A couple weeks back the news came down that Tsarnev had been condemned to death for the Boston Marathon bombing. As is common when I hear big news nowadays, I went to Twitter to check out what people were saying, specifically Christian leaders. What surprised me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have, is that many who are so quick to cite a verse or two in order to settle other issues did not do the same here. This is surprising because there is a verse in Jesus’ most famous sermon that would fit, Matthew 5:38-39:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also
It seems rather clear – if someone harms you, do not harm them in return. As Christians we ought then to advocate for forgiveness rather then seeking death. Yet much discussion about the death penalty around this verse ends up arguing about why this simple statement of Jesus is not applicable. Perhaps other passages are brought forward to tip the scales in favor of death. Or we are told that Jesus is here concerned with personal morality and not with what governments do.
Yet, when it comes to other issues Christians are often more then willing to settle it by prooftext which begs the question: why in some cases we love referencing a verse or two in order to settle the issue while in others we do not.
For comparison, just think of gay marriage. When discussions or arguments about gay marriage happen, the side opposing gay marriage will quote the 5-6 passages in scripture to settle the issue. Often they will go on to argue that this piece of Christian morality ought to be the law of the land. As it tends to be more conservative Christians who support the death penalty and oppose gay marriage the irony is clear – why seek to make Christian morality the law of the land in one case but not the other?
I do not think it is only conservative Christians who are guilty here. Both sides kind of do the same thing:
Some Christians cite the verses that condemn gay relationships while explaining that Jesus’ clear commands in Matthew 5 against violence are more complex.
Other Christians take Jesus’ words as the final word while explaining that the verses condemning gay relationships are more complex.
If I am harder on one group then the other it is because I tend to be harder on the Christian subculture I came from and we were all against gay relationships but also big into making sure murderers got the death penalty.
At any rate, as I recognize this tendency it makes me realize that more often then not we do not let scripture shape us, instead we bring our views to scripture and work scripture to support us. If a cut-and-dried prooftext supports what we think, great! If not, then we engage in deeper interpretation to get to where we want to be.
I hope this does not sound too cynical. I do think scripture helps us as we seek answers, but there are better ways to read scripture then others. Ultimately we need a Jesus-centered view of scripture that recognizes Jesus as the culmination of the story. Along with this, scripture is not there to mine for isolated verses to trot forth as evidence for our views, scripture is there to tell us the story of God’s interaction with humanity (which again, culminates in the person and work of Jesus).
In other words, arguing about these issues are surface level arguments. The real differences lie beneath, in how we understand the function and use of scripture in the first place.