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Confronting Bible-thumpers on their own terms

I’ve been too busy to read the Times for the past couple days, and I’m making up for it now… so please excuse all the Times-linked posts. I can’t help it. NPR may be next.

Anyway, Kristof (who I love, but know is disputed in many feminist circles for his paternalistic tendencies) is right on this week as he covers the new book, “The Sins of Scripture.” He goes after conservative Christians for clothing themselves in the Bible while not acting particularly Christ-like. Of course, this isn’t new stuff; “Christian” politicians and leaders have been selectively quoting from the Bible for centuries, using it to justify everything from slavery to mass slaughter to the virtual enslavement of women. Politicized interpretations of the Bible have also lead to the virulent anti-sex mentality that seems to have always been attached to the church. Kristof writes:

Christianity may have become unfriendly to women’s rights partly because, in its early years, it absorbed an antipathy for sexuality from the Neoplatonists. That led to an emphasis on the perpetual virginity of Mary, with some early Christian thinkers even trying to preserve the Virgin Mary’s honor by raising the possibility that Jesus had been born through her ear.

The squeamishness about sexuality led the church into such absurdities as a debate about “prelapsarian sex”: the question of whether Adam and Eve might have slept together in the Garden of Eden, at least if they had stayed longer. St. Augustine’s dour answer was: Maybe, but they wouldn’t have enjoyed it. In modern times, this same discomfort with sex has led some conservative Christians to a hatred of gays and a hostility toward condoms, even to fight AIDS.

One thing I think Kristof is particularly correct on is his suggestion to take on conservatives for their un-Christ-like behavior instead of insulting them or mocking religion (and this is something that I have certainly been guilty of). What are the basic tenets of Christianity? How did Jesus behave? With charity, love and kindness. He helped the poor. He treated women well. Yes, he made particular demands of his followers, but the most in need were given healing and real help, not just a promise of salvation (although that was certainly there too). It’s fair to ask, if Jesus was alive today, would he be waging an unnecessary war in Iraq, or would he be making sure that every kid has access to healthcare? Throwing billions at the Pentagon, or directing a fraction of that to battle world hunger, HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis? Dropping an exhorbitant sum on inaugural festivities, or urging world leaders to step in and end genocide in Darfur? Just some thoughts. I’ll let Kristof end it:

Some of the bishop’s ideas strike me as more provocative than persuasive, but at least he’s engaged in the debate. When liberals take on conservative Christians, it tends to be with insults – by deriding them as jihadists and fleeing the field. That’s a mistake. It’s entirely possible to honor Christian conservatives for their first-rate humanitarian work treating the sick in Africa or fighting sex trafficking in Asia, and still do battle with them over issues like gay rights.

Liberals can and should confront Bible-thumping preachers on their own terms, for the scriptural emphasis on justice and compassion gives the left plenty of ammunition. After all, the Bible depicts Jesus as healing lepers, not slashing Medicaid.

13 thoughts on Confronting Bible-thumpers on their own terms

  1. Never one to let Kristof get the last word (he’s obviously right on most of the merits, but grossly naive as to solutions), here were my two rebuttals to those last two paragraphs:

    (1) I’m going to quote another perspective on this: “this same discomfort with sex has led some conservative Christians to a hatred of gays and a hostility toward condoms, even to fight AIDS.” Oh wait, that was Kristof three paragraphs ago. It would have been like Jesus curing lepers that he originally afflicted with leprosy.

    (2) Because if we’ve learned anything about fundamentalist prachers: they (a) are inherently open to reasonable arguments concerning scriptural interpretation; (b) generally keep an autocratic hold on their flocks because they always relent when “confronted on their own terms”; (c) always love being told that they are grotesque hypocrites for acting politically in a way that shits on their New Testament principles.

  2. Any extreme ideology stems from a sense of persecution and victimization. By mocking and attacking religion, you only reinforce that sense of persecution and lend justification for increasingly extreme actions. A less derisive, more civil engagement with conservative Christians, while not likely to change any minds among the hardcore fundamentalists, will at least help create a productive dialogue with more moderate or open-minded Christians, and help defuse one of the most powerful tools of the extreme right in maintaining control over their flock. Right now the hardcore haters on both sides are dominating the “discussion.” When will the sensible majority in the middle finally have enough of being jerked around?

