Christianity In Its Own Words: Cherry-picking the Bible
NOTE: This is a guest column by NOSHA member, Bill Sierichs.
For those who are not aware, for several years Sierichs has written a regular column for the Atheists for Human Rights newsletter (edited by Marie Alena Castle). It’s called “Christianity In Its Own Words.” He focuses on specific issues (marriage and sex, racism, church-state separation friends and foes, laws Christians used to suppress dissent) by mostly quoting from Christian sources with some commentary and context.
In the following, he dissects a Cal Thomas column from earlier this year. The column is self-explanatory. This is his second dissection of a Thomas column, which explains his lead sentence.
I hate to keep picking on Cal Thomas because it’s such a guilty pleasure: It’s too easy and it’s too much fun.
But Thomas wrote a May 2012 column that is more honest than he likely intended. He attacked President Obama for endorsing same-sex marriage as cherry-picking Scripture by referencing the Golden Rule: “It is difficult to be [a Christian] while simultaneously holding a low view of the Bible …” Thomas assailed Obama for ignoring biblical statements about the beginning of human life, fornication, marriage and adultery. He blasts those who disagree about the Bible “to claim that the Bible doesn’t say what it says, in effect calling God a liar. Obama apparently hopes there are sufficient numbers of biblical illiterates” he can fool. Thomas correctly notes that “Liberal theologians have tried to modify, or even change, what is contained in the Bible …”
This cherry-picking has been going on at least as far back as Christian abolitionism. That subgroup of abolitionists routinely claimed that the Bible did not say what it actually says about slavery, at times either retranslating passages to say that “slavery” references were actually to “servants” or claiming that generic Jesus statements about humanity were a repudiation of slavery. Liberal Christians since then have somehow found pacifism, human rights, democracy, feminism, etc., in the Bible.
The problem is that most Christians historically did not see these ideas in the Bible and certainly did not act as if the Bible condemned slavery or endorsed equal rights for women, gays and non-Christians, and representative governments. For example, the Bible speaks only of kings and kingdoms; Jesus is praised as a king, and he prayed to God that “thy kingdom come.” This also was an appeal for the apocalypse to occur soon, in which most of humanity is slaughtered and then tortured eternally after death, while Jesus reigns as a king over his followers, who share in some sort of paradise.
Consider Christianity’s history on the issue of homosexuality. Passages in the scriptures plainly condemn homosexual acts, even mandating execution for people convicted of sodomy. Despite some modern attempts to reinterpret the Bible so as not to condemn homosexuals, Christians historically disagreed.
In the late 7th century, the Visigothic law code banned sodomy: “The doctrine of Orthodox Faith requires Us to place Our censure upon vicious practices, and to restrain those who are addicted to carnal offences. For We counsel well for the benefit of Our race and Our Country, when We take measures to utterly extirpate the crimes of wicked men, and put an end to the evil deeds of vice. For this reason we shall attempt to abolish the horrible crime by which men do not fear to defile men by filthy debauchery, which is as contrary to Divine Precept as it is to chastity.” Castration and other penalties were ordered.
In a study of heresy in Germany, scholar Richard Kieckhefer noted, “Thus, it is not surprising that popular dialect in parts of southern Germany placed heresy and unnatural sexuality on the same level, as perversions of Christian decency: the term ‘Ketzerei’ could mean either ‘heresy’ or ‘sodomy.’ ”
In a history of Italian law under Christianity, scholar Carlo Calisse said that burning was the common penalty for sodomy.
A similar legal penalty led Portugal’s inquisition to burn five men at the stake for sodomy in 1559 in the colony of Goa, India.
England’s Virginia colony decreed, “No man shall commit the horrible, and detestable sins of Sodomy upon pain of death …” The Puritans likewise mandated death for homosexuality. A 1658 New Plymouth colony law: “Capital offences liable to death … Sodomy Rapes Buggery.”
Christian literature was anti-gay. One earthly apocalyptic vision, “Pseudo-Methodius,” saw the 7th-century conquests of the Arabs — who “are not human beings but are sons of desolation and upon desolation their faces are set upon the sword” as agents of God — as punishment for Christians’ sins, which included homosexuality among other sexual acts.
Another, “Wetti’s Vision” in 824, said God was offended most by sodomy. “For not only does the violent contagion of this creeping disease infect the polluted soul of males who lie together, but it is even found in the ruin of many couples. Stirred up in madness by the instigation of devils …”
So naturally, gays were counted among Hell’s more-tortured occupants. The “Monk of Evesham’s Vision” of 1197 found in the lowest level of Hell that, “The most loathsome and severe of all remains still to be told, because all who were punished there had been guilty of a wickedness in life that is unmentionable by a Christian, or even by a heathen or pagan. Those therefore were continually attacked by huge fiery monsters, horrible beyond description. Despite their opposition, [the monsters] committed on [homosexuals] the same damnable crimes that they had been guilty of on earth.”
Dante put gays on the seventh level of Hell, where they supposedly must walk endlessly on a burning plain under a constant rain of fiery drops.
For many decades, the U.S. treated gays as criminals. The Christian-dominated government considered them security risks and so barred them from many government jobs unless they hid their sexual orientation. The psychiatric profession even classified homosexuality as something like a mental illness down into the 1970s, not on the basis of any scientific evidence but simply because of traditional, that is, Christian, bigotry.
Opposition to equal rights for gays, including the right to get married, has come almost entirely from Christians, led generally by clergy. Arguments, even when put into a somewhat-secular form, invariably draw upon Christian beliefs, notably that marriage was instituted directly by the Christian god. Despite changing modern views, we have had the following incidents very recently:
In December 2011, Catholic Cardinal Francis George compared advocates of equal rights for gays to the Christian Ku Klux Klan, which used terrorism and murder to deny blacks and sometimes Jews their equal rights.
