Monday, December 21, 2015

Video with Bible Verses Mistaken for Quran Goes Viral: Why Are So Many Christians Blisfully Unaware of Christian Legacy of Oppression and Violence?

As Steve Benen notes, the video at the head of the posting, in which two young men in the Netherlands read verses from a Bible disguised as the Quran to people on the street, and then ask for their reaction, has gone viral. Steve Benen writes,

Random people on the street were asked for their reactions to the Book of Leviticus, for example, which explains the punishment for defying God’s will: "[I]n my anger, I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters."
Told that this was text from Quran, people were appalled. One young man responded, "If you've been raised with this book and these kinds of thoughts, it's going to influence the way you think." The Christian Bible, respondents agreed, was entirely different – and "more peaceful."
Shown that the verses actually were from the Christian Bible, those same folks were stunned. Evidently, so were a lot of others – over the course of just two weeks, the video has generated over 6.7 million views on YouTube.

Here's what strikes me as I watch: how can people in a nation largely Christian not know that these verses, including ones that tell women to submit to men, are in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures? When some of us live in a "Christian" culture in which people promoting the beating of gay people to a bloody pulp tattoo on their arms verses from Leviticus that, to their mind, warrant anti-gay violence, how can people possibly not know that the Judaeo-Christian scriptures contain these and many other verses requiring us to hate and do violence to our enemies, to force women to submit to men, to assure that slaves obey their masters, etc.?

How can the hard-fought battles of women and LGBT people in the past several decades have had such little impact on the consciousness of many ordinary citizens of so-called Christian countries, that they have no idea at all that the Judaeo-Christian scriptures have long been used to oppress and subjugate women, LGBT people, people of color, all sorts of stigmatized others? Women and LGBT people have been pointing this fact out for years now, asking people to pay attention to the selective way in which the scriptures have been used in Christian cultures to privilege some people while stripping other people of dignity and rights.

Given the very mixed history of Christianity with regard to its treatment of stigmatized others for many centuries, how can the people interviewed in this video be so blithely confident that Christianity is a religion of peace and love, and that it has frowned upon misogyny and has elevated the status of women in the world?

The historical evidence about all of this seems to me much more mixed, far more ambiguous. Perhaps because I grew up in a religious community that took the biblical text deadly seriously, regarding every word in it as inerrant, I encountered these ambiguous, downright hateful texts very early in my life. I had to do so, because I was encouraged by my church from childhood forward to read every word of the bible over and over again, if possible. Every bloody, mind-numbing word from "begat,"  "begat," "begat," to "spew you out of my mouth" . . . .

This encouragement resulted in an effect I daresay my pastors and Sunday School teachers did not anticipate, but which should be the effect of taking the bible seriously: I had no choice except to wrestle with with the bizarre biblical texts and with the historic legacy of my church, which used its selectively chosen, taken-literally texts to support slavery and racial segregation, and to oppose women's rights and the rights of people of color. I had to figure out what to do with a legacy that chose to use biblical texts in a highly selective way in which some texts that appeared to me peripheral to the Judaeo-Christian tradition took precedence over other texts far more central to the core meaning of this tradition, which stresses, at its best, that we live in union with God when we make love central to our lives.

I suppose I want to say here that I feel more than a little suspicious about the glib assurance of many people living in Christian cultures today that Christianity and the Judaeo-Christian bible can never be used to oppress people, and never have been so deployed. The astonishing lack of historical (and theological, and biblical) awareness at work in such a claim leaves people who think this way sitting ducks for exploitation by contemporary Christian leaders who — to take one example from among many — proclaim to us that Christianity is all about peace and justice and love, and at the very same time use biblical and religious warrants to attack LGBT human beings or women and strip them of rights.

Given how many Christian people today behave towards LGBT people and women, you'd think that more of us would be a little bit suspicious about the disconnect between those two claims: I love you, love you, you love you, because that's what Christians do. But my Christian faith requires me to discriminate against you. Because that's what the bible (or the magisterium, or the catechism) says.

This is not the first time in history that Christians have represented themselves as people of peace, justice, and love, while behaving in precisely the opposite way with regard to targeted minority groups. It's not the first time in history that the leaders of major Christian denominations have asked us to give them a free pass as they preach a gospel that claims to be good news for the whole world, while they selectively choose to make the lives of targed minority groups miserable. 

When the history of Christianity is full of such egregious examples of violent mistreatment of groups othered by our cultural and religious assumptions, why are so many of us so willing to assume today that Christianity is and always has been about peace, justice, and love? And that our Christian leaders today really are all about peace, justice, and love, even as they promote discrimination against LGBT human beings? 

And why are so many of us willing to think that the brutal encounter of fundamentalist incarnations of Christianity and Islam today has nothing at all to do with a long, tortured history of violent interaction between these two world religions in which neither side comes off as pure and innocent? And in which both sides have long selectively cited holy texts to justify their attacks on targeted groups, while ignoring what is central, foundational, essential in those holy texts?

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