The Emperor’s New Bible
A few days ago, Kevin Rudd (Australia’s prime minister for the next few hours) spoke about his views on gay marriage on the Q&A program – have a look (it’s only about 4 minutes long):
Rudd was once opposed to gay marriage, but you can read about his recent change of mind in his famous blog post from a few months ago.
Rudd’s statements on Q&A have got many Australian Christians riled up. Not just because he supports gay marriage, but because of this comment in particular:
Well, mate if I was going to have that view [I just believe in what the Bible says], the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition.
In other words, just because the Bible says X, it doesn’t mean we ought to accept X. Actually, the exact words “slavery is a natural condition” are not found in the Bible. However, every time slavery is mentioned in the Bible, the Bible does indeed speak about it as if it is a perfectly acceptable practice. There are even regulations about who you may capture to use as slaves, how harshly you may treat them, and so on. There are no statements that unambiguously speak against slavery – even though the Bible is perfectly clear when it speaks against some other practices (including homosexuality). I’ve written about this at much greater length in two other articles:
Imagine you were trying to work out who to vote for, and you were looking through policy statements on the website of some party you were researching. Imagine you found statements like “Australians should only get slaves from other countries”, and “if you beat your slave but he doesn’t die in the next couple of days, then you are not to be punished, since your slave is your property”. Would you think “oh well, this party doesn’t have a policy saying ‘everyone should have slaves’, so I guess they’re probably against slavery”? I don’t think I really need to explain where this point is going…
After Rudd’s statements, loads of my Christian friends made all kinds of comments, and shared all kinds of articles, all to the effect of “Rudd isn’t a real Christian”, or “Rudd distorted the Bible”.
To the first of these allegations, I say this… There are all kinds of different Christians, and they have all kinds of different ways to view the Bible. Most people who call themselves Christians would consider most other people who call themselves Christians to not really be Christians at all. (For more on this, see my post Do Christians exist?.) One count says that there are approximately 41,000 Christian denominations the world over – for comparison, there are about 31,000 verses in the Bible. (Some) anti-gay-marriage Christians think pro-gay-marriage Christians aren’t really Christians. And (some) pro-gay-marriage Christians think anti-gay-marriage Christians aren’t really Christians.
As for the second allegation, that Rudd’s statements are a distortion of what the Bible really says about slavery… Well, I haven’t seen any article that isn’t already adequately refuted by my above mentioned posts, particularly Slavery. Bible style. So, rather than rehashing my arguments, I’ll simply refer the reader to that article. The responses from Christians have mostly done one of two things:
- Some have ignored most of the Bible, and instead focused on one or two passages with general teachings that the Christian pretends sums up the Bible’s views on slavery.
- Others take what the Bible says about slavery, but twist the words in order to “interpret” it until it actually means (they claim) the exact opposite of what the words on the pages say.
Interestingly, the Christians in the second camp typically then tell us nonbelievers it is us who have the wrong interpretation, us who have read what we want to hear into the Bible, us who take it out of context. But just consider the following passage from Leviticus 25:44-46, in which God (reportedly) says:
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
It doesn’t take a genius to understand what this passage is saying. But it does take some devious exegesis to make it seem as if it has anything good to say about slavery.
It’s deeply troubling to see loads and loads of Christians sharing articles defending verses like these. It’s deeply disturbing to see them nodding their heads as if to repeat the mantra “If you just understood our more nuanced way to interpret the Bible, you’d see that it only has good things to say about slavery”. I can see why they’d want to believe this is the case. But wanting something to be the case does not make it so. It doesn’t make it so if the Anglican archbishop of Sydney wants it to be so. And it doesn’t make it so if all the Christians in the world want it to be so.
It all reminds me of the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. I’ve spoken to so many Christians who have all kinds of “clever” ways to pretend the Bible says the opposite of what it really says. But I’ve also heard from onlookers who are as baffled by this behaviour as the little kid who was bemused that everyone was talking about the clothes worn by the (quite obviously) naked Emperor. If you don’t have any motivation to pretend otherwise, the Bible’s teachings on slavery are supremely easy to understand.