Why You Shouldn’t Read the Bible Before Voting

Why you shouldn't read the Bible before voting

The title of this post comes from a summary of some of the ideas in Richard Bauckham’s excellent text The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically, which I draw on extensively in Chapter 4 of Worshiping Politics, entitled “The Problem of Interpretation, part I, or Why You Shouldn’t Read the Bible before Voting.”

Since the point of that cheeky chapter title was to perk your sensibilities, I won’t keep you waiting for what I hope is the obvious answer:

The Bible is not a one-stop shop for enduring answers to contemporary moral and political issues.

It is also not just a historical document or a piece of literature meant to be read and interpreted individually. In fact, it is not just one thing, but one of the things it is, is a sacred text meant to guide a community of practice that is also an interpretive community.

Stanley Hauerwas and others have already made this point better than me. In his book, Unleashing Scripture, Hauerwas writes,

Most North American Christians assume that they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let us no longer give the Bible to all children when they enter the third grade or whenever their assumed rise to Christian maturity is marked, such as eighth-grade commencements. Let us rather tell them and their parents that they are possessed by habits far too corrupt for them to be encouraged to read the Bible on their own.

What does Hauerwas mean by this? He, too, is trying to be cheeky in order to make a point (and very well might be serious in his recommendation). Two of the key words here are “individual” and “habits.”

If the Bible is, as I argue, primarily a sacred text meant to guide a community of practice that is also an interpretive community, the primacy of individual reading, i.e. interpretation, is antithetical to its purpose. This is not to say there is no place for devotional reading in which people find comfort, meaning, and guidance through communion with God through and direction of the holy spirit through scripture. There most certainly is, but it also should be done recognizing that our private thoughts and revelations must be cautiously and carefully applied, if at all, to larger social and political concerns.

On the flip side, practices like public reading of scripture in church or community, expository preaching, and bible studies often have the characteristics of community and practice that this understanding of scripture warrants. Many pastors, however, let alone bible study leaders, also do not have the habits or training to make responsible hermeneutical claims from the bible connected to political and social concerns.

This dimension of “habit” or “practice” is not just limited to reading habits or training. In Hauerwas’s account and in my own experience, the narrative of a God at work restoring creation and people to Godself requires a community of practice for that narrative to make sense. I believe this is a big part of what Jesus means in the parable of the sower—our hearts and lives must be cultivated in order for the truth of scripture and the life it calls us to makes sense.

I give two examples of this in Worshiping Politics—one from a national news story and one personal. Back in 2006, the world looked on in awe as a man entered a school in the Old Order Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, took hostages and ended up shooting eight young girls, killing five, before taking his own life. Several Amish community members made statements about the humanity of the shooter and the importance of forgoing vengeance, to the point of going to the man’s family to offer comfort and forgiveness. This response was incomprehensible to much of the world. And the point is not that the response was right or wrong, but that such a response, and those kinds of acts of forgiveness themselves, require a community of practice. It is not enough to read “turn the other cheek,” or “love your enemy” to do those things well. They require a community that makes them possible.

In my own life, I have found something very similar to be true. Throughout the Old Testament we read of God’s care for the vulnerable, especially the poor, immigrants, orphans and widows. In James 1:27, it says “True religion is this: to care for orphans and widows and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

When Jillana and I first got involved in foster care fifteen years ago, we didn’t know anyone else personally who had done it. Not one family in the multiple churches we had been a part of. And we very quickly learned at least one of the reasons why. It is frickin’ hard.

Very quickly we came to the end of our own capacity and had to lean on God in ways that in our self-competence and white middle-class privilege we never had to before. We needed friends and family to wrap around us in ways that were humbling. All kinds of spiritual truths about relying on God’s strength and not our own came alive in new ways. And kids from hard places are not something that can be “fixed” with prayer, stability, discipline or all of the above.

Fast forward ten years or so and we began to see the emergence of a robust community of foster and adoptive parents whose faith and understanding of spiritual truths were alive in ways we didn’t understand before. And this community of practice made it possible for more and more people to respond to God’s heart for the vulnerable and practice of “true religion.”

All of this is to say that it is irresponsible to make applications of scripture to contemporary moral and political issues without those applications being embedded in communities of practice. Learn from people who’ve lived and labored with folks in poverty for a long time. Learn from people who live and work in solidarity with immigrants and refugees. Learn from people who work with homeless LGBTQ youth and know their stories. Learn from folks who have stood in front of tanks or cared for the sick or injured in war zones. Learn from people who have welcomed impoverished pregnant teen moms into their homes. Learn from folks who work with those who are incarcerated.

I am not saying that only people affected by certain political and social issues have anything to say. What I am saying is what Richard Rohr says: we don’t think our ways into new ways of living, we live our ways into new ways of thinking. Being part of communities that make it possible to live and love in ways that Jesus calls us to change the way we hear and receive, then interpret and apply scripture.

So don’t read the Bible before voting. Be transformed by its call on your life in the context of a community of practice. Then vote.