Job 18 – Gaslighting with Bildad

“The lamp of a wicked man is snuffed out;
    the flame of his fire stops burning.
The light in his tent becomes dark;
    the lamp beside him goes out.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Sometimes, wicked men do prosper

Bildad fully shows his willful ignorance here.  We all know that the “bad guy” doesn’t always get his comeuppance, that very often the wicked do prosper while the good and innocent do fail.  I don’t know why this is, but it is undeniably a part of life today, and I’m sure there were examples of this back in Job and Bildad’s time as well.

To wrestle with why God allows wicked men to prosper is going to take more than one blog post.  I have no clear answer and it is one of the biggest challenges I face in remaining faithful.  In my post on Destiny vs. Free Will, I shared my thoughts on God creating a framework within which we can make our own choices. It’s like children being contained on a playground or an artist painting wet-into-wet in watercolor:  there’s a basic structure within which all actions are contained, but what exactly is going to happen is spontaneous.  Perhaps, then, the wicked prospering is like the bully on the playground, or making a bold brush-stroke that bleeds into a more delicate element of the painting.  Neither of these are perfect examples because it implies God isn’t looking or God makes mistakes, and I, personally, don’t believe that can be true if God does exist.  Like I said, this is something that challenges me.

Don’t be a Bildad

What I do know, however, is that Bildad’s response is about as useless as can be.  He meets Job’s hurt with anger, then offers empty platitudes and turn a blind eye to the realities in the world. Basically, Bildad is gaslighting Job. (Gaslighting is when you pyschologically manipulate someone into questioning their own sanity.  There are some subtle and many appalling examples if you do an online search.)

Don’t be a Bildad.  It can be hard not to get defensive, but if you are in a situation where someone becomes angry about something you feel doesn’t apply to you (institutional racism or sexism, xenophobia, bullying…) please resist the urge to deny or to argue.  Just because you don’t do something doesn’t mean it never happens.  Recognizing someone’s hurt is the first step in healing.  It can be humbling, and even awkward, to listen to someone enumerate the ways in which they have been wronged and realize that maybe you were actually part of the problem.  But even if you truly weren’t, you may learn something you didn’t know before, and be able to spot – and stop – gaslighting the next time it happens near you (or to you!).

Bildad doesn’t know the big picture, and is speaking out of arrogance and ignorance.  If he did, I bet he would be a lot more consoling to Job.  And truly, isn’t it best to err on the side of love?  Even if Job was in the wrong, I don’t think God would have held it against Bildad for trying to offer him comfort. I know that’s something I could do a better job of remembering in my own daily interactions.  Sadly, I expect that as the election season (and vitriolic rhetoric) ramps up alongside the spread of the corona pandemic, we will see more examples of biases coming out: more discrimination against anyone who looks even vaguely Chinese, wariness of foreigners in general, and possible old racial stereotypes of non-whites being “dirty” and, in certain minds, more likely to spread infection.  BIPOC, or anyone that looks like they belong to those groups, are going to be facing a lot in the coming months.  If somebody comes to you with a story of discrimination, please believe them.  Do not turn a blind eye to the injustices of the world, as Bildad does.  To listen is to err on the side of love, and we’ll need a lot of that this year.

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Romans 13 – Did Paul really write this?

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

I’m going to go right out and offer my inexpert opinion: I don’t think Paul wrote vv. 1-7.  I think they are a later addition.  Remember, the New Testament has has undergone almost 2,000 years of transcriptions and translations.  It is very possible someone slipped a little something extra in there along the way thinking that Paul’s message needed to be clarified, or that it needed to be made more palatable, even.

It interrupts the flow of the letter

It’s placement it weird.  Paul ends the previous section talking about overcoming evil with good, essentially expounding upon the “love thy enemies” idea, and then in the next section, continues the love theme by expounding upon “love thy neighbor.”  So why this unrelated insert about respecting authority and paying taxes between those two sections?

One could argue it’s a continuation of the “love thy enemies” theme, but I think that’s rather weak because the word “love” isn’t used at all, where it is used often in the preceding and following sections.  Also, Paul was never one to shy away from punishment.  He had been whipped, imprisoned, put on trial, stoned, and was on a loose house arrest when writing this letter.  Why would he be concerned about avoiding punishment, as he mentions in verse five, or stress that doing right by the authorities is doing right by God, when he has so clearly angered the authorities himself many times over?

