Saturday, October 4, 2008

Distorting the Bible For Politics

Is it ever okay to do this? I'll leave it up to you to decide. Did America's Founders do this? I assert, yes. Ted Kennedy did something very similar to what America's Founders and the theologians they followed did. Kennedy spoke on behalf of the Senate Floor and argued in favor of hate crimes laws that protect sexual orientation at the Federal level and invoked Leviticus. He (obviously) quoted only parts of Leviticus and ignored other parts.

Leviticus 25:10 features prominently near the top of the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto the inhabitants thereof.”

America’s Whig Founders obviously didn't quote Leviticus in favor of sexual orientation rights like Senator Kennedy, but they did blatantly rip parts of it out of context, distorted its meaning to support their Whig-republican agenda. The Founders meant "political liberty" as it related to republican self government. And Leviticus 25:10, indeed every time the Bible mentions "liberty," refers to spiritual liberty, freedom from sin or sin's consequences, and not political liberty which was a wholly a-biblical concept. As Tory minister Jonathan Boucher put it, "The word liberty, as meaning civil liberty, does not, I believe, occur in all the Scriptures." From a strict orthodox biblical perspective on this specific issue Boucher and the Tories were right, America's Whig Founders were wrong.

America's Founders and some of the pro-republican ministers (the most notable of whom weren’t orthodox Christians, like Jonathan Mayhew) quoted parts of the Bible that CLEARLY relate to spiritual liberty (or freedom from sin) in favor of the wholly a-biblical notion of political liberty. And indeed, perhaps, America's Founders and the theologians they followed like Mayhew felt free to use unorthodox, cafeteria like hermeneutics (like Ted Kennedy) because they themselves were not orthodox Christians who believed the Bible the infallible Word of God but theological unitarians who believed the Bible partially inspired.

But the bottom line is the traditional orthodox biblical meaning of “proclaim liberty throughout the land” has nothing to do with what America’s Founders were trying to accomplish from 1776-1800, anymore than Leviticus has anything to do with Ted Kennedy’s invocation of it in favor of federal hate crimes legislation that protects sexual orientation.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, I was so waiting for you to drop the other shoe on the mis-invocation of Leviticus on the Liberty Bell, Jon.

Well done, and you fairly nail Tedward Kennedy for the same offense, even on a subject close to your own heart. That's why I can safely and securely call you a mensch even though I'm not technically Jewish. A mensch is a mensch, and I'm honored to call you my friend.

Any religious derivation of liberty comes from reason teasing it out of the Scriptures as its logical conclusion, not from the Scriptures themselves taken at face value. Hey, Leviticus says you should kill children who curse their parents, and Deuteronomy says just kill all the disobedient children. If we---or they---took all that at face value, Judaism wouldn't have made it as far as even Jesus because everybody's kids would have been dead and that would have been the end of that.

As the Bible is also a literary, a poetic, work [especially the Torah], I have always found these prescriptions of death a bit tongue-in-cheek, and not even observed in their own day. Contrary to popular belief these days, the Bible is not a stupid document.

"And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family." Leviticus 25:10

There's a certain renewal about all this, a liberation surely, but only from the past, a forgiveness and a starting over, not from scratch, but from the beginning.

Anonymous said...

...and ye shall return every man unto his possession...

Spiritual liberty is certainly prominent, but here we find that this liberty is supposed to manifest itself in our society.

As for the literalness of Deuteronomy, I agree with all of Tom's comments. I would also add that part of its purpose is to show us that even a covenant people (with the almost tangible presence of God, the overt miracles and the strict standards that come with it) would still fail to properly respond to a good God. For those of us inclined to think that things would be better if only God had done things differently, we find that he has, and that it is only our response that has been consistent.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks Tom. I reciprocate your kind words.

Ray Soller said...

Historically, for the Jews from at least the Hasmonean era through to the second destruction of the Temple, the Fiftieth Year of Lev. 25:10 meant a formal release from debt and human bondage. The interpretation by the Temple hierarchy limited repossession of property to that of dwellings owned by the priests. Land redistribution was put off, because a regathering of the twelve tribes was said to be a necessary precondition.

The notion that "There's a certain renewal about all this, a liberation surely, but only from the past, a forgiveness and a starting over, not from scratch, but from the beginning," is a watered down post-biblical era interpretation. My research indicates that the American revolutionaries had the right idea when they went for a land grab and dissolution of debt.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Unfortunately, the Founders didn't have access to your book, Ray. I doubt they knew what happened after the Hasmonean era or even what the Hasmonean era was.

Matt makes a very good point, Jon, that this Leviticus passage shows the Bible endorsing liberty as a good. Hadn't really thought of it that way, more that the Bible was relatively indifferent to personal liberty.

But there it is.