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The Courage to Say ‘No!’ When the Bible Counsels Otherwise

For many of us, the Sabbath School hour is the most anticipated and enjoyable part of church ritual. I am a member of the “best” Sabbath School class anywhere in the Adventist universe. I know that’s hyperbole, but you’re welcome to believe that yours is better. My class is small to medium in size, composed mostly of retired Andrews University professors from different academic disciplines plus a handful of current AU teachers. Also included are a few brave souls like myself who have no affiliation to the AU teaching cadre. 

The class’s uniqueness is rooted in the varying perspectives of the seven or so core teachers. Every week is an adventure and feast where all are surprised by the joy of discovery or learning a new twist to an old familiar idea.

In some ways, though, my class is no different from the multiple thousands of others meeting around the globe from Sabbath to Sabbath. We often stray from the lesson focus or take long detours that make topic reconnection difficult. But we do one thing well: we try to ground our discussions in human experiences which in turn transforms the Bible into a living, breathing document—one that is immediate, accessible, and relevant. So, as I pen my maiden article as a Spectrum columnist, I would like to give a nod to this class.

With that shameless plug out of the way, I would like to offer a few thoughts on some uncomfortable passages from the epistle of 1 Peter. And I invite you to reflect on any reactions to those Biblical instructions that give us pause or at least should. So consider the following example:

“In the cities of the nations which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.” (NIV)

Or this:

“[W]hen the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then, you must destroy them totally…and show them no mercy.” (NIV)

For me, the jaw-dropping parts of the two quotes—do not leave alive anything that breathes and show them no mercyare that we have Christians among us who defend them sorely because they appear in Holy writ.

Do you see what murky waters this leads us into? If a Biblical directive seems to legitimize what we, through painful experiences (think slavery) or sheer heightened moral outrage, have come to consider wrong and subhuman, does the fact that such behaviors appear to be endorsed in the Bible trump our desire to outlaw them? In other words, does our tolerance of evil increase if the source of the evil is perceived as divine?

I am particularly struck by the imperative to be merciless in victory, advanced by the Deuteronomists, and can’t resist juxtaposing this strange idea with Shakespeare’s conception of the power of mercy:

                        The quality of mercy is not strained;

                        It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

                        Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;

                        It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

                        ---

                        It is an attribute to God himself.

To a considerable degree, the show-no-mercy approach has been the story of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Each generation has bequeathed nothing but hatred of the other to its children, leaving in its wake nothing but an unhealthy dose of mutual fear and loathing. We have had enough time to evaluate the outcome of this sad experiment and can thus draw a contrast with the approach taken by the Allies after World War II.

If there is any conflict in our era where the victors had the “right” to show no mercy to the vanquished, it might arguably be reserved for the countries who conquered the Nazi regime. Instead, not only did the victorious governments show their defeated adversaries mercy, they rebuilt the tattered remains of Germany and Japan. The result of this novel experiment has been continued friendship and alliance between Germany and Japan on the one hand, and that of Europe and the US, on the other.

The writer of 1 Peter makes some startling statements that challenge contemporary Christian belief. Consider two examples from the so called “submission” passages:

Submit yourself . . . to every human authority who was sent by him to punish those who do wrong.

Slaves . . .submit yourselves to your masters not only to those who are good and considerate but also those who are harsh.

Before tackling the issues raised by these texts, we should recognize the central argument often given to cushion the jarring impact of these statements. One such defense argues that any reading of such currently objectionable texts should consider the historical setting that produced them which means we should recognize the context and situations that gave birth to these declarations. If we apply this to 1 Peter, we are reminded that the writer’s instruction was given under two prevailing circumstances: (1) Christians were under severe political pressure from Domitian's (or Pliny the Younger's) unfriendly rule; (2) the writer and his audience believed in the eminent return of Jesus which then called for a different calculation relative to earthly power brokers.

So, what if we apply the contextual reading—which almost always makes the most sense in understanding the background of a given statement? In this case, such reading comes with a price—a de facto consignment of some sections of the Bible onto the heap of irrelevance. Some say this is sensible and even long overdue, contending it asks too much to permanently impose the mores of a past era onto succeeding generations. Others rebuff such reading and its resultant implications, maintaining that the cost is too high.

The second idea, which is really an extension of the contextual argument, is that the writer of 1 Peter was advising his audience to do everything necessary to stay alive and advance the Lord’s work because His return was at hand. If you believed that Jesus was returning in your life-time to set up the everlasting kingdom, then submitting to brutish rulers and masters was a small price to pay to ensure that that hope became a reality. But the eminent return argument and its justifying need for an accommodative relationship to authority must answer the question of what to do when Jesus’ coming is delayed. If special rules are necessary because of His soon return, do these rules remain operative if the reappearance does not materialize as anticipated?

Now consider some implications of the “submission” passages, beginning with the counsel to submit to “every authority instituted among men.” Throughout history, the powerful and the privileged have used such passages to justify perpetuation of the status quo whenever the oppressed attempt to rise above their sordid circumstances. These statements are not benign, however. Unimaginable atrocities have continued for far too long because well-meaning Christians have tacitly, if not openly, pointed to such admonitions as reason to stay the course.

