Getting Theological Instead of Grammatical
Improv comedy maestro and all-around cool guy Zhubin Parang weighs in on issues of scriptural interpretation and religious dialogue in the political sphere. I tried to respond in a comment on his blog, but I had too much I want to say. So here goes.
Zhubin's an atheist and understandably skeptical of religious argument. Folks like Pat Robertson and James Dobson give him ample reason to distrust those who use Christianity for their political arguments and as a basis of their political ideology. Folks like Jim Wallis, Christians who probably support most of the political goals that Zhubin supports, make him nervous because their religious language seems to exclude non-believers.
I, on the other hand, have become more and more confident that Christians like myself should use their faith to form their political ideology and - at times - in their political dialogue. That's one reason I'm wearing my "Proud Member of the Religious Left" shirt today. It's not the same as using God in a trump card for every political argument. I'll get back to that point. (If I don't remind me in a comment and I'll update. I should be doing a staff edit right now.)
I've been taking a seminar this year on Christian perspectives on legal thought. I've been impressed with the depth, richness, and variety of Christian thought on government that has come down through the ages. (How sad that Christianity in politics - like everything else in politics - has been reduced to shallow, simple talking points.) There's St. Augustine's vision of the government as a way for Christians to love their neighbors by working to ensure some measure of peace in a violent, depraved world. There's Martin Luther's (frankly disturbing) deference to government. There's 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's explication of love and justice...and how humble recognition of our fallen, self-interested nature should lead Christians to support the welfare state. There's Dietrich Bonhoeffer's thorough, detailed theological analysis of what the idea of "Christian freedom" means for politics...an analysis that eventually lead him to attempt to assassinate Hitler. There's Stanley Hauerwas, who feels that Christians in government are so intent on "fixing" things that they have lost track of what makes them uniquely Christian. (Among the things that Hauerwas believes Christians should support but have lost sight of: pacifism.)
I certainly don't claim to have it all worked out, but I feel I have a whole new set of intellectual tools to work with.
Let me respond to one of Zhubin's points. In the context of discussing how Islamic feminists are re-interpreting of the Quran, he says:
Now, I fully support such re-interpretations, but only partly because it justifies feminist Islamic principles. More importantly, re-interpretations tend to dull the meaning of a text. The Bible has had the benefit of 1) undergoing an almost infinite amount of re-interpretations since its existence, and 2) the proliferation of Christian denominations that demand everyone "personally" interpret it. As a result, the Bible can be used to justify practically anything, from anti-homosexuality to socialism to feminism to fascism to whatever. With the multitude of valid interpretations, any individual one loses authority, and thus coercive power. I think this is a contributing factor to the separation of church and state in the West: there's no coherent doctrine that can be extracted from Christianity, so what can Christians rally around? You might as well make laws based on public policy reasons.
Interpretation is neither intellectually dishonest, nor does it "dull the meaning of the text." The Constitution has been interpreted and re-interpreted by the ever-disputatious and fertile minds of judges and lawyers. Is the Constitution, as a result, meaningless? A Strict Constructionist (who, by the way, I do believe are intellectually dishonest) might argue so, but I disagree. Its meaning is understood in the different light of modern society, but it still creates and enforces certain fundamental principles of governance. It still shapes who we are as Americans. It has NOT been transformed into a tabula rasa upon which anything can be written. Its meaning is shifting but bounded, and it still has an independent effect on our legal and political thought today.
So with the Bible. Yes, it has been invoked on seemingly every side of every issue in Western history. But...well, I have two related responses. First, I must agree with Matt Novak in Zhubin's comment section that it has been haphazardly and wrongly invoked in many instances. It's far too easy to take a single verse of scripture, ignore the rest, and create what I believe is an un-Christian political philosophy. (Not that I am saying there is only one Christian political philosophy out there.) This leads into my second point - although there are many legitimate interpretations of the Bible, its meaning is still bounded. There is no way one can interpret "love your neighbor" or even "kill the Caananites" (a part of scripture that DEFINITELY must be understood in context) to mean "torture children for fun." I would argue it can't mean "torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib" either.
More to the point, Christianity and the Bible have a meaning and basis independent of modern American society. (For this idea I owe a massive debt to H. Jefferson Powell, who is heading up the seminar of which I speak. On an unrelated note, I like the guy because he's a Free Speech absolutist.) It's very difficult to honestly critique a society from within it system of values and meaning. Cicero strongly criticized the decline of the Roman Republic and bemoaned its loss of nobility. What he missed is that the golden age to which he nostalgically hearkened was itself full of cruelty and violence. Since that time, many seemingly crusading social critics have appeared myopic to future readers. (i.e. How could so many anti-slavery activists - not to mention Abraham Lincoln - simultaneously oppose slavery on the grounds that Black people are human beings with individual dignity......and supported racism and segregation?) Part of the problem was that each of these people, however intelligent and independent, were inescapably a product of the system they critiqued. Try as they might, they couldn't really see with different lenses than those of their society. They had no place to stand outside the system to get a good view of it.
What the Bible and Christianity offer (at least to me) is a place to stand outside of American society in order to critique it....to see its good and bad parts in a different light. (Christianity also offers me the very meaning of my life, but that's outside the scope of this post.) Now I'm still a product of late 20th- and early 21st-century America, but Christianity offers me at least a partial way out.
Let me give you an example (again, entirely cribbed from Powell). I have become ambivalent about the fundamental American value of individual rights, or at least how it's used these days. (And with that, I sacrifice any chance of a political career.) Not that I oppose rights, but my support is more qualified. Jesus commands that I love my neighbor and gives the example of the Good Samaritan - who gave of his own time and money to help a man in need without a thought to how it might affect him or his safety. To a Christian, such selflessness is the standard toward which we must strive. At times, "individual rights" can point the other way. Its emphasis is inherently on "that's mine and you can't take it." It can encourage a self-centered view of the world that focuses on "my rights." Thus we have Supreme Court rulings that regulations intended to protect the environment are a violation of somebody's property rights. No room for looking at the greater good or the long-term in that vision. No sense of community or self-sacrifice.
I still support individual rights - but not for their own sake. Just as Augustine supports government because "loving one's neighbor" includes ensuring that there are police to protect her from getting mugged, I believe "loving my neighbors" includes protecting them from government oppression and violence. The American emphasis on individual rights does much to impose procedural and substantive restrictions on government violence (like the death penalty). It does much to ensure equal treatment of people that affirms their equal human dignity - which Christians should support because we all reflect the image of God. Historically, individual rights have often - though not always - worked to achieve social justice and social peace.
Ok, so that's one example.
[I just spent an hour and a half writing this horrendously long post, and I still haven't reached the topic of religious dialogue in the political sphere. That will have to wait for another time. I hope y'all take time to comment and respond to this. When you do so, feel free to remind me to get around to writing about that topic.]