Review of Jennifer Butler’s Who Stole My Bible?

Photo: Timothy Krause, Flikr

It’s funny how quickly a book can go out of date. Admittedly, I’m reviewing Jennifer Butler’s Who Stole My Bible? Reclaiming Scripture as a Handbook for Resisting Tyranny from a safe distance, and maybe there’s a lot that’s not visible from here. But the book was written in the middle of a fierce political storm that now seems to have blown over.

Butler is firmly of the opinion that America was in thrall to a right-wing, white supremacist, nativist, exclusivist (how we love our -ist words these days!), patriarchal, anti-democratic, imperialising tyranny, and that a large part of the church had been deceived into worshipping the beast. “Money in politics and a new type of gerrymandering advanced in the nineties is close to locking political power in the hands of one party: the Republicans. America is one election away from a one-party system.”

Well, that’s all right then. Panic over.

Of course, the underlying issues don’t go away. Injustices continue, governments struggle to right wrongs, governments often make matters worse, and people protest. For Christians, the question of how we allow the Bible to speak into this is as pressing after the fall of Trump as before. Answering the question, though, is not easy.

Butler writes with some moral authority, and there is the occasional note of even-handedness. But there is also a lot of what looks to me—again, from a safe distance—like moral high-grounding, and in an intensely polarised political context that risks undermining any attempt to recover the Bible as a basis for independent social witness. For the most part she writes out of solidarity with the progressive left and out of a rather caustic disdain—frankly—for those on the right who “praise the tyrant and do what he says, or else.”

Who Stole My Bible? is a lively blend of auto-biography, story-telling, biblical interpretation and apologetics, and strongly progressive polemics. Butler expresses a convincing passion for the Bible, but the book is as much an account of protest in America—sometimes, commendably, an eye-witness account—as it is an attempt to reclaim scripture. Inevitably, that is both its strength and its weakness.

The Bible and white people

In the Introduction Butler sets out the basic problem. In the US the Bible has become a tool of the Right for the oppression of women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, muslims—pretty much anyone who isn’t white and male. Biblically grounded public voices on the Left have been “needed to counter such views, but we were often absent or outgunned and drowned out.”

That’s all very ironic, because in Butler’s view: “There are no white people in the Bible, though so many white people act as if they own the Bible. We don’t.” I queried this argument in my defence of a narrative-historical perspective on European Christendom. Jesus was not a “light-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed man,” to be sure. But the further assertions that there are no white people in the Bible and that “White, ruling-class Europeans appropriated the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scriptures and read themselves into the text” are more problematic.

The apostolic mission was, effectively, a take-over bid, the proclamation of the coming annexation of the Roman world, from Jerusalem to Spain, by the God of Israel and his Son. So the kings and peoples of Europe would have very good reason to read themselves into the texts. That doesn’t excuse the subsequent anti-Semitism, empire building, crusades, slave trading, exploitation, misogyny, and persecution of gay people, but the eschatological trajectory seems pretty clear to me. We have to find some other way of accounting for the sins of Christendom.

The kin-dom of God

Scripture, Butler says, is both “God-Breathed” and an account of an imperfect people, with flawed perspectives, “struggling to draw near to what is holy and good.” Fair enough. But then to say that the overarching theme of Scripture is “God’s intervention in history as One who hears the groans of oppressed people and acts” seems to me debatable in the way that liberation theologies are always debatable.

She suggests that Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s “kin-dom” language is helpful because it disrupts the “gendered language and the church’s failure to reckon with the radical nature of what Jesus actually proposed.” What Jesus was really talking about, she thinks, is the liberation of people from “oppressive hierarchies” to become “interconnected community.”

But if the parable of the wicked tenants—as programmatic for Jesus’ mission as any statement in the Gospels—is anything to go by, what he foresaw was the violent wresting of power from the corrupt leadership of Israel and the transfer of responsibility for managing the vineyard to his followers.

