Misusing Scripture: Collusion, Context, and using the Bible to justify oppression

The following is an excerpt from a sermon delivered on Sunday, June 17, 2018 at the Ellis Avenue Church, Chicago by Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, President of OMNIA.

I want talk today about one key principle of reading and interpreting scripture. A good place to start is with some of my favorite theologians: Charlie Brown and Snoopy. In one cartoon, Snoopy is sitting on the roof of his dog house typing. Charlie Brown comes along and says, “I hear you’re writing a book on theology, I hope you have a good title.” Snoopy, confident as ever looks up and replies, “I have the prefect title. ‘Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?’” 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions

This week, our esteemed Attorney General tried to justify a brutal zero-tolerance policy on immigration by referring to the Bible. In the six weeks this policy has been in force, approximately 2000 children have been warehoused in cages near the border. I am outraged. I hope you are outraged. People of faith must to be outraged. How can we, as dads, (and moms) hug our children this Father's Day if we are not willing to be outraged at what our government is doing to children and families? It is not that this kind of thing hasn’t happened before. The history of racism in this country is replete with stories of how we have mistreated children. We in the church have been in the forefront of our struggle -- in the civil rights movement -- because it is an utter affront to who we are as people and to our faith. We don’t let our government do that to our children any more. So when police -- agents of the government – act brutally against our children, beat them up, and kill them, we are outraged. In the same way, we cannot let this atrocity go unchallenged. 

You know, there is nothing new in the way Sessions used the Bible this week to justify this violence. In fact, for centuries empires have used sacred texts to justify their violence. And through the centuries church leaders have colluded with empires. Sometimes by not challenging it, and at other times more proactively using sleight-of-hand theological trickery, changing a word here and there in theological positions to affirm the empire’s brutal policies. And then we, people of faith, have often allowed ourselves to be fooled, believing the nonsense that the empire feeds us. So, let me offer a quick word on this. 

I wish I had the chance to tell Mr. Sessions “has it ever occurred to you that you may be wrong?” When interpreting a text, the first question to ask is this: What is context in which the text was written: 

After his conversion, Paul was in Damascus, and preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. This didn’t sit well with the government because they thought that title belonged to Caesar. Paul heard that he was about to be arrested by the city governor, so he escaped by getting his disciples to lower him down the city wall in a basket. Paul did this kind of thing. How many times he was beaten, arrested and imprisoned by the government, because he believed that he should follow God’s calling and not the government’s law. So, Paul’s words in Romans 13 are surprising: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities which exist have been established by God.” 

Now, that leads us to the second question: What might the people who first read these words understand that we, 2000 years later, won’t understand in the same way? One important word they would have understood differently is the word "submit" So, here’s a short Greek lesson for you. The word here for submit is hupo-tasso. That word literally means to arrange stuff in an "orderly manner." It was often used to describe how army troops would arrange themselves in formation, or that societies arrange themselves to run in an orderly way. “Submit” doesn’t sound to us that way. It sounds more like “be subject to,” or “obey.” Even though this may "sound like Greek to you," hang with me for a moment!

You remember that famous passage in Ephesians 5 about wives and husbands. We didn’t read this here today, but you should read it. This passage is often used by chauvinistic men, to bully their wives in to subservience. We should say to such men: has it ever occurred to you that you may be wrong? First of all, that passage does not begin in 5:22, as many think it does. It begins in 5:21 which reads: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The word that is used here is, again, Hupo-tasso. In other words: make orderly arrangements with each other out of reverence for Christ. And we could go on: as, for example, wives are usually subject to their husbands, since this is the social norm. Then comes the kicker: no husband has heard this part before: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. All along here the word is hupo-tasso.

There is another word, hupo-kouo, that Paul could have used. which is best translated as “obey,” and refers to hierarchical relationship. Paul could have used this word, "obey," but chose not to. Now, Ephesians which speaks about husbands and wives in chapter 5 moves quickly to children and slaves in chapter 6, and the word there is hupo-kouo – obey. Where children and parents are concerned, and where slaves and masters are concerned, he is talking about a hierarchical relationship. Now we can debate whether that’s right or wrong later. But for now, our concern is the meaning of the word. 

