Civil Discourse or Righteous Rage?

I’m going to do something a little different in this post.  Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for awhile may have noticed that I usually have a pretty strong opinion on whatever issue I have chosen to discuss. However, in this case I am facing a moral dilemma and I’m honestly not sure what the right answer is. So I’m just going to explain my dilemma, and hope that some of you will weigh in with your opinions.

Here’s the sitch:

In response to one of my recent posts, I ended up getting into a lengthy exchange with a man named Adam who I am pretty sure would be described as a Fundamentalist Christian.  His views – on the Bible, and on religion more generally, are quite different from my own.  In some ways I was rather excited to have a dialogue with this person. I love hearing from people with different views and find that this process of challenging and questioning often leads to greater insight.  However, I will acknowledge that I have deep and abiding issues with Fundamentalism, and in many ways view my blog as one small attempt to show an alternative path to faith. So – as the conversation progressed, I became increasingly annoyed with Adam. In my last few responses I was, in my own humble opinion, downright snarky.

So – here’s my question:  Given my heart-felt commitment to try to live according to Christ’s example and teachings, did I behave wrongly, and should I apologize for my behavior?

I was prompted to ask this question after reading chapter eight of Karen Armstrong’s most recent book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,  entitled “How should we speak to one another”.  In this chapter, Armstrong contrasts the competitive dynamic of debates in the Athenian assembly with the Socratic method, which she describes as “a spiritual exercise designed to produce a profound psychological change in the participants, and because its purpose was that each person should understand the depth of his ignorance, there was no way that anybody could win.”(p.132) She goes on to show how both Buddhism and Confucianism have similar traditions of peaceful and productive dialogue where all participants start from a position of humility and openness.  And of course she cites St. Paul’s famous passage from I Corinthians– that love is “patient and kind….(it) is never boastful, never conceited, never rude…(it) takes no pleasure in the wrongdoing of others”.  The passage in this chapter that struck me the most was this one:

“Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation; and each one began with what was perceived to be an assault by the liberal or secular establishment. History shows that to attack any fundamentalist movement, whether militarily, politically, or in the media, is counterproductive because the assault merely convinces its adherents that their enemies really are bent on their destruction”.(p.136)

After reading this chapter, I felt terrible. I felt that I had utterly failed to live up to my goal of being a compassionate person of faith – and of all places I did this on the blog where I’m trying to demonstrate faith’s promise. I was all geared up to simply write a public apology to Adam, and hope for forgiveness. But then I realized something that made me less sure of the right path. You see, Jesus had a pretty sharp tongue himself. Check out this passage in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus addresses the Pharisees and Scribes (who were essentially the religious conservatives of his day):

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside may also become clean.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:23-28)

Dang!  Compared to that, what I wrote to Adam was peaches and cream.  I mean, Jesus, tell us what you really think!

And this was a  reminder to me of why I became so inspired by Jesus in the first place. It was discovering this real Jesus – not the sanitized, pastel version that is taught in Sunday school – but the man who was genuinely pissed off at the injustice and hypocrisy of the world and stood up and called it like is. The man who stood up and said “Wait – y’all have God’s message TOTALLY WRONG”. That is the man that inspired my faith.

So- do I owe an apology to Adam? Does it matter why I behaved the way I did? I think it may. To the degree that I acted out of my own ego-driven desire to win the debate, I think I owe an apology. To the degree that I truly, deeply felt (and feel) that he is getting God’s message wrong -well, that’s where I’m not so sure…

Please do respond with your views. I just modified my blog so you can post anonymously (so if you are my friend and want to tell me I’m a meany, go right ahead).

Finally – for those of you interested in seeing an abbreviated version of my exchange with Adam rather than reading it all from the site- here it is below (he goes by the user name Sabepashubbo). It’s actually kind of interesting on its own (feel free to also comment if you have points to make about the substance of the discussion):

  • …my issue is more with your attribution of the Bible as human and not divine. The Bible makes clear in 2 Timothy 3 that ALL Scripture is given by inspiration of God. The text was not written for God by men. The text was written BY God THROUGH men. I don’t think that verse can be much clearer on the subject. And if God wrote the whole thing, then it must all work in unity, otherwise God contradicts Himself and therefore ceases to be God.

