Awkward social justice

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.

So does the Christian god, as described in the Bible, actually want to promote love over hate? I mean, yes, there are verses like 1 John 4:8, but you also have plenty like:

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

… Awkward.

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.)

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  1. Seth R.

     /  May 1, 2011 at 8:24 am

    Why haven’t you even bothered to represent the mountains of stuff that’s been written by Bible scholars pushing for female equality who have argued that the Bible text itself does not call for inequality for women?

    Or the massive debates over slavery and the Bible? Why nothing about the other side of that one either?

    As for the whole “peace” thing – I think it’s pretty obvious to most Christians that Christ was talking about the false “peace” of those who are complacent with the evil and unjust state of the world. Those people may be enjoying the status quo, but Christ is announcing his intent to shake things up? What do you find so objectionable about that?

  2. Seth: In answer to your first two questions — because that is actually the point of my post. In order to construct Bible-based arguments in favor of gender equality or against slavery, you have to ignore all the Bible verses that are against gender equality or in favor of slavery. It’s awkward, and a transparent effort to cherry-pick the “good” parts of what’s supposedly God’s word.

    Regarding “peace with justice” … if this means, “the kind of peace that involves lots of genocide, infanticide, blood and guts and gore” I don’t see how you can call it peace with a straight face. Is “peace via murdering everyone God tells me to murder” worth regarding as peace? I don’t think so.

  3. Seth R.

     /  May 1, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Hold on there. Now you are sneaking in the Old Testament wars and stuff.

    I wasn’t talking about that anyway. You were only talking about Matthew 10:34-36. That’s what I was responding to and now you’re trying to move the goalposts.

    First I’d like you to acknowledge my remarks about Matthew 10:34-36. We can move on to the Canaanite genocides after that – as a separate issue.

  4. I’m not “sneaking in” anything. I’m examining what the Bible — the whole Bible — has to say about the nature of God and what God’s message about “goodness” is. I quoted a few examples, but by no means did I intend this as a comprehensive list.

    I understand that the phrase “peace with justice” may be understood to imply something like when we send “peacekeeping” troops into a war zone to kill the side we don’t like. Yes, that may be something you are willing to view as “peace” in the long term, even if it means righteous killing in the short term. I think that’s semantic games and bullshit. I wouldn’t say that the Bible teaches “peace with justice” (say, A and B) if Jesus himself declares that he is not bringing peace (say, not A). “A and B” is false if “not A” is true.

  5. Jojo the hun

     /  May 1, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    NFQ: In the beginning of your post you say that Berea College’s statement is a sign of something horrible.

    A little bit of research shows Berea College to be a wonderful institution. They even have a Nobel-Prize winning chemist among their alumni. What did you find that justifies the use of the word “horrible”? That they only cite a single biblical verse in their motto?

  6. Good question, Jojo. What I meant was, when someone goes above and beyond what’s usually required to tell you how loving and inclusive they are, they’re either amazingly loving and inclusive, or they’re trying to hide something. (Like a used car dealership that puts “Honest” in its name.) An eternity of hellfire for nice people who didn’t happen to believe in their particular ancient and extremely implausible story doesn’t sound very loving and inclusive to me … to say nothing of the other nasty examples in my post. So, are they a Christian institution? Or do they exemplify “impartial love and social equality”?

  7. Jojo the hun

     /  May 1, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    Interesting. I agree with your skepticism about self-descriptions. This particular institution does seem to have a laudable history, and they may actually be trying to portray themselves accurately.

    You lose me on the hellfire issue. If people believe what you say they believe about that, it doesn’t tell much about their lovingness or inclusiveness one way or the other. One isn’t necessarily advocating bad consequences, justified or unjustified, when one states, rightly or wrongly, that bad things in fact occur as a consequence of certain actions and beliefs.

    I believe it more likely, though, that the actual people involved maintain a variety of views on the consequences of not being a Christian, as well as on the other topics you mentioned.

    So are they a Christian institution? It’s your term, not theirs, as far as I can tell. The answer depends on what you mean by it. Based on your other posts, I’m inclined to think you expect a Christian institution to hold a very close connection to Bible, to the entire Bible, and not to much else. Too restrictive, in my view–but don’t let me put words in your mouth.

  8. I don’t think you could describe your institution as “firmly rooted in its historic purpose “to promote the cause of Christ.”” and not be a Christian organization. Sounds like an evangelical statement if ever there was one.

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