As I’ve been pondering this approach to understanding the Bible, I’ve asked myself how the church’s history might have been different had this approach had greater prominence in our thinking. How might the Churches of Christ behaved differently in the 20th Century had they adopted this old (not new) hermeneutic?
I grew up in the 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement was not only big news, it was a major reality. Schools were desegregated, but so were restaurants and stores and water fountains. The changes were dramatic, as was the the reaction of the churches. Well, it wasn’t all that dramatic, really. In fact, there was hardly any reaction at all. The churches began the 1960s racially segregated and they ended then 1960s racially segregated.
And while this was going on, many Christians were busy looking for prooftexts to defend the separation of the races. One of the most popular was Genesis 10, with the idea being that God has assigned locations to the various descendants of Noah. Therefore, the argument went, God meant for Africans to remain in Africa and so we should send African-Americans back to Africa — in fulfillment of God’s will.
Everytime I heard this argument, which was very often, I asked whether this meant that white South Africans should return to Europe? Or whether we white Americans should give America back to the Indians? (Yes, I was a smart aleck as a teen.)
Another argument made less commonly was that blacks had no souls and therefore had no place in the church. Yes, it was extraordinarily offensive and, yes, it was seriously argued by men in the church, including some elders. That’s how it was.
You see, we approached the scriptures from a prooftext mindset. We were searching for hidden laws. Whoever was most clever at finding a passage to support his argument won! And so it seemed perfectly legitimate to go looking for verses that preserved the privileges of the white race in America. (Racist attitudes and bad prooftexting were, of course, not unique to Churches of Christ.)
But what if we’d all been raised on the Story? What if conventional Church of Christ preaching was developed in the context of God’s Story?
Well, the Story begins with God’s desire to create community between Adam and Eve. The Curse interfered with this community, and the covenant with Abraham and the Law of Moses were given to create a new covenant community. In Jesus, the Kingdom is to ultimately include the entire world in covenant community — a community undoing the Curse by restoring Oneness and ending Otherness.
Now, had that been preached in the centuries leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, well, there’d have been no Civil Rights Movement, because none would have been needed. Rather, Christ’s church would have been at the forefront of ending slavery and reconciling the races — rather than inventing absurd theories to preserve a sinful situation.
It seems so obvious in retrospect, but at the time, our hermeneutics gave us the tools to hide from God’s uncomfortable truth. In fact, our hermeneutics were so good at helping us retain our racism that our churches remain largely segregated even today.
But understood in the context of the Story, Paul’s declaration of “neither Jew nor Greek” is not about a nice, social element of the early church, it’s one of the essential characteristics of Christianity. Indeed, God told Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him, and part of that blessing was to bring all nations into a common communion. You see, our racism challenges the essence of what Jesus died to accomplish.
The Story should have changed everything.