    For the Bible to be errant and fallible, God must be errant and fallible. Is that really the position we ought to be taking?

    • Hi there and thanks for your comments….I have to say though that bottom line – we are probably going to have to agree to disagree. That doesn’t mean we can’t have some good conversations about this – but I see a number of problems with your view (as you do about mine). The one clarification I’ll make is that I think the Bible was written by men who were inspired by God. But – and this is a big but – I think that frequently, in the process of writing down their inspirations, some of the message didn’t get put down right. Things got lost in the translation. Furthermore, often the person who experienced the moment of inspiration wasn’t even the one to do the writing – rather – they passed their stories to others – maybe sometimes across a few generations before it got written down. So the way I view the Bible is more like the game ‘whisper-down-the-lane’. There was a real, original message, but along the way some things got distorted. This seems to me a way to look at it that allows for the possibility of an inerrant and infallible God, while recognizing that the Bible is not perfect…..

  • You’re right. We may have to agree to disagree. If the Bible is the Word of God, and God is infallible, then His Word must also be infallible, otherwise it is not His Word. I think allowing for any errancy in the text is like trying to stop up a flooding dam with Scotch tape–you can’t stop the tide if you allow any part of it through. Compromising the text does that. How can the Bible be “fit for teaching, for correction, for reproof, for training in righteousness” if at least some of it is wrong?

    …It is the only way we can look at God’s Word and really believe that it’s God’s Word, instead of man’s.

    • …1. It’s worth keeping in mind that trying to convince me of your point of view by quoting the Bible is logically problematic. Your position is that the Bible is the infallible word of God because the Bible tells you that it is. Your position involves circular logic, and will not convince anyone who has not just decided to ‘take the whole thing on faith’.

      … I am totally fascinated that you find the Bible so clear. I don’t at all – and actually find the ambiguity in the Bible to be one of the things that lends it so effectively to spiritual searching and contemplation.

  • …… I think the Bible is meant to be clear. While there may be many ways to use the Bible in terms of its application, there is only one meaning to the text. Think about it like this: people can take your blog many different ways. Some may see it as inspirational; others may see it as hateful. Still others may see it as misleading, and some could say you are breaking new ground. All of these are different applications of the same blog, but you only had one purpose behind creating the blog. That is how the Bible works. There is only one meaning to the text, and when reading a verse if you look at what is actually being said, using hermeneutics to understand the context for what is actually on the page, the meaning usually becomes quite clear. It’s only difficult for those who either try to read too much into it or not enough into it to understand the context. I’d be more than happy to try and demonstrate that type of hermeneutical thinking for you if it would help you in your study.

  • …just got a book on Biblical Exegesis that I’m going to read that I think will help me better engage in this discussion. Thank you for offering to give an example of your hermeneutical analysis of Biblical texts. Giving examples of how you think is always helpful. Perhaps you could show me how your approach would work with this text: 1 Timothy 6:1-2
    ” 1 Let all who are under a yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 2Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.”

  • sabepashubbo says:

  • Sure. I expect you might have picked this one because it’s a bit controversial due to its supposed favor of slavery. Let’s begin.

    Start by looking at what leads up to this passage. The end of chapter 5 is filled with charges that Paul is giving to Timothy as to how to handle the church and its constituents. He is supposed to pass on these teachings to the church he was at, so it make sense that that this passage also falls in line with that. The end of verse 2 (“Teach and urge these things.”) also supports this view.

    Now let’s look at what the text actually says. It does not say, “Put those under a yoke as slaves…” because it’s not talking to the masters. It speaks to those in the position of slave, saying that if you are a slave, you are to give honor to your masters. Doesn’t this seem right in line with Jesus’ teachings that the greatest would be the least, and that in order to be esteemed you must first serve? Those who are subservient must give respect to those that are over them in authority. Colossians 3:23 says to do this “without complaining” or “heartily, as for the Lord.”

