The Ongoing Legacy of Hate and the Willful Misuse of the Bible

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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.

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Protest and Civil Disobedience

Protest and civil disobedience is very much a part of the fabric of American culture. Abolition. Women’s rights. Civil rights. This is one way we exercise our right of free speech, a right secured for every American in the adoption of the First Amendment to our Constitution. And while we are not without our very own historic protest events where violence was part of the message and the response to the message, non-violent civil disobedience is especially valued by Americans, as exemplified by the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the participants in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In the years following the 2008 economic meltdown, I watched with perplexity as Americans stayed home while citizens of other countries around the world took to the streets to defend their basic human rights in the face of the most cruel economic austerity policies passed by their conservative governments. In the United States there were occasional protests here and there, as issues heated and spiked tensions. In 2010 I was a humanities professor at a public university in Ohio and I attended a protest in the banking district of the city. To my surprise, it did not have the muscle I expected to see, and as I watched bank employees leave the building for lunch, what I saw on many of their faces ranged from banal amusement to glares of superiority and disgust. There was no sense of acknowledgment that they were recipients of an important message.

The protests of the last couple days give me hope for our divided nation. It gives me hope because I see people energized to respond to a human crisis. On the other hand, I am disgusted by the flip side of this motivation.

The flip side of what is motivating our protest is the disgusting cause of the crisis. A poorly vetted (if vetted at all) executive order signed by our president, Donald J. Trump. The executive order banned travel to the United States for 218 million Muslims from several Middle Eastern countries, none of which have a history of immigrants (or travelers) perpetrating violent acts on American soil. The vetting of the executive order should have included the head of the National Security Council and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead, Trump has given his Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor Steve Bannon and his White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus seats on the NSC, while dismissing the director of national intelligence and the chair of the joint cheifs of staff. From disgusting to deeply disturbing. The president does not listen to or even tolerate dissenting voices among his closest advisers.

The signing of this executive order gives the impression that it was done without the kind of circumspection that is demanded of its subject. We should all be reminded of the shallow understanding of the Bush administration who crafted propaganda to lead our country to war in Iraq. What they willfully refused to understand were the complexities of the relationships between Sunni and Shi’a cultures in the Middle East, and the powder keg they were rushing to ignite with a blow torch.

I am heartened and energized by my fellow Americans who are not afraid to protest and engage in civil disobedience, to stand up to shallow leadership that seeks to control us with fear.

From a Christian perspective we are commanded by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (ch. 25) to embrace the refugee. And this is given in a context of an ethical imperative that has one eye on the present with the other eye on a future and final apocalyptic accounting that God will have with those who claim to have faith, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory.” Matthew writes Jesus’s words:

34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ (RSV, Matt. 25.34-45)

We are also urged in the Johannine tradition to embrace God’s culture of love.

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. (RSV, 1 John 4.7-8)

Fear is also explicitly spoken to as a vice to be overcome, not to be succumbed to, but to be overcome.

16 So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. 19 We love, because he first loved us. 20 If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot[a] love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. (RSV, 1 John 4.16-21)

I am heartened and energized by my fellow Americans who are not afraid, and do not allow themselves to be manipulated by the talk of fear.

The Jubilee Year and Matthew 18.22

A friend once asked me about forgiveness and the “sevens” of Matthew 18.22. Here’s a portion of my friend’s email:

. . . I have a question. I always learned Matthew 18:22 (how many times should I forgive my brother?) as, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Now – in my new NIV Bible, it doesn’t say “seventy times seven” but “seventy-seven times.”

I understand both numbers just play on the “seven” number, but what are your thoughts there?

This is my response:

Translating numbers in Greek (and Hebrew) sometimes can be a bit tricky. Especially when the Greek text we have is based on an Aramaic saying of Jesus. So what we end up with is something that looks kind of funny in Greek, and translators often don’t know what to do with it. What Jesus did in Matthew 18.22 was remind Peter of forgiveness based on the concept of the Jubilee Year in the Hebrew Bible. In the Torah (Leviticus 25) the Jubilee year came around every 49 years. The forty-ninth year was the sabbatical year when fields were to be left fallow. The fiftieth year was the Jubilee year. During this year any Israelite who had incurred a debt from a fellow Israelite was released from his obligation to repay the debt. No questions asked. It was unconditional. This included endentured servitude and land transactions. Family lands were restored to the original family. The intent was to keep the original gift of the land allocated to the original twelve tribes as God first gave it. According to Leviticus 25, this was to remind the Israelites of the one who gave them the land; in other words, it was to stress the fact that the land belongs to God. (Human realities quickly changed this!) The point in Matthew 18 is that Peter was trying to put conditions on the forgiveness he was willing to show his fellow human being. Jesus, on the other hand, in Matthew 18.22 reminded Peter of the Jubilee Year concept and the unconditional release of all debt/obligation. But why does the text of Matthew 18.22 use both the Greek word for the number “seventy” and the Greek word for the number “seven”? There appears to be a combined allusion to Leviticus 25, which stresses the forgiveness of debt (where the Jubilee is calculated as “seven weeks of years” or seven times seven = 49 years) and Daniel 9 where there is a reference to the “seventy weeks” (which is calculated, but not in a millenialistic sense, as seventy times seven = 490 years). Daniel 9 highlights that the “seventy weeks are decreed . . . to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting rightousness” (Dan 9.24). By conflating allusions to Leviticus 25 and Daniel 9, Jesus is able to drive home with Peter his point about forgiveness. For Jesus, it wasn’t just an economic issue, it was also a matter of the righteousness that comes with the eschatological appearance of the messiah. Note the reference to “an anointed one” in the immediate context at Daniel 9.25. It was also a moral/ethical issue for Jesus, having to do with the way we treat each other and the sins we commit against each other in our daily lives. According to Jesus in Matthew 18.22, forgiving someone who sins against you is an unqualified act. You can’t place conditions on it. Otherwise it’s not forgiveness.