This is not a religion of the book
Christianity needs to renounce its violent texts, and love its enemies, argues Paul Oestreicher
THERE ARE two related ideas currently in circulation. The first is that religion is harmful because it has, throughout history, been the cause of a great deal of violence. This is true. The second is that, if only the adherents of the three great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — all three “religions of the book”, took their sacred texts more seriously and lived by them, then these outbreaks of violence would stop. This is untrue.
The first proposition needs no defence. The history of all three faiths is drenched in blood — blood shed ostensibly in the name of God. There is no dispute that, without sacred texts, they would not have survived, but the phrase “of the book” needs to be unpacked.
Islam insists that the Qur’an was dictated by God. A degree of infallible sanctity is attached to it, so that to insult the book in any way is a capital offence. It is a direct insult to God. The Qur’an is divine. In principle, it interprets itself. In practice, that is not obvious.
The Hebrew scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, are not quite seen in that way. They are indeed constitutive of Jewry, but they do need to be interpreted. There is a huge literature doing just that. No part may be rejected, but great wisdom is called for to know the mind of God through it. The process of interpretation has divided Jewry. Orthodox Jewry rejects all liberal variants, but the sacredness of the Torah itself is not in question. It is literally enshrined.
THE CHRISTIAN BIBLE, Old and New Testaments, is, I contend, fundamentally different. It is an essential reference book of the faith. It is part mythology, part history, part poetry, part moral guidance, and that does not exhaust what it is. It was not handed down from on high. The Church had to decide which texts were in, and which were not. Taken together, they cannot simply be called the Word of God. Bibliolatry is another form of idolatry.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God . . .” In the beginning, there was no Bible. The Word, the logos, is the living Christ, constantly made known in his Church and in our hearts by the Holy Spirit — the light that enlightens the world. That enlightenment is a process that goes on until the end of time.
The paradox is that the New Testament texts themselves attest to the fact that they are not the last word. The Spirit is the contemporary judge over all that has been written. Jesus said, and the Spirit goes on telling us: “You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you.” Yesterday’s wisdom is not tomorrow’s. To the disciples, Jesus said: “There are many things you do not understand, but the Spirit will lead you to the truth.” He did not say: “Study the texts: it is all there,” and, significantly, did not write any texts himself.
Quite rightly, we may therefore say that St Paul had a view of the role of women that we now recognise to be less than Christian — to take a simple example. Once that is conceded, there is no longer any need for theologians to sweat blood ironing out the many contradictions in the Bible. Given the world as it is, those contradictions make the Bible more, not less, credible. They leave us with essential existential choices, which give meaning to the “glorious liberty of the children of God”. We are slaves to no text; nor are we a religion of any book.
The Bible is full of violence in God’s name, from the God-sent flood, killing everybody except Noah’s family (what’s wrong with an atom bomb, then, in a good cause?), and the drowning of the Egyptian army to let God’s people get away (why not wipe out Gaza then?), on to the Apocalypse — a horror film to outdo all others. All this, and much more, human beings have projected on to God.
God in Christ really has made all things new. That has proved to be too threatening to the Churches. The ethic of loving enemies is what the Christian revolution is all about. Jesus asked for them to be forgiven as they drove the nails into his hands and feet. When he preached in his home town about Yahweh’s preferential love for despised foreigners rather than for his own people, they tried to lynch him.
This radical counter-cultural ethic is, I believe, unique to Christianity. It is the one thing Gandhi gratefully took from the Gospel, while the theologians argued away the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount: “Love those who persecute you.”
This was not for the real world, in which Christian soldiers who put down mutineers were assured, using biblical texts, of a crown of glory. The sword as a sign of the cross on every British war cemetery is witness enough.
I HEAR the protest. Did not Jesus violently drive the profiteers out of the Temple? Quite the opposite: this was the righteous indignation of one man overturning the tables of many, using no weapon that could kill. The only person in that drama whose life was at risk was Jesus. Today, this is called non-violent direct action, like damaging a nuclear submarine.
It was not long before the authorities caught up with Jesus. Even then, he did not return in triumph to humiliate the high priests and Pilate. Secretly, mysteriously, he came back to give hope to those who loved him.
If the Churches embraced this ethic, they would be renouncing significant parts of their history. It is called repentance. It would mean that at least one of the three great religions would cease to be a contributor to the violence that could destroy us all.
So, late in life, I have come to see that I can only with great difficulty go on saying: “This is the Word of the Lord.” In many cases, it will be. In many others, it will give the opposite message, and be a licence for much that is a denial of what the Spirit is saying to the Churches.
The Revd Paul Oestreicher is a Canon Emeritus of Coventry Cathedral, and a Counsellor of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.