Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, wrote a post for the Belief Blog published by CNN in which he offers five biblical passages for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Both Bachmann and Perry are Republican presidential candidates.
In his post, “My Take: 5 biblical passages for Bachmann and Perry,” Prothero suggests five biblical passages to the candidates in order to see how they would deal with the issues raised by these texts. As Prothero wrote:
I presume both candidates will acknowledge that these passages are, in fact, in the Bible. And I take it for granted that, as self-professed Bible-believing Christians, they believe these passages are true. But what truths do they teach? And what import, if any, do those truths have on their public policies?
Four of the five passages are taken from the New Testament. Since my focus is on the Old Testament, I will allow New Testament scholars to deal with them. My goal in this post is to deal with the passage from the Old Testament that Prothero addresses to Rick Perry. Prothero used the sixth commandment to speak to Perry. He wrote:
3. “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:12).
Part of the Ten Commandments, this passage has been used by many social conservatives to argue against Roe v. Wade and abortion rights. After all, if God said, “Thou shalt not kill” then why are we taking lives inside the womb? But if God said, “Thou shalt not kill” then why are we allowing capital punishment?
I would like to hear from both Perry and Bachmann about how they read this passage, and how it can simultaneously justify opposition to abortion rights and support for the death penalty. (During his term as Texas governor, Perry has overseen 234 executions. Bachmann’s position on the issue is unclear.)
Before I address the issue raised by Prothero, let me say a few words about the plight faced by committed Christians running for political office. Secular people are paranoid about Christians running for political office.
Secular people who do not understand the meaning of Christian commitment and who reject God, faith, and religious values demonize Christians who aspire to political office and see conspiracy behind every word spoken by a Christian and find an ulterior motive in every thing a Christian does.
For instance, Michelle Goldberg writing for the Daily Beast said that “Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry aren’t just devout—both have deep ties to a fringe fundamentalist movement known as Dominionism, which says Christians should rule the world.”
Forrest Wilder, writing for the Texas Observer wrote that Rick Perry is part of “[a] little-known movement of radical Christians and self-proclaimed prophets [which] wants to infiltrate government, and Rick Perry might be their man.”
I believe the real reason secular people are afraid of committed Christians is because Christians stand for values that many secular people reject. It is interesting that Prothero uses the imperatives of the Ten Commandments to address Perry, since the Ten Commandments is one of those biblical passages that most secular people love to hate.
Now, to Prothero’s biblical passage to Perry. First of all, let me say that the text Prothero cited, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:12), is not found in Exodus 20:12; it is found in Exodus 20:13.
Second, Prothero does not understand the real meaning of the sixth commandment. The Hebrew word translated “kill” in the King James Bible is רָצַח (rāṣaḥ), a word better translated murder as in the NIV: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).
There are eight different words for killing in the Bible. The word used in the sixth commandment, rāṣaḥ is never used for killing in war or killing an animal. The word is used in the Bible to refer only to the unlawful killing of a human being. Thus, the sixth commandment forbids “the unjust taking of a legally innocent life.”
In citing the sixth commandment, Prothero mentions both abortion and capital punishment, but he makes no distinction between the two. Abortion is the killing of babies in the womb. Since Christians believe that a baby in the womb is a viable life, Christians believe that the killing of babies is murder, thus, a violation of the sixth commandment.
Capital punishment, when administered by the authority of the state, is a form of lawful killing. Even the Bible sanctions capital punishment: “If anyone takes a human life, that person’s life will also be taken by human hands” (Genesis 9:6).
As a Christian, I may not accept the imposition of capital punishment, but the state has the right to impose the sentence of death as a form of retributive justice. As the apostle Paul wrote, “The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong” (Romans 13:4).
People living in our country today encounter much rage and violence. Murder happens every day in most American cities. Thousands of innocent lives are taken every year in a heartless disregard for the value of human life.
Christians value human life. This is the reason they oppose abortion. Abortion is a crime against humanity because the unborn is a person created in the image of God. This is also the reason some Christians support capital punishment because murder is the killing of a human being created in the image of God.
Prothero’s question to Rick Perry is not unfair because if the voters are going to select an individual who is a Christian, they have the right to know how the faith of that individual will influence his or her political decision.
What is unfair in these questions is that the texts are taken out of context in order to trap an individual into supporting a political agenda. Take for instance Prothero’s reference to Jesus’ words about the poor: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Prothero wrote:
This Lukan passage is a key source in the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church for the so-called “preferential option for the poor”—the notion that Christian communities have a particular responsibility to take care of the poor in their midst.
How do Perry and Bachmann read this passage? Did Luke mess up by leaving out “in spirit”? Or did Jesus really say “Blessed are the poor”? And if he did say that, what did he mean by it? Do his words carry any meaning for us today, and to the way we craft our federal budget?
The question we must ask is: who is responsible to take care of the poor in our midst? Christian communities or the federal budget? The implication in Prothero’s question is that Christians are not concerned for the poor.
According to the Wikipedia, “Prothero describes himself as ‘religiously confused.’” This is the kind of treatment Christians receive from people who do not understand Christians.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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