Forty-nine innocent people were shot to death in a gay bar in Orlando recently. Fifty-three others were wounded. The LBGT community all over the world, and their friends, families, and allies were emotionally scarred.
Most people responded with horror, outrage, and compassion; but a few responded with hatred and almost satisfaction that same-gender loving people had been killed. They quoted bible verses to justify their hatred. That is a terrible misuse of the bible, and a terrible betrayal of human decency.
Even those of us who love sacred texts can (and ought to) think critically about them rather than use them as an excuse to promote hatred and bigotry. For example, I am reminded of a story from the Christian scriptures (Book of Philemon):
In the mid-first century of the Common Era there was a man named Onesimus. Onesimus lived in the Roman Empire which embraced the evil system of holding slaves. People could sell themselves (or their children) into slavery to pay debts. People conquered in battle could be enslaved. One could be born into slavery. In some cases, a slave could purchase freedom, but the institution of slavery was a fact of life in ancient Rome.
Onesimus was an escaped slave. He befriended the Apostle Paul, but Paul sent him back to his former captor, Philemon. Paul writes a letter to Philemon saying, “Welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me.” He asks Philemon to receive Onesimus “as a brother” and to treat him well. He never condemns the institution of slavery, nor does he specifically ask Philemon to grant Onesimus legal freedom.
The letter shows Paul trying to advocate for Onesimus, but not doing quite enough. Paul tries to intervene on Onesimus’ behalf, but sends him back to someone who could ignore Paul’s pleas. Paul doesn’t challenge the unjust system, nor does he help Onesimus escape the system. Disturbing.
We may never know why Paul made his decision to send Onesimus back. Maybe he thought he was saving the runaway slave’s life by trying to remove the possibility of Onesimus being prosecuted for escaping. Maybe Paul didn’t question slavery (as it was ubiquitous in his world) and thought the best he could do was make things a bit easier for one enslaved person (if indeed Philemon honored Paul’s request to not punish Onesimus). It’s a hard passage for our 21st century minds which know without question that slavery is evil. Oppression simply cannot be justified.
What this difficult and disturbing story shows us, however, is that something being enshrined in scripture doesn’t settle a matter. By pretending that a phrase or story being in scripture makes it beyond question or analysis, people have used such passages to justify unspeakable acts of human cruelty in our history. The bible has been used to subjugate women, to marginalize same-gender loving people, to abuse children, to justify xenophobia, and yes, to enslave people. That can’t be a proper use of sacred texts.
Shame on anyone who responded to the human tragedy in Orlando by quoting ancient texts to suggest the slain were anything other than persons of sacred value!
Let us not be afraid to bring our own reasoning, our own questions, our own lived experience, our own humanness to the reading of scripture. A thing is not settled, simply because it is recorded in an ancient text. Some of us truly love scripture, but let us never use it as a weapon of oppression nor as an excuse to worship our own prejudices.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins is the Senior Minister of the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.