There was an intense struggle between different Jewish groups in the years immediately following 70 CE over who would win out as the definers of Judaism. History teaches us that by the end of the first century CE it was the Pharisees who won out in that struggle, as the early church became less Jewish and more Gentile in its make up.
It is the ultimate expression of religious identity politics in the late first-century parting of the ways between “Judaism” and what eventually came to be known as “Christianity.” The early church was an internal reform movement within Judaism. It was not immediately known as “Christianity.” In fact, neither Jesus nor Paul knew the term “Christianity.” As Jews they believed that God had chosen the Jewish people. How to live as Jews in a right relationship with God and your neighbor was a key issue for both Jesus and Paul. For Paul, the Gentiles were included. The Pharisees would have none of it, and eventually they developed into Rabbinic Judaism (with its own historic and ideological diversities).
Pauline inclusivity is a key issue also in Luke, which ironically was cited on the racially hate-filled sign. Racial justice was one of the central issues in Luke. The Good Samaritan is not about helping your neighbor mow his yard or a stranger change a flat tire. It’s a story about racial justice. Read it in its context.