Monday, July 12, 2010

Biblical Algebra


When Jesus tells his disciples, "You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world, you are the eye of the social body, you are my witnesses," he is not teaching us the "arithmetic" of the kingdom of God, that is, the art and technique of performing operations on numbers, on absolute values. Rather, he is revealing to us the "algebra" of the kingdom of God, that is, the science of "functions and relations" between unknown values.
Andre Trocme, Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution (1961)

In the days leading up to the Second World War in Europe, many Christians reasoned that Paul's words in the 13th chapter of Romans called them to unequivocably obey, no matter how heinous, orders from their government:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.

Most of those who come to the Bible looking for easy, clear-cut answers (just as I used to do with the back of my Math textbook in high school) find these words soothing. The quest for certainty does that for most people who benefit from the status quo. For Andre Trocme, a French pastor and charter school administrator, Paul's words were wrongfully received by too many of his fellow contemporary Christians. They used the wrong method. The Bible, Trocme pleaded, was not that sort of text. It revealed the will of God through "slices of history," in this case, a first-century minority Christian movement in the capital of the greatest Empire of their day. Things have changed drastically in the past 2000 years and the relationship between all kinds of churches and all kinds of states in our world is so diverse it is mind-boggling. Do Paul's words, interpreted self-evidently and universally, have the final word?

Trocme compared biblical interpretation to algebra, as opposed to arithmetic. Reading Romans 13 is not as simple as 2+2=4. It is more like 2x+14=3x-5. There are unknowns involved that the contemporary Christian communities need to work out through prayer, dialogue and, yes, imagination. In other words, we need to do hard work in order to find out what x equals in today's context. Does the word of God, thus, change? No, but our world is vastly complex and ever-changing, as Trocme's own story can attest. He boldly denounced the work of Hitler (and many European Christians who supported the Nazi regime) and even contemplated an attempt to infiltrate Hitler's inner circle in order to assasinate him. However, his Christian pacifism (also through an algebraic reading of the Bible!) led him to turn his school at Le Chambon into a Jewish refugee camp and he compelled citizens of this small mountain town to defy orders coming from the government to hand over all Jews to be deported. They forged papers and "adopted" Jewish refugees as their own family members. In short, they disobeyed a self-evident reading of Romans 13. He saved thousands of European Jewish lives because he refused to interpret Paul's words as simple arithmetic (see above photo of Jewish children who hid in Le Chambon).

Although we live our Christian adventure in a different context than even Trocme did 50-70 years ago, appeals are still consistently made to Paul's words in Romans 13 for unquestioned Christian obedience to government...no matter what. The Bible continues to be quoted as arithmetic, just as it was 150 years ago during the slavery debate in the US and just as it was 75 years ago in Nazi Germany. Take the homosexuality issue. Many Christians on the right begin the conversation with "The Bible clearly says..." But if we take seriously the algebraic method of discovering Biblical truth, then we must wipe that introduction out altogether and begin with an intellectually honest pilgrimage detailing what homosexuality was actually like in ancient times versus what it is actually like today, in addition to assessing what science and our own experience with gays and lesbians have brought to the table.

Take the war issue. Perhaps Christian pacifists like me should not only quote the Sermon on the Mount and peacefully "defend" my minority position by positing (correctly) that no Christian served in the military for the first 3 centuries of the Faith. My algebraic quest for truth, however, must acknowledge the changing dynamics of church-state relations since then. Since Constantine in 313, Christians have consistently "found themselves" in positions of political power. However, I would plead with my fellow Christian brothers and sisters that Jesus called us to pledge ultimate allegiance to the kingdom of God (we are "Christians" even before we declare ourselves "Americans") and that we should take into account unjust wars that have plagued American history, from the virtual extermination of Native American populations to Manifest Destiny to Vietnam to our present day "War on Terror" in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. In other words, are our current US imperial adventures really "instituted by God" and will we really "incur judgment" by resisting these? My algebraic calculations say "no way."

--Theological Autopilot

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