…Or divorce, or gossip, or slavery, or head coverings, or Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, or the “abomination” of eating shellfish and the hell-worthy sin of calling other people idiots.
Then we need a little context.
Then we need a little grace.
Then we need a little room to disagree.
I got to thinking about this after I was criticized last week for my post about loving gay kids unconditionally. Some folks were very upset that I had the audacity write an entire blog post about putting a stop to LGBT bullying without including a Bible-based condemnation of LGBT people, or at least a theological discussion around the issue of homosexuality and Scripture.
Bible verses were quoted. Open letters were written. End Times predictions were made. Pillows in my home were thrown record distances.
It’s funny. Yesterday, in Sunday Superlatives, I included a quote from Mark Twain in which he referred to a snake oil salesman as an “idiot,” but no one left an angry comment warning me of hell based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:22 that “if you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court; and if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.”
Nor did anyone raise any biblical objections regarding gluttony a few weeks ago when I casually mentioned overdosing on Sweet Frog frozen yogurt (strawberry, with a pile of chocolate chips, Oreo crumbs, and chocolate animal crackers on top, if you must know), or about materialism when I shared pictures of our new car. (Hey, for some people, a brand new Honda Civic is pretty flashy.)
And in spite of the flood of emails I get each week condemning my support of women in ministry, I’ve never received so much as an open letter criticizing my refusal to wear a head covering, even though my Web site is full of photographic evidence of what the apostle Paul calls a “disgrace” in 1 Corinthians 11:6.
We may laugh at these examples or dismiss them silly, but the biblical language employed in these contexts is actually pretty strong: eating shellfish is an abomination, a bare head is a disgrace, gossips will not inherit the kingdom of God, careless words are punishable by hell, guys who leer at women should gouge out their eyes.
Heck, you could make a pretty good biblical case for gluttony being a “lifestyle sin” that has been normalized by our culture of "Supersized" portions and overflowing buffet lines, starting with passages like Philippians 3:19 (“their god is their belly”), Psalm 78: 18 (“they tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved”), Proverbs 23:20 (“be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat”), Proverbs 23:2 (“put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite”), or better yet, Ezekiel 16:49 ("Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.")
Yet you don’t see weigh-ins preceding baptisms or people holding “God Hates Gluttons” signs outside the den of iniquity that is Ryan’s Steakhouse.
And we haven’t even touched on materialism, or the fact that on the day I stuffed my face with froyo, 30,000 kids died from preventable diseases and many more went hungry.
It seems the more ubiquitous the biblical violation, the more invisible it becomes.
So why do so many Christians focus on the so-called “clobber verses” related to homosexuality while ignoring “clobber verses” related to gluttony or greed, head coverings or divorce? Why is homosexuality the great biblical debate of this decade and not slavery, (as it once was) or the increasing problem of materialism and inequity? Why do so many advocate making gay marriage illegal but not divorce, when Jesus never referenced the former but spoke quite negatively about the latter?
While there are certainly important hermeneutical and cultural issues at play, I can’t help but wonder if something more nefarious is also at work. I can’t help but wonder if biblical condemnation is often a numbers game.
Though it affects more of us than we tend to realize, statistically, homosexuality affects far fewer of us than gluttony, materialism, or divorce. And as Jesus pointed out so often in his ministry, we like to focus on the biblical violations (real or perceived) of the minority rather than our own.
In short, we like to gang up. We like to fashion weapons out of the verses that affect us the least and then “clobber” the minority with them. Or better yet, conjure up some saccharine language about speaking the truth in love before breaking out our spec-removing tweezers to help get our minds off of these uncomfortable logs in our own eyes.
We see this in the story of the religious leaders who ganged up on the woman caught in adultery. She was such an easy target: a woman, probably poor, disempowered, and charged with the go-to favorite of the self-righteous—sexual sin. When they brought her to Jesus, they were using her as an example to test him, to see how “biblical” his response to her would be. (See Deuteronomy 22:23-14.) Jesus knelt down and scribbled in the sand before saying, “He who is without sin can cast the first stone.” They dropped their stones.
While self-righteousness avoidance certainly affects our selective literalism , we also have good reasons for not condemning one another for the more ubiquitous biblical violations (again, real or perceived) in our culture.
It’s hard for me to flatly condemn divorce, for example, when I know of several women whose lives, and the lives of their children, may have been saved by it, or when I hear from people who tell me they would have rather come from a broken home than grown up in one. We have a natural revulsion to the idea of checking people’s BMI before accepting them into the Church, especially when obesity is not necessarily reflective of gluttony (often, in this country, it is a result of poverty), and when we know from our own experiences or the experiences of those we love that an unhealthy weight can result from a variety of factors—from genetics to psychological components—and when some of our favorite people in the world (or when we ourselves) wrestle with a complicated relationship with food, whether it’s through overeating or under-eating.
Again, it’s a numbers game. It’s hard to “other” the people we know and love the most. It’s become a cliché, but everything changes when it’s your brother or sister who gets divorced, when it’s your son or daughter who is gay, when it’s your best friend who struggles with addiction, when it’s your husband or wife asking some good questions about Christianity you never thought about before. Our relationships have a tendency to destroy our categories, to melt black and white into gray, and I don’t think God is disappointed or threatened by this. I think God expects it. It happened to Peter when he encountered Corneilus and Philip when he encountered the Ehtiopian eunuch. Suddenly it became a lot harder to label your friends "unclean" or "unworthy."
After all, when God became flesh and lived among us, the religious accused him of hanging out with “sinners" (even gluttons!) never realizing that this was the whole point, that there were only “sinners” to hang out with.
Of course, all of this raises questions about when it’s right or wrong to “call out” sin, and I confess I’m no good at sorting that out. I’m as hypocritical as the next person, judgmental of those I deem judgmental, self-righteous, indulgent, a gossip, too careless with my words, too quick to get angry at certain people with certain theological views, too easily seduced by money and notoriety and…my favorite things in the whole entire world…AWARDSI LISTS! ACCOLADES!
I too need reminding that, for all my big talk about a “Christocentric hermeneutic,” more often than not, I’m following a “Rachelcentric hermeneutic” when I read the Bible, complete with my own biases, preferences, insecurities, and opinions guiding how I “pick and choose.” (Oh I can wield every Bible verse that challenges Calvinism like a knife, but I’d rather not talk about how I’m actually applying the Sermon on the Mount to my life or what I really think about enemy-love.)
Should we stop discussing which biblical instructions apply today and how we ought to apply them? Certainly not. Should we remain silent when the vulnerable are oppressed and exploited or when injustice and immorality pervades our culture? No. Do we abandon our convictions about what the Bible says is sin? No, not even when we disagree on that. Are rhetorical questions overused in blog posts? Yes.
But it’s good to remind ourselves now and then that just as Southern slaveholders had a vested interest in interpreting Colossians 3:22 literally, so we tend to “pick and choose” to our own advantage.
And when we make separate categories for the “real sinners,” when we reduce our fellow human beings to theological issues up for constant debate who cannot even be told they are loved without qualifiers, when our hermeneutic conveniently renders others the problem and us the heroes, maybe it’s time to sit across a table and get to know one another a little better, to break up some categories and make some new friends. Maybe it’s time to drop our stones for a while and pass the bread.
…healthy, whole grain, organic bread, of course.
For more on selective literalism, but with a fun twist, check out my book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.
*Updated: I closed the thread because there were just too many comments to keep up with! Thank you so much for reading and for keeping it (mostly) civil. :-)
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