Quoting the Bible out of context as the authoritative Word of God is a uniquely American phenomena—one that is, sadly, becoming the primary tool of Christians who want to ignore their responsibility to the nation’s poor.
Early settlers to the Americas left the established churches of Europe for many of the same reasons that Americans today are leaving our churches in droves. These early settlers resented the oppression of being told what they had to believe by church officials who demanded their money and their mindless devotion. And like many of our religious leaders, these church officials sometimes resemble the scribes and Pharisees more than the people toward whom Jesus directed his life’s ministry.
The Bible is often cited as the best-selling book of all time, and that didn’t happen because it was solely a work of theological doctrine. Many readers who aren’t Christian read at least portions of the Bible as literature. In fact, textbook companies still include biblical texts in their world literature anthologies, along with excerpts from the sacred texts of other religious traditions. Because of that, one would think that more of our nation’s adults would recognize the inconsistency of belief that is being reported with increasing regularity in our news.
Just today, in an irony that fundamentalist Christians seem not to recognize, the online Washington Post carried two articles about poverty.
The first, entitled “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort,” cites a recent Post-Kaiser Foundation survey which revealed that nearly half of all American Christians say that lack of effort is the key factor in a person’s poverty. Religious leaders quoted in the article actually say that they make no apology for blaming the poor for their own condition.
The second article is entitled “Thousands line up to work for Amazon: ‘I just need a job’.” The lead tells the story of a woman who has been laid off eight times since 2008. The article tells of many others standing for hours in scorching heat because they are desperate to find a better job with benefits so they can provide for their children.
These are not the stories of people who don’t want to work.
But even if they were, the tendency to blame the poor for their own condition is not in keeping with the model Christ set. This tendency is not consistent with the Bible as literature, and it is absolutely in opposition to the Bible as the Word of God.
To read the Bible out of context solely as the inspired Word of God is fraught with peril. It is impossible to reconcile the historical, scientific, and even theological inaccuracies if one insists that every word of the text is true and inerrant, even when pulled out of context.
To fail to read the Bible as a sacred text in the context of its poetry and stories is to miss much of its beauty, its power, and, yes, even its point. To fail to recognize the metaphorical language diminishes the power of the parables. To fail to recognize the irony of the religious leaders’ condemnation of Christ healing the sick on the Sabbath is to miss the point entirely.
Predictably, the religious leaders quoted in today’s Post article cited two verses to support their view of the poor. (Surprisingly, they quoted the New Testament, not the Old, as they often do in support of moral issues.)
The first verse isn’t even something Jesus said. Paul, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, offers his opinion that, “Anyone unwilling to work shall not eat” (3:10b, NRSV). In context, Paul is talking about those in the church who aren’t willing to work. But even if he were talking about the poor in general, citing Paul out of context and ignoring all the stories of Christ is like quoting a supporting character and ignoring the protagonist altogether.
Anyone who has ever tried this approach in writing a literary essay probably knows the end result when the paper lands in the hands of an English teacher. Such a quote might be effective when added to reinforce what the main character has said, but using it alone will almost certainly elicit a comment of “weak argument.” And if the teacher thinks the argument has been intentionally used by a lazy thinker, the student may find herself, at best, in the position of having to rewrite the paper or, at worst, earning a failing grade from a teacher irritated at having to read such nonsense.
The second passage cited by those disdainful of the poor does indeed involve Jesus, whom we can all agree is the main character in the story of Christianity. The story appears in three of the four Gospels when a woman anoints Jesus with a jar of expensive ointment, and his disciples criticize her for not selling the ointment and giving the money to the poor. Though the stories vary slightly, all end with Jesus telling the disciples that she has done a good thing in providing a service for him, “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11, NRSV). Though the versions vary slightly, this same story is told in John 12 and Mark 14. Interestingly, in Mark, Jesus elaborates more, “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me” (14:7).
To quote this story out of context is almost surely to miss the point. First, Jesus rebukes his own disciples for questioning the motives of someone who is performing a kindness for another human being. Like many moments in the Gospels, the disciples won’t understand the significance of this until after Jesus’ death, but even in the moment, the theme of the story seems to be that we should not question the motives of another person who is performing a kindness, especially for a person who is nearing the end of life. In no way is this a story that gives Christians the freedom to ignore suffering because it is pervasive. The only way a reader can draw that conclusion is to ignore utterly the context in which the comment is made.
These two verses are mere sentences in paragraphs of the full story. Open a Bible app and search the words “poor” and “poverty,” and you will find numerous stories of Christ’s kindness to the poor and his condemnation of religious leaders who ignore or disdain them. But as today’s newspaper illustrates, many religious leaders often ignore the whole life of Christ when it isn’t convenient to maintaining their authority.
Literary readers of the Bible can perhaps be forgiven for missing the point. Those who read the Gospels as the Word of God and miss Jesus’ point deny everything for which he died, as surely as Peter denied Christ before the crucifixion. The difference between Peter and today’s noisy evangelicals is that Peter wept, ashamed for being so wrong.
Make no mistake. Those outside our faith recognize that irony every time they read about it in the nation’s newspapers or see it in a publicity photo of religious leaders laying hands on a president. That is a greater threat than any imagined “war on Christianity.” And for that, Christ also had a story, one where a widow who gave everything she had is compared to the religious leaders who expected respect and loyalty despite their hypocrisy. For those leaders, Jesus had some choice words: “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:40).
And unless religious leaders change that narrative, we all know how that story ends for those like them.