    We see this type of submission lots of places in the Bible. God calls wives to submit to their husbands, slaves to submit to their masters, church members to submit to the authority of elders. It is not limited to any one social group or situation. Those under authority are to respect those in authority over them. So if you find yourself in such a position, that is your charge.

    Why? Because God teaches and asks for it other places (as I’ve just shown), so to go against it here would be to revile God’s teachings, and therefore His very name.

    Verse 1 is the blanket teaching to all of those in positions of submission. However, verse 2 is more specific and speaks of believer-to-believer submission. Not only are you to do it because God teaches it, but because you are brothers (or sisters) in Christ. Just as Jesus says, “Whatever you do for the least of your brothers, you do for Me,” so we honor and respect God when we honor and respect those in authority over us…..

    seeingfaith says:

  • You know, this truly exceeded my expectations. So, according to your ‘exegesis’, African-American slaves who escaped from slavery through the underground railroad were disobeying God’s will? And a wife who is being beaten by her husband and runs away to a battered women’s shelter and tries to get a restraining order is disobeying God’s will? Your ‘exegesis’ so massively contradicts Christ’s call for compassion and justice that I am left almost speechless. It ignores so many other parts of scripture that call for resistance and rebellion in the face of unjust empire (I am currently studying the Book of Revelation in Bible Study – that entire book is all coded messages encouraging the early church to resist the oppression and injustice of the Roman Empire). Anyway – I think you could really benefit by doing some reading about what exegesis is really supposed to be. I have started reading Biblical Exegesis (the 3rd edition) by John H. Hayes and Carl R. Holladay. Just read the first few pages and you’ll understand how reading the Bible is an art- involving drawing on a tremendous background of knowledge including history, literary analysis, linguistic insights, etc. Trying to read the Bible without understanding the context leaves you driving blind with a very dirty windshield. And in my opinion, you just crashed.

    • What I did was give you the context for what the words ACTUALLY SAID. Keep in mind that both of your arguments against it are a result of prior disobedience (on part of the slave traders and on part of the abusive husband). The Bible doesn’t say “don’t defend yourself.” It says “don’t disrespect the ones God has placed in authority over you.” So the battered woman shouldn’t kill her husband because he beats her; the slave shouldn’t attack his master because he was enslaved.

      To your point, look at the historical context for the term “slave.” It’s much different than the Civil War-era slave you are referring to. If you want me to get into the historical side of it, I can, but don’t think you’ve caught me in a trap. The New Testament doesn’t teach human justice (Remember “vengeance is mine, says the Lord”?), and the position that is so clearly taught here is one of compassion (of the submitter to the authority), so contradictory to what you’ve said.

      The problem you’re running into is saying “because it doesn’t apply to me today, I can just ignore it.” That’s most definitely NOT the case. To use your windshield analogy, that’s like driving through a hailstorm with only half a windshield. You’re opening yourself up to serious trouble when you choose to ignore that which doesn’t make sense to you right away. There is truth in every word of the Bible, so choosing to ignore pieces that you think don’t fit means missing out on elements of truth. And I think that’s the far worse position to be in.

      I’m not surprised you missed the forest for the trees. I would just expect you to try a little harder to at least look for it.

      I have limited time to reply right now, but I find it interesting that you didn’t directly answer my question. Let me try again, adding in the nuances you mentioned: based on your understanding of the Bible, did African-American slaves who simply escaped from their Christian masters (but did the masters no physical harm) – did these slaves disobey God’s will? I’m looking for a yes or no answer here: Yes, they disobyed God’s will, or No, they did not. Looking forward to your reply.

      • You’re asking for a yes and no answer to a multi-level question. That’s rather unfair. If you could give me the motivation behind why they escaped, I might be able to answer your question. But you’re asking me to understand the heart of an African-American slave who escaped. Perhaps the better question, which I will now pose to you, is this: if YOU were that slave, why would you be escaping, and do you think that reason is disobedient to God? Not God’s will, to God.

