On Lectionaries, Texts of Terror and Clobber Verses

This is an update to the thoughts below on lectionary usage of troublesome biblical texts. Bls made some great observations over at Dr. Good’s comments. She and I have had this discussion before but I’m afraid it hadn’t quite sunk in entirely. Here’s another try.

I think what I was saying before about texts that we cut out of the lectionary holds true for most of what are referred to as “texts of
terror.” These texts, especially those identified by Phyllis Tribble in her book of the same name have, for the most part, been repressed and expunged by the mainline churches. In the intro class where I read Tribble’s book, most of us had never encountered these texts before and were shocked that they were in the Bible. These passages need to be heard and wrestled with so that we might formulate our understanding of God and who the people of God have been in relation to them.

“Clobber verses” present a different problem entirely. These are not problematic texts that have been repressed; rather they are–as bls points out–all too well known in their decontextualized, weaponized form. They include the Romans texts for queer folk, the 1 Cor texts for women, and the curse of the descendants of Ham in Genesis used for generations to justify slavery and apartheid. I definitely see her point that she could live just fine for a while without encountering these liturgically.

[As an aside, I feel the need to state that there is a difference between clobber verses and verses that make us feel uncomfortable. The Magnificat or Beatitudes may make a rich man feel uncomfortable–but that in no way allows him to claim it as a clobber verse. I’d define a clobber verse as an atomized text used for the purpose of dehumanizing a group of people to legitimate official oppression.]

In her comments bls mentioned “waiting a few years” before bringing them back in. That resonates with me in the sense that people who have been oppressed by a text may, as part of a healing process, need to encounter the text again–but how do we honor the different amount of time that it will take for each individual to encounter it in a public liturgy?

On a separate note, is there a way that reading these clobber verses in their Scriptural context and in the gathered liturgical community can be defused and redeemed? I focus specifically on context because their weaponized form depends largely–if not entirely–on their disconnection from the biblical texts from which they are drawn and the scope of the biblical narrative as a whole.

Liturgy is so important and so complex because it encompasses so many aspects of human and theological life. It draws together the Scriptures, moral and spiritual formation, pastoral needs, the handing on of tradition, and a host of other factors together. This is one of those intersections where the pastoral dimension comes to the fore and, to be honest, that’s a dimension of it that comes less naturally to me than others. So–what do we do with these; what should we do?

16 thoughts on “On Lectionaries, Texts of Terror and Clobber Verses

  1. bls

    Thank you for responding to this. Right now, I am trying to find out whether or not Matthew 27:24-25 is used in our lectionary at any time.

    “His blood be upon us and upon our children!” was, I’d bet, removed after the Holocaust when, in fact, His blood was visited upon those children. And the tragedy of this was that this verse was meant to be merely a rhetorical flourish; it’s almost certainly not historical, for who in the world would say such a thing, let alone in union?

    Things happen in the world – and lots of things have happened as a result of faulty readings of the Bible. Are all preachers to be trusted to be sure to “clarify” things in their sermons?

    I don’t think so, personally. As a matter of fact, I agree that hearing (and talking about) these verses can be a positive thing; that’s what we’re doing here. Matthew 27:24-25 should be preached on – as a reminder of what can happen when you read the Bible in a literalistic way. That does need to be done.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    I’m away from my lectionary database at the moment…

    Yeah–I’ve got one…

    That Matthew verse is another complicated one. I agree that it’s rhetorical–I disagree that it can be dismissed as a result. (See–once again–*Christopher on rhetoric.) Two things here: first, the verse is multivalent; second, to what degree do we interpret the verse in light of its possible original context?

    A plain-sense—clobber-sense—of the verse can take it to mean that the Jewish people as a whole bear blood-guilt for the death of Jesus. However, reading the verse in the theological sense can lead you to baptism (washed in the blood sense…)… Especially if Matthew is written to a largely Jewish community…

    The second point is related to that last bit. Hate-like speech functions differently when written in and outside of different communities–and when it is read thusly. So, what does it mean if Matthew–and John whose anti-Judaism can be fairly fierce–were writing for or to a Jewish community? What does that mean for today’s church (or even the church of the late-second century) that is mostly non-Jewish?

  3. bls

    I agree with what you’re saying there. But history and time & place are important considerations, too.

