I've been thinking about interpretation and about community—about the voices invited into the interpretive and decision-making process, and those excluded. Did you hear about the 22 white men in Alabama who pushed through a new abortion law? We all know that abortion is divisive and controversial. But what caught my attention is this turn from abortion “debate” to an all-out power grab. What is most striking is the move to utterly disregard the voices of women who are impacted, whose choices are being taken away or limited, and whose health concerns ignored. Instead of including those voices, those voices have been actively sidelined.
Who gets to interpret? Who gets to set the standards, and make the decisions on outcomes? In our Christian tradition, we take the scriptures as authoritative, and as our creeds and confessions direct us, we turn to the scriptures as an authority for faith and life. We interpret, and we look for what our scriptures and tradition have to say about the matters we face. But these matters are often muddy, and so we grapple and we interpret. And in the end, who gets to decide? Who gets to interpret for who? Do men get to decide for women? Rich for poor? Educated for un-educated? Elder for younger? Who gets the final say, and who gets to scrutinize who?
My friend Lenny and I were discussing such things on the South Platte river last fall, including the issue of LGBT inclusion in the church. He lamented that as a Christian rooted in scripture, he still wants to hear an argument from scripture. I sympathized with his desire. But I also asked, "can one be a Christian and be rich?" I continued, "and I'd like your answer to be based in words that come from the mouth of Jesus."
He grinned big, looking towards the ground. We went back to fly fishing. Interpreting the scriptures is not always straightforward and easy. Jesus' teachings about wealth are difficult. While Jesus repeatedly says to sell it all and give it to the poor, we don’t and we can’t. We can't sell it all because no one else is going to buy the groceries and clothe our children and put them through college. Furthermore, our economy's strength is based on buying stuff. In addition, we like things that make life easier. We like toys. Indeed, it is hard to know how much one can squeeze through the eye of a needle with.
We want to heed Jesus' words, but our society is different. The structures for caring for retirement and end of life are different. Life expectancy is different. Clearly, just taking Jesus' words at face value doesn't seem to work. So we work hard to discern what Jesus meant and how we might apply it in some way that is not literal. The church has down through the ages opted for the theology of stewardship, rather than avoiding wealth and mammon. And at times we have even regarded wealth and prosperity as blessings from the Lord, signs of God's favor, even things to seek, completely disregarding Jesus' words.
Like Lenny, in a culture that is geared around buying and selling and storing up for oneself treasures and toys and stock portfolios, I would really like an answer that comes off the lips of Jesus. But in the midst of life’s complexities, I guess it is good that we have had space to interpret for ourselves how to hold the scriptures in the face of our realities and responsibilities. It is a luxury I suppose—to have a voice in how to interpret the scriptures on matters that affect our lives on a day to day basis.
I was recently asked how you theologically address controversial social issues that arise. My response included, among other aspects, the need to talk about interpretation and whose voices have been privileged, and whose have been marginalized. For often, what comes to the surface is that we are not just interested in coming to a thoughtful conclusion, but maintaining some sort of control on the process. Can we not trust women to contribute to the abortion issue, and should we not give privilege to their voices and experiences? Or should men continue to make laws to govern them? And what about those who identify as LGBT. Can they be invited into the interpretive process? Could they add something to help us understand and appreciate the complexity of experience, and could they help us be better interpreters of scripture in light of life’s complexity? Shouldn’t those whose lives that are most impacted be at the center of the interpretive and discerning process?
As these things often go, instead of privileging others’ voices, we tend to scrutinize their judgment, their choices, their motivations. This not unlike the circumstances women seeking ordination had to face for generations.
Here at Calvary, our attempts at conversation, of discussing the scriptures together and paring them with poetry, and inviting responses to the sermon—these are not just cute moves with no teeth. We treat the interpretation process as open, ongoing, and potential, and learning to listen to one another will make our interpretations better, and our insights more helpful. In a society where authority structures are changing, perhaps we can move with that. And instead of interpreting and dictating for others, we would do well to interpret with others.
What do you think?