Texts that Perpetuate Prejudice*

Mark 1:29-34, 3:1-5, 10:46-52

Rev. Doug Van Doren



What woman doesn't cringe (what man either, I hope) at the text from Ephesians 5:22: "Wives be subject to your husbands. Just as the Church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, subject to their husbands." And do not all of us cringe from the same diatribe in the next chapter of Ephesians: "Slaves, obey your masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord."

In many circles these are referred to as "Texts of Terror." There are a lot of terrifying texts in the Bible, especially if you are not part of the group in power. As we all know, the Bible is often used as a club to strike certain people down or to put them in their place - their "God ordained" place. These "texts of terror" may be texts that reinforce our prejudices or are easily used against a particular class of people. They may also simply be texts that we interpret, perhaps innocently, out of our biased, pre-conceived notions.

As I said, these texts are legion, depending on who you are and where you are in the social strata.  The Old Testament text that for years was translated, "Black but beautiful" is one, perhaps subtle, example. That translation (reflecting a translator's bias) assumed that to be Black and beautiful (which is the appropriate translation) is the exception. Clearly it reinforced a cultural bias.

Certainly there are many texts of terror for women, in addition to those we mentioned. What about 1 Corinthians 14:34, "Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church." (Obviously we don't take that to heart!)

Texts about divorce, like this one from Matthew, can be texts of terror for divorced and remarried men and women. They are usually more so for women, however, as they are often still used in many literalistic churches, along with other texts about the subservience of woman, to keep them in abusive marriages. "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

We have become very familiar here at Plymouth with the texts of terror for Gay and Lesbian people. One is in 1Timothy, "Neither the immoral, nor idolater, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God." I am not sure that leaves any one left standing, but it is the "homosexuals" that are seized upon. And there is Romans 1:27, "Men giving up natural intercourse with women were consumed with passion for one another...and they received in their person due penalty for their error." There should be no denying that this is a text of terror.

I suppose if you are rich, a text of terror could be the one about the rich young man who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life and was told to give everything to the poor and follow Jesus. And the conclusion of that text in Luke 18, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." It is interesting, however, that we don't see that one used very often as a "clobber text!" It all has to do with who is in power, doesn't it?

So what do we do with texts like this? (I can just tell that many of you have some pretty good suggestions!) The truth is; we know what to do. We are pretty good Biblical scholars; we are pretty good at dealing with them appropriately.

First we try to get beneath the language, including trying to ferret out any translational biases, in order to see what the various communities were originally trying to communicate. We try to understand what the original context of the passage was, as well as place it in the larger context of that part of the book, rather than pull out certain words or phrases. And we ask if the context or situation addressed by the passage is similar to our context or the issue to which we are seeking to address the passage. We look to see if the passage is consistent with Jesus' overall message, as he is the lens through which we interpret Scripture. We then, legitimately ask, "Does this text need to be thrown out because it is hopelessly incomprehensible or because it is locked in a different culture and world view so that it simply cannot be applied to our situation?"

We have become sensitive to many of these texts of terror, but are there others to which we are not so sensitive? Are there texts that we innocently interpret out of our bias or misunderstanding and thus they appear to reinforce those very biases and misunderstandings? I suggest that many of the "healing" texts, like two of those read this morning are "texts of terror" for a whole community of people. That is, people with disabilities. These can be texts that perpetuate prejudice or misunderstanding with the added power of Biblical "truth."

Don't we bring to these texts and other healing texts an overwhelming assumption, that, "Of course these 'poor,' 'crippled,' 'blind,' 'paralyzed,' 'demented,' and otherwise 'diseased' persons need to be healed? Of course their lives were pitiable because of their cursed malady. They could not be whole, could not be fulfilled, they could not be contributing members of society, unless they were restored to able-body-ness."

Thankfully, there are a growing number of people with disabilities and their allies who are loud and proud; who are tired of being objects of pity; who are tired of being seen for their disability rather than their personhood. These are people who are challenging "able-ism." That is the defining of the world for and by able-bodied and able-minded people. The barriers they confront daily are not only physical barriers - lack of willing accommodation - but perceptions, the perception that they have little to contribute, being objects of pity or, just as bad, heroes for doing the same things that others do as a matter of course. Indeed, these are texts of terror for them, as they reinforce cultural bias.

Any person with a disability has too many such stories. I was talking to a woman just this week who uses a wheelchair. More than once she has had the experience of strangers coming up to her in a public place, like a shopping mall, wanting to pray for her - to be able to walk.

Any parent of a child with a disability will tell you of the awkwardness with which people deal with them. That is, either by trying to avoid the subject (which makes the child invisible and the challenges of the parent unacknowledged) or by making them objects of pity or heroism. That is, either super parents or parents with a joyless burden. Many people think that you cannot love a child with a disability as much as another child. When our son died, there were even people who thought that his death wasn't as deep and horrible a loss for us as is the loss of a child without a disability.

We able-bodied people are not apt to see it, so unless we consciously work at it, we bring an able-bodied bias to the text (as we do, of course, to the rest of life). Able-ism is the sea in which we swim. Look at just a few small examples of how our perspectives are reflected in our language:

"The blind leading the blind."

"That's so lame."

"Paralyzed with indecision."

"He was talking like a crazy person."

"What a spaze."