    I don’t know why Christians in general aren’t more deeply and openly ashamed about – and repentant of – the Church’s past; I certainly was, for a long time. It kept me out of the church for years, and I was embarrassed to tell Jewish friends that I had joined the church when I finally did. I felt like I had to apologize for it. The fear and resentment of the Church – and of individual Christians – on the part of many Jews was very, very strong when I was growing up.

    That era, BTW, has passed; few people are alive anymore that remember it. And nobody reads “His blood be upon us and upon our children” the same way anymore; neither the anti-Semite read, nor the shameful read.

    But that took 50 years – and the lesson, IMO, will always need to be taught in any case. Forgetting isn’t the answer, either. I’m totally with you on the “clarifying” thing – but there are times to put certain things aside that have dreadful results, and pick them up later.

    We can’t forget the history – but neither should we take the chance of seeming to endorse it, either. Maybe the answer is: when people have come to the realization of past error – that’s the time to bring back the text to talk about it.

  4. bls

    (It wasn’t that long ago, BTW, that Christians prayed for the “perfidious Jews” in the Good Friday Liturgy – in the present tense. It might still be in the 1928.)

  5. bls

    Maybe the thing to do is openly acknowledge this whole thing.

    Maybe the thing to do is say why these actions have been taken, and start a church-wide conversation about the issues involved. Why we aren’t having these to begin with is beyond me, in the everybody’s-got-a-blog era. Why doesn’t the church start a teaching forum on theological issues, where people could debate them openly? It should have done this with Spong, for instance; that was an opportunity to teach Christian theology that was totally missed. And continues to be missed.

    Thank God for the blogs, but what about the Church itself?

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    Be careful with that idea, bls. Take it too far and it might start becoming some kind of *listening process*… You know–where we talk *to* people instead of just *about* them…

  7. bls

    I imagine you’re being “wry” about my post #5? Or are you being serious about #3?

    But really: why didn’t anyone in TEC challenge Spong to a debatae long ago? It could have been a really interesting and informative moment.

    (You know what I heard an Orthodox guy say once? He said that he thought Spong would win in such a debate; imagine that. Is that what people are afraid of, do you think? I don’t think Spong is even that interesting, let alone formidable….)

  8. Derek the Ænglican

    Yes, I was being wry… about your 5, but yes, I agree about 3–one of the important things about learning our past tradition is learning our mistakes so as not to repeat them.

    Certainly the orthodox side would need a good spokesperson–personality is just as much a part of debate as facts.

  9. *Christopher

    I think some of the best healing, speaking personally, has come from engaging with clobber passages in the light of surrounding texts and who we claim God is in Jesus Christ pro nobis. I would be hesitant personally to see them kept out of public liturgy, though I understand why someone might want to.

    Still, when I hear clobber passages on homosexuality used as clobber passages, even with all of my education, the visceral reaction runs very deep, I almost start hyperventilating, which suggests to my mind that part of the healing needs to be public, liturgical, embodied, sacramental in scope because this stuff shapes us not only intellectually but wholly right down to each cell binding us.

    In terms of public liturgy, it might be useful to engage these passages from the pulpit, which I’ve never witnessed; it might even be smart for the sensitive preacher to make sure that Romans 1:26 isn’t left on its own but that the entirety of Paul’s argument be read. Or in the case of anti-Judaism/anti-Semitism, that rather than try to fudge the texts to “Jewish authorities”, we deal with our interpretive history and the context that the text is addressing–that we don’t let it slip history (Tonia Oldenhage’s criticism of Ricoeurian hermeneutics) even as we interpret and are interpretted by the proclaiming and explication in preaching. All of this requires that preachers engage the texts, however, rather than use them as jumping off points for their own point of the day.

    But more beautifully, I think would be for the preacher to engage the historical-cultural context (and interpretive history) in the passage–meaning dig deep a bit, seek to find underlying concern, and have us look around, see one another, the woman leading us in prayer today, the gay man greeting us, und so weite and then point us to the Table where we receive the Healing Sacrament par excellence and see one another face to face in Christ in the face of destroying ideologies.

    After all, as noted in Alan Bray’s in “The Friend”, even when passages on sodomy were read and preached about in the late Medieval and early Modern period, many a couple that we might term gay more generally sex or no sex (which we can’t generally know anything about), would not have recognized themselves in the term “sodomy” which carried the weight of destroying community in social disorder because their love was not recognizable to themselves on those terms. Similar, perhaps to Chrysostom’s own comment on the passage in which he distinguishes between lust and love?

