ON THE DANGER OF MISUSING SCRIPTURE IN PUBLIC
In the words of Miss Maudie, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:
“Sometimes the Bible in hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of [another].”
And after the statements yesterday by Jeff Sessions and Sarah Sanders, we see why.
In response to the U.S.A.’s cruel and unnecessary practice of now separating even nursing babies from their undocumented mothers on the southern border, Sessions offered this gem of biblical interpretation:
I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.
Likewise, Sanders said:
I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.
She then claimed that any inability to grasp this “biblical truth” was due to rank stupidity: “I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences, I guess.”
Well, I don’t know if I’m stupid.
But here’s a short sentence: “You’re wrong.”
And I don’t say that as some Lefty shill who opposes all border security [see here]. In fact, my point holds even if you agree with the abhorrent practice of forcing moms and dads to listen to the screams of their young children for no reason other than a kind of psychological torture.
WHAT SCRIPTURE ACTUALLY TEACHES
This post is about the meaning of the passage Sessions cited.
In fact, I happen to teach an entire course on the book from which it comes (Paul’s letter to the Romans), just in case he wants to audit it this fall.
What Romans 13 actually commands is not an obedience to (much less an endorsement of) to all governmental laws. Rather, its call is that we “be subject” to the ruling authorities by giving “what you owe them.”
If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor (vs. 7).
Yet as Paul’s life shows, what you “owe” Caesar is not carte blanche obedience. That’s idolatry. (Another short sentence.)
In fact, by the implied “Bible-logic” of Sessions and Sanders, Pharaoh’s daughter should have drowned young Moses in the Nile; Israelite exiles should have bowed to the idol of Nebuchadnezzar, and the apostles should have stopped preaching when commanded by the “ruling authorities.”
“Obey the ruling authorities…”
THE “WHISKY BIBLE”
With a nod to “Miss Maudie,” this is precisely the kind of nonsense that results when you start quoting from your “whisky bottle Bible”—i.e., a sacred text that is decontextualized and twisted to affirm a sinful, partisan agenda.
And Romans 13 has a long history of such abuse.
It was used by Hitler and the German Christians; and it was leveraged to justify laws on slavery and segregation.
It bears noting, however, that Paul himself was eventually killed by the government for his annoying refusal to stop proclaiming a greater King named Jesus.
So let me say this in summation of Jeff Sessions’ exegesis: His reading is on par with the claim that “Speed Limit” signs are meant to regulate one’s daily dose of amphetamines.
And it’s not just me who thinks so – even Franklin Graham, one of the President’s biggest mascots amongst religious leaders, has condemned the policy, calling it “disgraceful” (here).
NOT JUST A TRUMPIST PROBLEM
In truth, however, use of the “whisky Bible” is not unique to one political party—just as the separation of illegal immigrant families seems not to be entirely unique to the current administration, even though the practice has been codified and universalized by it. (Recall the famous picture of undocumented children caged up like dogs during the Obama years.)
All partisans (or rather: all Christians) have a tendency to hijack Scripture to serve our preconceived agendas.
On the Left, this happens (say) when passages on love and inclusion are taken to mean that particular moral absolutes are exchanged for a gospel of warm fuzzies. Or, more likely, when some forget that unborn children don’t deserve to be literally “ripped” from their mothers either.
“Whisky Bibles” come in a variety of flavors. And the tendency is to just play one off against the other. Southern comfort versus, uh…, whatever they drink in California.
Some Christians even swap out their favorite “tipsy” proof-texts depending on who’s in power at the time.
For example, it’s fascinating to see that the same crowd who was just three years ago shouting “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5.29) now cites Romans 13 as a divine endorsement of all governmental policies.
Could any sober person miss the irony?
A CALL TO DEEPER FAITH
One solution to such “drunken” interpretations is for Christians to be more deeply formed by the text we claim to believe. We need more than prooftexts plus a CableNews subscription.
Yet unfortunately, even amongst so-called “evangelicals,” such deep formation by the word of God is actually somewhat rare.
As Alan Jacobs writes (here):
The lesson to be drawn here is this: the great majority of Christians in America who call themselves evangelical are simply not formed by Christian teaching or the Christian scriptures. They are, rather, formed by the media they consume — or, more precisely, by the media that consume them.
The Bible is just too difficult, and when it’s not difficult it is terrifying. So many Christians simply act tribally, and when challenged to offer a Christian justification for their positions typically grope for a Bible verse or two, with no regard for its context or even its explicit meaning.
We must do better.
But it will require, in Luther’s words, that our “conscience [be] held captive to the word of God,” rather than the “boozy” whims of ill-informed and partisan prooftexting.
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