May 20, 2013
Alan Grayson Tells It Like It Is
Posted on Jul 21, 2011
Greg Carey: I think Madison’s on to something important when he describes civil religion, because the sexual ethics you often hear preached as being, you know, the biblical teachings are really the Victorian ethics of the 19th century. They can’t be found in the Bible. And yet they became the norm at the same time that civil religion really began to flourish in this country, before and after the Civil War. And I think that’s a critical point; it’s not a matter of going to our theological sources and saying, you know, what are our core convictions; it’s more a matter of justifying those convictions by picking and choosing verses from different parts of the Bible to make them fit.
Madison Shockley: I’d love to get Greg’s reaction to the part of the marriage vow that was recently stricken but was in its original form, where the proprietors of the pledge said that slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly, a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American president. He talks in one of his other articles about Christianity and slavery; what these folks forget to point out is that slaves didn’t live in a two-parent household, not in America, and that the father of many of these slave children was the slaveholder. And so that was an interesting error on their part. But talk about, if you would Greg, about how Christianity and slavery don’t have as great a history as we’d like to think of it.
Greg Carey: Well, sure. I grew up in Alabama. And that part, that preamble to the pledge that you’re describing … we have a saying in the South: You just can’t argue with logic like that. [Laughs] It’s beyond [a] logical sort of refutation. For one thing, as you pointed out, in the South slaves didn’t even have rights to their own bodies. And they didn’t have rights to control their own sexuality. So the idea that you’d have these happy nuclear families in slave households is just baffling to begin with. More baffling is the thought that someone in 2011 could look back at slavery and describe it as somehow a better state than things that are going on now. And you’re right to ask the question about Christianity’s implication in slavery. The Bible was written in a world where slaves were everywhere. In the New Testament world, in some cities, slaves may have made up as much as half the population. And so it’s not rare to see references to slaves or slave owners in the Bible. And unfortunately, it’s not clear that the Bible ever directly opposes slavery, or encourages slave owners to set their slaves free. So when we had slavery debates in the United States in the 19th century, those debates divided the major denominations; the Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists all split along slave lines, and those unions weren’t affected until well into the 20th century. But the problem is that the advocates of slavery could argue persuasively to many people that they had the Bible on their side. The Bible’s a big book; it’s diverse, and there are passages of the Bible that early Christians used, and American abolitionists used 18 centuries later, to resist slavery. You know, there’s the case of a slave named Onesimus who seems to have run away from his owner Philemon, and Paul says I want you to treat him like a brother, not like a slave. What does that mean? But ...
Madison Shockley: But Paul did send him back. He didn’t tell him to …
Madison Shockley: … he basically complied with the runaway-slave rules that governed in ancient Rome and governed in the early colonies.
Greg Carey: That’s exactly right. And it’s a case where, when I’m teaching this material with students, I often say, “It would be great if Paul had said what we wish he’d said.” And it’s possible to read Paul optimistically, but it’s not obvious …
Kasia Anderson: I’ve got a question along those lines. I’m sorry to jump in in the midst of your discussion, but you just picked up on something that’s anticipating my next question, which is whether both or either of you has a feeling about these types of reading strategies in which, for example, you have a more fundamentalist stance which kind of picks and chooses, maybe, certain scriptural passages and highlights them, perhaps, above all others to point to and say look, it says right here in the Bible that X, Y and Z—that gay marriage is not allowed, that this is what marriage is, this is what celibacy is. Do you have a feeling about kind of a reading style, whether it’s based on your own denomination or just your own personal take on the Bible, that would either condone kind of a close reading strategy like that, or do you prefer to say, OK this is a big book; there’s a lot of history in there; ultimately, men had something to do with writing it, and we’ve got to take it in context?
Madison Shockley: Well, I think you’re right to connect this question to the slavery question. Because what most modern and mainline Christians, and even in the abolitionist movement in this country, have done is found those passages that indicate that human dignity—that indicate that human freedom which was God’s original purpose in giving a moral capacity to human beings—can be found in the Bible. And you still have, you know, Exodus, where God speaks from the burning bush and says “Set my people free.” You know, God is against that kind of human bondage. And so we also need to understand that Christianity doesn’t have all the answers. And that’s what the slavery discussion tells us; that we can find some impetus, but it was clearly the Enlightenment and the social movement of that period that gave us the abolitionist movement in its full form. And so even today, the discussion about marriage—we have to decouple it from a strictly Christian conversation. And that’s why recognizing the opposition is really coming from an American civil religion perspective, and not a Christian perspective, is helpful in that debate. So that we can say, well, that’s one of your sources, but that’s clearly not the beginning and end of the conversation.