The first Prime Minister of my ancestral country of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, was harshly criticized for “agitating for freedom and independence” by the colonial masters as well as the leaders of the native clergy. They both opposed Nkrumah’s drive for independence by quoting from the Bible, the latter unwittingly supporting the savage colonial system. Nkrumah did not relent, and in 1957, Ghana was born out of the ashes of the Gold Coast, the first independent British colony south of the Sahara. This ushered in the “epidemic” of independent African countries of the 1960s and ‘70s, culminating in the effective demise of Britain as an empire.

It is true that colonization is not comparable to slavery, though you will be hard-pressed to convince the colonized that, because they were not physically shipped in shackles to a foreign country, they should be contented. If this were so, America would still be a British colony as would India and many other ex-colonies.

Often, to moderate the perception that the Bible endorses perpetuation of indefensible positions, we point to a Bible writer’s larger intent which, in the 1 Peter passages, appear to be a desire for order. It is true that the Christian is called to good citizenship which is partly what Jesus suggests with his admonition to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's” (KJV).  A nation will be thrust into unending anarchy if its citizens refused the rule of law. But it is a different matter when Biblical authority is coopted to defend leaders who have plainly squandered their legitimacy by using mass murder to retain power. It is this aspect of the author’s world view that is troubling. By ruling out exceptions for “harsh” sovereigns and masters, he seems to give carte blanche to bad and evil-minded rulers to continue with injustice. Once leaders ascend the throne, the author seems to suggest, they become stand-ins for God to do as they please. This comes dangerously close to conferring divine legitimacy and favor on all leaders.

But do Biblical pronouncements like these impact our lives? That depends on whether we live in a democratic or a totalitarian state. In a democracy, the Christian’s answer to bad or unjust rulers is the ballot box. Here, in theory, elections could be a means to stop bad governance, and the courts could check leaders who behave badly.

If, however, the Christian lives in a dictatorship or pseudo democracy, whose leaders—the Mugabes, the Assads, the Hitlers—are instruments of carnage, does the Petrine advice to submit even to bad leaders still hold? Ted Wilson seems to believe so. In a 2012 address to an Adventist gathering in Zimbabwe, the GC President is quoted as saying, “Let us pray for the leadership of this country. The Bible requires us to do so. We should respect and submit to the leadership of this country because all leaders are appointed by God.” This is the same Mugabe that Human Rights Watch and many other humanitarian organizations reported to have committed such heinous crimes as extrajudicial killings and forced labor. It cannot be said with any credibility that the GC President was unaware of Mugabe’s reputation. So his decision to use this text was one of choice.  Wilson sacrificed the difficult option of speaking truth to power in favor of showering unrighteous blessings on a dictator’s regime, all the while citing scripture.

Are there alternatives in these situations? Is it legitimate for a Christian to resist what is manifestly evil? If the answer is "yes," as could be argued for the organizers of the American Underground Railroad or the Nazi Resistance movement in Europe, what then do we make of these Bible statements today? We are not too far removed from the nightmare that was Auschwitz or Rwanda’s 100 days of butchery, to pretend that all leaders deserve our unquestioned allegiance.

There is a subtle hint of inconsistency in our writer’s insistence that the Christian should obey all laws from those in power even when these rulers are unjust. He points to Jesus’ example as the model to emulate: He did no wrong and yet never protested when subjected to inhuman cruelty.

The apparent contradiction concerns his inspiration to new Christians to “live as free people.” There is no cherished human desire greater than freedom: from slavery, from oppression, from viciousness. Nor can I think of a better affirmation to humanity that increasingly finds itself in one bondage or another than the advice to “live as free people.” Yet how does one live free if one must accept the imposition of cruelty? Does James not call on us to “resist evil”? What is more evil than practiced domination by the powerful over the vulnerable and powerless? Worse still, how does normalizing such evil, by compelling the victimized to accept their lot, help to make them free?

1 Peter’s author seems to argue for servile acceptance of cruelty under the mistaken idea that even evil authorities are God’s instruments of order. For me, this is as a bridge too far. We should dare to teach our children that, regardless of its origins, any advice to accept slavery, brutal governance, or wife beating is wrong today and always.

At some point, we should come to a simple understanding of who God is or should be: either totally good or not at all. We cannot postulate a God who is sometimes good and sometimes not so good. This means we should start reevaluating those ungodlike passages in the Bible—whether attributed to Him or “spoken” by Him—in the light of God’s goodness. If we do this, we discover that throughout the Bible, we, His spokespersons, have never understood God fully and consequently have portrayed Him through human representations. The problem lies not with God but with the faulty depictions of Him by His all too human messengers. A good God never resorts to unkindness to show His power. A God worthy of our worship, by definition, always points us to the highest ideals and not to man’s basest instincts. Therefore, we should always be suspicious of the origins of those instances in the Bible where God’s behavior or purported statements make us cringe.

 

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.

Image Credit: FreeImages.com / Brian Whitman

 

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