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Wielding and Yielding
Life used to be so much simpler when I knew who the goodies and baddies were. Goodies were the people most like 'us', good, decent folks who believed in truth and justice. Baddies were different -- they looked different, spoke other languages and were inherently cruel and deceitful. At the movies, you felt like cheering when baddies got what they deserved, and goodies won the day. It was a black and white representation of the world in more ways than one.
These easy distinctions began to blur in my growing up years. Perhaps that's what growing up means? There was the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal in the early seventies, and the Iran-Contra deal in the mid-eighties. Events such as the Maori Land March and Bastion Point occupation ended any naïve notions I still held of race relations in our own land.
Now, in these more cynical times, most of us take it for granted that moral ambiguity and even corruption are par for the political course. Yet we can still be caught by surprise, as in the recent revelations of degrading treatment of Iraqi prisoners by American forces.
s I write, media investigations are revealing that such actions were sanctioned at the highest levels. Those who sanctioned them no doubt believe that they have 'right' on their side, and that this morally justifies the use of illegal means. If torture extracts information that will ultimately lead to the capture of terrorists and the saving of many lives, then it is acceptable (as long as we don't get caught). The irony of using undemocratic means, including terror and humiliation, to replace an undemocratic regime that used terror and humiliation to maintain power, is obvious.
Browsing the internet for opinions on the Abu Ghraib story I came across the following from columnist Tammy Bruce:
We can choose to focus on the few who represent the worst, or we can remember that ours is a military that will . . . save the world from itself and the Islamist-Fascists who dream of death and destruction. We can remember it is an American institution which creates 'greatest generations', not by accident, but by training, principles, love of country, and for most, love of God.1
No doubt this writer speaks for many who can still sincerely view what is happening in terms of goodies and baddies, a righteous mission to "save the world from itself". The closing words hint at endorsement of this mission at the highest, divine, level. Depending on where you stand, the rhetoric is either incredibly inspiring or incredibly frightening!
he mention of God in this context prompts me to consider whether there are ways in which we, as Christians, might sometimes also allow the 'rightness' of our position to blind us to the wrongness of our actions. We too believe in the causes of truth and righteousness. We may view ourselves as part of God's army, "marching as to war," part of God's plan to "save the world". We go to battle for Christ armed with the gospel, prayer and "the sword of the Spirit" -- the word of God.2
But surely the lines here are clear, devoid of the ambiguities and corruption that cloud superpower politics? Surely, given that our weapon is the Bible, rather than the bomb, we can be truly confident that God is on our side? We are goodies . . . aren't we?
Unfortunately, because the wielders of both kinds of weapon are fallen human beings, the answer is not an unequivocal 'yes'. When we claim the words of Scripture in our cause, in effect we lay claim to divine power and authority -- the "Word of God". And when power of any kind is placed in the hands of complex, conflicted beings such as ourselves, particular caution is warranted. We may believe that our use of the Bible is for good, for the glory of God, but there is also the potential for oppressive or destructive outcomes. Some examples will illustrate both possibilities.
On Sunday I heard a visiting missionary couple relate inspiring stories of the way in which God had been using Scripture to bring healing and hope to the very troubled context in which they work. They described the denominational factions that divided the churches in one area and told how at a church leaders' meeting just one verse was read, without elaboration, from Jesus' prayer in John 17: "that they may be one, as we are one."3
The pastors who were present responded by acknowledging that the divisions between them were wrong. Tears, prayers and reconciliation flowed. One verse of Scripture resulted in ongoing transformation and healing.
Contrast that with another story I heard from a woman who after years of struggling with the teaching and leadership style of her church finally decided, along with her husband, to leave. Prior to leaving she had endeavoured to express her concerns to the pastor, and to ask some questions about the issues that troubled her. She was told that her problem was that she needed to be more submissive to her husband, and that she displayed a rebellious "Jezebel spirit". The woman was mature enough not to accept this 'wielding' of Scripture as God's word to her, but it left traces of fear and self-doubt which troubled her for quite some time.
I have heard other stories like this, of Bible verses being quoted in order to support abusive levels of control, or to vilify those who are perceived as a threat. Furthermore, these examples of the potentially destructive use of Scripture are mild compared to many of the horrendous things people have done to each other, citing chapter and verse for justification, throughout the history of the church.
ne of the disturbing things about this woman's story is that the pastor probably believed that what he was saying to her was entirely appropriate and 'biblical'. I doubt that he is a thoroughgoing baddie, setting out deliberately to wound people by misusing Scripture. I speculate that he saw himself as exercising the 'authority of the Word' to rebuke the spirit of rebellion he sensed in her questions. He seems to have been genuinely oblivious to his ego-driven need to maintain power and control.
Noticing this speck in my brother's eye makes me wonder what log may be distorting my own perspective! I too am an amalgam of motives, some worthy, some entirely self-serving. When I take up and use the words of Scripture, how can I be sure that it is truly in service of love for God and neighbour, rather than my own egocentric agenda?
The subtleties of human sinfulness are such that I could so easily be 'correcting' in order to cut down, 'teaching' in order to impress, 'exhorting' in order to control, or 'appealing' in order to exploit. The ambiguous and convoluted motivations that characterise world politics also characterise our lives and ministries -- my life and ministry.
So what do we do? Give up believing in Scripture as the word of God, or stop using it in case we are inflicting our brokenness on others? By no means, as Paul would say! Quite the opposite.
It is precisely in the power of Scripture that I take refuge at this point. Not, in the first instance, as a weapon to take up, but as a means for God to reveal and touch those areas of my life that are broken and distorted. Not as a source of legitimation for my own agendas, but of their transformation. Not to back me up, but to crack me open, so that what is ego-driven may be sifted from what reflects the heart of God.
n much of our use of the Bible we are actively seeking to comprehend, to master and to utilise its authoritative words. Society itself conditions us to be in this activist, controlling mode. Mastery of the Word may be a worthy aim, but it is a dangerous one if we do not allow our own hearts and minds first to be mastered by the Word.
This is not simply a matter of seeking to apply Scripture to our lives, for often we are still in control mode, with defensive shields up, when we pause to consider how the passage we are reading may be relevant to our lives. We need approaches to Scripture which will, as M Robert Mulholland puts it, "make us available for encounter with God . . . persistently, perhaps painfully, pry us open to the recreating love of God."4
How do we do that? The Bible itself, and the history of the church, provide us with some clues. In the next column I'll draw on these to suggest approaches to Scripture that give opportunity for God's recreating love to penetrate our defences. They have more to do with yielding than wielding!