Glawe: The fallibility of enduring texts


Editorials, columns and cartoons.

Michael Glawe

A letter to the editor was published last week in response to a column I wrote that discussed immorality in the Bible and the history of violence perpetuated by Christianity. While I don’t often respond to these letters, as it seems entirely unfair to the writers of the letters, I felt it necessary to explain why I believe the passage I quoted from I Timothy is so “disgusting” and so “disgraceful.”

The passage quoted in the column was from I Timothy 6:1-2, which reads, “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves.”

The writer of the letter contends that this quote is out of context. As the writer puts it, “Looking at the context, history shows us that slavery was a fact of life at this time and even that, under the law, ordinary citizens were often sentenced to slavery if they were unable to pay their debts.”

I wrote that the Bible seems to “endorse” the immoral act of slavery through this passage and that phrasing of it is not entirely true. One commenter in response to the letter made a finer, more puncturing argument when he said, “1Timothy may not be an explicit justification for slavery, but it sure as Hades isn’t a repudiation of it! The passage is akin to saying that a woman should just lie there and enjoy being raped instead of fighting back against an unjust and violent act. And if that rapist is a fellow believer, well you should treat them with respect as well.”

The comparison is a bit dodgy, but it nonetheless expands upon the failure of the Bible to address clearly immoral acts. One of the easiest moral questions humans have ever answered was in regard to the issue of slavery. In the Bible, God, speaking through the specially designated acolytes, never says slavery is “wrong.” Does that mean the Bible requires some updating?

When I said that the Bible “endorses” slavery, I should have referenced Leviticus 25:44-46, which says, “As for your male and female slaves whom you may have, you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.”

In other words, the Old Testament casts a firm endorsement of slavery, while the New Testament ingratiatingly perpetuates its existence. When the Apostle Paul cringingly writes to Timothy in the passage quoted above, he asks for slaves to obey their masters, who are believers deserving of respect.

There is no explicit call for the usurpation of the chains shackling the slaves to their servitude, a call that only came about through enlightenment, the advancement of society and science alike, and the decline of the church. Perhaps Karl Marx was right when he said, “criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and cull the living flower.”

This is why the passage from Timothy is the most disgusting and disgraceful passage of the Bible. I would rather die in the genocides committed in Deuteronomy and Joshua than live in eternal servitude of another human, where my entire self is treated as the property of another, where I cannot ever be myself and where even the divine refuses to smite down my oppressor.

I am always told that these immoral acts must be taken with a grain of salt — that these deplorable acts were “OK” at the time and that God was not out of his element when he called for violence in the Old Testament. Apparently, God’s morals are evolving with humans. That or humans have become “more moral” than God himself.

After all, what is the point in creating an enduring, infallible, impermeable and moral text for all times when, passage after passage, it gets some of the most basic moral questions wrong? The Bible isn’t malleable. It is no longer susceptible to change. Human sentiments change and our solidarity with one another has bettered the world.

One text that is malleable, a stark contrast to the Bible’s claim to infallibility, is the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution was designed so that it could be amended and changed because the writer’s knew, despite their immense capacity for prophesy and revolutionary ideas, they were fallible and sentiments change. There are hints in the letters and diaries of the Founding Fathers that they knew the issue of slavery would inevitably be resolved. Generations later, we solved this great moral issue through bloodshed and an amendment to the Constitution. You cannot amend the Bible, as it is God’s word, not man’s, though that proposition is suspect.

My holy text is not the Bible or the Quran. Rather, I came to understand my moral compass through literature and philosophy. Shakespeare, like the Bible, is not malleable, but nonetheless he brilliantly shows us how to understand ourselves and how to cope with our ultimate obliteration. George Eliot and Emile Zola always force me to take the pulse of my morals. Socrates teaches me to think for myself, not to follow him or risk eternal damnation. A plethora of names can be dropped, all of which are fallible and have their own unique vices but in the end, each contributes to the great conversation in their own way. That, to me, is simply divine.