This could perhaps be construed as the liberation of the oppressed in Israel, and “interconnected community” is always a good thing. But there is no broader socialist or reformist or liberationist agenda here. The Bible is neither a revolutionary nor a democratic document. The political dilemma all the way through is whether the theocracy of Israel can survive and eventually triumph, not whether the oppressed will be liberated.

The exodus affirms the supremacy of YHWH’s power over Pharaoh. The desire for a human king is a rejection of the rule of YHWH and a step towards political maturity. The Davidic monarchy generates an ideal of delegated kingship. The Babylonian invasion and exile profoundly challenge the international reach of Israel’s God. The Gospels address the question of who will determine Israel’s future—and how? The apostolic mission proclaimed to the Greek-Roman world that this long-running dilemma would soon be resolved, when the pagan nations would abandon their worthless idols and confess Israel’s crucified messiah as Lord.

Liberation is incidental, at best. The overarching goal, I suggest, is that the name of Israel’s God would be hallowed among the pagan nations and that his will would be done on earth as in heaven.

Taking Jesus literally

Chapter 1 proposes to ground resistance to the modern American tyranny in scripture. Butler was raised in a “white, well-heeled church,” that had no idea that Jesus meant Luke 4:18 literally: “he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, etc.” She went to seminary, read Gutiérrez, and now knows better.

Liberating the poor from oppression is a good thing to do, but it is not taking Jesus’ words “quite literally.” Jesus is quoting Isaiah. He is “literally” proclaiming liberation for oppressed Israel in some way analogous to Isaiah’s proclamation to exiled Israel. But he is only proclaiming, not, as far as this text goes, actually proposing to do or agitate for the liberating. As it turned out, it was Cyrus who liberated the captives, and the armies of Vespasian and Titus which punished the wicked tenants.

The Hebrew text of Isaiah 61:1 reads, “to proclaim liberty to the captives,” the Greek, “to proclaim release to the captives.” Luke’s wording is awkward: “to send the oppressed to release or forgiveness (en aphesei),” but it is still part of a quotation that speaks of a prophet being anointed to proclaim what YHWH is about to do for his people. So Jesus is not himself liberating the oppressed, nor does he instruct his followers to do so. He is proclaiming that this is what God is going to do for Israel. How can we do that quite literally? We can’t.

I know, I’m being pedantic. But I don’t think that the point is unimportant.

Humanity, nation, and empire

In chapter 2 Butler finds in the creation stories a vision for humanity radically different from that of rival ancient worldviews. Such a view of God was “bound to have a democratizing effect.” The biblical stories from the start were designed to shape moral consciousness, to empower a resistance to the innate human tendency to make gods in our own image, and so should be used today as we affirm the equality of all people created in the image of God, etc. As so often, far too much modern moral concern is loaded on to the “image of God” idea in Genesis 1:26-27, but Butler moves between the different narrative contexts rather effectively.

The theme of chapter 3 is the idolatry that “leads us astray from God’s liberative plan for humanity.” When the Israelites built a golden calf to worship, they were rejecting the liberating God, who called them to build a society based on loving their neighbour, and were instead submitting “fearfully to the gods of the surrounding empires for protection.” The Sinai “treaty” designated Israel as a “nation of priests,” but for the sake of the whole world. “Although Israel is a special people, all creation is loved by God, and God has a plan for all creation.” To recover this biblical story is to resist the idolatries of modern America—the idolatry of a wrathful God, who hates LGBTQ people, among other things; the idolatry of the prosperity gospel; the idolatry of the country club gospel; and so on. Butler tells the story of her personal involvement in the “golden calf” protest as part of Occupy Wall Street.

The Israelites should have remained a nation of priests “inspired by prophets and judges,” but, terrified by threats of invasion, they demanded a king. This is the theme of chapter 4, and it is directed against Americans who elected a king rather than a president. “In times of fear and instability, people tend to choose a strongman over and against this vision of being a nation of priests charged with implementing an ethical vision of governance.” Actually, the people ask Samuel to appoint a king in a time of peace, because he was getting old and his sons “turned aside after gain, …took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam. 7:12-8:5). They want to be like the other nations, and Samuel’s warning is not that they will be tyrannised but that they will pay a high cost for political progress. So it’s not quite as simple as Butler suggests. But clearly there is some mileage in using the story as a warning against authoritarianism, and it must be a legitimate, though never simple, exercise to evaluate modern political developments through this lens.

