History is replete with examples of how religion has been used to divide, abuse, and justify horror. Christian theologies have been distorted to fit ideologies of white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism and oppression. Today many Conservative spokespersons continue to selectively quote scripture, employ religious imagery and deploy twisted religious rhetoric to support policies of unprovoked international aggression and domestic oppression.
Many who resist marriage equality base their opposition in a biblical assertion that homosexuality is inherently evil and deserving of punishment. They often point to Leviticus 20:13, which reads “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”
When Haiti was ravaged by a devastating earthquake, Pat Robertson argued that the nation was cursed. Robertson’s insisted the island was reaping a harvest of death and destruction because they had entered into a pact with the devil during their 19th century liberation struggle.
Just last week, Virginia state delegate Bob Marshall said that children born with disabilities are divine punishment for those who terminate earlier pregnancies. To support his position Marshall cited Exodus 13:2, which reads “Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine.”
With this history, it is easy to understand the progressive desire to eliminate God talk from political life. Let's banish faith claims from public life and get on with addressing the empirical realities of inequality. I am sympathetic to this solution. Policymaking should be firmly rooted in secular decision making based in evidence, science, and non-religious assessments of the common good.
But if the left remains near exclusively secular in its approach to public life, it will continue to miss important opportunities for building broader and more durable coalitions. Ignoring, denigrating or hoping to eliminate biblically based faith claims from public discourse does not serve progressive political interests.
At least part of the political Left needs to engage biblical texts and arguments directly. This does not mean simply trying to reinterpret biblical stories so that their messages are liberal and libratory; it also means acknowledging that some texts are irredeemably oppressive.
American Presbyterian minister, novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner warns against assuming that biblical stories are always comforting or edifying. Many reveal lessons that are difficult and distressing. These biblical narratives cannot simply be reinterpreted to reveal a more reassuring meaning. Some beloved stories are those of human beings doing terrible things to one another, following their own ambitions, breaking ethical rules and still reaping divine favor.
Jacob steals his brother’s blessing, but goes on to become the father of many nations. David commits adultery and murder, but remains beloved by God. Peter denies Jesus three times, but becomes the rock on which the Christian church is founded. Feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible critically intervened in religious studies by emphasizing the misogyny, brutality, oppression and cruelty toward women found in many biblical stories. Trible says that these “texts of terror” should not be ignored, nor should we make attempt to easily redeem them by insisting they are only metaphors. Instead of pretending that these texts of terror don’t exist, Trible demands that we see how stories of rape, abuse, and injustice remain the central narratives for women’s lives in contemporary societies.
But there is still hope for those invested in re-imagining the bible as a tool of progressive social change.
It is black history month and the history of African Americans is instructive on this point. It is a history of organizing, leadership and efforts for justice that defies neat social scientific categorization. Efforts for racial justice are partly explained by changing social dynamics, political opportunity structures and international dynamics, but a substantial portion of black resistance and resilience must be understood as a faith story.
I still stand in open mouthed wonder at the realization that black people in America came to believe in a loving, benevolent and just God when there was so little empirical evidence to support that world view.
It is humbling to remember that women and men who were born into slavery, and never expected anything but slavery for their children and grandchildren, nonetheless believed that they were equal human beings worthy of the love of a benevolent and intervening God. It is a different kind of knowing, one with at least as much power as reason and evidence.
Black liberation theology emerges from this tradition of rejecting scriptural evidence of a slavery-supporting God and roots itself in a biblical interpretation of God as an advocate for the oppressed.
Despite a Democratic administration, the American Left is struggling to to create more space for itself in public discourse. To make this space progressives will need more than sterile reason, rationality, and evidence. These tools can become a kind of cynical self-righteousness that denies the powerful work of faith based claims that generate social change. An analytic lens that that reveals injustice can become paralyzing without the faith to believe that collective efforts can truly initiate change.
Faith is a practice of intellectual humility. It is a habit that reminds us of our own limitations and encourages us to remember that we don’t know everything, can’t predict every outcome, and don’t control every variable. A powerful and justice-loving God is an important political tool for those who have the fewest resources to resist inequality.
The recent reemergence of conservative, biblical claims renew my sense that we need to cultivate an active, public, prophetic, liberal core that can resist these texts of terror by arguing for a more comprehensive engagement with the bible.
I wonder if Bob Marshall has read the entire book of Exodus. It is tough text not easily distilled to a single meaning. It is both the story of a loving God who prefers liberation to slavery and the story of a murderous divinity that slaughters innocent children. It is a book of promises kept and broken. Sloppy and simple exegesis is unacceptable for those committed to the bible as a sacred text with particular relevance to social and political decision making.
It might be time for progressives to lead our national bible study.