        And just so you’re clear on my position, who was more obedient–Joseph (Jacob’s son) or the prodigal son (Luke 15)? Both were under authority, and one escaped. Who was the more obedient of the two? And who was the more rewarded of the two?

      • Hi there, this is the last time I’m going to reply to this string because, at least to my mind, this exchange has now become ridiculous. You say “If you could give me the motivation behind why they escaped, I might be able to answer your question”. Really? Gee, maybe because no human being would want to be owned by another human being and forced to work for no pay? Even a slave who lived in the most posh conditions (which was rarely the case for African American slaves) – any slave would still prefer to live free than not. There is no ambiguity to this situation. If you take the Bible literally than you also believe that we are all descended from Adam and Eve. Therefore, we are all equal, under God. Furthermore, you also accept the Exodus story that God helped His people, the Israelites, escape from slavery in Egypt – showing that God wants His people to be free. Given that God wants His people to be free, I can not imagine how a slave who simply tries to escape from slavery could be acting against God’s will. And realize that there are other Biblical passages that make clear that when there’s a choice to be made between obedience to earthly authority or to God, we have to choose God: ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.’ (Acts 5:29). To deal with the passage in Timothy you have to do other forms of exegesis – perhaps looking at the context of the time when Paul was writing and concerns he may have had regarding helping the early churches survive in the hostile environment of the Roman Empire. But as you have helped me prove, just reading such passages as literal and infallible leads to repugnant conclusions that contradict other Biblical passages, and more importantly, contradicts Christ’s vision of justice and compassion for the downtrodden and poor. The whole goal of my blog is to show that there is a different, and valid way to be religious that is very different from your approach. Thanks so much, but I have nothing left to say to you.

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    6 Responses to Civil Discourse or Righteous Rage?

    1. Brian Carlson says:

      Hi, Louise — great post as always! Here are my thoughts:

      (1) I do think Christians should (almost) always aspire to humble, emphathetic discourse, rather than righteous indignation. (Christ’s harsh words against the Pharisees might be seen as almost necessary, given the power and influence they held to lead people astray. A lone fundamentalist/literalist like this probably isn’t in the same position.) Of course, as much as anyone else, I often fall far short of that ideal!

      (2) That said, I didn’t think your words were really that intemperate. Frustrated, yes, but not over the top.

      (3) It was hard for me to tell if he just couldn’t grasp your arguments or was consciously refusing to respond to them. I wonder how he would have responded if you’d asked whether he follows the Bible literally by throwing his wife out of the house during that “time of the month.” =)

      Keep up the great work!

    2. DianeDavis says:

      Well, first I think Adam Fundamentalist was snarky also. And the avoidance of a simple yes or no answer on the slavery issue by not “knowing” the heart of the slave, then asking you the prodigal question seems to me to be baiting you. I do not think an apology is in order. He lost me when he said he might have expected you to choose the Timothy passage. You made a good “faith” effort if you will to engage in a discussion with someone who I would like to think was making a good faith effort from a very different vantage point. However, his comment “don’t think you caught me in a trap” seems to bely good faith in favor of assumed arrogance and trickery.

      I think it’s nearly impossible to operate at the high level of questioning and interpretation that you do and have the “invitational” exchange of ideas that you might have hoped for at the onset. Maybe the agree to disagree was the best way to end as well as begin.

      On a cheery note, this interchange got me thinking about what I think about the Bible. In recent years, and certainly because of our bible study, I have become increasingly aware of the human aspect of God’s Word. That humanity does not make the message any less meaningful to me, nor am I inclined to take it literally but rather inspirationally. Does that mean I look at the Bible as a Chinese Menu?! Oh, no. Love you, gal. Thanks for being who you are.

    3. DaveR says:

      I’m with you, Louise.

      On the pragmatic issue — you should apologize if you believe you should. Yes, that’s somewhat non-helpful, but ultimately it’s the right answer: do what you believe.

