Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Conscience and Scripture: How the Abolition of Slavery and the Fight for Marriage Equality are Inseparable 1/2

by Nomad

A schism within the Presbyterian Church on its views regarding same-sex marriage made a bit of news recently. 
We look at the historical reasons why any literal interpretation of Scripture for an African American Church presents some particular problems. 
It hasn't been the first time the Presbyterians have followed their conscience on matters of equality and social justice.

The NBCI Decision and the Fragile Unity

Recently. the National Black Church Initiative (NBCI) made an interesting and somewhat disappointing announcement. This faith-based coalition of some 34, 000 churches made up of about 15 denominations with 15.7 million African-Americans declare that it had broken its fellowship the American branch of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA).

The NBCI decision came about as a result of a recent vote by the Presbyterian Church to approve same-sex marriage.

Last June, The Presbyterian General Assembly, the top legislative body of the PCUSA voted to revise the constitutional language defining marriage. This decision granted  pastors discretion in determining whether or not to conduct same-gender marriages in civil jurisdictions where such marriages are legal.

According to the text of the assembly ruling, the elders of the Church decided that it was up to the pastors were allowed the freedom of conscience and their own interpretation of Scripture. They were free "to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform."

The ruling added however, that it was not, by any means a mandate from the Church. In fact, it was- as political statements go- altogether tame.
Absolutely no member of the clergy would be "bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.”
If they chose to marry same-sex couples in the Presbyterian Church, there would be no objection to the ceremonial right.

As soon as the announcement was made, there were howls of protest within the Church.  Opponents argued that there was no support for this interpretation in the Bible. Marriage could only exist between one man and one woman.
Some critics went even further.

The outcome of the vote, one source charged, "a flagrantly pretentious and illegitimate maneuver by a body that has no authority whatsoever to alter holy text."   
The change, they said, was purely  arbitrary and could threaten "the fragile unity of the church." 
This warning of a fracture seems to be coming to pass with the NBCI announcement.

NBCI President Rev. Anthony Evans, noted: 
"NBCI and its membership base are simply standing on the Word of God within the mind of Christ. We urge our brother and sisters of the PCUSA to repent and be restored to fellowship."
Formed in 1991, the  NBCI  has since its creation in 1991, brought together African-American and Latino churches in an effort "to end racial disparities in healthcare, technology, education, housing, and the environment." 
In Evan's bio, we read that the NBCI is proud of its history in "forming the moral conscience of its people  and the entire American society." 
It's a telling phrase.

It implies that moral consciences are somehow "formed," shaped by pastors,  rather than inspired on a individual level. In any case, consciences shouldn't be inspired only out of self-interest. Equality isn't merely a race issue, after all. Apparently, though, when it comes to equality, equality in marriage is not part of the NBCI agenda.

Evans was adamant in his condemnation of the Presbyterian Church of America. He said that the Church's decision to recognize same-sex marriages represented "a universal sin against the entire church and its members." He declared that the Church could no longer claim to base its teachings 2,000 years of Christian scripture and tradition.Evans said,
"No church has the right to change the Word of God."
Rather an ironic statement from any Protestant-based denomination, to say the least. During the Reformation, proponents of Protestantism were all considered heretics bent on fragmenting and destroying the orthodoxy of  the Christian faith.

Here is a list of the notable reformers in Protestant history. The Catholic Church could have made the same allegations of heresy against the dogma of the day. 
Clearly, Rev. Evans is in dire need of some remedial education when it comes to history and the progressive role that the Presbyterian denomination.

Holy Spirit and Scripture

One of the first problems with view that  Evans (and so many people like him) put forth is the conviction that the Bible can ever be some kind of user-manual for the Christian faith. Although this approach is widespread among the more fundamentalist-evangelist wing, it is also a difficult one to completely support in the modern age.

