"The lines we draw are invitations to cross over and that crossing over, as any nomadic subject knows, constitutes who we are." (Judith Butler)

Who Cares about the Bible?

I’ve begun writing a series of essays for the Iowa Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) newsletter, “Social Questions Bulletin,” on how the Bible is used in church debates with an eye toward developing a public hermeneutic (method of interpretation) that is grounded in the life-giving nature of scripture, rather than (solely) in its rhetorical value as an authoritative source for Christians.

The impetus is, well, many circumstances generally but specifically, a vote of the 2010 Iowa Annual Conference (a regional organizational unit of the United Methodist Church). Following Arizona’s passage of its severe anti-immigration law, SB 1070, United Methodists around the country organized to propose Annual Conference resolutions denouncing the xenophobia represented and further incited by the legislation. Perhaps most poignantly, the resolution brought forward in Iowa called for a period of prayer and a spirit of compassion in the midst of fear.

The resolution grounded itself firmly in scripture and the Methodist tradition, beginning with the following:

WHEREAS:  Throughout scripture we see evidence of God’s call to welcome the sojourner,
WHEREAS:  We are called through our baptism to stand against evil, injustice, and oppression…

The footnote to the first statement highlighted the biblical call to care for the stranger and outcast, referencing Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:33-34, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Zechariah 7:9-10, Matthew 25:35, and Hebrews 13:2.
(Read the full resolution here: Final 2010 Resolution on Immigration for AC Floor (as approved by Legislative Section II) June 2010)

Of course, support for immigrants is generally perceived as a politically “liberal” position, and so the conservatives in the church were ready with a response. I’m assuming they ceded the fact that a majority of people might feel compelled to respond in some way since the Bible speaks so clearly about care for our neighbors (who are, to be sure, everyone). Thus,an alternative was brought forward saying simply that “God calls for love” and that “Christians have differing views on the complex issue of immigration,” so we should pray for comprehensive immigration reform. (The full text can be read here.) Basically, it was a way to say something without saying much at all.

The substituted resolution felt more comfortable (“less divisive”) to people, and it passed. What was most striking to me, though, was that scripture was totally and completely axed from the substitution. What does it mean when we claim at one moment that the Bible constitutes the primary source of Christian teaching and then at another time toss it aside as it challenges us toward places we do not want to go?

Moreover, I am absolutely certain that those who proposed and advocated for the scripture-less substitute resolution are among the same folks who reject the ordination and full participation of LGBT persons, ostensibly on the “literal” basis of scripture. I have long had this cynical suspicion that people don’t actually care what the Bible has to say when engaged in church debate; rather, scripture serves as a convenient rhetorical tool to win an argument since it is afforded such primacy by Christian tradition.

After the astounding rejection of the Bible as a source for thinking about immigration that was displayed at the 2010 Iowa Annual Conference, I say it’s time to stop pretending that we take scripture seriously… and do it (or don’t but at least admit to it)! Certainly, the challenge is how we take the Bible seriously since interpretations will invariably differ (which I don’t think is such a bad thing). As a biblical scholar in training, this issue is an especially crucial one to me, and so I have begun a series of articles for the Iowa MFSA to consider how we might engage in processes of (re)reading the Bible so as to build up the church rather than tear it apart.

My first article was published in the Fall 2010 “Social Questions Bulletin” (but the topic has been on my mind recently, and so the post now), which can be found here, or you can read the text below. The next essay is coming quite soon.

I have this cynical theory: in church debates, nobody actually cares what the Bible says.  Words fly as if people are deeply committed to them, and yet, I suspect that Christians—on all sides of debate—are more committed to the outcome such sacred, authoritative words can achieve than to spiritual lives enlivened by biblical engagement.

One action at the 2010 Iowa Annual Conference confirmed my suspicion.  A resolution calling for just immigration reform and a radically-hospitable response to xenophobia was replaced by a short, innocuous statement.  It was vague enough to win general approval.  But the prophetic edge of the original was entirely stripped away so as to say something without really saying anything.

Remarkably, this was achieved by completely striking the Bible from the text.  The original resolution was firmly and explicitly rooted in our scriptural tradition of caring for all, even—especially—the stranger.  However, scripture did not fit a politically-conservative vision of the world.

Ironic, is it not?  One minute folks are deploying sacred texts to condemn LGBT persons and argue that the church should tell civil society how to manage its marriage laws; the next, scripture is thrown out while it is said that the church should not be involved in “political debates” on immigration. Instead of a tool that informs our faith, too often the Bible is merely a tool for advancing an argument (or apparently something to be ignored when its challenges lead away from our political camp).

I raise this instance, not to debate who reads scripture in the best way, but as a starting point for all people to reflect upon how we engage with the Bible.  Do scriptural witnesses of faith truly shape how we live and interact in the world?  Or do we quote what will win votes?

These questions serve as the basis for a larger issue I will be exploring in a series of future writings, namely how we in the Wesleyan tradition can and should take the Bible seriously.  As we critically reflect upon the place of the Bible in our lives and work together, may we always take heart by being grounded in scripture when we speak prophetically for justice.

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