Women in the story

From here we go, in chapter 5, to a fictionalised retelling of the visit of the Queen of Sheba, with her son, to Jerusalem to find out about “a god that actually abhorred slavery.” Solomon comes across as smug and self-important, and the Queen of Sheba is gobsmacked when she sees “hundreds of slaves working on the new residence for the king’s many wives.” That’s all fabrication, of course. Fake biblical interpretation. According to the account in 1 Kings, the Queen was deeply impressed not only by Solomon’s wisdom but also by his prosperity. “Blessed be the LORD your God,” she says, “who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the LORD loved Israel forever, he has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness.” So is that a good way to recover a stolen Bible? Or just another way of stealing it?

Chapter 6 is called “Following Women of Color” and is an attack on the church’s failure to champion “the biblical vision for equality.” Butler highlights the role of women such as Mary Magdalen in defying both Rome and the male disciples, and proclaiming that the radically inclusive Jesus has been raised from the dead. “The centrality of women in God’s call to liberation is an essential lens for understanding Scripture”—Shiphrah, Puah, Miriam, Hagar, Sarah, Ruth, Naomi, Rahab, Hannah, Deborah, Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia. Butler similarly celebrates the numerous Black, Latina, indigenous, and Asian women in her life who have helped her recognise her own privilege as a white woman and to change. “We cannot merely think that because we aren’t overt bigots, we are antiracist. Racism isn’t a feeling. Racism is a system that feeds economic power and privilege to a storied few who happen to have a white skin color.”

Fake news

To address the immense problem of public truth in an era of fake news Butler looks, in chapter 7, at Jesus’ confrontation with Pilate in John’s Gospel. Jesus proclaims a truth that “enables us to fight back against imperial propaganda,” inspiring local activism, community building, and solidarity between Samaritans and Judeans in their struggle for self-determination. But the cynical megalomaniac Pilate, who is really Trump in disguise, can only smirk and ask, “What is truth?”

Butler says that according to Josephus, “Pilate alone was responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion.” She thinks that Pilate has been whitewashed by early Christians “to make their message more palatable to Roman audiences.” The point is that she needs to give the Gospel story a much stronger anti-imperial slant than it actually has. How much, if any, of the Testimonium Flavianum came from the pen of Josephus is disputed. What the passage says is that Pilate condemned Jesus to crucifixion “at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us” (Ant. 18:64). That is not one of the more obviously Christian interpolations, and the argument seems a flimsy reason to import anti-Roman sentiment into John’s account of the trial of Jesus. Again, I wonder whether this is the best way to recover a stolen Bible.

Apocalyptic then and now

Chapter 8 begins: “Romans 13 is one of the most abused texts in all of the Bible.” Butler goes on to relate the story of an American slave woman, Jane Johnson, who was not expected to seek liberty in Philadelphia because she was a Christian and knew that she must submit to her master and the God-ordained laws of slavery. We then hear how the Bible was bowdlerised to support the practice of slavery, and we are told that the first seven verses of Romans 13 are inseparable from the “ethic of love” expounded in chapter 12. Butler quotes Cherice Bock: “The overall point of the long passage is to call believers to remain firmly grounded in God’s goodness while interacting with the world around them in peace and love.” But that does not mean that the authorities—from Nero to Trump and now to Biden—should be blindly obeyed. “Be subject to” does not mean “obey” but “participate in the order of” (Rom. 13:1); and “the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing” should be rendered, “they are God’s servants only to the extent they are busy doing this very thing (Rom. 13:6).

