Thinking Anew – Misusing scripture for sinister ends
A demonstration in Chicago against the immigration policies of Donald Trump. Photograph: Kamil Krzaczynski/EPA
According to Mark Twain, most people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they do not understand. “But as for me”, he added, “I always noticed that the passages in scripture which trouble me most are those I do understand.”
It is difficult to know into which category Jeff Sessions, the US attorney general, falls with his use of scripture to justify his controversial immigrant policy separating parents and children. The passage quoted from Romans reads, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”
Similar sentiments are found elsewhere in the New Testament, but scholars say that these were written when Christians were under threat of persecution and their leaders were anxious to demonstrate loyalty to the state.
Sadly, over centuries those same words have been used to defend slavery, apartheid in South Africa and Nazism. In The Merchant of Venice Antonio warns: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart. O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor, remembered for his opposition to Nazism, struggled with this passage from Romans. He believed that a government “ordained by God” was given the task of providing for the welfare of the people and protecting what is good by restraining evil. That changed dramatically in the 1930s and 1940s as Germany succumbed to the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer was at first opposed to physical resistance. He aided victims where he could and spoke out but eventually and reluctantly supported a plot to remove Hitler. He believed that by confronting this evil he was standing in the place of Jesus Christ. The plot failed, and Bonhoeffer was executed.
Tomorrow’s readings demolish the idea that political leaders can claim divine authority irrespective of how they behave. In an alternative Old Testament reading the prophet Amos goes to the central shrine in Bethel and tells the priest what God thinks of the kingdom of Jeroboam and corrupt rulers who exploit the poor and deny them justice: “The high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
The gospel reading reminds us of another ruler who was unlikely to have had divine approval. King Herod, known for his corrupt and brutal ways has John the Baptist executed to please his wife, Herodias. She hated the prophet because he questioned the legitimacy of her marriage to the king.
The late John Stott, an Anglican priest known for his devotion to scripture warned, “If we come to Scripture with our minds made up, expecting to hear from it only an echo of our own thoughts and never the thunderclap of God’s, then indeed he will not speak to us and we shall only be confirmed in our own prejudices. We must allow the word of God to confront us, to disturb our security, to undermine our complacency and to overthrow our patterns of thought and behaviour.”
Jesus warned against the misuse of Scripture: “You search the Scriptures (meaning the Hebrew Scriptures) because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”
In other words, for the Christian the scriptures must be understood in light of the teaching of Jesus Christ, who insisted that love was the first principle of everything he stood for.
St Paul spelt out the significance of that in his famous hymn to love (1 Corinthians 13) when, having listed the religious virtues, declared: “If I have all faith . . . but have not love I am nothing.”
When Jeff Sessions abused scripture to justify separating nursing infants from their mothers, it was not just that love was nowhere to be seen but that something very sinister had taken its place.