Mennonite Radio – Let’s be honest about the horrible parts of the sometimes not-so-holy Bible

Mennonite Radio Episode #32 – Let’s be honest about the horrible parts of the sometimes not-so-holy Bible

A sermon by James M. Branum

Preached at Joy Mennonite Church on Sunday, August 27, 2017


The following is a working script that I used when delivering this sermon, but I did make some minor changes in the audio version, which may not be reflected here:

I normally don’t give my sermons titles, but this one is an exception, as I want to make it clear from the beginning what this is about. The title is: Why we should be honest about the horrible parts of the sometimes not-so-holy Bible.

The reason for this sermon is an incident from a good while ago, in fact, thanks to the memory of social media, I know it was 7 years ago. It was a time in which I didn’t speak very wisely.

Here’s what happened. A friend I knew from peace activism circles was training to be a teacher and he wrote to ask me for advice about helpful resources to be used in teaching about nonviolence. I gave two recommendations, one of them being the Bible, especially the gospels of Jesus.

My friend was too kind and tactful to push back on my recommendation, but I later heard from a mutual friend that my recommendation to use the Bible as a resource for teaching nonviolence was troubling. This second friend then pushed me to explain myself for recommending a text that was so full of sexism, prejudice and violence.
I ended up having a lengthy telephone conversation with this mutual friend and I tried to defend the perspective that I then had, that the Bible’s bad parts could largely be explained away as a product of culture, and that Jesus’ message of nonviolence and love is the part that we should retain. In other words, I gave a good solid “intellectual” response, but today I can see that I didn’t take seriously enough the question of what to do with the truly terrible parts of the Bible and of the lingering effects that these texts have on people to this day.

It is from my reflection over the years from that conversation that I will be speaking today, dealing with three key points….

1. The fact that the Bible has some truly horrible passages…
2. A discussion of what these inconsistencies might be about.
3. A discussion of why a careless use of the Bible can wound people.

So, let’s plunge in…

Last night I asked my friends on facebook to share some of the passages that most troubled them in the Bible. Time won’t permit to share all of them, but a few of them included…

1. Genesis 19:8, where Lot offered his virgin daughters to be gang-raped.

2. Ephesians 5-6, where the author said that wives should be obedient to their husbands and that slaves should be obedient to their masters.

3. Psalm 137:9 – where the Psalmist expressed his desire for extreme vengeance by saying “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

4. Deuteronomy 22:28-29, in which the crime of rape is treated not as a crime, but rather as a property offence against the family patriarch, a minor offence that could be rectified by paying a monetary penalty to the wronged father and by forcing the rape victim to marry her rapist.

5. And of course, we can’t forget the many divinely-ordered genocides during the Exodus story and the later conquest of the land of Canaan.

And this is just a small sample of these horrible texts, texts that celebrate violence, that codify misogyny, that enforce slavery and oppression and that violate all of the basic human principles of kindness and love.

I know there are folks out there who teach that the Bible is the ultimate arbiter of good and evil, and hence these horrible texts are in fact good, but I just can’t go there. The messages of these texts are evil and we need to say it as such.

We need to speak plainly…

Rape is evil.

Slavery is evil.

Oppression is evil.

Genocide is evil.

Even if the Bible says otherwise.

Certainly, there are cultural, historical, things at play here, there is context, issues of translation, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, but we need to be careful when we tell our children, our friends, our neighbors to simply “read the Bible” to find out truth.
And yet… I’m not willing to throw the proverbial “baby out with the bathwater.” The Bible also contains words of liberation, of love, of peace, most notably the powerful teachings of Jesus, who calls for his followers to work for peace, to work for justice, and to love everyone, even our enemies.

So what do we do?

There are many ways to read and interpret the Bible, to make sense of these contradictory messages. Time won’t permit us to explore all of them, but I will briefly touch on two principles that I think can be helpful.

The first is Christocentrism, the method used by the Early Anabaptists (the tradition that the Mennonites are a part of), that taught that scripture can best be read and interpreted through the lens of Jesus and his teachings. Certainly this helps some, but it doesn’t solve all of our problems. For instance, a literalistic read of Jesus’ teachings of marriage would seem to say that an abused spouse shouldn’t get a divorce. Surely, surely, this isn’t a good teaching.

A second is one I learned from Moses Mast, the pastor of this church when I first became a part of this congregation. He taught me that we should understand the Bible as a collection of writings that explained how a few groups of people tried to understand God, their place in the universe, and morality, but that other peoples had their own stories that served the same purpose, and that no one had all of the truth, and everyone distorted things at times. This approach is very helpful, and it has helped me to not only be able to sift through the good and bad parts of the Bible, but to also be able to do the same with other religious texts and traditions — to glean understanding and inspiration from the Rabbinical Jewish tradition as well as Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Native American and other traditions.

These two methods, and others, are helpful tools, especially in the context of a religious community which has in part committed to the journey of wrestling with a particular tradition and its scriptures… but I still come back to the question of how this can work in our conversations with the broader community and society, and more particularly to my friend’s question from 7 years ago…

The reality is that the horrible texts of the Bible have hurt a lot of people, and we need to recognize this. For instance, we know that…

LGBT+ people have heard the Bible be used as a weapon to delegitimize their identity.

Women have heard the Bible be used to keep them out of the pulpit and to tell them to conform to traditional gender roles.

Black people have heard the Bible be used to justify the American history of slavery and the present-day reality of racism.

Military veterans with issues of conscience have heard the bible to be used by chaplains to explain why they should ignore the pangs of conscience.

Poor people have heard the Bible be used to explain why they deserve to be poor and shouldn’t organize for a better world.

Palestinians have been told many Christians that the Bible teaches they have no right to their own homeland.

And that’s just some of the hurts that have been inflicted.

Many of us in this room have experienced the pain of having the Bible be used a weapon, against ourselves and against our loved ones.
And… at the same time, for many of us, the Bible has also served as a source of liberation and change. — For myself, I credit my re-reading of the Gospel accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus with converting me from being a nationalistic warmonger and towards a lifestyle of trying to work for peace and solidarity. And I’ve spent a good chunk of educational life in the quest of trying to understand and make sense of the Bible, in all of its beautiful, complicated and sometimes horrible nature. To me, if I had to list a relationship status (to use the facebook lingo) for my feelings about the Bible, I would have to say “It’s complicated”

Looking back to seven years ago, I now can see how my careless words might have hurt my friend and it makes me want to be much more careful about the ways I make use of the Bible in conversation.

I don’t have any easy answers here, but I will say that I have committed myself to trying hard to remember and recognize that the collection of writings that has given my life much of its meaning and value has also caused immeasurable harm, and that we need to be careful in how we make use of the Bible.

And we need to respect the fact that for some of our friends and family, the harm done by and through the Bible may have been too much, and that this book may not be redeemable. And if that is the case, then maybe we need to try to understand the pain of our friends and family, rather than trying to defend the Bible.
Which leads us to our discussion time, where I hope to hear your thoughts.