In a May 6, 2012, sermon, Ron Baity, of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., called for the prosecution of gays, “For 300 years, we had laws that would prosecute that lifestyle. We’ve gone down the wrong path.”
In a May 10, 2012, Facebook posting, Miss. state Rep. Andy Gipson quoted the Bible in condemning homosexuality as a sin and cited Lev. 20:13 about executing homosexuals.
In a May 13, 2012, sermon, preacher Charles L. Worley of Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, N.C., called for all gays to be quarantined within an electric fence and allowed to die out because “They can’t reproduce.”
These statements highlight just how religiously bigoted was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 5-4 ruling, under Chief Justice Warren Burger, in Bowers vs. Hardwick that sodomy laws were constitutional. Burger’s concurring opinion with the majority cited Roman death-penalty decrees for sodomy — he specifically called homosexual sodomy a “crime under Roman law” — but his citations were not to pagan laws but to laws by Theodosius II and Justinian, both Christian emperors, and declared, “Condemnation of those practices is firmly rooted in Judeao-Christian moral and ethical standards.” The U.S. Constitution explicitly rejected biblical and Christian beliefs, so Burger was openly incorporating Christian beliefs into secular U.S. laws. Burger also lied about history to justify a subterfuge to insert a Christian prejudice into American law; pagan Romans, like many other pagan peoples, had no prohibition on homosexuality (Roman culture did have taboos on aspects of sexuality, but not on homosexuality in general; and other, ancient, pagan cultures either tolerated homosexuality or even sometimes encouraged it, such as in Sparta or Thebes.)
When the court reversed its “Bowers” injustice by a 6-3 ruling June 26, 2003, in Lawrence vs. Texas that people’s sex lives are private and cannot be controlled by the government, the three justices (Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas) who voted to uphold Texas’ sodomy law were all conservative Christians noted for their hostility to the godless Bill of Rights and to the right of non-Christians, particularly nontheists, not to have religion forced on them.
Then there’s slavery, for which Christians found ample support in the Bible. The Jewish scriptures contained numerous pro-slavery passages and specifically or by implication allowed the rape of slave women, such as the story of Abraham and Hagar, Gen. 16; Ex. 21:4-9; Lev. 19:20; Num. 31:17-18; Deut. 20:14; and Deut. 21:10-14. The Jewish scriptures even provided laws to regulate slavery, such as Ex. 21:1-11; Lev. 25:39-55; and Deut. 15:12-18. Two versions of the Tenth Commandment explicitly condone slavery — Ex. 20:17 and Deut. 5:21 — by forbidding the coveting of a neighbor’s male and female slaves (some translations use “servant” instead, but the texts implied property, i.e., slaves).
Passages cited from the Christian scriptures included: Mt. 18:23-35, 24:45-51; Lk. 12:42-47; Rom. 13:2; 1 Cor. 7:20-22; 2 Cor. 11:20; Gal. 4:30; Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-25, 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-20. Whether all these passages actually supported slavery was open to debate — 19th-century abolitionists disputed the meaning or interpretation of many of them — but slavery defenders held to them.
Scholar A.J. Mattill Jr. has noted other passages that condoned slavery including Mt. 6:24, 10:24, 20:26-28; Mk. 10:43-45; Lk. 7:1-10, 15:22, 16:13, 17:7-10, 19:12-27, 22:50-51; and Jn. 18:10. Perhaps most important of all, as slavery defenders liked to point out, Jesus is never quoted as condemning slavery or ordering his followers to free slaves, while Paul implicitly condoned slavery in giving slaves advice, including obedience to their owners, while never denouncing slavery itself.
Christians certainly understood the Bible to support slavery. A few examples:
In 511, on the request of King Clovis of the Franks, bishops met in Orléans and issued decrees on the laws. One law said a slave who fled to a church could be forced to return to his owner if his safety were guaranteed; the owner would be excommunicated for violating his oath; the owner could seize a slave who refused to leave the church after his safety was promised.
Charlemagne issued laws in “The Capitulare Paderbrunnense” in 785 that taxed people to support churches and “for every 120 men among them, be they noble or free or ‘lidi,’ they are to give a male and a female slave to the church.”
The laws of King Wihtred of Kent, England, (695) stated:
· If a slave sacrifices to devils, he is to pay six shillings compensation or be flogged.
· If anyone gives meat to his household in time of fasting, he is to redeem both freeman and slave with ‘healsfang.’
· If a slave eat it of his own accord (he is to pay) six shillings or be flogged.
English courts ruled in 1677 in two suits, both styled Butts vs. Penny, that “negroes were infidels, and the subjects of an infidel prince, and are usually bought and sold in America as merchandise … negroes being usually bought and sold among merchants, as merchandise, and also being infidels, there might be a property in them sufficient to maintain trover …” and in 1694 (Gelly/Gilly vs Cleve) that “trover will lie for a negro boy, for they are heathens, and therefore a man may have property in them, and that the court without averment made, will take notice that they are heathens.”
To put these rulings in historical context, the word “slave” comes from Slav because, during centuries of anti-pagan crusading in northern Europe, Christians sold captive pagan Slavs into forced labor. So what Christians did to Africans was no different from what they did to countless millions of European pagans.
Which is why it should be no surprise that most of the hundreds of defenses of slavery written in the U.S. were composed by nearly 300 clergymen, nor that during the Civil War, many people blamed churches for being the leaders of the secession movement, specifically to defend slavery.