A Savage Text

by Adrian Thatcher

from Signs of the Times, No. 31 - Oct 2008

When you read this, the Lambeth Conference will have dispersed, and the arguments about homosexuality within the Anglican Communion may have led to schism. As everyone knows, what lies beneath these sad quarrels about sex, in almost all the churches, is an abyss of questions about what the Bible is for, how it is to be read, and whose interpretation has authority in the Church.

How can Christians be so acrimoniously divided over sexuality? An answer to that question, and one that has not yet been fully explored, may be found in the way some Christians have used the Bible in past disputes. One way has led to an increase in social and moral well-being: the other has led to cruelty, exclusion and violence. Take for example the text "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." (Exodus 22:18) Catholics and Protestants agreed the text justified both the category "witch"; and the use of torture to determine whether a woman belonged to that category; and the use of horrendous capital punishment in extirpating this female menace from Christian soil.

Or take the sexually ambivalent story of Noah's nakedness, and his vicious execration, "Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." (Genesis 9:26) That verse, with others, was held with near unanimity by Christians to justify the capture, ownership, trading and mistreatment of slaves. In 1862, a child of slaves wrote that the divine curse on black people was the "general, almost universal, opinion in the Christian world.... The Negro race is an accursed race, weighed down, even to the present, beneath the burden of an ancestral malediction."

Apartheid was the creation of biblicists. "It was important that apartheid had a 'biblical' basis... The Nationalist Government saw themselves as Christians, called and chosen by God, and a bastion against communism." [1] "Old Testament commands forbidding the marriage of Israelites with other peoples were then used to prohibit mixed marriages in South Africa under article 16 of the Immorality Act." [2] True, Christian faith was also instrumental in the dismantlement of apartheid. The shocking truth, however, is that apartheid was advanced as a biblical doctrine justified by the Word of God. Luther, in his shameful work On the Jews and their Lies , used Hosea 1:9 ("for ye are not my people, and I will not be your God") to prove that Jews had forfeited any claim to be God's chosen any longer. "This verse, and many others, become savage texts culminating in the 'sincere advice' to 'set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.'" [3]

The savage use of scripture in relation to women, their silencing in the churches, exclusion from ordination, and assumed culpability for bringing sin into the world, remains a customary androcentric routine in many churches. The list of victimised groups bashed by Bible-bashers is long. For the rest of this short article, I want to answer two questions. Is the proscription of homosexual people, their desires and their loves, just another example of the Church's conversion of the scriptures into a savage text? If so, how can these abuses be removed altogether from Christianity?

I think continuing Christian opposition to lesbian and gay people is the latest episode in what I have called "textual savagery". I do not think the scriptures are "savage" (though undoubted savagery exists in the pages of the Bible). Faulty exegesis renders biblical texts savage. First, Bible abuse generally involves fear of difference or of the unknown. While fear becomes hatred, " perfect love casteth out fear." (1 John 4:18) The persecution of witches followed from a fear of women's bodies, believed to be the source of all sin and much patriarchal temptation. Less blatant, but deep internalised fear of women's bodies is likely still to be the fuel that powers resistance to women priests (and bishops). Fear was a driver of racism. That some people desire other people of the same sex as them can easily instil a fear of difference among people whose desires are "normal."

Second, some evils are so blatant their perpetrators need extraordinary justification. What better than a text directly inspired by God to clinch an argument? If " God says..." or "The Bible says...", then who are we to disagree (even if we privately have our doubts) with what is written in His Word? Third, Christian groups with strong bonds of insider-solidarity police their boundaries by excluding people who do not fit, and define themselves ever more tightly by heaping opprobrium on who and what they are not. Opprobrium against people of sexual minorities reinforces the essential heterosexual identity which, in much Christianity is now compulsory.

Fourth, is there not a sad arrogance among any group of Christians if it thinks that its possession of the truth is sufficiently robust to legitimize life-and-death judgements against their fellow-Christians, despite the teaching of Jesus "Judge not, that ye be not judged." (Matthew 7:1) And fifth, the sheer implausibility of past appeals to say, the witch texts to justify the torture of women or the narrative of Noah's nakedness to justify slavery and racism, may be exceeded by the implausibility of annexing the Sodom and Gomorrah story of Genesis 19 or the prohibition of homosexual relations in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 in an attempt to dump the problem of same-sex love outside the churches.

Former episodes of biblical misuse in Church history should warn Christians never again to use the Bible as some sort of inspired guidebook for right conduct. According to the Bible, it is Jesus who is God's Word, not a collection of ancient texts, however rightly revered they are. The Gospels teach us to imitate Christ who laid His life down for us. "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus," urges Paul, who also warned that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." (2 Corinthians 3:6) The New Testament letters tell us about the experience of the first Christians, in being the body of Christ. They are invaluable, the foundation documents of the faith, but that does not make them a guidebook to contemporary moral problems. Richard Hooker (1554-1600), an early Anglican divine, got the matter right. Against the Puritans he held that both Testaments are alike in bearing witness to Christ, and different in how they do it - "...the general end both of Old and New [Testaments] is one; the difference between them consisting in this, that the Old did make wise by teaching salvation through Christ that should come, the New by teaching that Christ the Saviour is come..." [4]

The imitation of Christ will be variously practised by Christians. We need to read the Bible to learn that God's Word is principally in Christ to whom the Bible and the Church bear fallible though indispensable witness. "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us..." (John 1:14) Jesus widens the command to love one's neighbour by including one's enemies. (Matthew 5:43-5) Our faithfulness and loyalty to Christ must issue in a love of God, of our neighbour, of ourselves, and of our enemies. Turning the Bible into a savage text is no way to imitate Christ.

  1. See references in Adrian Thatcher, The Savage Text: the Uses and Abuses of the Bible (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell; Blackwell Manifestos, Sep 2008), pp.42, 183. [Back]
  2. Richard A. Burridge, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics ( Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2007), p.350. [Back]
  3. Burridge, Imitating Jesus , p.366. [Back]
  4. Thatcher, The Savage Text, p.98. See On the Jews and their Lies (1543), part 11. (accessed 06.07.08) [Back]

Adrian Thatcher is Professorial Research Fellow in Applied Theology at the University of Exeter.

The full version of the argument of this article is his book The Savage Text.