Research | Writing | Digital Humanities | Biblical Studies

Red, White, and Blue Hermeneutics

via fensterbme
via fensterbme

On the political left and right in the U.S., there is a decent amount of ‘colored’ biblical interpretation going on. In a recent article by Cynthia Boaz, she ponders what domestic and foreign policy of the United States might look like if the nation applied Jesus’ teaching to such issues. Perhaps the most provocative statement comes near the end:

So if we concede that the United States is a “Christian nation,” it follows that its citizens, as practitioners of the teachings of Jesus, should be: anti-war, anti-gun, anti-death penalty, pro-universal health care, pro-taxes and pro-(democratic) socialism, while also being – to the rest of the world – forgiving, meek, humble, generous and loving of everyone, even perceived enemies.

Obviously Boaz is opposed to the religious right but concedes a point to apply biblical teaching to politics only* for the sake of argument in the article. I want to suggest that both sides need to reconsider how biblical teaching ought to be applied to politics. Ultimately, this is a question of hermeneutics (i.e., the method of biblical interpretation).

Context is Still King

There are major problems when attempting to apply New Testament teaching to government behavior, not least of which includes the original context in which the NT was written. Jesus Christ and early Christians were living under Roman rule. The NT encourages believers to endure abuse with a view to advancing the Gospel (1 Pet. 2:12-25). In Acts, the apostles stand (on trial!) before kings and governors (as promised by Jesus) to give witness to the Gospel (cf. Luke 21:12-13). Boaz rightly points out that the earliest Christians were sharing their resources with one another (Acts 2:44-45). It’s important to note, however, that this distribution is handled by believers, not a state institution. Further, hostility against these Christians would soon grow, thus the need for such sharing. But similar proof-texting is made on the right. At its worst it comes in the form of applying OT verses regarding nationalistic issues in Israel to the American context. Granted, this is easy to do in a country where patriotism is encouraged, but might we ask of the biblical text, “To whom was this written and why?”

Is America a Christian Nation?

Perhaps. The nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, no doubt. Further, history shows the dominance of Christianity among the nation’s citizens. But many religious patriots act as if God wears red, white, and blue. Of course He does not. The New Testament reveals that God is concerned about the advancement of the Gospel and the edification of believers far and above nationalistic issues. Let’s be careful (no matter our political views) to take off our colored reading glasses as we interpret the Scriptures.

Note: For my view on how the NT DOES apply to civic issues, see here.

*Addition for the sake of clarity inserted 8am CST 8-22-09. See comments below.

Filed Under: NT

17 Responses to Red, White, and Blue Hermeneutics

  1. I’d like to see this with a wider scope. While Jesus was a pacifist, is He a pacifist? Is what he commanded for individuals to be taken for nations or people protecting others? Has God changed since the OT? Will there be real violence committed by God in the end times? These are things I’d like to write about but I feel like it’s a bit over my head. Thanks for your post.

    • Jeff, great questions! I would like to address some of these issues in greater detail, too. For what it’s worth, I’ve touched on pacifism a bit here and here. To give my thoughts briefly: (1) I would suggest that Jesus was submissive to government (1 Pet. 2:21-25), but the label ‘pacifist’ can carry some contemporary overtones that may or may not have been true for Jesus. You’re right to bring up the distinction between Jesus’ earthly ministry (then) and His role in the present and future; (2) I think NT commands have to be individually obeyed, but the waters get a bit murky when considering individuals in government who are also Christians…still thinking on this one; (3) I don’t think God Himself has changed since OT times, but the significance of nationalistic distinctions has changed (I may pick this up in a post next week); (4) Troubling as it may be for some, I think the answer to the last question is ‘yes,’ but the NT affirms that God carries out these acts in a just manner. I’ll forward to any future discussions should you decide to write on the topic!

  2. Josh, while I would agree with Boaz, somewhat, I find that anyone who would apply the biblical teachings of Christ and the early Christian community at world governments wholly misses the point of the Gospel. It is simply not a political system, nor meant to be one. Both sides wish to apply the NT to Government, forgetting whatever parts would disagree with them.

    While the Gospel is many things, it cannot sustain a political government – unless it is the one single government.

  3. Joel,

    I don’t do that. Please read the piece and if you’re inclined, post feedback on the blog. I’d like to see it.