In a 1989 lecture N.T. Wright, a leading New Testament scholar, and retired Anglican bishop, pointed out the problem with using the Holy Book as a sole source for authority.
Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations—lists of commands to be obeyed. Nor does it consist of creeds—lists of things to be believed. And often, when there ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the purpose of the writing in question. One might even say, in one (admittedly limited) sense, that there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible .... Authority, according to the Bible itself, is vested in God himself, Father, Son and Spirit.
This view underscores the importance of the conscience of the individual under the influence of divine inspiration. The Holy Spirit, as theologians tell us, is credited inspiring believers and allowing for them to interpret all the sacred scripture and leads prophets, both in Old Testament and New Testament

As one source reminds us, leaders of the Christian faiths have argued for reform based on the idea that the Holy Spirit gave it better insight into the Scriptures. Even Scripture itself confirms this view.
Romans Chapter 8 reads:  
For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.
The Holy Spirit, according to well-established Christian doctrine, inspires prophecy and gives knowledge of God, insight and wisdom. The usual explanation is that God has given everyone a conscience, but it can only be reliable when it is submitted to the rule and guidance of the Holy Spirit. And, by this principle, God speaks to all of us, not merely to the clergy. 

Therefore, for the devout, it isn't about following every precept of Scripture. As a matter of historical fact, there have been various reforms and reinterpretation of longstanding Church doctrine based on the inspiration of the divine Holy Spirit. 

Despite the claims of the fundamentalists, there has never been a definitive interpretation of the Bible and over the 2000 years of  Church history, there have been many "changes" to the word of God. Strictly speaking, even Jesus was an unabashed reformer of the Jewish faith.

The "fruit" of the Holy Spirit is, as Galatians 5:22–23 states, is "love, joy, peace, long suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such, there is no law."

The Right to Reform

A literal interpretation allows no room whatsoever for reform. For example, Scripture tells us that women must be entirely subservient to their male counterparts. Women should, in effect, consider themselves second-class persons, according to a strict reading of the New Testament.
Listen to what the Epistle of Peter says:
Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.
And as far as appearance, women should be reduced to plain-Jane status.
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
Would Evans care to tell the female members of his congregation that they must stop with this adornment business, nix the rings and baubles and elaborate hairstyles? 
I doubt it.

Another fine example of the faith's ability to compromise with the realities on the ground is its enlightened view on divorce. And the prohibition on the remarriage is not based simply on words of early Church fathers, or Scripture or the writings of the Christian disciples. No.
The prohibition on divorce comes directly from on the words of Jesus Christ himself.
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
If Rev. Evans stuck to the Bible on this point alone, he would be preaching to an empty church.

The Scriptural Right to Enslave

There's another subject- especially pertinent to African Americans- in which the Christian faith, despite some impressive progress in humanitarian causes, was not always on the side of the angels.
In the days before the Civil War, religious leaders- each extremely dogmatic and devout- found support in the Biblical text for the institution of slavery.

As one source reminds us, the progress of humanity and a literal reading of the Bible often conflicted.
There was a time when most Christians believed slavery was the will of God. There was a time when most Christians believed women should not be allowed to vote. There was a time when most Christians believed that interracial marriage was wrong. Each position was elaborately supported with biblical arguments -- and each position, we can now clearly see, was dead wrong.
Those who rallied behind slavery tended to offer three lines of argument in favor of slavery.
Firstly, slavery, they claimed, was a long-accepted fact of nature.  It was part of a larger social order and, mostly influentially, it was validated by Holy Scripture. Church leaders- especially in the South- found plenty of convenient support for slavery in the Bible.

Rev. R. Furman, D.D., Baptist of South Carolina, as a young man he opposed slavery, but later he became a slave owner and came to support the practice on both economic and moral grounds, In “Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States” (1822), Furman wrote:
"The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example."
In fact, the Bible is filled with of references to slavery, such as the rules concerning the holding of slaves, admonitions to slaves and masters about how to behave.  There were, at least, enough citations that supporters of American slavery felt confident that God was on their side. 

During the Civil War, the  President of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis, justified the institution of slavery based on this interpretation.
"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God... it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation... it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts."
And this viewpoint  was not merely a cultural artifact of the South.

The Literalists' Rationalizations

In the 1850s, Rev. James Smylie, the first settled Presbyterian minister in Mississippi led  preached the first overtly pro-slavery argument and virtually all southern Christians were convinced by it.
According to Smylie's notions, not only was slavery NOT a sin, it was a positive humanitarian good. It should, he said, continue indefinitely.

