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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Equal Opportunity Offense

Ms. Armstrong is likely to offend those who abide by a strict literal interpretation of scripture, but her words support those of us who have to answer the question--"Why the difference between the God of the Old Testament and the one in the New?"

from Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Karen Armstrong

There is a great deal of tribalism in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Hence we fince tests such as the book of oshua, which describes Israel's brutal slaughter of the ingigenous people of Canaan, and the book of Revelation, which imagines Christ slaughtering his enemies in the Last Days. Not surprisingly, some have been puzzle by the Charter for Compassion's call "to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate."

But we have to remember that people have not always read scripture in the way it is read today. Rabbinic midrash was not interested in the original meaning of the biblical author; far from sticking slavishly to the literal sense of the ancient scriptures, the rabbis sought a radically new interpretation for a drastically altered world They took from the old texts what was useful to them and set the rest reverently aside.  Henceforth Jews would read the Hebrew Bible through the lens of the Mishnah and the Talmuds, which entirely transformed it. Christians were equally selective in their exegesis of the Hebrew Bible, focusing on texts that seemed t predict the coming of the Messiah (which they understood in an entirely different way) and paying little attention to the rest. Even Martin Luther (1483-1546), who saw scripture as the only valid path to God, found that he had to create a canon with the canon, because some biblical texts were more helpful than others.  The reading of the bible was, therefore, a highly selective process, and until the early modern period nobody thought of focusing solely on its literal meaning. Instead Christian in Europe were taught to expound every sentence of the Bible in four ways: literally, morally, allegorically, and mystically. Indeed, as a Catholic child in the 1950s , this was how I was taught to read the Bible.  For the Christians as for the rabbis, charity was the key to correct exegesis. Satin Augustine (354-430), one of the most formative theologians in the Western Christian tradition, insisted that scripture taught nothing but charity. Whatever the biblical author may have intended any passage that seemed to preach hatred and was not conducive to love must be interpreted allegorically and made to speak of charity.

My son asked me, upon my returning home from work yesterday, what it meant when the Old Testament said to slaughter all the Amalakites, their women, children, cattle, and fowl.  And I told him that it could have several meanings.  The first of which was to put away all false belief--that one was not to literally kill those who disagreed, but one was not to allow the incorrect thought to persuade one to wrong ways.  A second way to look at it was that it was the way a warring people understood their radical "chosenness" and they way they chose to express that thought.  Finally, I pointed out that such a command was inconsistent with the scriptures later in the Old Testament that demanded fair treatment of widow and orphan and a sacrifice of charity not of the blood of oxen--a repentance not of sackcloth and ashes but of liberating the unjustly imprisoned, and relieving the oppressed of their burdens.

Any interpretation of scripture that allows us to justify harm to another or to hate any person for any reason is unjustified.  If such a God exists, He may as well not because He is no better than us.  And all of the evidence points in the opposite direction.  God is God from eternity to eternity--it is not possible for Him to order the slaughter of innocents and then tell us to "Turn the other cheek."  It isn't in his nature.  And because it is not and because all true understanding of God emphasizes compassion, it is necessary to understand biblical texts always in that light, even when that light seems exceedingly dim.  The vagaries of scripture are better understood as human failings than as failure of Compassion.

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