Paul had removed himself from the Roman “Honor System”

I find it particularly suspect that Paul talks about paying “respect” or “honor” to someone or something.  As N.T. Wright, Karen Armstrong, and probably many others have written, Paul removed himself from the honor system of ancient Rome in very deliberate way.  In ancient Rome, there was a strict social hierarchy.  Those lower down strove to pay “honor” to those higher up in an effort to gain recognition and status.  Whole cities vied for Caesar’s honor erecting statues and temples to the empirical court.  In short, this created a culture of boasting and bragging, with people crowing about their faithfulness to the empire, their achievements on Caesar’s behalf, and the achievements of those from which they were trying to gain favor.

Paul turns that tradition on its head, bragging not only of his own ignominies and weaknesses (most famously in 2 Corinthians), but also of Jesus’.  Paul again and again stresses Jesus’ death on the cross.  Death on the cross was not some mere tragedy, it was a fall from social grace, a punishment for the most reviled of society.  In addition, it was also often hard to recover and prepare the body for proper burial.  Scavenging animals often further ravaged those that were executed, soldiers may prohibit collecting the remains, and honestly, it may have been just too risky to even try.  Burial rites were an important ritual in ancient times, not least of all for the Jews, so the fact that Jesus died, defiled on the cross, like a base criminal, would have been proof for many that he was not the Messiah.  Where is his honor, his glory? How can we possibly respect someone with such a base demise?  Paul argues that Jesus power comes from his weakness – by accepting such a fate as the cross Jesus brought about the fullness of God’s kingdom to those who need it most: the weak, the oppressed, those crying out for justice and love.  So I ask again, why would Paul suddenly be urging readers to pay their honor and respect to the civil authorities?

I have seen the case that Paul is possibly referring to synagogue authority, and not Roman authority. Paul did take up a collection from diaspora churches and bring that back to Jerusalem before writing Romans, and perhaps he was hoping to do the same thing in Rome.  This, I suppose, is possible, but I again have my doubts.  I think that Paul would have alluded to the synagogue directly, and probably wouldn’t have referred to his collecting money as “taxes.” Returning to Paul talking about fearing authority, I doubt that Jesus-followers in Rome had much to fear from Jerusalem Jewish retaliation.  There were Jews in the city of Rome, but they had only recently been allowed back to the city after being kicked out, and tensions were high.  A Jew attacking a Gentile for any reason (such as being a Jesus-follower) would have only been detrimental to the Jewish individual.  As for the Jewish Jesus-followers, perhaps there was a bit more to fear from local intra-Jewish retaliation, but again, being a large city with several enclaves of Jesus-followers, I think that they could have found a safe haven with like-minded believers.  So we’re left to conclude that the synagogue is not the fearful authority to which this section refers.

The real author of this section

So who did write it?  My guess is an early Gentile contributor, maybe about the time the Deutro-Pauline letters (letters attributed to Paul but probably not written by him: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, possibly 2 Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians) a few decades after Paul’s death.  Early church leaders, when they weren’t ignoring Paul’s dense rhetorical letters, often down-played his Jewishness, focusing on the creation of a new religion in a way Paul had not.  An addition about paying “honor” and “respect” to the civil authorities can be seen as an attempt to assimilate Jesus-following practices into the wider Roman culture, distancing themselves from the Jews. Jews had special dispensation to not worship Caesar (aka not participate in the honor culture), and it often deepened Greco-Roman suspicion of the Jews.  If these new Jesus-followers paid honor as the rest of society did, then they might have been viewed with less suspicion than the abstaining Jews.  Of course, as Christianity gained first acceptance and then power in the centuries to come, early Christian rulers would look approvingly upon this passage condoning God’s support of earthly rulers, and thus it’s canonical status would not be often or seriously challenged.

How we should view this addition

Let’s say I’ve convinced you that Paul didn’t write this little blurb.  What does that mean in the grand scheme of things?  Honestly, nothing revolutionary.  It’s just a little historical Easter egg that hints to the long and storied history of the Good Book.  It’s a perfect example of just how the Bible isn’t separate and apart from history, but very much effected by history and affecting history.

