The Lovely Mess

When faced with criticism, we must weigh both the critic and the criticism. CS Lewis reminds us, “The most dangerous ideas in a society are not the ones being argued, but the ones being assumed.” Unfortunately, the author of the following article—http://www.rawstory.com/2015/06/captive-virgins-polygamy-and-sex-slaves- what-marriage-would-look-like-if-we-actually-followed-the bible/#.VZLXfwt3fcw.facebook—makes numerous assumptions. Here are a few…

#1 ‘The Bible is one book.’ It’s actually a library of books (sixty-six or seventy- three depending on whether you go with the Protestants or Catholics) collected over a few thousand years and comprised of a number of genres: myth, poetry, drama and history: all needing to be interpreted appropriately.

#2: ‘Believers are those with a narrow, fundamentalist outlook.’ The fact is that most who love, read and live by the bible, do not hold to this outlook.

#3: ‘There is only one God being advocated in the Bible.’ There are at least two versions of ‘God’ to be found in this library we refer to as the ‘Bible’: the God of the Royal Order1 and the God of the Prophets.

The God of the Royal Order is always assumed to be on the side of those in power, inspiring and justifying the priests and kings in their stonings, conquests, enslavements, keeping of temple prostitutes, harems and mountains of gold. The God of the Prophets is normally the minority report and says things like, “I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.”2

One of the fascinating things about the bible is this ongoing wrestle between those advocating a supposed God who gives us, ‘Enough knowledge and power to control the terror and eliminate the darkness’3 and a God who is on about ‘another Kingdom’, an invisible realm of justice, mercy and grace. Those who advocate this other mysterious God—who is called by various nicknames—say that he carries with him a deep experience of dread but also of loving-kindness. So it’s not always easy to tell which ‘God-voice’ we are hearing. When we read, ‘Thus says the Lord,’ we need to ask ourselves which God is being represented. The Chronicles of Narnia tell us that ‘Aslan is not a tame lion’ and it was this mantra that was used to great effect by the pretender (Shift) against the kind hearted little donkey (Puzzle).

Individuals in various books & letters of this bible-library, are empowered to speak directly to God and to even challenge God. As one of the psalm writers says…

‘I’m a black hole in oblivion.
You’ve dropped me into a bottomless pit,
Sunk me in a pitch-black abyss.
I’m battered senseless by your rage,
Relentlessly pounded by your waves of anger.
You turned my friends against me,
Made me horrible to them.
I’m caught in a maze and can’t find my way out,
Blinded by tears of pain and frustration.’4

Jesus, for example, confronted the voice of the Royal Order when he said things like, ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’5

Many who read the bible and love and live by it, see it as an amazing world of ‘testimony à dispute à advocacy’, which enables them to understand the ‘cosmic static’ of their own personal experience of what some refer to as a Higher Power or possibly their own delusions. But to stop there would be tragic and would leave the Ghandis and Martin Luther Kings of the world powerless before the Royal Order: both of these men drawing heavily on the teachings of Jesus.

And so it is that the bible—by gifting us with the voices of the prophets and of Jesus—prepares us to wrestle with the intimidation and brutality of the Royal Order and, interestingly, it teaches us to wrestle with God aka Jacob’s Wrestle (Gen 32: 22-32).

We see this dramatically in Franco Zeferelli’s version of Jesus of Nazareth where Barabbas is depicted as a freedom fighter attempting to recruit Jesus. Having heard Barabbas out, Jesus tells him to ‘love his enemies’: the freedom fighters now hate him as a coward. In another scene, Jesus opposes those who want to stone a woman for committing adultery. He saves the woman’s life and the Pharisees (representing the Royal Order) are furious: the misogynists now hate him as a liberal. Again, Jesus heals the servant of a Roman soldier: the racists now hate him as Rome-lover.

Displaying their ignorance of all this, the author of the above article says, ‘Furthermore, none of the norms that are endorsed and regulated in the (so-called) Old Testament law – polygamy, sexual slavery, coerced marriage of young girls—are revised, reversed, or condemned by Jesus.’

Not content to leave it at that, another great leap is made where the author says,
‘It (the bible) gives them the divine thumbs up.’ Exactly where it does this we are not told. There’s quite a lot the author doesn’t tell us: it’s called being ‘economical with the truth’.

What they don’t tell us, for example, is that the Old Testament laws were actually improvements on the laws of surrounding nations, which were far more brutal. Having to marry the girl you raped, or pay her father fifty shekels if he opposed the marriage, and never being allowed to divorce her (5a)—in an era where the raped girl might possibly be left unable to marry—was actually a powerful deterrent. You now had to take responsibility for her and you could never leave her. Interestingly there is no recorded instance of a girl being forced to marry a rapist in the Old Testament.

Of course, this ‘progressive revelation’ (6) was not going to stop there, one day (God hopes) society might reach the stage where the justice system would be so influenced by the bible that the offender could be jailed and the girl could go on her way. ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ and anyone who has ever had to work for reform knows the foolhardiness of the idealist who blindly wants everything changed at once and in the end only serves to keep everything the same.

A case in point is those who worked to abolish slavery in the US: the purists arguing most vehemently in congress for an immediate and complete abolition were actually playing into the hands of those advocating slavery. It wasn’t until they could be persuaded to adopt a moderate position that Abraham Lincoln and co. were able to succeed. In another example, Michael Collins (of IRA fame) faced the same problem when he was a negotiating with the English. Back home, Michael’s old enemy—De Valera—constantly agitated for no compromise while Michael was arguing for a step- by-step process. Valera would have none of it and in so doing threatened to destroy both Collins (which is what he wanted) and the whole process of negotiation for Irish autonomy.

In Jesus’ case, in the thirty years preceding his birth, an average of five thousand Jews were killed (by the Romans) every year in messianic uprisings. It’s highly likely that—as Zeffirelli suggests in his film—Jesus was courted by freedom fighters (possibly even the Romans) and the Pharisees. Under the watchful eye of the Royal Order, Jesus refused to be intimidated and risked imprisonment and execution by standing up to both friends and enemies. Thanks to his courage, his teachings paved the way for the elevation of the rights of women, children and all oppressed peoples. No reading of history is able to contest this.

1 Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.29 Augsburg Fortress 2002. Brueggemann writes about this in detail in Prophetic Imagination

2 Amos 5:21 -24

3. Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.29 Augsburg Fortress 2002

4. Psalm 88:8,9 MSG

5 Matt 5:43 RSV c.f. Ex 21:24
5a Duet 22:28-29 & Ex 22:16 – 27
6 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_revelation_(Christianity)