As a general rule, most religions seem to have positive ideas at their core. However, they’re easy to corrupt and bend to serve other goals. I personally can only speak with confidence regarding Christianity, having been raised in a Christian household with parents who encouraged both a strong faith and a scholarly pursuit of our beliefs. Christianity is a common culprit as far as being misused for negative reason because it is so widespread, has so many variations in its practice, and has a heavy emphasis on converting others. Historically, there are dozens of examples of people committing hideous crimes in the name of God, and there are still churchgoers who do the same today.
Andres Resendez recently spoke at Concordia College about his novel, The Other Slavery. Resendez is a historian at the University of California, Davis. In his speech, he elaborated on the origins of Europeans enslaving Africans in the 1400s. During the crusades, Portuguese crusaders were not sure if it was right to take slaves. They consulted the Pope, eager to know if they should follow the rules of wartime or the laws of the Bible. The Pope gave them permission to use human beings as spoils of war on grounds that those in captivity were non-Christians. Because of their lack of true faith, they were not God’s people and were hardly worth trying to save. This statement mainly came about because Christian crusaders felt as though other religious groups were the enemy, and because the crusades brought a lot of money back to their home country, according to Resendez. Later, the majority of Christians would consider the acts which occurred during the Crusades as ungodly, and those who condoned them not true followers of Christ. As Resendez said in the same speech, people throughout history have committed horrible atrocities in a misguided attempt at religion.
“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” This sentiment can be found in the book, Religion and the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery, written by John R. McKivigan and Mitchell Snay. During the era of slavery in the United States, there was a striking contrast between slaves who found religious faith (often a mix of Christianity and cultural traditions brought from Africa) to be a reassuring presence in their lives to combat their harsh realities, and the part of the population that used Bible passages to promote pro-slavery ideology. The reasons behind such different outcomes to following the same religion are complicated. The Bible itself has different verses that seem to contradict each other, due to the fact that different authors wrote the books in a variety of time periods and cultures.
It’s easy to find Bible verses that fit either mindset. There are beautiful verses such as John 8:36 “So the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed,” or horrible ones like “That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating” (Luke 12:47). Many modern Christians rush to defend the latter verse, talking about cultural context or claiming it’s a metaphor. The Bible, along with many other texts from Christianity as well as other religions, has both good and bad. Part of the reason there’s varied interpretations of the Bible is because there are so many different messages within it, influenced by both the culture and time period in which parts of it were written.
Studying cultural elements surrounding where and when different parts of the Bible were written is fascinating. For example, the story of the prodigal son receives new depth when reading it from the cultural perspective. Simple things like that the father ran to his son to offer forgiveness at the end of the story are significant. For a man of status at that time, hiking up his clothes and running would seem informal and juvenile. A basic understanding of marriage, engagement, and divorce customs during the time of the nativity story makes Mary’s willingness to become pregnant with Jesus and Joseph’s decision to stay with her much more impactful. On the reverse side, not having this background context can lead to misinterpretation. There are still people who claim that Jewish people killed Jesus. First of all, Jewish leaders did not have the political power to execute him; the Romans did it. Secondly, and more importantly, Jesus himself was Jewish. The Bible repeatedly calls Jewish people God’s chosen people. You cannot be both Christian and anti-Semitic if you’re also a logical person.
As someone who is currently working to receive an advanced degree in interpreting and has already received a college education centered in linguistic studies, I’ve taken translation classes and worked on various translation projects with organizations such as TEDtalks and the Volunteer Lawyers Network. That being said, my studies have allowed me to explore how easy it is to add or remove meaning while translating, often on accident. Sometimes words exist in one language but not another, and sometimes a word in one language carries certain connotations that it’s direct equivalent does not. Almost nobody reads the Bible in its original language, and there is obvious discrepancy between translations such as NIV, KJV, and ESV. Most people would agree that the overall meaning has been preserved, but understanding that no translation conveys every nuance and implicit meaning perfectly is vital when interpreting a Bible verse. In fact, many people say that every translation betrays the original text to some extent. In the same way that cultural elements influenced the original text, there are many things which can influence translations. As I stated earlier, the meaning is usually mostly intact, and while I could go on for much longer about this topic, the important thing to remember where differences can arise and be wary of a word-for-word approach to studying the text.
There is so much room for diverse interpretation, both for the reasons listed and because humans often like to seek evidence that specifically supports their existing biases. Due to this, there is still skewing of Biblical messages to promote violence and hatred. Easily recognizable examples are people telling others that they’ll go to hell for their sexuality or committing violent acts at abortion clinics. To begin to address this, it’s always important to do research about both sides of an issue before choosing a stance. But putting that aside, regardless of a person’s beliefs on a matter, they should not react to opposing views with cruelty or violence. The Gospels present Jesus as the type of person who would not accept such behavior. On the other hand, there are people who use good principals such as the emphasis on forgiveness to excuse people committing domestic violence or acts of racism. You can forgive someone without excusing their actions. Jesus still showed a righteous anger when he saw scam artists defiling a temple.
Because people justify their existing biases whenever they can and there are numerous ways to understand various parts of the Bible, there are going to be people who use it as a tool to act unjustly. Centuries of racism have bred toxic ideas whose impact has not been erased yet. There are still people who think that dark skin is inferior because black people are supposedly descendants of Canaan, who was cursed by Noah. (Similar to how people like to defend sexism by claiming that Eve brought the downfall of humanity and cursed women, but that’s a whole other topic).
The solution to some of these toxicities is simple in theory but difficult in practice: education. This doesn’t specifically have be formal schooling, but research should examine multiple points of views from credible sources. Learn the historical and cultural context surrounding Bible stories. Study how your own biases can affect how you view evidence, and take time to evaluate yourself and find where prejudice exists that you might not be aware of. Don’t repeat the ignorance and cruelty of those who have come before you.