I won’t quibble over the grammatical details, but I will point out that there is more going on in Romans 12:9-21 than love and peace. The primary exhortation is to function as a tight-knit supportive body as the means of surviving tribulation, committed to doing good and not evil. They are to be patient in tribulation, to bless their persecutors and not curse them, to not repay evil with evil, and most importantly to leave vengeance to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” In other words, this is an eschatological text that poorly serves one way or another as a model for the participation of Christians in modern democratic systems. So I’m inclined to think that we are likely to err both when we appeal to Romans 13 to justify the separation of migrant children from their parents, and when we exclaim, “Scripture tells us to… oppose the government when it deviates from our values.”

Actually, we get to eschatology in chapter 9. Right-wing Dispensationalism has been bent to the support of Trump’s presidency, so ironically, “these theories have led Christians to embrace the very anti-Jesus imperial-domination systems the author of Revelation rejected.” John the Divine is recast as an exiled revolutionary, punished for his defence of the poor against land grabs, burdensome taxation, and commercial exploitation. He writes the book of Revelation to encourage resistance against “the entire cultic, military, and economic system.” John is telling Christians to come out of the closet and “witness to the word of justice in the face of a brutal empire asserting its control.”

It’s fanciful, but the argument is powerfully made. Is America the beast and the prostitute reborn? Was Trump Domitian redivivus? It’s not for me to say. But I think Jennifer Butler is write to highlight the apocalyptic significance of the crises that we are living through—the after-effects of the economic crash of 2008, the pandemic, deeply entrenched racism, and a looming environmental catastrophe:

John would say that these catastrophes are an apocalypse—not the end of the world, but a revelation—should we allow ourselves to see it—of the greedy, bloodthirsty imperial beast beneath the fine linens and glittering jewels. Though unwelcome, these crises are an opportunity to see and do something new. The many-headed beasts reveal the corruption of the imperial system around us. The imperial cult of the United States of America, whose stock market booms while unemployment skyrockets, had numbed many of us to our own reality. The pandemic itself pulls back the veil showing us that we can no longer permit a health care system that fails to cover all of us. The murder of George Floyd reveals to us that resources are being siphoned out of community development and into militarizing our police; and it shows us that Jim Crow—never fully dismantled—reasserted its power by dismantling voting rights and resegregating schools.

I enjoyed it

The book should perhaps have been called Who Stole My Country? And How Can I Use the Bible to Get It Back Again? It is certainly very partisan. Whether, as things stand in America, the progressive left has a better grasp of the “true meaning” of scripture than the reactionary right, I couldn’t say. Any attempt to drag the Bible into the modern social-political arena is bound to distort it, for the simple reason that it tells a very old story, with its own eschatological horizons, and a lot has changed since then. The liberationist hermeneutic is as reductionist as the Select Parts of the Holy Bible for the use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands, which missionaries brought to the British West Indies.

But there is no safe place to stand as a reader or interpreter, or for that matter reviewer, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t make these passionate, provocative, committed, more or less tendentious, inevitably flawed attempts at keeping alive the ancient testimony. I enjoyed Butler’s book.

Thanks for this stimulating interaction Andrew!

I heard about Solomon’s slave labour not long ago, and while it’s a thing, it’s not clear to me whether it has more to do with completing the conquest and therefore fulfilment of the promise, or whether we’re meant to hear ‘Egypt’ and see another crack in the edifice. Maybe it’s both-and.

It seems to me that it was basically how nation building was done in the ancient world. If Israel was going to compete and be like other nations, it needed to undertake large-scale construction projects—temples, palaces, city walls, aquifers, etc. To do that you had either to use a conquered foreign workforce or conscript local labour, in the same way that armies are conscripted in times of national crisis.

The conditions of labour presumably varied. Solomon sends thousands of Israelite labourers to Lebanon to prepare materials for the temple (1 Kgs. 5:13-14). The temple is a good thing on the whole, and Hiram blesses the Lord, “who has given to David a wise son to be over this great people” (5:7). They work one month on, two months off, which would be pretty good terms for expat labour today.