The Bible is, as one scholar infamously put it, a ‘text of terror’. People have manipulated it over the centuries to commit all kinds of atrocities. But what is most saddening is that people have historically, as they still do, abused the Bible knowingly and unknowingly. Their superficial readings have led them to justify violence and war, to uphold slavery and racial discrimination, and to coerce women into subjugation.
Reading the Bible is not easy and it’s not for the faint hearted. As Christians, we profess the tensive statement that the Bible is, ‘God’s Word in human words’. It’s that last part, in human words, that we often forget. The writings that comprise our Old and New Testaments, which we believe to be in some way ‘inspired’ by God, are nonetheless historically-conditioned documents rooted in ancient cultures quite alien to our own. That doesn’t mean the Bible can’t speak to us today – after all Jesus was a first-century Jew and we still relate to him today. However it does mean applying the Bible is sometimes a challenge.
René August knows the challenge of reading the Bible more than most. As a priest in the Anglican Church and veteran peacemaker in her native South Africa, she experienced firsthand radically diverging uses and abuses of the Bible. Some co-opted the Bible to uphold the barbaric notion that black people were inferior to white, even while others championed it as a book of liberation. Her reflections on the Together Podcast are profound, and well worth your time.
How can we safeguard the Bible from abusive readings that create and maintain injustice? Drawing on René’s wisdom, here’s how we can play our part:
1. Know your place
God is one, but we are many. We human beings are diverse. We see and interact with the world differently and individually. This individuality, these many different aspects that make each of us who we are, comprises what some like to call our ‘social location.’ The first step to safeguarding the Bible from abusive reading is to become aware of our social location and to realise that we approach the Bible, like we approach everything else, from our own individual perspective. This doesn’t mean we need to revel in subjectivity; but we should in principle be open to the possibility that we might have much to learn from others. Which leads me to the next point…
2. Get cosy
While in this modern day we have the freedom to buy our own Bible and read it all alone, doing so might not be the best thing for us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should quit your daily ‘quiet time’. What I am saying is that it’s not enough. In order to read the Bible well we need to read it together. Reading the Bible in community – especially one that is diverse, and marked by love, openness and humility – helps keep in check any interpretations that are potentially dangerous. By all means, we can disagree. The great apostles Peter and Paul fell out, and it precipitated the expansion of Christianity throughout the known world. But when we disagree, consider the possibility that you might be wrong. Or, at least not entirely right.
3. Embrace change
When we become aware of our social location and read the Bible in community, we will realise that we still have much to learn and discover. But, as René said, ‘when [we] read the Bible [we] don’t find a dissertation.’ The Bible is more narrative and story than abstract theology, and it invites us into a conversation with each other and ultimately, with God. When we relate to God and to each other we should expect to change as a result. After all, relationships are not static, but dynamic. They’re a journey. As we journey with the Bible, with each other and with God, by His grace we will grow into wisdom and become more like Jesus – who loves, and who won the heart of his opponent before winning the argument.