How do I love the Bible when people have used it to do such harm?

In this article, author Cody Sanders helps us to read Scripture in such a way that moves us toward love and justice.

I once interviewed a man named Thomas about his history of spiritual abuse. As a gay man, Thomas had internalized the message that he was an abomination at a very young age. These violent messages emerged directly from his encounter with the biblical text as preached in his childhood church. Most came from the so called “clobber passages” (Genesis 19:1-38; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:25-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:9-10; Jude 6-7). The spiritual damage he suffered took many years to heal. 

You can imagine my surprise when Thomas said, “The Bible is wonderful. I love the whole thing. I mean … it makes me uncomfortable to read some of it, but it’s beautiful. I don’t understand it in a linear way. And it helps me. It’s like a Boy Scout backpack. I carry it around with me wherever I go, and a wonderful scripture will help me in my life.” Thomas had arrived at a complex and beautiful relationship with the Bible.  

How do we love, appreciate, or even approach the Bible when individuals and entire churches have used it to perpetrate such harm? 

It’s not just harm to LGBTQ+ people, of course. The Bible’s interpretation has created the circumstances of spiritual and physical violence against many individuals—women, LGBTQ+ people, BIPOC people, abused children and spouses, to name a few. Some biblical interpretations have even supported the grave atrocities of genocide (of Native Americans, for one example), the enslavement of Africans, and provided justification for myriad wars. 

Scripture has been the foundation for the building of both hospitals and prisons, the founding text for both Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Native American boarding schools, the theological impetus for both expressions of liberation theological movements and the violence that they sought to resist. 

There are no uncomplicated relationships with scripture (or faith)

We often pretend an uncomplicated relationship with the Bible is possible, usually by writing off large swaths of scripture as unimportant and dismissing those who have used the Bible violently as “not real Christians.” But responsible interpretation demands that we recognize the Bible’s power to perform great healing, and its power to do great harm. We’ve witnessed that throughout history, and many of us have experienced it in our own lives. 

Our preaching, teaching, and personal reading of the Bible should be honest about its complicated nature. When you read the Bible and you come to a passage that gives you pause, lean into that sense of hesitation with curiosity. Discover what’s behind the text – the genre, original context, and history of interpretation. A good study Bible can help, as can study resources like Enter the Bible

If you preach and teach in a faith community, be honest about those places in scripture that have had difficult interpretive pasts. Help your community take responsibility for the church’s misuse of scripture throughout history and into the present, rather than to ignore or deny it. Then help the community delve further into the biblical witness to the Good News and its call upon our lives. 

Acknowledge the Bible’s contexts and your own

The Bible is not of one piece. A library of different voices, from different places and times, comprise the rich tapestry of the text. Sometimes those voices exist in tension and conflict. 

Read single passages within the context of the wider scriptural witness. When conflict emerges – for example, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), and, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) – know that there’s something going on within that tension that deserves careful attention. 

Resist readings of the Bible that pit the Old Testament against the New. Those readings often become antisemitic or, at very least, lead to a vastly distorted perspective on the ways that the Hebrew scriptures informs the life of faith (and the teachings of Jesus!). 

Pay careful attention to the context behind the text. Most of the Old Testament was written down during a time when the Hebrew people were experiencing exile, or shortly after a return from exile to land still bearing the marks of conquest. (This puts the more war-centric passages in better context.) The New Testament was lived and written in the shadows of the Roman Empire’s occupation of Israel/Palestine. When we read the Bible from a position of social privilege or from the center of a powerful nation, we are more likely to arrive at distorted interpretations that can turn violent when we don’t appreciate the context from within which the words were inspired. 

Read the Bible with those marginalized by dominant interpretations 

Yours are not the only eyes reading the biblical text. Reading the Bible is a communal endeavor, and that doesn’t just mean the congregation or denomination to which you belong. The Bible has a worldwide community of interpreters spanning the ages. These voices—especially those markedly different from our own—can help us understand the text better, to love it better. 

Women, African Americans, LGBTQ+ people, people in colonial and post-colonial contexts—all have produced biblical scholarship that helps us deal both with the Bible’s use to create harm and perpetuate violence, and to approach anew its life-giving, spirit-sustaining message of good news. “Good news for the poor … release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed,” as Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue in Luke 4:18

Christians have an ethical call emerging from the biblical text (for example, Exodus 2:20-22, Isaiah 58:6-7, Luke 6:20-22) to stand in solidarity with those on the margins of the power structures of church and of state. This ethic can shape our reading of the Bible, too. If an interpretation of a biblical text serves to promote exclusion or abuse—severing others from relationship to God, to others, or to the ecological web of life—it is a reading that needs to be resisted not by abandoning the Bible, but with interpretation that moves us toward love and justice. 

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