Monday, May 16, 2005

Liberal Bible-Thumping - New York Times

Nicolas Kristof:

John Shelby Spong, the former bishop, tosses a hand grenade into the cultural wars with "The Sins of Scripture," which examines why the Bible - for all its message of love and charity - has often been used through history to oppose democracy and women's rights, to justify slavery and even mass murder.

It's a provocative question, and Bishop Spong approaches it with gusto. His mission, he says, is "to force the Christian Church to face its own terrifying history that so often has been justified by quotations from 'the Scriptures.' "

This book is long overdue, because one of the biggest mistakes liberals have made has been to forfeit battles in which faith plays a crucial role. Religion has always been a central current of American life, and it is becoming more important in politics because of the new Great Awakening unfolding across the United States.

Yet liberals have tended to stay apart from the fray rather than engaging in it. In fact, when conservatives quote from the Bible to make moral points, they tend to quote very selectively. After all, while Leviticus bans gay sex, it also forbids touching anything made of pigskin (is playing football banned?) - and some biblical passages seem not so much morally uplifting as genocidal.

"Can we really worship the God found in the Bible who sent the angel of death across the land of Egypt to murder the firstborn males in every Egyptian household?" Bishop Spong asks. Or what about 1 Samuel 15, in which God is quoted as issuing orders to wipe out all the Amalekites: "Kill both man and woman, child and infant." Hmmm. Tough love, or war crimes? As for the New Testament, Revelation 19:17 has an angel handing out invitations to a divine dinner of "the flesh of all people."

Bishop Spong, who has also taught at Harvard Divinity School, argues that while Christianity historically tried to block advances by women, Jesus himself treated women with unusual dignity and was probably married to Mary Magdalene.
Spong is right on target when he gives examples of Jesus as treating women with unusual dignity. The Bible has been highjacked by conservatives who read it selectively.

Unfortunately, Spong proves once again that he is more interested in inflamming rather than informing; more interested in drawing attention to himself, than using his intellect to teach us how to read the Bible to change our lives and our society. It is simply not helpful to mix that message with speculation about whether Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married, or whether Paul was a homosexual.

Too bad Spong has chosen to be a grenade tosser rather than a bridge builder.

Kristof again:

Some of the bishop's ideas strike me as more provocative than persuasive, but at least he's engaged in the debate. When liberals take on conservative Christians, it tends to be with insults - by deriding them as jihadists and fleeing the field. That's a mistake. It's entirely possible to honor Christian conservatives for their first-rate humanitarian work treating the sick in Africa or fighting sex trafficking in Asia, and still do battle with them over issues like gay rights.

Liberals can and should confront Bible-thumping preachers on their own terms, for the scriptural emphasis on justice and compassion gives the left plenty of ammunition. After all, the Bible depicts Jesus as healing lepers, not slashing Medicaid.
I agree, up to the last sentence. Reasonable Christians can agree that the commandment to love is an individual and collective commandment to care for the poor. Reasonable Christians can disagree about whether as a majority we should impose that commandment on everyone through the powers of the state. And if we do, whether Medicaid is the best way to address poverty.

Thank you to UU Charlie for emailing the link.

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