Leviticus 18.1-5, 19-29 – This is a difficult passage and might trigger a strong response.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord…
…You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman’s wife, and defile yourself with her. You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion.
Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations, either the citizen or the alien who resides among you (for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled); otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people.
Desmond Tutu said, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “let us close our eyes and pray.” When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land.”
Finding their land taken from them, it is no wonder that many Africans took so seriously the Bible which was supposedly a fine substitute for it. Most European missionary endeavour of this kind took place in the 19th century, when the predominant (although never the only) view of the Bible was that it should be read largely literally. While it clearly contained some imaginary stories (such as the parables of Jesus), those parts which appeared to be direct commands from God were to be treated as such. So Africans and other colonised peoples tended to adopt such a reading of the scriptures. It is a direct result of colonisation.
Since then many (although by no means all) European Christians have adopted a more nuanced view, as 19th and 20th century scholarship has advanced our understanding of when, why and how such passages were written; and we have rediscovered the allegorical and other non-literal readings of earlier Christian centuries. We have, we believe, become more sophisticated in our understanding.
It is therefore a shock to many of us more ‘liberal’ Christians to find that the descendants of people who came to find the Bible in their hands because of our forebears’ colonial and missionary undertakings still take seriously the literal reading with which they were first presented. It is probably not a shock to them to find that our instinctive response is to tell them that our (current) reading is ‘superior’, thus repeating the cycle of colonisation (see Monday).
How on earth are we to extricate ourselves from this vicious circle?
God of Love, different understandings about whom we love and how we love have been used as tools of evangelism, tools of colonisation and weapons in disputes between Christians. Help us to step back from inherited moralising or more recent ‘enlightenment’ to recognise your love wherever it is found. For God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. [1 John 4.16] Amen.
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is the Policy Officer for Cytûn: Churches Together in Wales and a member of Parkminster URC