There’s a funny scene in an episode of Seinfeld in which George Costanza is freaking out about the possibility that he may have cancer. He and Jerry have been working on their “show about nothing,” and things have been progressing nicely—they have finished casting and are getting ready to shoot the pilot—when George notices a strange spot on his lip. He goes to the doctor, who removes it and sends it for a biopsy. While he is waiting for the results to come back, George, neurotic as ever, becomes convinced that he does have cancer and is going to die, just as things are starting to look up for him. The following exchange then takes place:
GEORGE: I knew that God would never let me be successful.
JERRY: I thought you didn’t believe in God.
GEORGE: I do for the bad stuff!
I get a similar impression when I hear self-professed evangelical Christians twist themselves into knots trying to excuse their support for the moral train wreck that is Donald Trump, or explaining why they continue to stand by Judge Roy Moore even as the allegations continue to mount that he sexually harassed or assaulted several teenage girls when he was in his thirties. A response I saw from one Alabama lawmaker, himself an evangelical, strikes me as disturbingly typical. He said in an interview that he would rather have a pedophile in the Senate than a Democrat.
That’s the danger we court when we allow political ideology to determine our understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith rather than the other way around. When the notion of limited government and low taxes make us suspicious of or antagonistic toward poor people, whom the Bible commands us again and again to take care of, we have put the cart in front of the horse. The same is true when our support for capital punishment causes us to ignore that the author of our faith was the victim of an unjust execution, or when the mantra of “family values” becomes mere shorthand for homophobia and discrimination, or when mindless patriotism leads us to support our country’s wars unquestioningly, regardless of the circumstances.
It’s a problem for liberals as well. Does one’s pro-choice stance make one deaf to reasonable arguments from the other side and blind even to the possibility that abortion may be displeasing to God? Are we susceptible to smugness about our moral and theological rectitude, so that we fail to act with humility or live in love? And for both sides, how can we claim to be following Jesus, who commanded us to love one another, when we consider those who hold opposing views to be heretics with whom we can have no fellowship?
These are touchy questions, and if any of them rankles us or makes us defensive, that’s a pretty good sign that we need to explore it more deeply. But that is not the same as saying that we can make no judgments or that we must accept any and all interpretations. I see a fundamental difference between those whose reading of the Bible and practice of the faith make them more open, compassionate, and just, and those for whom the result is separation, bigotry, or an unloving attitude.
George Costanza only believed in God when it came to “the bad stuff”—cancer diagnoses, natural disasters, and so on. In a similar way, many Christians seem to exercise their faith in a way that highlights the negatives instead of the positives. They favor an interpretation of the Bible that gives precedence to “an eye for an eye,” all the while ignoring Jesus’s explicit rejection of that approach in favor of being peacemakers and loving our enemies. They like the God of wrath better than the God of grace, and seem to live by the principle that “God helps those who help themselves,” even though that sentiment occurs nowhere in Scripture and is in fact antithetical to the central teachings of both Testaments. It’s as though these Christians read the Bible for the specific purpose of finding passages that bolster opinions they have already formed and ignoring the ones that contradict those opinions.
Then again, we all do that from time to time, don’t we?
Our goal, as I see it, should be to let ourselves be formed by the best of the biblical tradition, by which I mean those parts of the Bible that are consistent with what we know about God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If one part of the Bible says we should put to death those who have same-sex relations, or that we are to engage in genocide in the name of God, but Jesus says for us to love our enemies and not to judge lest we be judged, I think we ought to go with Jesus. I don’t think that’s too radical a proposal, but it appears to be extraordinarily difficult to implement.
What it boils down to is that we have a choice. We don’t have to opt for the interpretation that fosters selfishness or hate. We can choose instead to believe God for the good stuff, and then to live accordingly.