In some ways I have more intellectual respect for Biblical fundamentalists—or at least those who don’t construe the Bible as having a different meaning from what it says—than for liberal believers who just read their own morality into the Bible, claiming that that’s what God really meant. One of the latter is Jimmy Carter, Democratic ex-President who has always been a “man of faith” (he’s taught Sunday school for years). But until I read a new interview with him on HuffPo, I didn’t realize how malleable he sees scripture.
The excuse for the interview is Carter’s new book, NIV Lessons from Life Bible: Personal Reflections with Jimmy Carter. “NIV” is the “New International Version” of the Bible, which you can read here. At any rate, Carter manages to wiggle out of every misogynistic, xenophobic, anti-gay, and pro-slavery passage in the Good Book. Here are a few of the questions and his answers:
What do you say to those who point to certain scriptures that women should not teach men or speak in church? (1 Corinthians 1:14)
I separated from the Southern Baptists when they adopted the discriminatory attitude towards women, because I believe what Paul taught in Galatians that there is no distinction in God’s eyes between men and women, slaves and masters, Jews and non-Jews -– everybody is created equally in the eyes of God.
There are some things that were said back in those days –- Paul also said that women should not be adorned, fix up their hair, put on cosmetics, and that every woman who goes in a place of worship should have her head covered. Paul also said that men should not cut their beards and advocated against people getting married, except if they couldn’t control their sexual urges. Those kinds of things applied to the customs of those days. Every worshipper has to decide if and when they want those particular passages to apply to them and their lives.
Well, good for him for sticking up for women. But Lord, how can he excuse the Bible’s clear misogyny as merely “the customs of those days”? He mentions cosmetic things, but neglects the clear commands of Yahweh:
“If however the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death…” Deuteronomy 22:13-21.
“Wives submit to your husbands, as is fitting to the Lord.” Colossians 3:18
“Are they not finding and dividing the spoils: a girl or two for each man, colorful garments as plunder for Sisera, colorful garments embroidered, highly embroidered garments for my neck–all this as plunder?” Judges 5:30
“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Ephesians 5:22
(There are many more here.) Maybe some of these were the “customs of the day,” but perhaps that was because they were seen as God’s commands—the obvious reading in many cases. Since Carter says “God inspired the Bible,” did he not inspire those parts? Does Jimmy, like Rabbi Lurie, have a pipeline to the divine?
A lot of people point to the Bible for reasons why gay people should not be in the church, or accepted in any way.
Homosexuality was well known in the ancient world, well before Christ was born and Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. In all of his teachings about multiple things -– he never said that gay people should be condemned. I personally think it is very fine for gay people to be married in civil ceremonies.
Yes, Jesus didn’t condemn gays, but God did. Here are a few statements:
“‘If a man lies with a male, as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. Leviticus 20:13.
“Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolator, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers of drunkards of slanderers or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9
Carter pulls the same shenanigans with slavery:
What about passages saying slaves obey your masters? (Colossians 3:22) Do you think there is ever a time to say, ok, we know that we don’t agree with that passage, let’s get rid of it?
Well, the principles of that are still applicable. It wasn’t a matter that the Bible endorses slavery, it was that throughout history, now and in the future there are going to be some who are in a subservient position like when I was commanding officer of a ship when I was in the submarine corps. It is meant to preserve the basic principles that don’t cause resentment or hatred or betrayal or false attitudes. But it also says that a master should respect your servant. So, it works both ways.
This is really weaselly. Not only does he avoid using the word “slave,” but Carter says what’s really going on here is simply a Biblican admonition for people to respect their superiors. Really, Jimmy, a slave in the ancient Middle East was equivalent to a sailor on a submarine? And the Bible certainly endorses slavery, e.g.:
However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. Leviticus 25:44-46
When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. Exodus 21:20-21
Here’s one showing the clever way that a slaveowner can keep a slave permanently—one who would normally be freed—by holding his wife and children hostage:
If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever. Exodus 21:2-6
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. Exodus 21:7-11
Finally, Carter gives his principles for interpreting the Bible, which are, of course, to adopt those principles that he finds a priori reasonable while rejecting the others.
Should we approach the Bible literally, or metaphorically?
When we go to the Bible we should keep in mind that the basic principles of the Bible are taught by God, but written down by human beings deprived of modern day knowledge. So there is some fallibility in the writings of the Bible. But the basic principles are applicable to my life and I don’t find any conflict among them.
He doesn’t find any conflict because he simply ignores those principles that he doesn’t like. I wonder what he’d say to those fellow Christians who disagree with his readings—that they’re simply wrong?