Paul could have used hupo-kauo in Romans 13, but didn’t. When the governing authorities make policies that order or lives in a way that beneficial to society, we should consent to that. But nowhere does he mean that we should obey unjust laws. Paul himself didn’t do that.

The Bible has a whole tradition of people disobeying unjust laws. The book of Exodus begins with the story of how the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah were ordered by Pharaoh to murder newborn babies, but they refused. This is how Moses was saved. The gospel of Matthew begins with the story of how the wise men came to worship baby Jesus, they deliberately disobeyed the orders of King Herod, by going a different way. Many of the disciples from ancient times up to today, ended up in prison for disobeying unjust laws. Remember, slavery was lawful. The holocaust was legal. Segregation and apartheid were legally sanctioned. 

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images News / Getty Images
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images News / Getty Images

Now, Mr. Sessions may not be interested in what I just said. Not understanding this is more useful for his purpose. This is how empires work. They use religious texts to legitimize their brutality. They did this with slavery, they did this with the holocaust, and many other atrocities. So, let us not be fooled. When politicians use scripture, let us be particularly vigilant.

Theology, or biblical interpretation that comes to us as authoritative and ancient tradition, is too often tainted with empire’s corruption. I call this top-down or “received” theology. Over the centuries, church authorities have bent over backwards to support and legitimize empire’s policies. Sometimes intentionally, with a little shift, a word here, a phrase there that nobody notices, which over years become a major shift in support of the empire. You should know, the work I do with OMNIA is primarily teaching people to dismantle this kind of received theology that brings with it attitudes of exclusivity and superiority that would assert "Only I am right, and my way is better than yours." This is why we are in Nigeria helping Muslims and Christians to build collaborative relationships so they can work together. We are getting some incredible stories out of that context. We are in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and in Chicago. 

On the other hand, there is bottom-up “contextual” theology. The starting point for such a theology are the questions and daily struggles of people in our communities. Let me tell you a couple of stories about how that happens:

About twenty years ago, when I was pastor at this church, we had many people coming from communities surrounding Hyde Park including Englewood.  Mr. J. would drive the van in the morning and pick everyone up. At that time we also started to meet in people’s homes. We called them cell groups. The idea was that like biological cells they would grow, and multiply. We had a cell group in M's house in Englewood.  L. and I would go there once a week. From time to time the neighbors would participate so that the small living room got crowded and we wondered about whether it was time to create a second cell group in a neighbor’s home. In fact we started a basketball team there, which we took to championship! We still have that trophy sitting here somewhere.

One evening when we arrived, there was a commotion. A young boy returning home after school was caught in gang crossfire and was killed a block from her home. M. was beside herself.  Her own son had returned home from school minutes earlier. When the excitement died down, we gathered in her home for prayer. M. insisted that life should go on, and that we must have our bible study as planned. How does one do Bible Study when life of a neighbor kid has been brought to a screeching halt by a gangbanger’s gun? Of course, we talk, we cry, we hug each other, and then we pray. These are the prayers that come out as groans that are too deep for words. 

Brother L. who had prepared to lead the bible study that day, knew that his plan had been upended. It was not going to go in the direction he had planned. Yet, bravely, he began with the image of faith as a mustard seed. Jesus said, “If you have the faith as much as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain go fall in the sea, and it will,” he said. There were affirmative nods from several in the group. They seemed to recognize that saying. But it seemed a little too heady for that moment, so L. went on to the next image about the mustard seed. The mustard seed is very small, he said, but grows to be a big shrub. It grows rather surreptitiously among other plants and suddenly you have a lot of them and it takes over the entire field. Faith is like a mustard seed, he said.

M.'s eyes widened. “You mean,” she said, “we can grow this cell group, so that there are more groups in other homes, and suddenly we will be bigger and better organized than the gangs that shoot our kids? Can we grow our cell groups like the mustard seed that grows quietly and suddenly becomes big? So, when we become big, like we can say to the gangs, go fall in the sea, they will? We may be small like the mustard seed now, but can we become so big, and so organized that our faith will be able to move a mountain?” 

