Friday, September 15, 2006

On the Flattened Use of the Old Testament for Christian Ethics

Shaun Casey, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., published "Jesus was an Illegal Immigrant" on the blog feature Faithful Democrats web page.

Casey argues,

Sunday School for preschoolers in the Churches of Christ in the 60s was pretty cool. In between the Kool-Aid and the cookies our teachers told us the basic stories of the Bible aided either by handouts with pictures of dramatic biblical scenes painted in romantic nineteenth century style or by "flannel graph" technology. . . . One of the most powerful images from that era was the story from Matthew's gospel about Joseph being told in a dream by an angel to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape the death sentence issued by King Herod. Later, of course, Joseph was told he could safely return to Palestine, but all of this was illegal since it violated Herod's decree.

Fast forward about forty years and I found myself teaching an adult Sunday School class and the topic of illegal immigration came up as we were considering one of the multitude of passages calling for God's people to love aliens and sojourners because God had taken mercy on us when our ancestors were such themselves. ("And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt." Deuteronomy 10:18-19). A class member declared that all undocumented immigrants in this country should be sent home since they were lawbreakers. No biblical argument to the contrary would move this person off this thesis.

It struck me as very ironic that this class member would affirm the orthodox Christian belief of Jesus as the Son of God, yet the logic of the political credo would have demanded that Joseph, as a law breaker, should have surrendered Jesus to Herod for execution as an infant. No cross, no teaching, no ministry, just infanticide should have been Jesus' fate on earth.

I am convinced Matthew included the flight to Egypt by Jesus and his family to show that Jesus' own story was part of the ancient story of Israel. They, too, fled to Egypt, suffered persecution, were redeemed by God, and then were empowered to live lives in solidarity with sojourners and aliens wherever they encountered them. Likewise disciples of Jesus throughout history pick up the same ministry of solidarity with displaced people. Jesus was an illegal alien and that ought to shape how we enter the current debate. But too often political ideology clouds good theology. In the current debate over immigration policy it distresses me to no end that so many of my fellow church goers ignore this fundamental tenet that should be central to our identity. Instead as theological amnesiacs we insist on a secular law and order ideology over a biblical mandate.

The passage to which Shaun Casey refers, of course, is Matthew 2:13-15.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

On, Mark Tooley comments on Casey's use of Scripture in his article, "Jesus Christ: Illegal Immigrant?" For the purpose of demonstrating Casey's misuse of the passage to argue his case concerning giving haven to "illegal immigrants" (read "illegal aliens"), Tooley correctly points out,

If Casey’s facile examination of immigration is what passes for high theological analysis on, then the Democratic Party’s website may only be successful among Christians who do not own or at least do not read their Bibles. Joseph, Mary and their infant Son were refugees fleeing for their lives, not illegal immigrants searching for higher wages. The Scriptures do not speak of any Egyptian laws they violated by their flight to Egypt. Of course, unlike most of today’s illegal immigrants to whom Casey is straining to compare the Holy Family, Joseph and Mary took their Child back to Nazareth after King Herod died. Their “sojourn” in Egypt was always intended to be a brief one. So far as we know, Joseph and Mary did not demand any special privileges from Egypt or claim to be persecuted by Egyptians.

There is more, much more, that could be said concerning Shaun Casey's misuse if not abuse of Matthew 2:13-15. There are several layers at which one might address Casey's commentary. I will comment on one of Casey's major failures with implications.

Ironically, Shaun Casey, the political and theological liberal abuses Matthew 2:13-15 in virtually the same way that Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and many other political and theological conservatives abuse Genesis 12:1-3, the Lord's promise to Abraham, as the foundational premise upon which every nation must base its international policy concerning Israel. Both Shaun Casey and his political & theological conservative counterparts are guilty of reading the Bible flatly.

Casey's misuse of the Bible reminds me of a lengthy response to a commenter that I offered on another of my blogs that you will find here. That commenter responded to my posting of an article last spring on the building agitation and animosity by supporters of illegal aliens. That commenter used Leviticus 19:9-10, Leviticus 19:33-34, and 1 Timothy 5:8 to support the idea that Christians are obliged to break U.S. laws concerning "illegal aliens" in order that they might obey God's laws. Following is the bulk of my response, a response that also addresses Shaun Casey's misuse of the Bible to advance his agenda concerning "illegal aliens."

Now, I do not raise the issue of how we are to use the Old Testament in order to escape moral obligation. I raise the issue of how we are to use the Old Testament as Christians in order that I may know what my proper moral obligation is in a vastly different setting and under a very different covenant than the one under which the Israelites were bound to live before God when the Lord commanded,

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 19:9-10).

When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 19:33-34).

You simply assert a matter-of-fact use of Leviticus 19:9-10 and Leviticus 19:33-34 directly and immediately to our present situation in the United States with reference to the enormous influx of illegal aliens. You did this with particular reference to those who cross this nation's border on the south, and you do so without offering any warranted rationale for your use, other than that it is God's command.

Thus, you simply assert, "I'm sure you could try to skirt these verses by saying they do not apply - since they entered the country illegally , but - Is a scriptural command to believers ever contingent on other persons past behavior?"

Indeed, we all who read and love God's Word readily recognize that Leviticus 19:9-10 and Leviticus 19:33-34 are both commands from the Lord God. But, as a Christian reader of Scripture, are we not obligated to read and to use Scripture with much greater care for it than you have exhibited in your simplistic use of these Scriptures?

When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, regard its fruit as forbidden. For three years you are to consider it forbidden; it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit will be holy, an offering of praise to the LORD. But in the fifth year you may eat its fruit. In this way your harvest will be increased. I am the LORD your God.

Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it. Do not practice divination or sorcery. Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:23-28).

