If it’s excuses we’re after for failing to evolve as individuals, the Bible is the perfect book for that.
I was born and raised into the religion of Christianity; taught at a young age to fear and defend a God I didn’t quite understand. As my youth pastor put it, a fair and just God, but one whose jealousy and rage roared from the eve of Exodus to Revelations’ rapture. You didn’t ask questions; faith guided our footsteps, not sight. The Word was God, and God was the Word; what more did we need to know? Occasionally I’d get a little too curious, start asking why a loving, forgiving God would slaughter babies and burn entire towns. “Lean not on your own understanding,” my mother would remind me, “and in all your ways, submit to Him.” But my submission was not without suspicion, and that suspicion grew as I grew in the Word.
I struggled to make peace with a pathology that condemned many of the same behaviors that it encouraged. Accountability was an afterthought; it was tough to be Christ-like with your flesh in the way. There was always a theological defense for evil deeds, a justification for mental and emotional injury, no matter who or how it damaged. This not only made Christianity the perfect cover for abuse, but it also made many Christians unapologetic and apathetic abusers of themselves and others. It was almost as if the Bible was a blueprint on how to abuse first and force forgiveness later. Was application or interpretation the problem? Or was religion as big an enabler as it appeared?
Pain for a Higher Purpose
Genesis introduced me to agony as a means of atonement. When Adam and Eve fell to temptation, it wasn’t grace they received but grief. Pain would follow them for the rest of their days, Eve, through child labor, and Adam, through the labor of the land. A steep price to pay for humanity’s first mistake. But even Jesus suffered, so it must’ve served a purpose. Romans 8 said suffering cleansed the soul, prepared us for something on the other side of it. 2 Corinthians said it prepared us for Heaven. I was taught to embrace suffering, to consider it my birthright as a Black woman. It made me stronger, and I came from a long line of strong women, so suffering was just something I had to go through.
Pain served a higher purpose. No one in the Bible drove that message like Job, an honest, wealthy man who lost everything when God made a deal with the devil. Job is “blameless” and “upright,” but God allows Satan to torment him as a test. Job learns that his livestock, servants, and ten children have been killed in a single day. He shaves his head and tears his garments in mourning but continues to praise God in the process. Instead of declaring victory, God agrees to give Satan another shot at sabotage, and he curses Job with a body full of boils.
Friends visit to offer their support, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. After seven days of silence out of respect for the deceased, Job begins to curse the day he was conceived. But his friends are unfazed and tell him to own up to his sins; surely God wouldn’t inflict this sort of suffering on an innocent man. Bildad suggests Job’s children brought death on themselves, and Zophar adds injury to insult, offering that Job is getting off easy. Feeling frustrated and betrayed, Job dismisses their ignorance. He continues to welcome responsibility and the suffering that comes with his sin but wants to know precisely what sin he sinned, which is understandable considering he hasn’t committed one.
God is pleased by Job’s self-loathing, but his friends remain unmoved. Elihu offers his unsolicited input, explaining visions and violence are just how God communicates. He tells Job that physical suffering serves as an opportunity to realize God’s mercy and forgiveness. “Learn from this” is his advice to Job. It could be worse, so suffer silently if you must suffer. And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of advice like this, you know just how insensitive and insulting it is. Suddenly God interrupts the roast with a couple of queries of his own. By design, Job is unable to answer His questions. He wants to reiterate how little Job knows; the God of the Bible often delights in his own dominion.
Job agrees with His assessment, renouncing the limitations of man’s mind. God is glad Job sees things from His side and restores his health, lost property, and more children. Does that undo the damage? I’m inclined to say no. Like us, Job struggled to understand why suffering happened to good people. He became fixated on how God decided who deserved happiness and good fortune and who deserved a life not worth living. The cruel answer to Job’s question, which he learned through his own ordeal, is that morality doesn’t make you immune to suffering. It might even make you a magnet.
Women are reminded of this often. There’s no shortage of moral women who can’t catch a break in the Bible. The constant reinforcement of the appropriateness of women in pain sends a message loud and clear to male and female believers alike. It normalizes a life of spiritual struggle in the flesh and reinforces that abuse is beneficial when advantageous to the movement of men. Judges 19 sets the stage for a lawless land, introducing us to a Levite living in the mountains of Ephraim with his concubine. We’re told the concubine is an adulterous one, which is odd because the two are unmarried. She runs back to her father in Bethlehem, where she remains for four months. To reconcile, the Levite sets out to retrieve her. He arrives at the father’s home, where he eats and drinks for five days before heading back to Ephraim with his recovered concubine.
On the way, they set camp in a town called Gibeah, where a stranger offers them lodging in his home. After washing their feet, he provides them water and food for the evening. Shortly after that, a gang appears at the man’s door. They demand he release the Levite so that they can sexually assault him. Offended by their threats against the Levite, the man offers his virgin daughter and the concubine instead.
“Look, here is my virgin daughter and the man’s concubine; let me bring them out now. Humble them, and do with them as you please, but to this man do not do such a vile thing!”