I could hardly believe my ears. She got it. She learned what “faith” means. This soft-spoken woman who, a few moments ago was utterly struck by grief, outrage and deep anxiety, learned something that most Christians never get. In that moment, she learned that “faith” is a verb; that it is not “belief” in something that is incredulous that you suppress all your rational faculties to give ascent to because your church, pastor or other religious authority tell you to. It clicked in her mind that faith is a heart-rending protest, determined hope, and a defiant action. 

This is contextual theology at its best! It arises from the daily desperation, the long-term struggles, the persistent questions that people have about the existential realities with which they live. From there they go to scripture and tradition and ask what wisdom they have for them. It is not theology that is imposed from above. It bubbles up from below. It is fierce, it is controversial, it breaks through barriers to accomplish what others have said cannot be done. M. looked around at her neighbors who had all filed into her living room that day. “We can’t let the gangbangers rule our streets,” she said. “We must come together, talk together, pray together, organize together. There is no other way!”

So, if you understand the fundamental problem with quoting scripture to justify oppression and injustice, a tactic that empire uses, and churches often endorse, and we get fooled by – if you understand that problem – and if you understand that theology (our thinking about God) to live, to be relevant, to speak to our human condition must arise from below, beginning with our deepest questions and struggles, then, you have understood a critically important fact about Christian life. 

Marco Antonio Muñoz

Marco Antonio Muñoz

Last week, even as we remembered two celebrities that died by suicide, Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade, there was another that we didn’t pay much attention to, and that was Marco Antonio Muñoz, a 39-year-old Honduran dad who came here to escape the horror of violence and the real possibility of getting killed. He undertook a 3000-mile-long journey with his wife and 3 year old child, in trucks, freight trains, rafts, buses and by foot, perhaps with a caravan of others. At last they arrived at the border in McAllen, Texas and went to Customs and Border Patrol seeking asylum. This is the legal process. People who are suffering persecution, whose lives are in danger can apply for refugee status in their country, or present themselves at the U.S. border and ask for asylum. The Trump administration drastically reduced refugee processing centers in August last year, so more people are presenting themselves at the border and seeking asylum. When the Muñoz family appeared at McAllen border, they were told that they would be separated. That’s when Muñoz “lost it,” said one agent, “The guy lost his s**t. They had to use physical force to take the child out of his hands.” Separated by a chain-link fence, he tried to break it, when they tried to put him in a van, he tried to run away, in other words, he tried to communicate in whatever way he knew that he was thoroughly distraught by the family separation. That night, they found him dead in his cell. He had used a piece of clothing to strangle himself. 

Now, before we use the Bible to condemn Muñoz’ taking his own life, or debate whether he should have brought his wife and child in the first place, let’s pause to identify with this dad. That place of deep desperation and struggle is where our theology begins. It must begin by trying to put ourselves in his shoes and trying to imagine what life must have been like in Honduras. In OMNIA’s trips to the Nogales border, we’ve heard many horror stories. One Honduran woman said, I can either break the law trying to come to the United States or be killed by the Honduran gangs. What shall I do? This is the choice Marco Antonio Muñoz had to face. I can imagine that he, his wife and child travelled together with great difficulty and discomfort, paying thousands of dollars to the "coyotes" who transport them to come to the border, to a place of safety, to the bastion of liberty, freedom and human rights. And then you heave a sigh of relief and do what you believe is the lawful thing to do, present yourself to the authorities. And suddenly, your wife and child are taken away from you, and you don’t know where they will be and whether you will ever see them again. Imagine the trauma to the wife and specially the child!

Theology begins not when politicians start quoting scripture to justify their brutality. Theology begins by recognizing Christ in the margins. It begins by listening to the anguish of neighbors when a kid was killed in Englewood, and listening to the story of a migrant dad who felt he had to take his life, because his cries of anguish could not be heard. 

We too easily forget that the God who Jesus introduced to, and with total conviction he called Father, and in his most excruciating time of his life referred to as Abba, or Daddy, This does not sound like an authoritarian, top-down Father to me. It sounds like one who is standing in solidarity with us in the gunfire, one who stands with us when our child is snatched from us, one who eagerly waits for the prodigal son to return and when he sees the son in a distance, goes out and embraces him, kills the fatted calf and throws a party. It is the one whom Jesus commanded us to love with all our hearts, souls and strengths, and together with such loving to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is where theology begins.