Use and abuse of the Bible

Participants have enjoyed (or endured) an intensive second day at the Sabeel conference. The conference is being held at the Notre Dame Hotel in Jerusalem, just across the road from the Old City. The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre is celebrating its 25th anniversary. So this afternoon we acknowledged the important part played by national and regional coordinators of Friends of Sabeel.

The theme of the day was “The Occupation of the Bible”. Four one-and-a-half hour sessions were interspersed with meals and coffee breaks. The four sessions were entitled: “Biblical Authority”, “The Occupation of the Bible”, “The Bible and the Occupation of Palestine”, and “The Land of Promise”.

This was a day of theological discussion, which suited me fine. I’ve read enough theology and participated in enough Bible study sessions over the years to be able to follow the discussion with interest.

One of the speakers, Nancy Cardoso Pereira, a Methodist minister from Brazil, said that we need more than good theology to challenge Empire. Of course, she’s right. But we do need good theology. Bad theology is likely to cause us to make a bad situation worse. Good theology helps us to open ourselves to the guidance of the Spirit, keeps us on track, and enables us to source the strength that we need for the long haul.

A lack of theology, which I often find amongst Quakers, is little better than bad theology. So I make no apology for writing about theological issues.

Each of today’s sessions had the same format: a panel of three speakers, each of whom spoke for 15-20 minutes and then responded briefly to each other before questions were taken from conference participants.

Of all the speakers, David Mark Neuhaus impressed me most. He was born into a Jewish family in South Africa and converted to Catholicism when he was 26 years old. He became a Jesuit priest and is now secretary-general of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic Vicariate in Israel. He took part in the panel discussion on “Biblical Authority” together with Nancy Cardoso Pereira and Gary Burge, an evangelical theologian from the USA.

Before discussing the question, “In what sense is the Bible authoritative?”, David Neuhaus stressed that Jesus had authority. Unfortunately, we are tempted to turn authority into a hegemony of violence and destructiveness. However, the Bible is authoritative because it teaches each of us how to speak about God, our self, and our community.

Revelation may be given to us as we read the Bible. The Bible gives us answers to the questions: “Where do I/we come from?”, “How should I live today?”, and “Where am I, where are we going?”

We shouldn’t attempt to use the Bible as an instrument with which to impose our vision on the world. Instead of using the Bible for self-justification, we need to open ourselves to being challenged. We are likely to recognise that we’re not living up to what we profess. “The Bible humbles us.”

The doctrine of “sola scriptura” carries the risk of seeing clarity in biblical texts where none exists. We should read the Bible together in community. The Bible can’t be divorced from tradition. We need to relate to the Bible as we read it. There is a need for authoritative teaching which attempts to change the march of history and serves the people of God.

The world shuts us off from the flow of the Holy Spirit. The flowing of the Holy Spirit is blocked by our blindness and deafness.

We are all the time in a kairos moment (a moment of crisis and opportunity) and need to live in an awareness of this.

Jean Zaru was one of the panellists in the early afternoon session. She had been given a permit to enter Jerusalem at the second time of asking. Nevertheless, she was held up at the Qalandia checkpoint for two hours.

Jean voiced some Quaker affirmations: “All of us have indwelling divinity.” “All of us are special.” “All of us are equal.” She told us of her involvement in Christian-Jewish dialogue. Palestine/Israel was always a taboo subject. What is the point of dialogue, if it doesn’t affect how we live?

David Ben Gurion, who was the first prime minister of Israel, said: “The Bible is the sacrosanct title-deed to Israel.” The Jews claim a divine right which trumps all human rights.

Jean said: “We are one world. We either transform it together or blow it together.”

She explained that Christian Zionists are fiercely pro-Israel, but anti-Jewish. They want Israel to take over the whole of historical Palestine in order to hasten the second coming of Christ. But Jews will then all be killed, unless they convert to Christianity.

The later afternoon session about “The Land of Promise” was also interesting. Here are a couple of thoughts from Yohanna Katanacho, the Dean of Students at Bethlehem Bible School: Israel abuses scripture to claim, steal, and exploit the land. According to the Gospel of John, the Spirit of God is everywhere and is not confined to one place. The Holy Land is everywhere.

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