Let me be perfectly clear from the start of this post. I am not addressing my criticisms here to anyone from the black community. This is a critical self-reflection for the white community, of which I am a part. This is a self-criticism. Especially those of us who go by the name of Christian. To the white community that goes by the name of Christian, do you read your Bible? And if you do, how do you read it? As a biblical scholar and a pastor, my observation is that most of us do not. And for those of us who do read it, we read it without much interest in challenging ourselves to read it outside the box of what we’ve always thought it to mean. This blog post is not written for the black community. It is written with my white Christian friends and neighbors in mind, and I pose it as a challenge to read your Bibles and to think critically about those who would use the Bible as a weaponized political tool.
On Monday evening, 1 June 2020, Donald J. Trump and five of his all-white, hand-chosen cabinet members marched out of the White House, across Lafayette Square, and lined themselves up in front of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Brandishing a Bible like a sword (or holding it like a huckster selling steaks), Trump glared into the cameras (not an exaggeration) and announced the greatness of Trump’s America. He did not offer a prayer for the family of George Floyd. He did not offer words to inspire unity or hope. He did not speak to the American people. He spoke to his own fragile ego, which had been cowering in the White House bunker for days.
The irony of Trump accusing Joe Biden of hiding in his basement from the Corona virus outbreak should not be lost on anyone. Biden would be found in the streets of Maryland talking directly with protesters, listening to their concerns, offering words of encouragement and hope.
What can only be described as a media stunt, a photo-op, Trump and his weapon wielding entourage marched themselves back to the White House, having accomplished nothing but what we’ve all become accustomed (desensitized) to expect from Trump. More hate. More division. More posturing on the part of his partisan apologists.
The Bible is not a political prop. The Bible is not a reified thing (an object) to be weaponized for political ends. It is not a tool to be used as an ideological weapon to beat back an entire community standing against centuries of injustice, an entire community that has suffered the most heinous acts of violence in the name of law and order. Centuries. Not weeks, or months, or years. Centuries (500 years) of the most heinous acts of violence in the name of law and order. Not because of demonstrable guilt, but because of the color of their skin. Not because of violations of the law, but because the laws of our nation are crafted and enforced to systemically oppress an entire community of American citizens.
That Bible on your shelf? Take it down and open its cover. There are no excuses for not having the time to read it. Essential workers may have an excuse as far as having the time nowadays, but most of us have plenty. Instead of spending so much time on your favorite conspiracy theory sites, pull that Bible down from the shelf and start reading. As a professor of Biblical Studies, a New Testament specialist to be precise, let me suggest a passage to start with. And just so you know, I am not speaking to everyone in general. I am speaking to those who call themselves Christians, but find themselves in the precarious position of having to defend Trump’s relentless dumpster fire of a presidency, and in the process are putting yourselves in a position of a compromised faith.
Let’s start with Luke 10.25-37. The parable of the Good Samaritan. That’s how it’s traditionally known. Most people think it’s about helping your neighbor. That guy with a flat tire on the side of the road? You help him? That makes you the Good Samaritan. The older lady who lives across the street and isn’t able to go to the store to buy food because she has difficulty walking? You help her? That makes you the Good Samaritan. Or does it?
Always look at the context. Who is Jesus speaking to? What are the questions being asked. A “lawyer,” or what should better be translated a “scholar of the Torah” stood up to test Jesus. “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus pointed him to the law, of which this man was a scholar. Jesus asked him, what does the law say. How do you read it. The man answered, “Love God. Love your neighbor.” Jesus praised him for this answer. Luke tells us that the Torah scholar sought to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” This is the point at which Jesus tells the parable. I’m not going to go through the details of the parable here. Pull that Bible down off the shelf and read it for yourself. Don’t assume that you already know what it means. Read. It. What I will do is share with you a little of the historical context.
The origin of the Samaritans begins with the displacement of conquered peoples by the Assyrian King Shalmanezer in the eighth century BCE. When Shalmanezer conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, he displaced the Israelites into other Assyrian territories and moved people from those other territories into the region of the northern kingdom of Israel which came to be known as the region of Samaria. Hence the name Samaritans. This is according to 2 Kings 17. The foreign peoples displaced by Shalmanezer into the region of Samaria were accused by the Jewish people of not being faithful to YHWH. They were accused of mixing their worship of YHWH with the worship of other deities. And so the beginning of the prejudice against Samaritans begins in the eighth century BCE and lasts for centuries, for about seven hundred years until the time of Jesus. Seven hundred years.
Flavius Josephus describes how the racial prejudice between Jews and Samaritans manifested itself in the years before and during the time of Jesus. He describes the hatred they had for each other, and how the Jewish High Priest John Hyrcanus burned the Samaritan temple and the city of Shechem in Samaria near Mt. Gerizim in 128 BCE, and how they committed acts of violence against each other, burning each other’s synagogues and defiling each other’s sacred spaces, and literally killing each other. The hatred and the prejudice between Jews and Samaritans was so very, very real in the Second Temple period.
Back to the Good Samaritan. Notice that at the end of the parable, when Jesus asked, who proved to be a neighbor to the injured man, the Torah scholar so hated Samaritans that he couldn’t even bring himself to say the words “the Samaritan.” And the original question posed by the Torah scholar, what must I do to inherit eternal life, Jesus answers with this parable, putting his finger precisely on the very issue in this Torah scholar’s life that was preventing him from realizing his goal.
Knowing what you now know about the historical context of this New Testament passage and this teaching of Jesus, which has traditionally been taught as a lesson about helping one’s neighbor in need, what is it that keeps you from moving past this superficial, unhistorical interpretation? And what is it that keeps you from arriving at your ultimate goal of achieving eternal life? Could it be that racial hatred and prejudice in THIS life are holding you back? How we treat each other in THIS life is intimately connected to attaining our goal of achieving eternal life. You can’t have a gospel of the assuaged conscience (that relies on cheap forgiveness) and excuse yourself from loving your neighbor.
And who is my neighbor, the person you have the most disgust for. For the politically progressive, your neighbor is Donald J. Trump, brandishing the Bible like a weapon and using it as a political prop to stir up his base. Your neighbor is the Trump supporter who sucker punches you when you protest in their midst. Your neighbor is the white supremacist who breaks windows and sets cars on fire to create a narrative of delegitimization of your peaceful protest.
For the political conservative your neighbor is the progressive and the liberal who think you are a fool, who despise you for what they perceive to be your inability to engage in critical, independent thinking, who refer to you as deplorables.
We can be critical of each other. That’s a simple reality. But our criticisms of each other need to begin with self-reflection and self-criticism, and using the Bible for what it was actually meant to be used. To engage in critical self-reflection, to embrace a changed heart and a changed mind, to love God, AND to love our neighbor. No excuses. No rationalizations.
The narrative about the cross of Christ is the proof of the lengths God would go to love all of us, not just some of us. If that amazing display of suffering for us and the promise of continued suffering with us does not transform the way we think about and act toward our fellow human beings, with love instead of hate, then nothing will.
Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of a man does not accomplish the justice of God. James 1.19-20