Even with “inauthentic” additions, if you want to call it that, I still think reading the Bible is important. I still think we can gain deep insight to ourselves and God through it.  I still think we can turn to the Bible for guidance.  But it once again highlights the fact that we need to understand the Bible in context of when it was written and why it was written, and remember that even if it was divinely inspired, fallible people were the ones doing the writing (and later interpreting).  The important thing is not to get too bogged down in the details, or limit your understanding of the Bible to just a few verses, because then you’ll miss the broader themes.  And here, the broader theme is love.  I’ll remind you once again: The previous section was Paul expounding upon “love they enemies.” The following section is Paul expounding upon “love thy neighbors.”  This little hiccup in between doesn’t change that message.  And it certainly doesn’t negate our responsibility to be caring of our neighbors, our community, and the world.

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Bonus Post: So Why Be Good?

My last two posts have been about the universal reconciliation I believe all of humanity can look forward to, and how sin is just another word for animal instinct.  I want to head criticism off preemptively, because I can hear the argument now:  “If we’re all saved and sin doesn’t exist, why bother following Christianity? Why bother following any religion, actually, or even worrying about being good?”  In other words, can we be good without the impetus of damnation or salvation?  It is, ironically, a question from which many atheists have to defend themselves.

The Humanist Connection

At the risk of pissing off both Christians and Humanists, I think the answer lies, at least partially, in Humanist beliefs.  Humanists International says “human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives.”  Human beings have the ability to reason, to be empathetic, and have the capacity for a wonderful imagination and problem solving.  Whether you believe (as I do) that these are God-given gifts or simply the product of millennia of evolution is beside the point: we can all agree these abilities exist.  We are a communal species, and as such, individuals benefit when the community benefits. Monkeys know this – they sleep together for protection and scream warnings to eachother.  Lions know this – cubs are co-mothered and co-nursed by all the females within the pride.  I could go on with crows, ants, and really any other communal animal.  So, if animals with no religious beliefs (as far as I know), no promise of heaven or threat of hell, can behave in a way that is beneficial for their society, can’t we as humans do so as well?

Humanists believe so.  The Humanist Society of Western New York puts it this way:

“We owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for ourselves and all with whom we share this fragile planet. A belief that when people are free to think for themselves, using reason and knowledge as their tools, they are best able to solve this world’s problems. An appreciation of the art, literature, music and crafts that are our heritage from the past and of the creativity that, if nourished, can continuously enrich our lives. Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy of those in love with life.”

Isn’t that a statement we can all agree with?

I also just want to point out the many secular societies that are doing good without any religious impetus: The ACLU, Doctors without Borders, The Nature Conservancy, and you know I’m going to go ahead and list Planned Parenthood, too.

Getting back to Christianity…

This is quickly turning into a defense of Humanism, so let me tie it back into my own beliefs. As a Christian, I believe it is my responsibility to “do good.”  Not because I will be “saved” for doing so, but because I want to show my gratitude to my God, who has given me so many beautiful gifts: this earth and all its wonders; art in the form of music, painting, and dance; the promise of a life hereafter.  I believe that everyone on earth is my sibling in Christ, and as part of my family it is my responsibility to help them, just as one would do for their flesh-and-blood family.  I act – or at least, I try to act – out of love. My underlying motivations might be slightly different than that of an atheist or agnostic, but the end result is the same: the ability to care about and for humanity without needing to be scared into it by the idea of damnation or bribed into it by the idea of salvation.

A follow-up question might be, “so why keep reading the Bible?”  I do believe it was divinely inspired.  That does not mean I think it is infallible, or a perfect recording of history.  The key word is inspired here, people.  And it continues to provide inspiration, today. I view the Bible as a guide – something that can be read over and over to reveal new truths, help us meditate upon ourselves and society, and give us an idea of what is important to God.  Is it the only way to know God? No.  I think prayer is important, too (even though I’m terrible at it), and honestly just going outside and marveling at nature is probably the best way to be humbled and awed before God.

“Human decency” is a phrase for a reason: It’s something we’re all capable of, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof).  Honestly, if you are only good because somebody is making you be good – whether it’s God, a parent, a parole officer, or whoever, then you’ve got some serious soul searching to do.  So why be good? If for no other reason, be good because a rising tide lifts all boats.  Gratitude to a higher power is optional.

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