Tim Keller says that religious people often use their convictions about truth and morality “as bludgeons to intimidate and control those who share them and to condemn and punish those who do not. To think, ‘We are on the side of truth,’ can give people internal warrant to be abusive to those they believe have heretical opinions.”*
Can you imagine anything worse than abusing other humans in the name of God? Can you think of anything God desires less than people using his words to demean and attack others? And yet it’s a real problem. That’s why Keller wrote those words. And it’s the reason we started this blog in the first place. God gets a bad rap because we are constantly claiming to be speaking for him, and we are constantly jackasses in the process.Religious people often use their convictions about truth and morality “as bludgeons to intimidate and control those who share them and to condemn and punish those who do not.” – Tim Keller
Before I say what needs to be said here, I want to offer a confession. Many, many, many people throughout history have used religion—including (especially?) Christianity—to demean and oppress. So many have used religion to gain, expand, and preserve power. This is disgusting. I offer that confession on behalf of the religious tradition I stand in. But I also confess personally that I have considered myself to be orthodox, correct, and “on the side of God,” and have thereby hurt other people. I have used the truth to ostracize people. I have used my view of orthodoxy to exclude. When this has happened, it has been ugly. We can’t keep doing this. I’m actively fighting against this tendency in myself.
But we need to be careful to say that this type of abuse-in-the-name-of-God does not mean that God himself or truth itself is abusive. Keller explains that while the Bible and Christianity has often been used a tool of oppression, when we do this we’re fighting against the very nature of God and of Scripture. God has always stood with and fought for the oppressed. Though his people have often tried to lift themselves up by pushing others down, they can only do this by directly violating what God is working to do in this world. The fact that we often quote Scripture in doing this only highlights the monstrosity of it.
Throughout the Bible, God constantly uses second sons, the weaker and less attractive, people from smaller tribes, the smallest and youngest members of a family (e.g., David). We see Jesus lifting up women and tax collectors and sinners. Keller: “It is always the moral, racial, sexual outsider and socially marginalized person who connects to Jesus most readily…God repeatedly refuses to allow his gracious activity to run along the expected lines of worldly influence and privilege. He puts in the center the person whom the world would put on the periphery.”
This is because this is who God is. It’s significant that this is the lot Jesus chose when he became human. It’s not an accident that Jesus was born poor rather than rich, that he fled his home country as a refugee rather than being raised in privilege, that he was crucified as a criminal rather than crowned as a king. Jesus identifies with the oppressed. He was the oppressed.
For all these reasons, Keller points out how absurd and incongruous it is when we use Jesus and the Bible to oppress others: “Of course believing in universal moral truths can be used to oppress others. But what if that absolute truth is a man who died for his enemies, who did not respond in violence to violence but forgave them? How could that story, if it is the center of your life, lead you to take up power and dominate others?”“We need to loosen our grip on our right to be right about Scripture and instead cling more closely to the stated mission of Scripture and the actual heart of God.”
You have to betray the story itself in order to do this. Richard Bauckham insists that the biblical story is “uniquely unsuited to being an instrument of oppression.” And yet we use it as an instrument of insult, oppression, and exclusion all the time. I frequently see Christians taking the Bible and use it to dunk on other Christians. I see Christians doing this to non-Christians. I see liberals doing this to conservatives and fundamentalists doing it to liberals.
I don’t have all the answers here, but honestly, it sounds pretty simple to me: We need to re-engage with the story that we claim shapes our lives. Because if this story is about a God who loves the outsider and who enters into their pain to elevate them, then we need to repent of our self-exaltation. We need to renounce the use of Scripture as a means of proving how bad and wrong people are. Perhaps we need to loosen our grip on our right to be right about Scripture and instead cling more closely to the stated mission of Scripture and the actual heart of God. Anything less is a betrayal of the God and the story we’re claiming to follow.
*The quotes from Tim Keller in this post are from his excellent book Making Sense of God, particularly Chapter 10: “A Justice that Does Not Create New Oppressors.”