Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The First Word

Full confession: I come from fundamentalist stock. Whilst my paternal grandfather was Catholic and my maternal grandmother Anglican, and whilst I now identify more with those traditions, I was raised in the Protestant fundamentalism preferred by my mother's family. And with that sort of fundamentalism comes inerrancy, often stated as the first line in such churches's statements of faith, before even God.

Protestant fundamentalism, as most people who might read this blog post are probably aware, supposes that the bible is God's final word on all matters of doctrine and practice. The bible says homosexuality is bad? Well, then, by golly gee wow, homosexuality is bad. Before that the bible was used to say that women should stay quiet in church (indeed, in the church in which I was raised it was a matter of debate whether women could even sing during services, lest scripture be violated). The bible was also used to support bans against interracial relationships and to justify slavery. Inerrancy has a problematic track record.

Now, of course, the clever inerrantist will object that such thinking on women, interracial relationships, and slavery represent misreadings on scripture. But here the inerrantist reveals her or his self to perhaps not be as clever as she or he would like to think, for almost invariably in the next sentence she or he will then assure us that what the bible says on homosexuality cannot possibly be a misreading, with the same confident vehemence that past generations held on their views on women, "race-mixing," and slavery. Few is the inerrantist who will admit that perhaps their own reading is as susceptible to error as these readers. It begins to appears as if what is inerrant is not so much scripture as the inerrantists' proclamations thereupon.

The problem lies not simply in how scriptures are being read but in how it is thought to function in church and Christian life. The entire premise is that if the scriptures are to be authoritative they must be the last word. They must be what settles the discussion, once and for all. Yet revisions of what scripture means to the faith community demonstrate that they do not settle discussions once and for all. So, let me offer a bold suggestion: the scriptures are authoritative not because they contain the last words for faith and practice but because they contain the first. They initiate the discussion, and as such they establish certain ways of thinking that will forever guide the discussion, but they are not a law book or criminal code that lays out in codified form all that one should do and think.

Under such an understanding Christian thought would look to the scriptures not so much for answers but for questions. And the Christian who looks at the scriptures thus will discover that a oddly-shaped question mark: not a squiggle and a dot, but rather a cross, for the cross is the punctuation mark next to any and all Christian reasoning. Not the cross as a metaphysical concept of atonement, etc., but rather the sign of a broken body, of the weak trampled by the strong. Christianity's bold proclamation is that God sides not with the great and powerful but with the lowly and weak, and that those who are murdered will in the fullness of time be vindicated over those who killed them. Christianity's bold claim is that the meek will inherit the Earth: not heaven, not metaphorically, but this world, this one in which we live. It is, Paul says, foolishness to those who do not believe, but it is to those who belief the sign of history in the making. It is the first word of Christianity, and calls in question every effort to give the final words.

This then becomes a way of thinking about history. Not of history in the more superficial albeit essential sense, of the what actually happened, but in the deeper and more excellent sense, of the what does it mean. At the risk of sounding supersessionist (which is definitely not my intent, as that would violate the principle of siding with the persecuted over the persecutors), I would suggest that this preferential option for the weak (which of course includes a preferential option for the poor) is found already in the Tanakh/Old Testament. It is a well-known feature of the T/OT that God prefers the younger brother over the older, the disenfranchised over the franchised. God chooses for God's own people not a great empire but a people that is no people and that has no land. God's laws provide for the stranger in the midst of that people, for the care of the poor, etc. The prophets and the psalms regularly talking about God lifting up the vanquished and laying low the conqueror.

This continues to this day. We revere those killed in the Holocaust whilst reviling those who killed them. The tyrant is revealed as nothing more than a bully, his victims as long-suffering exemplars of what it means to be human. There is a Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, but no George Wallace Day. The great people of history, the ones that we really remember, are not the kings and conquerors, but the ones who died in the name of humanity. They are the martyrs, the witnesses to this alien logic, to this first word, the word that says that in the end not power but goodness triumph.

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