“Yet the extraordinary thing is that apartheid was a ‘biblical’ doctrine, justified ‘in the light of Scripture’ within a predominantly Christian country and supported by excellent university faculties of theology and biblical studies” (Burridge 406).
How could well-meaning, godly people–scholars and pastors and communities of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa–live believing that ’separate development’ (apartheid), which is now considered racist, even evil, had an ethical basis in the Word of God? This is the test-case for New Testament ethics with which Burridge ends his book Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics. I cannot possibly cover in this brief summary all that Burridge so ably presents in this final section of his book.
Burridge takes the reader into the honest and difficult challenge of bridging “the gap” between the biblical texts (and time) and our own contemporary ethical challenges. Without diligent work, we face a danger like this: “Premature assimilation [of the biblical text to our world], where the reader assimilates the text into his own prior horizons without recognizing its distinctiveness, will leave him trapped in his own perspectives, but under the illusion of having been addressed by the text. No one who takes the Bible at all seriously would want to domesticate it in this way” (357).
On the one hand, some treat the Bible cavalierly not recognizing how very foreign the people, events and stories of the Bible are to us. So, for some there is no gap. “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it” mentality…and sentimentality. No group of Christians actually live according to this popular declaration. On the other hand, there are those who believe “the gap” cannot be bridged. We are left with no ethical help from the Scriptures. Burridge helps us avoid these two extremes.
Burridge surfaces four “biblical” ways the subject of apartheid was approached (and he offers specific examples of how the Bible was used): 1) Obeying rules and prescriptive commands, 2) Looking for principles and universal values, 3) Following examples and paradigms, and 4) Embracing an overall symbolic worldview. Those who believed apartheid to be “biblical” used the Bible in these ways to offer support for their views. The irony is this: those who opposed apartheid used the Bible in these identical ways to show that apartheid was very “unbiblical.” Both sides claimed to be “biblical,” yet had opposite views of apartheid! This is reminiscent of the ante-bellum slavery debates in the United States which led eventually to the Civil War.
Burridge offers his approach the ethical dilemma of apartheid based upon the biographical narrative reading of Paul and the Gospels: 1) a commitment to imitate Jesus and his ‘law of love’ 2) within an open, inclusive and diverse community. The life of Jesus honored and followed in community may save us from creating sectarian, hurtful doctrines that demean members of the human community. Out of South Africa is coming a strong plea for “contextual hermeneutics” where “interpretive communities” come together to study and dialogue about the way to live as Christians in society. We need opposing viewpoints within the community so that distortions are avoided by those in power or control. Without an inclusive, diverse, interpretive community, ”Scripture simply becomes a mirror reflecting a community’s self-deceptions back to itself disguised as the word of God” (400). Read that last quote again.
We need to honestly ask, Are we being led astray by so-called “conservatives” who believe they have a monopoly on being “biblical” as much as we may be led astray by so-called “liberals”?
Can right-wingers be wrong as well as left-wingers? We must not ever forget “the church” supported the Crusades, the holocaust, apartheid, slavery in Britian and America, and racist segregation in the South. Some branches of the USAmerican church support the secular, militaristic state called Israel to the detriment and even death of Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ. How can this be? (And I write this believing that God has a unique place for the Jews in his heart.) An Israeli tour guide told a group of us one time that the state of Israel now trusts in the Uzi, not in God. As Christians what are we to do with that admission?
Burridge’s final words are “…to be truly biblical is to be inclusive in any community which wants to follow and imitate Jesus” (409).
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