The gang isn’t interested, and they continue to demand the Levite, who eventually takes matters into his own hands and tosses his mistress to the men. It isn’t until daybreak that they release her from this hell. She collapses at the threshold of the stranger’s door, where the Levite discovers her after a good night’s rest. “Get up”, he commands her, but the deceased woman doesn’t respond. He tosses her lifeless body over the back of his donkey and returns to Ephraim, where he chops her into twelve pieces and sends one to each of the tribes of Judah. The twelve tribes are troubled by the sight of her remains, agreeing to restore law and order and to punish the men responsible for the Levite’s property. A civil war ensues; only 600 Benjamite men survive. They’re then instructed to steal young women to marry from a neighboring town, Jabesh Gilead. The Bible tells us there is no more noble way to suffer than for the sake of God’s kingdom. I wonder if the concubine would agree.
Rotten Roots, Rotten Fruit
When profanity-packed audio of Grammy award-winning gospel artist, Kirk Franklin, leaked to the internet, the Christian community raced to his rescue. “You need to get your skinny motherfucking ass back out the goddamn way before I put my foot in your ass.” Franklin yelled at his eldest son Kerrion. “I will break your neck if you ever disrespect me,” he continued. The call ends shortly after that. In no time, believers took to the Bible in defense of the estranged dad and the disturbing dialogue, arguing instead that this was an example of yet another undisciplined son.
In alerting us to his son’s age, Franklin wanted everyone watching to know this was an adult-to-adult interaction, which it was. But as with other imbalances of power, the dynamic doesn’t expire with age, nor does it absolve parents of their obligation to occupy the moral high ground. But what happens when the parent doesn’t have higher ground to go to, or when the parent is ill-equipped for such a high-pressure profession? Well, 2 Samuel teaches us a little about that, as we learn about the life of the giant slayer, King David.
Much like Kirk, David was praised for his professional achievements, of which slaying Philistinian Champion, Goliath, was his most notable one. The Bible teaches us that David was a talented musician, a skilled warrior, and Israel’s second King. Still, he struggled with promiscuity, a sexual addiction, and an inability to accept accountability. He was an adulterer who often went to great lengths to hide his indiscretions, yet, the Bible says he was a man after God’s own heart, which sounds like instability to me. David had at least eight wives that the Bible mentions by name and an unknown number of concubines, which the law forbade. The most well-known being Bathsheba, whom he stole from a friend and fellow warrior.
David was a lousy father to his 20 plus children, a far cry from his beloved great grandfather, Boaz. He failed to practice what he preached, and each of his sons followed in his flawed footsteps. His eldest, Amnon, struggled with sexual perversion and promiscuity, going as far as to rape his half-sister Tamar. Absalom, David’s third-born son, battled self-control and anger management issues, and after murdering Amnon, flees his father’s kingdom for three years. Absalom only returns to stage a rebellion against his father, which ends in his untimely death. David’s fourth son, Adonijah, prematurely declares himself King, noting his father’s old age and the fact that his older brothers are no longer living, basically attempting a coup. Bathsheba warns David, at the same time pleading Solomon’s right to rule.
David takes the bait and quickly names Solomon heir to the throne. This not only incites Adonijah to anger, but it also creates a rift within the kingdom that ends in Adonijah’s execution. And what kind of King would Solomon turn out to be, knowing that his occupation of the throne came by manipulation and bad blood? Well, one much like his father; manipulative, self-serving, lustful, for lack of better words. With over seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, whom the Bible says led him astray, Solomon struggled to wear the crown in a way he didn’t witness. Even in adulthood, children reflect the guidance they do or don’t receive.
Perhaps the Bible is littered with lessons, not guidelines, and its many instances of abuse highlight how not to behave. But few Christians read the book they profess to live by. Less than 20% of Christians have read the book from cover to cover; the rest of us, our beliefs are based on spark notes, a borrowed sermon here and there. This ignorance lends itself to the emergence of hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Sovereign Citizens Movement, belief systems based on some of the most intolerant ideas supported by the Bible. Still, these ideologies are easy to renounce because they align with Biblical teachings that reinforce racism, and we know that racism is wrong. But when the rhetoric cosigns more socially acceptable ideas like the perpetual submission of women, the silencing and mistreatment of children, or the never-ending grace extended to men who live in sin, well, then we’re eagerly on board.
“Spare the rod, spoil the child”, we yell. “Wives, submit to your own husbands,” we protest. The Bible says forgive your cheating husband seventy-seven times. Is this book a how-to manual on manipulation, abuse, and dodging accountability, or are we already a society of sick individuals hell-bent on absolving abusive behavior? We’re all human, sure, but that doesn’t relinquish us of our responsibility to be better humans. Making the same mistakes over and over calls your sanity into question, not just your salvation.
Hiding our brokenness behind Bible verses does little to limit the amount of damage we do to one another in real life. We don’t break generational curses while cursing our children, no matter their age. We’re experts at self-control when in the workplace, but with our friends, our loved ones, and our children, we can’t be held to such high standards. There’s a reason it is “children obey your parents” we fixate on, and not “fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath”, one fits the narrative we favor, and the other calls us to the carpet.
The Bible does a generous job of demonstrating the extent of human error but fails to flaunt the fullness of our capacity for human evolution. In most instances, our growth ends right where God’s ability to use us begins. Noah never stopped being a drunk. Samson was an oversexed murderer. Jacob was a liar, and Paul persecuted the church. If it’s excuses we’re after for failing to evolve as individuals, the Bible is the perfect book for that. But if it’s ideological and individual progress we want, perhaps we recognize religion’s limitations in getting us there. The same flesh that makes us susceptible to cycles of sameness makes us fit for evolution and improvement, and if I’m not mistaken, that is the goal.