Monday, July 15, 2019

Democracy and the Bible

On July 4th I began pondering American democracy (our Republic)—I suppose it is appropriate to ponder our fragile experiment in democracy on Independence Day. An experiment in democracy, lasting just a short 343 years, is fragile by definition because its success depends on an educated electorate1 that regularly participates in the democratic process, which includes voting in elections and monitoring of elected officials.2

The Bible offers little positive guidance on a democratic government, and what little it says about governmental rule actually presents a problem for readers. Only two extensive descriptions of a political state are to be found in the New Testament, and both of them present contradictory views on that state (the Roman Empire), which was the dominant political power in the New Testament world (from about 31 BCE [ascension of Augustus] to 410 CE [the sack of Rome by the Visigoths]).

The author of Revelation (chapters 13, 17-18) portrays the Roman Empire in ghastly terms as the evil Empire of the Antichrist (Rev12:1-17). Paul on the other hand has a surprisingly naïve view of the governing authorities (Rom 13:1-7). His view is that the governing authorities of the Empire are “appointed by God” (13:1-2), and anyone who resists them will incur judgment (13:2). Oddly he makes no distinction between types of governments—apparently even repressive, ruthless, and autocratic governments are likewise appointed by God. Rulers are God’s servants “for your good” (13:3-4), he writes. Thus, one must be subject to them or else suffer God’s wrath (13:5). He concludes this short section directing that taxes must be paid and that citizens of the state should give respect and honor to the authorities, for they are “ministers of God” (13:6-7).

Both writers are clearly mistaken in their views. The Roman domination of the Mediterranean basin while difficult for the Roman Provinces nevertheless provided them with the pax romana (Roman Peace); it provided the provinces with “security and safety made possible travel, trade, and renewed economic development and prosperity.”3 So Roman governance under the Empire was not as terrible as John had imagined it. Paul’s view on the other hand is simply uninformed. That all governing authorities are appointed by God could not possibly be true—if we assume that God has a conscience. In any case, Paul’s views about the Empire clearly conflict with our democratic system of which we find no trace in the New Testament.

It seems fairly clear (at least to me) that Mr. Trump was not “appointed by God” (but then neither was Mr. Obama). Mr Trump was appointed by the Electoral College after he lost the popular vote of the country. His administration (and that of Mr. Obama as well) is plagued by gridlock. That is because governance in a representative democracy (a republic) is often messy and inefficient; it is all too frequently partisan, rather than bipartisan. A democratic form of government should probably be avoided except for the fact that all other forms of government are worse.

The Bible offers no specific advice about government. Except that here and there the Bible’s ethical ideas might be inculcated into government. For specific ideas about how government should function we are left to our own imaginations. It is more than disconcerting to see Mr. Trump employ in his presidency ideas and values different from the positive ethical ideas of the Bible (or even conventional American values) , and nevertheless still receive strong evangelical support.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1National Center for Education: In 2016-17 85% of Americans had graduated High School; 21% had a Bachelor’s degree; 9.3% had a Master’s Degree; less than 2% held a Doctorate.
2In the 2016 Presidential election 58.1% of the voting-eligible population voted: https://guides.libraries.psu.edu/post-election-2016/voter-turnout
3E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd ed.; Eerdmans, 2003), p. 29.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Caution: the Bible is a Dangerous Book

When I was young and green and growing like an emerald sprout in the steamy Mississippi Delta, I was an avid churchgoer—my junior and senior years of high school I worked on the staff at the Ridgecrest Baptist Assembly Grounds, served as president of High School Youth for Christ, and led the closing prayer at my high school graduation. Yet in all my religious training no one ever warned me how dangerous the Bible was when read prescriptively, and that is precisely the way I was taught to read it in a Mississippi Baptist church—prescriptively! Taking the Bible prescriptively is what one does when one regards it as a divinely inspired book. My teachers in those early years were not critical scholars and they all believed the Bible reflected a prescription for a successful life, one that was pleasing to God. They seemed confident that knowledge of and obedience to its contents would develop a strong Christian character. During those early years, however, no one ever cautioned me that in reading the Bible I should have to choose carefully between its mosaic of good ideas and bad ideas; and it is essential that readers learn to discriminate between the positive and negative ideas advocated in its pages! For example, the Bible rightly extols the positive qualities of a wife and mother—qualities worthy of emulation (Proverbs 31:10-13), but it also promotes a blatant misogyny that easily misleads the unwary prescriptive reader (1 Tim 2:8-15).

Here is another example of the need to discriminate carefully among better and worse ideas appearing in the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 Paul compares three religious abilities: love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7), prophetic powers, and faith. He claims that the ability to love is the greatest of these three abilities (1 Corinthians 13:13). Unfortunately this judgment is something he seems to forget in Galatians, where he aggressively promotes the right kind of faith over some who disagree with him (Gal 1:6-2:14). Discriminating readers will recognize the need to choose between these two contradictory positions—love can lead to reconciliation, while insistence on the right kind of faith will inevitably lead to disunity—and even violence (church history abounds with such examples). A striving after love, is the ethically more demanding choice (1 Corinthians 13:4), while the other, insisting on the right faith, more likely than not will lead to callousness (Gal 1:6-9). It is far more difficult to treat with love and kindness someone who disagrees with your faith than it is to denounce and dismiss them (as Paul did).

The most insidious aspect of taking the Bible prescriptively, however, is that its authors view reality mythically (myth: things that exist only in the imagination), and subliminally they call for readers to share their mythical views. Yet to accept their views one is required to regard the universe as a battleground between the forces of light (God, angels, Holy Spirit, good spirits, etc.) and Darkness (Satan, demons, evil spirits, etc.). Bible readers generally assimilate such ideas without serious challenge. Yet no formal argument for the necessity of believing in such an unseen world is presented in the Bible; its mythical world view simply reflects the backdrop of Hebrew and Greco-Roman antiquity. Such concepts were in the air the authors breathed and the water they drank.

Now in the late autumn of my allotted years I am hard struck by the failure of the Church to handle carefully the greatest treasure of its historical past. The Biblical corpus is like the corpus of ancient Greek poets whom Plato accused of corrupting the minds of Greek youth by attributing things to the Greek Gods that were untrue (The Republic, 377A-383E). In his ideal state he virtually censored the reading of the poets by the youth for the damage it could do them.* Here is my question: Should the Church learn from Plato’s example, and insist that there be warning labels on Bibles—perhaps something simple like the following: “Caution; contains ideas in part that should not be taken as a prescription for modern life”? There are many types of literature (politics, medicine, etc.) whose authors urge that their ideas be taken as a prescription for modern life. They change with the times. Yet it is precisely because of the Bible’s continuing iconic status in American culture that it requires a warning label. What do you think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, June 26, 2015: “The Sybil’s Wish: A Mythical Encounter.