I recently finished The Bible Now by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky. Freidman follows his regular pattern of faking out potential buyers of his book by putting only “The Bible” in the title of his book even though he will only be discussing the Old Testament. As in previous efforts, his work here is sufficiently excellent that this trickery can be forgiven.
The book deals with five controversial issues in the current political discourse, surveying verses that are used by one side or the other in political debates as well as other relevant passages which might shed light on the Old Testament view of the topic. The chapters are arranged for those who start books without finishing them, putting the two most interesting chapters (on homosexuality and abortion) at the beginning and the two most boring chapters (on capital punishment and the environment) at the end. For the most part, the authors are careful not to make the book about their own views, choosing to provide the much more valuable service of analyzing just what the Old Testament does and does not say about each topic.
If I were to sum up my take away from the book in one sentence it would be something like: the Bible is not very useful as a guide for how to deal with controversial moral and political issues.
There are multiple reasons for this. The first is simply that the Bible says very little about most issues. For a topic like homosexuality, the authors are able to discuss in some depth all the relevant passages in a single chapter.(!) If we were to add the New Testament we would only have a few more verses to deal with. Obviously it is possible to write endlessly about only a few verses, but there just isn’t that much to go on. Ditto for abortion and the environment.
The second reason is that when we generalize from the few verses we have we generally do so at our own peril. If the Bible includes a story about something terrible that happened involving homosexuality, is it safe to extrapolate from that story God’s position on the morality of homosexuality in general? Is it safe to interpret something written as poetry through a legalistic lens? Likening the scriptures to ourselves turns out to be a tricky business.
The third reason is related to the second and it is the one I was thinking about this morning which led to this post. It has to do with the entanglement of moral principles with practical realities about the state of the world. In some moral theories it can seem that morality and pragmatism are opposite ends of the spectrum, but they tend to get tangled up more than we would like to admit. An example is found in the discussion of capital punishment. Friedman and Dolansky argue that one of the reasons for the liberal use of capital punishment in the Old Testament was the unavailability of prisons. With no convenient way to reliably lock up felons perhaps the best option was to kill them.
If it is correct that the reason for biblical capital punishment is that imprisonment was not yet an established means of dealing with felons, then everything is changed now that there are alternatives to execution.
In my estimation, this line of reasoning severely undercuts the justification of capital punishment based on the fact that it is mandated by God’s law in the Old Testament. The best that can be argued is that capital punishment is permissible under certain practical constraints. Even that is debatable, but my point here is not to argue about capital punishment. My point is that what might seem like a clear-cut issue of morality (unchanging, immutable) is tangled up in pragmatic considerations like whether or not there is a convenient way to imprison felons.
It seems to me that this problem is deep and pervasive. As an example: We often talk about how we should deal with the problem of poverty. In the Gospels Jesus seems to have quite a bit to say about that topic. He tells someone to sell everything and give it to the poor; Jesus tells another person that when he throws a banquet he should invite the poor and the crippled instead of the rich who can repay him. It is easy to read a series of verses about the poor and come away with the clear impression that Jesus wants us to give to anyone who needs food and clothing. But aren’t there some practical considerations which come into play in this case as in the case of capital punishment. It is abundantly clear from the Gospels that Jesus demands that we care about and care for the poor, but the methods he encourages are surely influenced by the situation at the time.
There was no welfare state in the time of Jesus, just as there were no prisons in the time of Moses. Our wealth as a society has afforded us the ability to set up much better systems to care for the poor than giving cash to strangers. Is it fair to say that in the presence of soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and drug rehabilitation centers, Jesus’ position on giving alms for the poor can no longer be taken for granted?
And isn’t this sort of problem present for every moral question for which we might search the Bible for answers?