So, I saw someone asking why white Christians were repenting of the sins their ancestors committed against people of colour.
And I want to write about this.
Caveats: I’m mainly going to talk to how I understand the Old Testament, because the Old Testament was being quoted and it’s something I’m familiar with as a Christian. But just because I’m taking this angle, that doesn’t mean it’s the most relevant or comprehensive angle; I just want to demonstrate how this particular argument doesn’t stack up.
In short, the argument was this: if we’re all responsible for what we do ourselves, not what other people do, then white people shouldn’t have to apologise for the racism of other white people. See, for example, the principle of individual responsibility promoted in Ezekiel 18:19-20.
However, I think this fails to appreciate the context of Ezekiel and the attitudes the book was responding to.
Deuteronomy 22:23-24 has too often been used as a biblical precedent for one of the worst rape myths.
When read a certain way, it suggests that when a man rapes a woman, she shares his culpability because if he succeeds, she didn’t scream sufficiently. Even less extreme interpretations hold that women should scream if they’re raped, and if they don’t, they bear guilt.
Both ideas are monumentally false — as anyone who knows anything about consent and freeze responses will tell you.
But if that’s the case, what does a Bible-honouring Christian make of these verses? Is it possible to interpret them as anything other than a toxic product of ancient patriarchal misogyny? Well, I believe it is.
I’m going to be very good and limit myself to 200 words in each of the seven sections of this post (the intro, five things, plus interlude) so forgive me if I don’t deep dive the detail. I’m leveraging the scholarship of Carolyn Pressler, Cynthia Edenberg, Alexander Rofé and, by no means least, Sara Milstein. Details at the bottom of the post.
In verses 1-11 Paul established that Jesus rose from the dead — an event in the historical past. In verses 12-23 Paul explained that Jesus resurrected before everyone else because he was a ‘first-fruit’ and that everyone else will follow, collectively, in the future. In verses 30-34 Paul acknowledged that his ministry looked like a failure if you just considered success in present terms, but still he works to anticipate future resurrection in the here and now. Then, in verses 35-43 Paul turned his attention to how the glory of the future resurrection body is better than the glory of our current bodies.
Welcome to part three of my four-part series sweeping through 1 Corinthians 15 on the subject of resurrection. You can read part one here and part two here.
In verses 1-11 Paul established that Jesus rose from the dead — an event in the historical past. In verses 12-23 Paul explained that Jesus resurrected before everyone else because he was a ‘first-fruit’ and that everyone else will follow, collectively, in the future. Then in verses 30-34 Paul acknowledged that his ministry looked like a failure if you just considered success in present terms, but still he works to anticipate future resurrection in the here and now.
Welcome to part two of my four-part series sweeping through 1 Corinthians 15 on the subject of resurrection. You can read part one here.
In verses 1-11 Paul established that Jesus rose from the dead — an event in the historical past. In the next few verses he shifts his focus to consider the future.
Someone in Corinth had been saying that there is no ‘resurrection of the dead.’
We have to appreciate that resurrection is not a Christian idea, but was already established in Jewish thought before the time of Jesus and roundly dismissed and mocked by ancient Greek culture. ‘The resurrection of the dead’ was understood to be a collective future event when everyone will be raised up. First century Jews weren’t expecting any one person to be raised in advance of the rest so, perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea that Jesus rose from the dead threw a bit of a spanner in the works: it was a past event concerning one person. Maybe that was why some people at the church in Corinth were beginning to pour cold water on the idea of future resurrection.
1 Corinthians 15 is one of those chapters you literally have to read verse by verse. Then you read each verse again about 4 times to get it. – Sierra White
Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, chapter 15, is one of the greatest chapters of the New Testament and it’s all about resurrection. At 58 verses, it is, in itself, a modestly sized sermon when you hear it preached on today, it is often tackled in very small chunks. And you can see why — there’s a lot to unpack.
