The New York Times recently reported that, at a rural Oregon high school, LGBT students were assigned certain Bible readings when they got into trouble. [“L.G.B.T Students in Oregon Were Bullied and Forced to Read Bible, Report Says,” May 16, 2018] According to the story, “school officials initially denied that students were required to read the Bible as punishment. But they later told investigators it was true, adding that they handed down the punishment not to promote a religion but ‘to assist students in understanding the effects of certain behaviors.’”
The article didn’t identify which readings were a part of the punishment, but the tone of the article suggested that some of my favorite Biblical readings were very likely not included:
1 Corinthians 7: 8, 32-35—“To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. . . . I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.”
Galatians 3:28—“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Luke 6:37—“‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Matthew 22:37-40—“He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”
The Bible contains a great deal of everything—narratives, stories, lessons, poetry, commands, appeals, etc. It’s a rich tapestry of tradition, as well as an important foundation especially for those who are within the bonds of Judaism and Christianity.
But, time and time again, over and over, the Bible is used and abused in ways that are deeply unsettling. It’s not only that individuals and communities have been targeted for scorn, derision and even violence, but that in our seemingly knowledgeable and literate society, the tendency is still for large, dominant groups to use the Bible to punish and marginalize smaller, more vulnerable groups.
It’s simply unacceptable to use the Bible to belittle or demean. Those school officials stated that they wished to “assist students in understanding the effects of certain behaviors.” What about the behaviors of the school officials themselves? Did they spend even a moment reflecting on what they were doing and why?
Beyond the problematic use of the Bible as punishment in a public school setting, it’s distressing to see yet another example of the misuse of the Bible. Sure, there are individual verses that can be plucked out—for almost any purpose under the sun. But, the Bible also contains remarkable stories that are more than the sum of their individual verses. How about that story about the Good Samaritan? Or the Prodigal Son? What about all those times when Jesus chose to spend his time in the midst of the despised and downtrodden, rather than the powerful and pious?
All of this is bad enough, but it’s hard to ignore another alarming aspect of this story: the damage done to faith communities for whom the Bible is central and vital. When some people of faith choose to punish rather than welcome, to judge rather than love, to demean rather than respect, to marginalize the vulnerable rather than recognizing their dignity, we fall far short of the lessons laid out in the book that we claim to esteem as holy.
The faithful must consider prayerfully the misuse of our holy book, and invite the wisdom and courage to “understand the effects” of our own behavior, especially those certain behaviors that undermine the love of God.