If Scripture was taken as the only guide, said Smylie, then the “the evils of slavery...may be traced to the neglect of the duties incumbent upon the individuals sustaining the relation.”  
In other words, the white man's privilege was also a patriarchal burden imposed on him by God. 

And Smylie's argument was compelling enough to convince a lot of the undecided. As one ruling elder M. Maclean stated that Christians were duty bound to follow the word of God to wherever it might lead. Obedience to this authority was, he said, implicit.
An investigation into the weighty subject resulted in
..a thorough conviction that the Bible as clearly warrants slavery as it does the subordination of children to parents, or of citizens and subjects, to the powers that be."
Even in the far North, there was raging moral battle of this subject.  

In 1861, the eighth Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America and .the first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, John Henry Hopkins, found himself torn between his conscience and the words of the Bible as the standard of truth.
He came to believe that the reliance on conscience was the wrong path when it came to moral questions. 

Hopkins wrote a pamphlet entitled A Scriptural Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery in which he justified the institution of slavery based on the New Testament
'If it were a matter to be determined by personal sympathies, tastes, or feelings, I should be as ready as any man to condemn the institution of slavery, for all my prejudices of education, habit, and social position stand entirely opposed to it.

But as a Christian, I am solemnly warned not to be "wise in my own conceit," and not to "lean to my own understanding."
His own conscience, Hopkins claimed, was undependable. He had to ignore his conscience and follow the exact word of God.
As a Christian, I am compelled to submit my weak and erring intellect to the authority of the Almighty. For then only can I be safe in my conclusions, when I know that they in accordance with the will of Him, before whose tribunal I must render a strict account in the last great day.'
Hopkins condemned anything that was not a literal interpretation of the Holy Book.
'For I can imagine no transgression more odious in the sight of God, and more sure to forfeit His blessing, than the willful determination to distort His revealed Word, and make it speak, not as it truly is, but as men, in their insane pride of superior philanthropy, fancy it ought to be.'
Compare those words to NBCI President Rev. Anthony Evans and the similarities are hard not to notice.

The Holy Shelter of Slavery

Meanwhile, abolitionists like the ex-slave Frederick Douglass had already exposed the role that Christian leaders played in justifying slavery through the use of Scripture alone.

In the doctors of divinity in America, Douglass said in a Farewell Speech to the British people in 1847, "slavery finds no defenders there so formidable as them."
They are more skilful, adroit, and persevering, and will descend even to greater meannesses, than any other class of opponents with whom the abolitionists have to contend in that country.
He went on:
The church in America is, beyond all question, the chief refuge of slavery. When we attack it in the state, it runs into the street, to the mob; when we attack it in the mob, it flies to the church; and, sir, it is a melancholy fact, that it finds a better, safer, and more secure protection from the shafts of abolitionism within the sacred enclosure of the Christian temple than from any other quarter whatever.
Douglass blasted the sanctimonious attitude of the religious leaders.
Slavery finds no champions so bold, brave, and uncompromising as the ministers of religion. These men come forth, clad in all the sanctity of the pastoral office, and enforce slavery with the Bible in their hands, and under the awful name of the Everlasting God. We there find them preaching sermon after sermon in support of the system of slavery as an institution consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Slavery, declared Douglass, was "sheltered by the church."

With Liberty and Justice for All

Similar to the opponents of marriage equality today, the view that slavery was given a divine stamp of approval was bolstered by a narrow reading of selected passages of the Bible. Like those who oppose same-sex marriage, the religious supporters of slavery also claimed that human society would collapse if the status quo were not rigidly maintained. 

Ironically, the churches of that time could easily have used today's religious liberty laws to challenge the anti-slavery movement.

Following the Civil War the Radical Republicans- who were every bit as progressive as the Far Left Democrats are today- fought long and hard to encode into the Constitutions providing for equal protections under the law for all citizens. Although primarily aimed at establishing an incontestable anti-discrimination policy for African Americans for all states, the Fourteenth Amendment actually applies to all citizens without distinction.

The Supreme Court Justices are now in the process of deciding whether these protections which the 14th Amendment guarantees, also apply to gay Americans too. 
Or to put in another way, Do states have any legitimate right to withhold the rights of one minority? At one time, before the Civil War, there were many states who felt they had legal and moral grounds to do that just that.