In a blog post I published just over a year ago, I wrote these words: ‘Bad theology can make people kill each other’. Nothing I have seen or read since then has made me change my mind. In fact, bad theology – and bad biblical interpretation – can cause people to do all sorts of appalling actions in the name of God. Here are some examples I saw during 2018:
- On April 2 Chuck Baldwin, a prominent Christian minister in the USA, wrote in a Facebook post that it is a ‘biblical requirement’ for every American adult to own an AR-15 or similar assault rifle. Referring, presumably, to 1 Timothy 5:8, he wrote, ‘Christians who are not prepared to defend themselves, their families and their communities “have denied the faith and are worse than infidels.”’ And pastors teaching otherwise are ‘heretics’.
- On June 15 the then US Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13, ‘whoever rebels against the governing authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves’, in defence of an immigration policy which separated children from their parents and denied asylum to victims of gang violence.
- Just a few weeks later, I went to Sheffield to attend the Shiloh Project conference on Rape Culture and Religion. In one of the papers presented, Claire Cunningham described the misuse of biblical texts to silence the victims of child abuse. In particular, stories of an older man marrying a young woman were co-opted by abusers operating from within the church, in an attempt to justify the abuse as somehow divinely sanctioned. You can listen to Claire’s paper here.
I could go on, but the chilling point is made.
It is partly in response to such abuses of scripture that the Bristol Baptist College has established the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. We are seeking to do high quality research into the interpretation of biblical texts that might seem on the surface (or have been used) to endorse violence. This is a very wide field, because violence is a huge subject, encompassing both active, visible acts of aggression, and silent structures of oppression. So, depending on the researchers that we recruit, and their particular areas of interest, we might be exploring topics as broad as these three examples:
- the use of rape as a crime of war in biblical and modern practice
- new interpretations of the ‘curse of Ham’ in Genesis 9, which has been used to justify racism and slavery
- the historical understanding of the ‘women obey your husbands’ texts in the Church
It is our conviction that the Bible, God’s word to us, has a trajectory that points to God’s heart for peace and justice. This is a restoration of the creational shalom that is described in Genesis 1 and 2, and hinted at in Revelation 21 and 22. We are convinced that the highest revelation of the character of God is found in Christ crucified, but that faithful, rigorous hermeneutics can help us to reveal the upright and loving character of God in both Testaments. And we believe that it is permissible for faithful interpreters to ask hard questions of scripture, and that good interpretative practice will bring us into respectful dialogue with scholars from many backgrounds and ideological stances.
Out of the results of this hard thinking about the difficult passages of scripture, we plan to offer a range of resources to the churches. We aim to facilitate the faithful handling of difficult texts, and to help equip the church to speak and act with a non-violent ethic, both here in the UK and internationally. We hope to produce study resources, publish blogs and accessible books, and to run conferences and workshops for academics and non-academics. We will welcome opportunities to collaborate with others whose theoretical or practical work overlaps with ours.
We long for the day to come when no one can imagine co-opting the Bible for the cause of violence or abuse. Until that happens, we want the work of the Centre to matter, for the glory of God, and for his cause of peace with justice.
The Revd Dr Helen Paynter is an Old Testament tutor at Bristol Baptist College and director of the newly established Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. She delivered the 2018 Whitley Lecture. This column appeared in The Baptist Times.