    We cannot ignore them (or throw them out)–they are useful and inspired.

    We cannot leave them interpretted simply in scholarly works on the Bible.

    Even where the interpretation is condemnatory, we need to place that within the overall context of, say, Paul’s “method” of grace, possible concerns in Leviticus, interpretive history of Sodom even in Scripture, etc.

    We must engage them publicly in worship where their usefulness in the light of those whom we assume they clobber becomes contradicted because we see them face to face.

    Pastorally, I would be inclined to consider a rite of healing in which these passages are placed within the overall context of God’s work for us in Christ using other passages and prayers. Why not place Romans 1 with the Wisdom of Solomon, for example?

  10. bls

    Well, good luck on that, Christopher. Has anything you’ve ever heard from a pulpit given you the idea that the scenario you describe above is remotely possible?

    Chrysostom was a vicious anti-Semite as well as a hateful anti-homosexual polemicist. (Here’s a nice sampling.) This, along with the rest of the Church’s actions and so-called “teaching” ended in the Holocaust.

    The Church first needs to repent of its own sins before it deserves to be listened to on much of anything – something that hasn’t been forthcoming from most parts of it.

  11. bls

    I mean, let’s get real about human nature and stop imagining that what’s ideal is going to happen.

    No preacher is going to follow anybody else’s schema for how they should preach – nor should they. They are human beings – and the Church is not a dictatorship. Preachers do the best they can with what they’ve got – and they’re not going to deal with this issue in the way you suggest. They have more important things to talk about – like Stewardship Drives, and parish squabbles, and (hopefully) the Good News of Christ, and poverty.

    Dealing with this issue is not remotely relevant to most parish priests. And as Louie Crew writes, quoting Hank Aaron, the church is a “taillight” when it comes to what everybody else already recognizes. Nobody much cares about gay people – and it’s time to recognize that fact; they’re not going to stop getting married (nor should they) to support us.

    This issue is simply not interesting to anybody else, and it will take another 100 years for the whole thing to shake out. Meantime, let’s not torture people with a “clobber verse” taken out of context (as all readings are, anyway) that everybody already knows about and that we are all talking about anyway.

  12. Derek the Ænglican

    bls, to be fully preaching the Good News of Christ means to preach the reality of sin. Sometimes sin is a lapse in personal holiness; sometimes its participation systemic denials of the image of God in others. An integral part of the message is that we have this treasure in clay jars–in flawed vessels. The organized church is a flawed vessel composed entirely of sinful people. When the church strays from the Gospel–which is inevitable–it not only participates in but perpetuates the sin of its culture. Those sins–the sin of Chrysostom, the German Christians of the Nazi era, and our own betrayals as well–need to be named as we both proclaim the Good News of God that overcomes sin and as we continue the ongoing reform of the church.

  13. bls

    That’s right – except that most (yes, most!) Christians don’t believe they are committing sin in how they preach Romans 1. They believe we are the sinners, and don’t hesitate to say so.

    They didn’t see the sin in the Christian interpretation of Matthew 27, either – until it was way, way too late.

    If preachers want to preach on these verses – whether they’re in the Lectionary or not – what’s stopping them?

  14. *Christopher


    The problem is that we cannot guarantee that these texts won’t be used simply because we don’t want them to be. Are folks really going to listen to us not to use Romans 1? Not likely. In that case, much good scholarship never makes it out the door.

    I tend to be pessimistic, but I have been in parishes, and not simply in the Bay Area, that have preached liberative sermons addressing gay people. If they can preach a liberative sermon from say, Isaiah 56, why not revisit Romans 1-2?

    I would be inclined to say bible studies are useful except that these are not necessarily liturgical contexts, and there is something to liturgy that is healing that simply engaging oneself intellectually on such matters won’t address.

    The reason I’m so reluctant to get rid of the Romans piece is that those who proof text from it are the ones who most vitally need to here the point of the passage–we’re all sinners and fall short of the glory of God. When we point fingers and make of a text something that doesn’t include us as implicated (which Romans 1-2 does), in other words, we’re demonstrating our own sinfulness, or as Bonhoeffer would put it, we’re operating out of a stolen image of God in such a case.

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