Wednesday, January 18, 2006

doubts and queries?

Alice was saying in a recent blog how she finds the liberal constant doubting and questioning of Jesus annoying and shallow and it made me think again about my most recent doubts and queries...

But as with most of them on a biblical theme it isn't the teachings of Jesus I'm doubting and querying but the whole bible business and how it gets interpreted.

At Summer Gathering last week I held a special interest group to look at the call for repealing Section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961 which basically give parents lawful justification for using 'reasonable force' to disciplin children - 'reasonable force' having included such things as beating with a length of wood. Several of us are already involved with writing submissions and there were others who joined us who are planning to. I was sharing with the group what I had got from the UNICEF forum last year, in particular a Samoan theologian's contribution - after all our main infuence as Quakers is to counter the hard Christian right's stance that it is a god given right and it says in the bible that it is ok.

The Rev Nohe Vailaau's stance on it was to take apart the hard right's biblically based claims piece by piece. Good on him, but....

He spoke of how only god can meet out justice, people should not presume to, yet we should be acting out god's love. It sounds fine a first but I don't quite get how people are supposedly incapable of acting for god on the one hand but expected to act for god on the other.

He spoke of the various verses in the bible which 'justified' physically punishing children and pointed out that the bible also condones stoning yet we don't allow that to happen within our society. Sure, but then he gave a long list of references where the bible tells us to be tender and guiding to children etc - again fine at first glance but saying you don't have to follow those bits anymore, they are outdated, but every good christian should follow these bits... Well, what if the next 'good christian' has a different set of quotes to follow or reject, as is the case here with Section 59. Which 'good christian' (if any!) has the right to decide which bits of the bible are relevant now and which aren't?

He said some really good stuff about restorative justice; about disciplin vs punishment; about children not being mini adults but children - they have to make mistakes to learn and shouldn't be punished for not going from 0 to 18 overnight. He stressed how punishment only affects the moment in which it is given - disciplin is long term; how the 'rod' in 'spare the rod, spoil the child' if you go back to bible properly actually means a rod of law or like a shepherd's crook which is to guide, comfort and lead - not a tool to beat someone with ('The Lord's my shepherd' would sound well dodgy otherwise!).

I'm not convinced that quoting the bible back at those who use it as justification will get any of us anywhere. It feels like point scoring and in doing so missing the real point that these are children's lives. They are, we all are, as Deborah kept reminding us 'children of god' - they don't have to wait to become 16 or 18 to magically become so. They are vulnerable, they need to be protected by the law not penalised for being under age.

So like Alice I too feel frustrated and 'want to get on and live in Faith' and struggle when others use their 'faith' as a justification for something that seems so inherently wrong to me. Ah well, I guess I should just go and get my bit of the submission written and do some more homework for the bible study class for newcomers & sceptics (amongst others!) that Jonathan and I are supposed to be planning on Sunday!


Nancy A said...

The bible is problematic for me too. It's just too long, written over too long a period with too many authors to be useful as a religious guide. It's the "paper pope" of the noncatholic churches, meant to have an answer for everything.

To me, the teachings of Jesus are the only "real" bible. The rest is there just for interest's sake.

The only bible we know for sure that G-d wrote is creation itself. So we need to read that bible, understand it, figure out what it says about child disclipline.

Lovin' Life Liz said...

I too have a hard time with using the Bible to justify beating children (and it has also been used to justify beating wives).

I guess I have a different perspective than those that are doing above actions, as I take the Bible more as wisdom, not a rule.

Sebastian said...

"To me, the teachings of Jesus are the only "real" bible. The rest is there just for interest's sake."

This^ speaks my mind.

"The only bible we know for sure that G-d wrote is creation itself. So we need to read that bible, understand it"

^this moreso.

Martin said...

If you're in a debate with the Paper Popery types, who claim there is no possible scope for interpretation or contextualisation of the words on the page (usually in a translation that backs up their opinions too), then there is no way of entering into discussion other than on that ground. Otherwise, you're automatically in a "You're wrong because the Bible Says..." place.

