The first ten days of March 2013 I spent in New York City, attending an array of events during the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW57). The Commission on the Status of Women was established in 1946 by the Economic and Social Council [of the United Nations] to prepare recommendations and reports on promoting women’s rights in the political, economic, civil, social, and educational fields (http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/57sess.htm). Each year, the Commission adopts a particular issue on which to focus; this year’s issue was “the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls.” Since 1995, the foci of CSW stem from the Beijing Platform for Action, which was adopted during the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. The platform lifts up twelve “Areas of Critical Concern for Women,” which includes #4: violence against women. Presbyterians have a rich history of involvement in the United Nations; Presbyterian Women, in particular, have been at the forefront of the Church’s social witness in promoting the common good for the sake of all Creation, including testifying to the full humanity of women, as inspired by the gospel (http://www.pcusa.org/resource/justice-and-peace-links-un-commission-status-women/).
Each day of my visit met with a deluge of accounts of women and children suffering from all forms of targeted violence: physical, psychological, economic, structural, war-induced—the list goes on. A stark fact is that 1 in three women in the world have endured some form of physical violence; many, many other statistics attest to other extremes. Along with the 69 other Presbyterian delegates to the CSW, I stood with the conviction that an authentic witness to the gospel required of me that I speak out against violence against women and children, as Jesus and my Christian faith would compel me, without question, to do. And yet, sadly, there are certain aspects of my Christian tradition that have either caused or reinforced violence against women and children (or, at the very least, not done very much to prevent it).
What does any of this have to do with Lesson Eight, you might be asking yourself? Well, here’s the thing: when I read Jude and 2 Peter rail against enemies of Jesus Christ, I channel their righteous indignation when I think of all the bad Christians who “defile” the community through violence and enmity, especially against women and children. If I read Jude as Jude and 2 Peter as Peter, then I feel comfortable, confident and, let’s face it, more than a little self-righteous in my indignation. It is not often the case, however, that those who feel compelled to argue for the rights and equality of women within the Christian faith are those who turn to these texts for inspiration. To acknowledge how we in U.S. society often reduce Christian perspectives to two extremes (which proves many times incomplete and unhelpful yet stubbornly persistent nonetheless), there are the “leftist extremists” who tend to ignore letters like 2 Peter and Jude, and the “right-wing firebrands” who photocopy pages from 2 Peter and Jude to tape on the doors and slap on the windowshields of those whom they identify as enemies of their worldview.
One of the dynamics I seek to complexify, as we consider these texts (known in academic circles as “invectives”), is the notion of to whom they “belong.” When the accusation (leveled in both letters against enemies) of “pervert[ing] the grace of God” is lodged, it is just as legitimate to assert that denying women access to clean water is as much a perversion of the Good News (unethical) as is “slander[ing] the glorious ones” (unorthodox). In making this assertion, I am influenced by one of the “Guidelines for Interpreting Scripture” lifted up by the Office of the General Assembly:
“realize that points of view are conditioned by points of viewing. Try to see the issues from the perspectives of others. Seek to identify what each one is trying to preserve and defend. Ask whether these elements could be preserved in ways that would lead toward mutual understanding” (http://www.pcusa.org/resource/presbyterian-understanding-and-use-holy-scripture/).
The Bible says a lot of things about a lot of things, really, so it should come as little surprise when people with different points of reference perceive different elements within it. That is not to argue for some vague sense of moral relativism; it is simply to acknowledge that differences in understanding are inevitable, so different points of view must be, at least, acknowledged. These texts existed long before us; they will exist long, long after we are gone. They have, they do, they will continue to speak, somehow. To some of my “liberal” sisters and brothers—running away from these texts accomplishes nothing. To some of my “conservative” sisters and brothers—be careful in assuming that these texts are “yours”—they’re not. To everyone else—wake up!
There are at least two other dynamics that I feel are important to name. Sometimes, they pull against each other while, at other times, they coexist peaceably. On the one hand, there is the legitimacy of voices of invective (or harsh) speech within the Christian tradition. To speak resolutely against detrimental influences is a form of authentic discipleship, which is why I think that these texts remain a part of the biblical canon. On the other hand, there is the necessity for forbearance. As discussed in Lesson Eight, the denumount of Jude calls upon Christians not to “shout out” but to “look within” to cultivate righteousness. There is a danger in screaming too loudly, for too long, in that one runs the danger of losing one’s voice. Interestingly enough, I see a case of this that emerges when we compare 2 Peter 2 with Jude.
Most scholars acknowledge 2 Peter as the “newest” book in the New Testament, and that it was influenced greatly by Jude’s letter. In fact, when you compare 2 Peter 2-3 with the entire letter of Jude, strong similarities emerge. One of the closest resides in the comparison of Jude v. 7 and 2 Peter 2:6-9, both of which make reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. Both letters cite offenses of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God’s punishment of the cities, as proof that God will hold “defilers” accountable, while God will protect the righteous. There is one major difference between the two, however: while Jude’s (earlier) invective simply mentions the situation in general, 2 Peter adds a commendation of Lot, arguing, “and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by their lawless deeds that he saw and heard), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.”
On its surface, 2 Peter’s invective here appears consistent and compelling. The author is outraged at the hideous conduct of those whom he regards as unrighteous, and finds an example in the Hebrew scriptures to commend to the believers as an upholder of righteousness. What do we find, however, when we actually look at the account of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19? Well, we find Lot upholding the cultural imperative of hospitality to visitors which, indeed, is a sign of righteous behavior, but he goes to an extreme. When the well-being of the visitors is threatened by a lusty, angry hoard of men outside his door, demanding to “have their way” with them, how does Lot respond? By offering up his daughters to violate instead. In the text, Lot’s daughters are silent. We don’t know whether they presented this option to their father for the sake of their guests (highly unlikely), or whether Lot took it upon himself to go to this extreme but, as it stands, Lot condones the violation of his daughters. As the culture dictated, they were his property to do with as he wished, and he embraced his liberty in this regard. How is this “righteous?” Did the author of 2 Peter miss this aspect of the story?
I think Jude showed some editorial prudence here; 2 Peter may have gone too far; not sat back, listened to the text, and paid close enough attention to know where to stop arguing. In other words, I’m not sure that Lot, in his entirety, helps 2 Peter’s cause. While in his cultural context, the plight of Lot’s daughters many not have been a significant measure of righteousness, but for us today, he’s gone too far. Perhaps the outrage-fueled adrenaline rush experienced by the author of 2 Peter prevented him from pausing mid-argument to pay attention to detail; perhaps we have something to learn from him beyond that which he imagined in putting stylus to papyrus, if you will, about the importance of pausing to regroup and reflect even in the process of expressing outrage.
When faced with deeply-entrenched disagreements, we must pause to listen, sincerely, to the sources of authority (text and tradition), and to the arguments of those counter to our point-of-view in order to gain proper perspective, overcome hubris, and, ultimately, to embody those practices of which Jude reminds us in vv. 20-21: “but you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.”
Keep the Faith,