  3. You know, the best answer to the religious right’s more extreme and oddball characters actually comes from St. Francis of Assisi, and I’ll paraphrase because I’m doing it from memory:

    Preach the Gospel often. When necessary, use words.

    Substitute what you will for “Gospel” (good news), although I think “good news” says it all.

    You can’t dialogue with these people. You honestly can’t. It gets so circular and so pointless so fast, it’s not worth the headache. All you can do is live what you believe, no matter what those beliefs are based on. Feed the hungry. Fight to end the devastation AIDS is wreking across Africa. Give shelter to those without. Come to the aid of those hit by instant and life-altering tragedies. Smile. Love one another. It’s really awfully simple, but we tend to complicate things with words and with needing to be acknowledged as right. It is right to do those things, and that ought to be reward enough in itself.

    Of course we should fight for causes beyond the basics of human existance, too. It’s right to fight for equality and social justice issues that effect wealthy nations as well. But stay single-minded and remember things take time. Don’t waste your efforts arguing with brick walls who are convinced they are absolutely right no matter what you or the facts say.

  4. What Kristof’s saying is hardly innovative; he’s simply jumping on the condescending old left-wing bandwagon which holds that liberals are better stewards of the Christian tradition than conservatives. When liberals like Kristof lecture about how such and such Biblical verse should lead us to believe that Jesus would necessarily sanction single-payer socialist health care or tax hikes, they’re politicizing scripture and, ironically, behaving pretty similarly to the self-important fundamentalist moralizers that they think they are taking down a peg.

  5. Jon, I think you miss the point, which is not to quote scripture and self-righteously declare that we, too, can claim our beliefs are divinely sanctioned. The point is to recognize that the Bible says a lot of different things, many of which conflict each other. Fundamentalists who quote the Bible almost always do so selectively, disregarding the context of the verses they quote and any contradictory passages elsewhere in the Bible. I don’t see anything particularly condescending about point out that fact.

  6. Christianizing politics is a war that can’t be run. God’s a Republican, Jesus is a democrat. Though Christians will protest that the two are one and the same, certainly those with a little more sense see the two as completely irreconcilable.

  7. Hmm, I’m sorry, not even coffee can make me coherent anymore. What I meant to say was “Christianizing politics is a war that can’t be won.”

  8. Not to be all self-promoting, but we at the Pepper had an involved discussion regarding this subject, and we weren’t even talking about the Kristof article:
    The gist of it was that the Left cannot lump all Christians together and assume they see the world in the same way. A fellow blogger who is a practicing Christian happens to be disgusted at what’s going on with the religious right today. And we’re betting she’s not the only one.
    Matt’s absolutely right: “Fundamentalists who quote the Bible almost always do so selectively.” And, in many cases, in a self-serving fashion.
    We at the Pepper aren’t religious, but we’re confident that there are some Christians out there who are on the verge of speaking out against the right-wingers in their religion. And the Left has to encourage that by not conflating “Christian” with “Crazy.”

  9. Fundamentalists who quote the Bible almost always do so selectively…

    far as i know, all Christians do this – it ain’t particular to fundies

    & y’know, contradictory passages have, in fact, been pointed out to fundies in the past (this is hardly a new idea – we know this, right?) – strangely enough, it doesn’t seem to have phased them even a wee bit.

  10. You can’t “convince” jeebofascists of anything, any more than you can talk the KKK out of its racism. They’re all bullies, and worse, and I think the best strategy to fight a bully is multi-pronged, (1) seek and utililize the protection of the law, where such exists, (2) when confronted, don’t back down, (3) where possible, pick an alternate route around the bully, (4) ignore the bully, don’t let him push your buttons, etc.. People or movements that make their beds on the wrong side of history, have to lie in their wrong-side-of-history-beds oh no another crapped-out metaphor.

  11. I think that’s true, Marian. But it’s really just another way of saying that conservatives shoot themselves in the foot when they impose their morality on powerful people, rather than limiting themselves to controlling and humiliating vulnerable popualtions.

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