But what I’m going to do in this post and the next three, is sweep through the entire chapter. Albeit, without reading every verse four times! The aim here isn’t to say everything that’s worth saying or to deconstruct every warped interpretation you might have heard. Rather, it’s to give a light touch explanation of how this how symphony fits together.
Much of what I’ll be sharing comes from three particular books that I’ve read over the last few years:
Living Hope, by Russell Hebert, published by Epworth and then by Kevin Mayhew. The book discusses the theology of Jürgen Moltmann in the context of palliative care.
The second book is Surprised by Hope, by Tom Wright, published by SPCK.
The third book is Body: Biblical Spirituality for the Whole Person, by Paula Gooder, published by SPCK.
So there is going to be a lot in this series on hope, resurrection and the body. That said, I’m not doing this because I want to give you an academic lecture. I’m doing this because I believe hope is for everyone, resurrection is for everyone and, having a body and being part of the body of Christ is for everyone. I learnt about those three things, from these books. It is my hope and prayer that the understanding I received will dwell richly within you and work transformation in your lives, as much as it has done in mine over the last few years – if not more so.
Content note: I debated whether I should categorise this post as ‘sunlight’ or ‘moonlight’. On the one hand, its message is unashamedly positive and it speaks about the core of Christian hope — resurrection. On the other hand, it also talks about an extremely violent event that resulted in a woman’s death. I’ve decided to go with ‘sunlight’ on the grounds because this is ‘hope worth sharing’ and, to the extent that I talk about suffering, I do in the same way as I would talk about Jesus’s passion on the cross.
However, please be advised that I describe in broad terms what happened, and I allude to some of the horrific details, though more specific discussion has warnings telling the reader when they may want to skip ahead.
A few years ago I watched a documentary called India’s Daughter (now available to rent or buy on YouTube). It was about Jyoti Singh, a 23 year-old Indian medical student who said that to be a doctor was the highest calling you could have in life.
If you’ve heard of her, you may know her as ‘Nirbhaya’, which means ‘fearless’. Or you may only know of her as the victim of the 2012 Delhi bus rape and murder.
The documentary I saw was powerful and hard-hitting, laying out the horror of both the assault and the ideologies that made it possible.
But when I came away there was one thing I was convinced of more than anything else: hers is a story that will end in resurrection.
This would be that law about the young bride who’s already lost her virginity.
Actually it’s not, but I’ll get to that later.
I promised myself I’d keep this post under 1,200 words: 200 for each thing to say, plus intro. So if you want detailed backup for what I’m saying here, check out the links and references for further reading. I’m drawing mainly on the work of Aaron Koller, Carolyn Pressler, Joseph Fleishman and, not least, Emily Nagoski.
I’m writing this post because in the Western evangelical church, Christians of all ages are encouraged to read the Bible, although there are some pretty puzzling things in it. And whilst it’s pretty standard to say “Jesus won’t mind if you ignore that bit,” if you’re talking to a teenage girl who’s anything like me, those arguments won’t wash. (Admittedly though, I’m pretty weird.)
I grant you, even if she’s grown up with purity culture, Deuteronomy 22 probably didn’t feature much in conversation. But it’s still likely she’ll completely misread the passage (as I did) if she reads it from a purity culture mindset.
So, here are five things to explain. Take it slowly and gently.
Making a financial success of a new book is not an easy business in the age of the internet, especially if you’re writing for a niche market through a small publisher. So I can understand the desire to market your work wherever and whenever you can, milking the social media machine for all its promotional worth.
That being the case, I’m not really against Canon Press making short videos of Rachel Jankovic espousing her gospel of obedience whilst she peels potatoes and answers her scandalizzzed critics. Hey, if I had a new book to promote, I’d love that kind of support from my publisher.
But what should we be making of these videos? How should we react when she derides Beth Moore and the “encroaching feminism” that dares to suggest women can and should preach in the pulpit? Should we be angry, frustrated? Should we watch or boycott? Should we analyse or parody?