So, when you plant any kind of fruit tree, do you regard its fruit as forbidden so that you do not eat it or allow others to eat it for the first three years? In the fourth year, do you regard all of its fruit to be holy so that you offer it solely to the Lord God as an offering of praise? Then, only in the fifth year, do you eat any of the fruit from the tree? Given your reading of Leviticus 19:9-10 and Leviticus 19:33-34, portions that bound Leviticus 19:23-28, are you not obligated to obey this command from the Lord?

Do you eat only kosher butchered meats that have no blood remaining? Do you restrain your barber from cutting the hair at the sides of your head? Do you keep from clipping off the edges of your beard? Do you also preach that no one should ever cut their bodies or put tattoo markings on their bodies? Do you preach against these things as sins that Christians need to make sure they avoid? If not, why not? On what warranted rationale do you not?

Again, consider Leviticus 9:11-19.

Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another.

Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.

Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.

Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD.

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.

Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life. I am the LORD.

Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.

Keep my decrees. Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.

Do you obey the Lord with regard to every one of these commandments? Do you make sure that your employer pays you your wages at the close of each working day? Do you preach against mating different kinds of animals, such as the donkey and the horse? Do you preach against planting a field with two kinds of seed? Do you preach against wearing clothing that is made of blended fabrics, such as cotton and wool or linen and cotton? On what basis do you not obey these if you obey other elements within the above portion of Scripture? On what basis do you not preach all of the above as obligatory on Christians, if you preach that some are obligatory?

In other words, is not your reading and use of the Old Testament in need of considerably more careful thought than what you exhibited in your response? (For the commenter's non-response response, find it here.)

As for the use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:13-15, a topic that Shaun Casey does not even touch upon in his blog entry, I will leave that for another time. As for this entry, my principal concern has been to show that Casey and others, including evangelicals, misuse the Bible when they use the Old Testament in their matter-of-fact, flattened, or straightforward manner without accounting for the dramatic change of covenants with the inauguration of the new by Jesus Christ when he fulfilled and ended the old covenant. Indeed, the Old Testament remains as Christian Scripture, but as such, this hardly renders us Christians under the jurisdiction of the old covenant. Thus, our reading and use of passages such as Leviticus 19:9-10, 33-34 or Deuteronomy 10:18-19 must not fail to account for the Christian's dwelling under the new covenant and not the old.

We are not citizens of a nation that is in covenant with God, as were the Israelites of old. If we are Christians, we are stand together with believers from every tongue and tribe and nation in covenant relationship with God. We stand in covenant union with peoples from all around the globe without ethnic or racial distinction. Yet, we also dwell under "the powers that be." We all live under God's authority as depicted in Romans 13:1-7, which requires us to live lawfully within the nations where God's providence has placed us as citizens (cf. Acts 17:26-28). Thus, if Christian brothers or sisters from any country, including Mexico, illegally enter the United States, are not we American Christians obliged by Scripture to admonish them to become law-abiding citizens and submit to the laws of both their country of origin and the United States for conscience's sake? Indeed, we are.


Michael F. Bird said...

Interesting post!

abcaneday said...


Is it not odd that Fundamentalists and Liberals often read the Bible in the same shallow or flat way, even though they would disagree with one another concerning the points their same method of reading yields?

I was almost in your vicinity in July, when I attended a conference at St. Andrews. It was a delightful conference.

I will look for you at SBL in November. You will be there, won't you?

Steven Douglas said...

I am amazed at how many different "interpretations" come from people who claim that they "are just reading the word." How does the quote go? "A text without context is a pretext?" I have even talked with those who believe we need no instruction or study outside the Bible! The Holy Spirit will interpret text directly for them. There is absolutely no room within that sentiment for godly instruction or the Lord's use of fellow believers.

I do believe most of the situations of life can be answered Scripturally, but not necessarily directly so. We must read the Bible completely and within context so that we can get a basic understanding of where it is heading and what sort of activity the Lord wants from it. Only then can we safely use this information to inform our theologies and philosophies which, in turn, inform our worldviews and decisions. I am dismayed by the amount of people who cannot see this, they cannot be convinced! Whether "fundamentalists" or post-moderns, the end is similar; there is an inability to rightly interpret and use Scripture, resulting in sinful and selfish actions that displease God.

ofthalmos said...

Having found this entry, I couldn't help but write. My struggles have not been so much with blatant abuse of the OT but with how we should preach the OT correctly. I am convinced that only Christ can replace the idols in our lives--the idols which are the root of our sins. However, so many are afraid to see Christ in the OT. Jesus said to the Pharisees, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures which testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." I am finding that a major problem within fundamentalism is that it sees objective truth existing only in Scripture, in and of itself. Moreover, since fundamentalists fear to preach, and rightly so, anything that is not objectively true, they cannot see Christ throughout the OT because that is a step outside of their epistemology--only what the Scripture itself says is true. Therefore, a fundamentalist cannot see David as a God-foreordained type of Christ, for Scripture itself is silent on the issue; thus it can't be verifiably true. As a result, the fundamentalist preaches legalistic sermons out of the OT, though couching it in sympathetic language. There seems to be a failure on the part of the fundamentalist to understand what law (legalism)does--it makes our sin worse by strengthening the root of our sin (the idols) ( I realize this point can be debated since one could argue that Christians are free from the power of the law, though I wonder how it relates to perseverance of the saints). Only Christ can eradicate such idols in our lives, not moral lectures from the OT.
Anyways, Tim Keller has helped me to see this issue more clearly, and so I find myself struggling with this issue at the seminary which I attend. While I could be off base, it seems a more troubling problem, even more than those who blatantly abuse Scripture (though I think the issue is related), within much of evangelicalism is the failure to preach the OT correctly--that is, to point the world towards Christ.