The Bible is in the news again, for all the wrong reasons. Sarah Sanders says “It is very biblical to enforce the law,” in defense of the current policy of separating the children from the parents who are trying to enter into the US illegally (sanders-family-separation-bible-sessions). If this is what the Bible says, we should reject the Bible!
But is this what the Bible says? The first thing to note is that the question is wrong. The Bible does not say anything. That is to say the Bible does not speak with one voice; it is more library than book. It would be bizarre to say “The books in my public library say…”
What text was Sarah Sanders thinking about? Presumably not Exodus 1:15-2:10. Pharaoh, the leader of Egypt, tells the midwifes to kill all male Jewish babies. They disobey the governing authorities in active disobedience. Presumably, the text suggests this is a good thing. When Pharaoh realizes that his plan with the mid-wives has failed he orders the entire Egyptian people to drown any male Hebrew baby that they see (Exodus 1:22). Pharaoh’s own daughter disobeys the governing authorities (as well as her own father) and saves the baby Moses. This story suggests unthinking compliance with the ruling authorities is wrong.
So, what text was Sarah Sanders thinking about? Roman 13:1-4 would be my bet. There Paul tells the church at Rome to obey the governing authorities because they have been ordained by God. Ruling authorities are faithful servants who “execute wrath on the wrongdoer” and render approval to those who do good.
This is an odd thing for Paul to say. After all, Jesus, the one for whom Paul devotes his intellectual and pastoral energy, was killed by the governing authorities of Rome. Paul did not consider Jesus a “wrongdoer,” yet the governing authorities “executed wrath” on him. Hence, Roman 13 stands in tension with the heart of Paul’s writing. How is this tension to be reconciled?
My bet is that Romans 13 is conventional morality that Paul thoughtlessly threw into his letter. Conventional morality is that which makes perfect sense because it corresponds to accepted ideological norms (and not because it has necessarily been well thought out). The tension is resolved by suggesting Paul was simply being inconsistent. He was a human after all, and inconsistency is not a surprising trait for most of us.
Paul wrote the letter to the Romans in the late 50’s. At the time of the letter’s composition Nero was the Emperor. There is reason to believe that he was thought of in generally positive ways at this time. We can wonder what Paul would have written if this text had been penned a few years later when Nero started killing members of the Christ movement in Rome?
So, what does the Bible say about obeying governing authorities? It says to disobey in Exodus and it says to obey in Romans 13. In other words, it says “yes” and “no.” What are we to do with this?
The unfortunate history of the Biblical interpretation demonstrates that the Bible can be used to defend any odious position. Slavery? Use Colossians 3:22, Ephesians 6:5 or 1 Peter 2:18. Genocide? Try Joshua 6:21, 8:25, or 11:18-20. This is not merely theoretical. These texts were used to defend slavery and to justify the conquest of the “new world.” The Bible has been used to defend sexism, racism, discrimination of GLBTQ, and so forth.
It is also true that the Bible can be used against these ideologies. This brings me to my next point: The Bible really says nothing at all until it is animated by human interpretation. We co-opt parts of the Bible to make it speak and say what we want it to. The bad news is that this is true for both left and right. Just because my sympathies lie with those on the left does not mean that my interpretation of the Bible ceases being an interpretation.
Interpretation more often than not reflects our own preexisting values and beliefs. As I have mentioned, the Bible does not speak with one voice, but if it does speak with one voice that is only because we made it speak with one voice. A cohesive unified reading of the Bible is more convenient in the service of ideology.
A conflicted divided Bible is less helpful, unless perhaps your ideology is more oriented towards a “constructivist” perspective. What is that? It is basically an interpretation that admits to being an interpretation. It “owns” the interpretation as something that did not fall from heaven, as it were, but emerged within our own consciousness (or collectivity).
When someone says “the Bible says…” not only are they presuming a greater coherence within the Bible than actually exists, they are also presuming the Bible speaks to our context. The various texts in the Bible were written to address ancient contexts, and it is only through hermeneutics that it speaks or says anything at all to us today. Hermeneutics is a word used to speak of the art of interpretation.
The Bible is not convenient to any modern position, left or right. It only becomes useful when made useful through hermeneutics. We create parallels or analogies that connect ancient contexts with present ones; we extend logical ideas that make old worldviews relevant to modern ones; we associate, compare, contrast, deconstruct, reconstruct, add anachronisms, and subtract anachronisms. It is not the Bible that does these things – how could it be? It is an inert book – it does nothing, thinks nothing, and says nothing. The Bible can only speak through an alchemy that comes from mixing text with mind.
This is not to say that reading the Bible can only ever be a project in human projection. Karl Barth said the Bible can be encountered as if it were a strange new world. That is, in it we can imagine things we have never imagined before. However, I would suggest that it is only in the act of interpretive appropriation that these imaginations become relevant for us today, in either helpful or hurtful ways. As a person of faith, I would suggest the Bible is of supreme importance as a vehicle of encountering the divine. However, this encounter does not release us from our responsibility for our interpretations.
Reading the Bible as a historian is not about finding relevance for the biblical text in the modern world. Reading the Bible as a hermeneut should be about working with the historian to forge compelling connections with the modern world. One is most honest in this when one acknowledges that that which was forged was forged. It was created: it did not preexist. It reflects the ideology of the interpreter and needs to be argued/debated on the shared floor of human reason and experience if it is to be accepted.
Biblical texts only speak with the authority individuals and communities give it. They only mean what individuals and communities interpret them to mean. They are conversation partners who can be disagreed with (or even ignored). I suggest the value of an interpretation is to be measured by the degree to which it encourages and nourishes human (and non-human) flourishing.
But then again, that’s only my ideology speaking, isn’t it…?