Like many of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah spoke about injustice, calling the people of Israel and Judah to account for their actions and appealing to them to change their ways. And I know it’s a cliché but: many of his words, written hundreds of years ago, are deeply resonant today. Things like ending oppression and showing hospitality to the poor.
The thing is though, many Christians reading this passage would frame themselves as being in Isaiah’s shoes; they would use his words to call non-Christians and other parts of the church to account. Yet there comes a point when you can’t escape the fact that at least some Christians are wrong to claim the moral high ground. At least some Christians must be campaigning for causes which aren’t actually just.
There are a fair few strange laws concerning sex and marriage in the Old Testament books of law.
Problem is, whilst some Christians see much of the Old Testament as not relevant at all, there are others who tend to look for modern application. And if you’re in this second camp, there are all manner of questions to be answered about which laws describe the past and which prescribe principles for ethical living — and how exactly these translate to the modern day.
My personal belief is that none of the Old Testament laws are either wholly prescriptive or wholly descriptive; I think they all reflect their time (descriptive) and they all have something to teach us (prescriptive). Well, to varying degrees, obviously, but I’m not prepared to write off any of them as wholly irrelevant relics. And maybe you agree or maybe you don’t. Either way, it’s fair to say that some Christians are inclined to interpret prescriptively and when they do, they’re influenced by what each law is actually talking about.
Maybe that seems so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said — of course laws about the priesthood, warfare or slavery are going to be taken less literally than laws about putting up safety rails on a roof or not cursing the deaf. Why? For the simple reason that modern Western societies are structured very differently to ancient Israel.
But here’s the issue: what if there are laws designed for ancient societal structures, but which mainly use timeless language? Laws like that risk being interpreted and applied more literally by modern Christians, when they shouldn’t be.
This is what I think happens with Deuteronomy 22:13-30.
(…and marital rape, 1 Corinthians and ‘disciplining your body’. This post is a response to another Christian blogger who I hope you haven’t heard of. I’ve made two videos covering this post on my YouTube: part 1 is here and part 2 is here.)
There is this idea amongst certain Christians, that if a husband feels like sex and his wife is there, then she should habitually allow him to have sex with her even when she doesn’t feel like it. ‘Wives mustn’t deprive their husbands,’ they say, quoting 1 Corinthians chapter 7.
The problem with this kind of teaching is that it normalises prioritisation of the husband’s wants and needs over the the wife’s wants and needs, and it ignores the asymmetry of men’s and women’s bodies.
It’s also not what Paul was saying when he wrote to the church in Corinth. Back then, Christians had this idea that you were more holy if you abstained from sex continuously. But Paul was like, ‘Er, no. Husbands and wives shouldn’t deprive each other except by mutual consent.’
Why did he write that? Because, amongst other reasons, he knew that sex is one of the ways that spouses can celebrate their intimacy together. So unless there’s some adverse circumstance, it doesn’t make sense for couples to continuously abstain from this physical act of mutual affirmation. And I would agree.
That said, you can’t physically affirm someone when you feel that they pressure you, or ignore you, or use you.
I reckon one of the biggest chasms between Christian thought and sex-positive thinking comes down to how we understand the word “flesh” in the New Testament. Or in the Greek, σαρξ.
The word appears 147 times and in the NIVUK translation it gets rendered 53 times as either “flesh” or “body”, 23 times as “sinful nature”, and a further 58 times with other meanings, translated either on its own or in conjunction with other words. These uses refer to something associated with humanity or earthliness, ranging from neutral terms like “human ancestry” to loaded terms like “perversion”. (And untranslated 13 times for those who want the maths.)
Of the times that sarx is rendered as flesh or body, the context is often negative, emphasising weakness or mortality.
What’s more, the NIVUK repeatedly translates sarx as ‘flesh’ in Galatians 5. That’s the passage where Paul writes this:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NIVUK)
Upshot: it’s very, very easy to come away from the New Testament thinking that flesh is bad, bodies are bad, and anything to do physical pleasure is very, very bad. This is particularly the case for Paul, whose letters account for 20 of the 23 times sarx is translated as “sinful nature”.