While idly perusing the job listings in the back of my April issue of Physics Today, I noticed an advertisement for a position at Berea College, in Berea, KY. (No, I’d never heard of it before, either.) At the end of the listing, where many other ads mentioned being Equal Opportunity Employers and the like, Berea College had chosen a unique statement:
Berea College, in light of its mission in the tradition of impartial love and social equality, welcomes all people of the earth to learn and work here.
Sounds nice, sure — really nice. But its over-the-top grandiosity is the sort of thing that is a sign of something either awesome or horrible … and my sense is that I had less than an even chance of awesomeness. And sure enough,
Berea College, founded by ardent abolitionists and radical reformers, continues today as an educational institution still firmly rooted in its historic purpose “to promote the cause of Christ.” Adherence to the College’s scriptural foundation, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” shapes the College’s culture and programs so that students and staff alike can work toward both personal goals and a vision of a world shaped by Christian values, such as the power of love over hate, human dignity and equality, and peace with justice.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for the human values of love, dignity, equality, peace, and justice. And I much prefer a Christianity that purports to be about those things than a Christianity which is hateful, discriminatory, and violent. It’s just … there’s this small matter of the actual Bible that I’m all hung up on.
You might have noticed that Berea College cites as its scriptural foundation not the Bible itself, but rather one short sentence that appears to be from the Bible. I think it’s referring to Acts 17:26, though I’m not sure which translation phrases it that way. The point it seems like Paul is making at this point in the story is that God created the people of all nations and assigned to each nation a period of history and a region of land, “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (though I’m not sure what the causal link there might be). While the Bible narrative certainly does imply that all humanity descended from Adam, I don’t think that necessitates the warm, fuzzy spirit of togetherness that Berea College is reading into it. After all, what’s the one big, important point the Bible makes about humanity’s descent from Adam?
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”
Most Christians interpret this as the “original” in original sin! Yay, we’re all of one blood … one painful, shameful, cursed blood. I guess you could still just say, hey, we’re all in this together, but somehow it doesn’t have quite the same feel of “impartial love and social equality” anymore.
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. Deuteronomy 7:1-4
Serve the LORD with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. Psalm 2:11-12
Does the Christian god (again, according to the Bible) believe in human dignity and equality?
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. 1 Timothy 2:11-15
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly. Leviticus 25:44-46
Well, how about peace? Isn’t the Christian god real big on that one?
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” Matthew 10:34-36
There’s nothing wrong with love, equality, or peace. I just have a problem with people pretending that their religion teaches these good values, that their religion is somehow the foundation of goodness in humanity, when in order to do so they have to cover up the actual words of their supposedly holy scriptures. I know, I know — I should take the incremental progress where I can get it. Nevertheless, even if religious indoctrination happens to instill good values some of the time, it still can’t be trusted as a general tool to discern truth, and is quite likely to be counterproductive in that goal.
(By the way, it turns out that Berea College and the city it’s in were named after the Greek city now known as Veria, mentioned just a bit earlier in Acts 17. The people living there were “of more noble character” and “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day” unlike those rowdy Thessalonians. Cute.)