Greg Carey: My columns with Huffington Post were really aimed at people who are Christian and care about what the Bible teaches, care about what the churches are teaching them, and may experience that as dishonest or even harmful. But the reality is that over the centuries, Christians of almost every stripe have looked at aspects of the Bible and said, you know what? Times have changed, culture has changed; we can’t simply drop these ancient texts into our modern context without some process of critical reflection. And Robert had raised the issue, before we began talking, about usury, or lending at interest. You know, the Bible is overwhelmingly negative about lending at interest. It’s a way to keep the poor poor, and make them even more dependent. And until well into the Middle Ages, Christians, at least in the Western churches, weren’t allowed to participate in the banking industry. But you know, as the Renaissance developed and global trade started happening, and Christians started to see, wait, lending at interest is also one of the ways that you can generate wealth—it became very normal for a Christian to participate in the banking industry, right? I think that Madison’s correct that the same is basically true with slavery. It just wasn’t acceptable, and so Christians started reading the Bible differently, and …
Madison Shockley: And that same impulse for human freedom that allowed us to abolish slavery can now allow us to establish marriage customs, and marriage laws and marriage practices and marriage definitions, that allow gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people to live freely and to form relationships that are recognized by the society and by the government.
Kasia Anderson: I should just check in right now and say this is Kasia Anderson; you’re listening to Truthdig Radio with Robert Scheer, as well. And we’re speaking with professor Greg Carey and the Rev. Madison Shockley. And let me toss it over to Bob here, because I know he wanted to expound a little on this usury question, or perhaps just economics in general.
Robert Scheer: [Laughs] No, I think it goes to the selective quotation. And I know, Madison, you were involved, or still are involved, with the Jesus Seminar. And I go to you all the time for wisdom on this. But what can we … because the question is raised, “What would Jesus do?”; I think it’s an interesting question for discussion. And yet, the economic-justice aspect of Jesus’—the writing that’s attributed to Jesus, the sayings attributed to Jesus—are never brought up, it seems to me. And I don’t want to be one of those who selectively picks. But doesn’t it seem, in the main, that whatever can be attributed to Jesus does have a component of concern for the poor and social justice?
Madison Shockley: Absolutely. I mean, there’s no way to look at Jesus—you don’t even have to be selective [Laughs], in looking at Jesus, to understand that his core message was “Blessed are the poor,” but it can also be read as “Bless the poor.” That if you are not poor, God’s preferential option for the poor requires you to be a blessing to them, because God has blessed the poor. So you don’t have to be selective in reading Jesus. And if you really dig into—one of my favorite passages is in Luke where Jesus, in my view, endorses a minimum wage. He talks about workers—day-laborers, actually—who start at the top of the day and work for 12 hours, and those who show up at the last minute and work for one hour, and they’re all paid the same. And you never hear that talked about either.
Greg Carey: Not that way. I would add that I entirely agree about the emphasis on the poor in Jesus’ ministry. I’d also add, a special interest for me is in the emphasis on Jesus’ embrace of a group that the Gospels call sinners. And again, I’m highly motivated by the role of the churches in society, and I’m concerned that churches are so concerned with being respectable that they don’t know how to relate to the rest of society sometimes. But the Gospels describe Jesus as simply keeping company with sinners. He doesn’t scold them, he doesn’t force anything upon them; in fact, the Gospel of Luke even says sinners liked to hear Jesus. And what would it be like if religious communities responded to people in society rather than trying to impose these 19th century values on them? I think all of that is thoroughly present in the Gospels that you don’t hear much, and part of my job is to try to get that message out there.
Kasia Anderson: Well, and you do it well on Huffington Post’s Religion section. And we’ve been speaking with professor Greg Carey and the Rev. Madison Shockley, who is a contributor to Truthdig. And that’s all the time we have for today’s discussion, but I’m sure these questions will continue to be discussed on our site. So thanks, guys.
Madison Shockley: Thank you very much.
Greg Carey: Thank you.
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