Is the Bible Public?

As a preacher as well as a person of faith, I wrestle on a regular basis with what the Bible says about matters like immigration, race, and policy, as well as how it applies within the Church.

Going back at least as far as Martin Luther (the Catholic priest in 16th-century Germany who started the Protestant Reformation), there’s been a debate about whether the faith and public realms are separate or linked. And if they’re linked, what’s the Bible’s role in the conversation and decisions?

For privileged Christians, this has been an abstract debate during periods of relative peace and prosperity. But it rages openly when Christians debate about matters of public policy that range the political spectrum from left to right.

Like many, I both cringed and rolled my eyes when Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 to justify the Trump administration’s then-new policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the US’s southern border.

Unfortunately, Sessions opted for the usual strategy when public officials try to appeal to sacred texts to justify political decisions.

The deeper issue is, how do we read the Bible in the public realm, when not everybody’s of the same faith, or any faith at all, without simply reading our own political views into it? How can it actually be an ethical resource we can take seriously? Does it have nothing relevant to say—or is the danger of weaponizing it so great that we should keep it far away from public matters?

Eric Barreto says we could start with humility: that no one culture—religious, ethnic, or otherwise—holds a monopoly on how to interpret the Bible. See the link at the bottom of this post.

Second, I would say that sacred texts, whether the Bible, the Torah, the Qu ‘ran, or the Bhagavad Gita, are most important at shaping their own faith communities’ ability to respond, creatively and with compassion, to public matters, whether immigration, income inequality, or the nature of how we disagree with each other in a civil society.

Third, certain matters of morality are shared by all faith traditions, and we can focus on those rather than weaponizing our sacred books to simply shore up our prejudices.


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