    I specifically note that I’m a secularist when it comes to church and state and that Jesus was as well.

    Cynthia Boaz

    • Cynthia, thanks for stopping by. I attempted to represent your work accurately as I included a statement mentioning the ‘for the sake of argument’ factor in your original article. I recognize your position as a secularist, but in this post, I attempt to point out hermeneutical issues that I observe regarding the the use of Scripture by the right and the left. Though you apply NT teaching only for the sake of argument in your article (and would not advocate doing so in ‘reality’), you make hermeneutical decisions in the process. This is where my primary interest lies.

    • Cynthia, allow me to correct my statements – rather clarify. I do not believe that you would easily confuse the two, Church and State, just that two often people do without acknowledging what it fully means. What I rather meant was that I agree with your statements about what a Christian government would look like, and your secular stance on Church and State.

  4. People never read the good bits in the NT. Jesus didn’t come for peace and in fact knew he’d cause some war/fighting, He intended it (Mat. 10:34). Not only that, if you have valuables, Jesus thinks it’s a good idea to be armed (Lk. 22:36). On top of this, Jesus affirms the gov’t’s right and even responsability to kill and make war (Rom. 13:4). Big difference between how an individual can act to advance the cause of the gospel and what a gov’t should do – e.g. protect freedom.


    • John, very important points. Thanks. There certainly is a ‘pop’ view of Jesus floating around that tends to ignore various passages.

      In Luke 22:36, I’m not sure what exactly Jesus was commanding. Certainly He meant to say, “Be prepared. I’m leaving.” But when the disciples take inventory of swords, Jesus says, “It is enough.” Obviously what this phrase means is vital. Then Jesus later rebukes Peter for his use of the sword (Luke 22:49-51). Seeing the example of the apostles’ endurance of insults and assaults in the book of Acts also makes me wonder how they understood the command after Peter’s rebuke and after Jesus’ further commission-teaching post-resurrection. In any case, you’re right: we have to grapple with these verses!

  5. This is way off subject from what you wrote, but I want to jump in with an observation.

    Namely,. because it is right-wing political advocates that oft get confused about the relationship of God to America (subtly assuming God to be pro-USA), I have found that the antidote is as oft presented as left wing politics. That is, it is is easy to realize that God is not wearing Red, White and Blue. But that does not mean that liberal, left-wing politics have been right all along and now we have just realized the error of our way.

    Right-wing political advocates can reject bringing God to their side of the debate, without accepting the Left-wing side of the debate.

    I know liberal Christians who sincerely believe that once all of us right-wingers see how bad it is that fundamentalist preachers have gotten the best of us, then in our rage we’ll all become leftist. Indeed, when people wake up from fundamentalism (the modern right-wing God-n-Guns version), they do feel cheated and tricked. But the answer is not to embrace a new left ideology, but to realize the error of brining God into our backwater fights.

    The irony comes when those on the Left claim that they are the enlightened gurus who have been on Jesus’ side all along, and now we should all figure out that bleeding-heart policies were the correct ones all along. And being the defeated ex-fundamentalists, we can swoon over the brilliance of our compassionate and enlightened non-right-wing friends. And the irony is that they have brought God right back into the mix, this time making him into their image.

    Once we realize that we have made God in our own image (a Pro-American right-wing conservative), the solution is not to leave that idolatry for another version! Our right wing conservative politics may be better for the country, and we can keep that and give up the idolatry. This is not an either-or proposition. The left side must not be understood as having figured out that God was really on their side all along. For to do that, is to trade one form of idolatry for another, or to keep the bad parts of fundamentalism while only trading out the policy side.

    Along these lines, check out my two posts on Marxism

  6. great discussion here. i don’t have much to contribute other than to say that these issue are ones i’m thinking through right now as well. i’m so far from the left it’s insane, but i find the (political) right usually lacking what i’m looking for.


    • Yeah. I find my modus operandi in sorting through political matters patterning itself after my approach to biblical and theological issues. I want to do grammatical-historical exegesis on the constitution and accordingly apply it to contemporary issues.

  7. “Context is Still King”

    -I don’t think that’s right because Jesus is King! 🙂

    Interesting article and comments!

Leave a reply