And if you're using Biblical dialectic, then the way to show them that it's a living document, always adapting to its times in usage, then the way to do so is not to point out contradictions in the Bible, but in their approach to it.

The very, very best example of this was (sad to say) on the West Wing:

where a literalist radio show host had argued that Homosexuality was an abomination using the standard Leviticus 18:22 argument. The profoundly liberal President responds with a few questions:

"I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleaned the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?"

"My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?"

"Here's one that's really important cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7 If they promise to wear gloves can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point?

"Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother, John, for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?"

Actually, this was lifted from a much circulated open email to real-life right wing radio presenter "Dr" Laura.

Anna Dunford said...

Friends speak my mind...

Thanks for the quote Martin, I've heard of it before but good to see it all written out chapter & verse!

In our research this morning for the bible group we hit on one contradiction after another and were going round in circles with half a dozen books out between the two of us trying to make sense of things.

In the end we just went with it not making sense, after all the group is about sharing such frustrations and getting what wisdom we can from it despite them.

Martin said...

My view is that the Bible isn't one big set of dictation, with every section intended to be applicable to all people through all time. Some of it, sure. But not all by any means.

Look at prophesy, what many people take to be the closest to that universal message. If you read the full books, rather than cherry picking verses, it's pretty clear that most prophesies were a particular message for its recipients: "The LORD has noticed xyz is happening to his chosen people and has the following to say about it:..."

Or to take another one, the literalist's friend (again, with cherry picking), Leviticus. This is a great public health manual for an early community living in a desert for a long time. And yes, the warnings are all pretty dire. But would the children of Israel have accepted "Yeah, that's not such a good idea" type instructions?

If you're in the same situation, the prescribed behaviours are all probably still valid. But if you're not..?

When I'm giving instructions to my boys, I'll occasionally give them different instructions depending on the circumstances and which of them it is. Or I'll give very strong instructions to Always Be Followed ("shut the car door as soon as you get in") even when they're only sometimes important (when we're parked on a road, compared to in the drive), just to make sure that when they're actually important, the behaviours are ingrained.

The quote I have in mind is the 2 Timothy one:

All scripture is spirit breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

This doesn't mean that any part is wrong per se. But it also isn't the same as the Every Verse In Tablets of Stone view.

Anna Dunford said...

It is good to hear a non-quaker voice on this Martin, whilst to describe Augustines as 'mainstream' would be a bit of an insult to Bungie (I haven't heard enough about 'Orthank' yet to comment!), it is at least a christian church in a way that the Meetings I have been a part of aren't really. I'm intrigued as to how Quakers at the more christocentric/bible orientated end of the spectrum deal with this issue.. maybe it needs an email to the WGYF list to find out?

Audra said...

The bible was a complete conundrum to me when I first picked it up, and I'm not sure that Sunday School teachers ever helped me that much with it either, but a few things seem to make more sense to me now than they did before. Not much mind you.

People have always quoted, used and abused the testaments to illustrate and back up their own points, even the bible says that. It contains a full page illustrated example, recall the headline reports of Jesus's challenge to the authorities interpretation of the Old Testament? So I do take a step back to think, when someone quotes a part of the bible (or the Quran for that matter) as giving them licence to assert/legislate or do something.

Parts of the bible do "speak to me", they have some affinity to me or my life, but I wonder if that's any different from the way other books and films "speak to me" too.

The reason I persevere with the Bible is because within it are accounts of someone who's life and death, and ultimately love, speaks to me. It's not the stories (I have read better), or the laws ( modern law is even more intractable), it's him, what he did, what he stood for, who he is....

It's got less pictures than Hello magazine, but in some ways there's a similarity in there too... if I want to know more about Jesus, it's not such a bad place to look, as apparently he read the first few chapters too and they meant a lot to him....

Shame he left his cribbed version of the old Testament on the back of the Galilee to Jerusalem donkey, would have saved us all a lot of heart ache, especially the bits where he wrote "Father!" in the margin....