      On the substantive issue — I hate Bible literalism. To the people who say “the Bible is God’s direct word”, I say, “oh, so God spoke English? In 1500BC?” The Bible is an English translation… of a Latin translation… of a Greek translation… of a Hebrew translation… of an Aramaic translation… of who knows what language the texts were originally written in. Look at the instructions to Chinese-made products and you’ll see that it’s often difficult to capture nuances of language and meaning when there’s one translation involved, let alone when there are likely several, interspersed with oral historical tradition. God may be perfect, but scribes and printers and translators aren’t.

      From a non-theological perspective, the Bible, more than anything else, is a written cultural tradition meant to organize a society, in this case the tribes of Israel and their descendants. It is their shared inspirational history/myth, their law, their lineage, statements of their faith and belief system, and all the other things that tie them together as a culture and as a people; all that makes them who they are. Of course it is a reverential text — how can you not revere your own cultural essence? The Hebrew culture was small in number, and threatened by larger powers on all sides — this was the way they retained their cultural identity. And it worked! It worked FANTASTICALLY — Judaism and the concept of Hebrew identity survives to this day, whereas who today culturally identifies themselves as Moabite, or Philistine, or Chaldean?

      But from a practical standpoint, people have to continue to follow the culture in order to preserve the culture. And what’s the best way to get people to follow these laws and maintain your culture? Threaten them with the ultimate sanction if they don’t. God wrote this — not us. If you don’t follow it, you’re going against God. Does that mean that God wrote the text Himself? I don’t know. Maybe He did. Or maybe His people just wrote down the rules and traditions that governed their lives; a series of rules and traditions that was shaped by their worship of God and His effect in their lives. Divinely inspired does not have to mean “actually written by God”. Nobody would question a statement that God inspired men to create the wonders of architectural beauty that are Gothic cathedrals; structures designed to reach towards Heaven itself. But does that mean that God actually built the cathedrals by hand????? Of course not. Could God have possessed the architects and builders while they built the cathedrals? I suppose so… but they also built castles and bridges and aqueducts and wells and other quotidian things that are pretty clearly not instrumentalities of God.

      What’s the point here? The point is this: ANY text similar to the Bible will claim to be written by some authority who can impose punishment or judgment on those who defy it. It may be God, or Zeus, or Hammurabi, or We The People… but a cultural blueprint like the Bible will always have someone to whom you’re responsible.

      So that’s why I reject Biblical literalism categorically. As you note, there’s no proof of the Bible’s infallibility other than the Bible itself claiming it was written by God. And as I argue, there’s a 100% chance that any human document with the same underlying intent as the Bible (cultural organization) will carry with it a threat from a higher power of bad things if the tenets of the document aren’t followed. Therefore, the Bible contains something that the Bible would almost certainly contain, and the literalism argument remains circular. The Bible is important whether or not it was literally written by God. But we are not pre-Christ Hebrew tribes, and do not have to conform to their Bronze Age-level cultural mores just because the Bible says so.

      • seeingfaith says:

        Dave – GREAT reply – I hope you’ll comment more often (or guest write someday?) FYI – I occasionally feel like I cultulrally identify with the Philistines…


    4. Beja Keyser says:

      Once again a great blog…Of course you should apologize, because you thought you were being snarky and therefore changed the tone, and your feelings towards the dialog.

      While I realize Jesus was sharp to those who where way to pious and judgmental, I don’t think we have the same level of authority, or perfection.

      Just remember one of the more beautiful aspects of Christianity, we don’t all march like gingerbread men, one after another exactly the same.

    5. seeingfaith says:

      Dear Friends,

      Thank you for your feedback – it has been really helpful (and also fascinating, because each of you had a slightly different take on this). However, I think collectively you’ve helped me decide to apologize. The fact that I feel like I have treated Adam badly is the best indication that I should apologize. I don’t think I was wrong in making any of the points I made, but I think I used the wrong tone at times. Thanks a ton!

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