Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Parable of "XII Angry Men"
Many years ago, I was visiting South Africa for the first time, and for the first time met an uncle. As a young lad (about 13 or 14 at the time), Uncle Ian made an impression on me. He was a born again Christian, as I was, and this was notable because I didn't know many born-again adult male Christians in my family. Uncle Ian said to me words to this effect: “God speaks to us in many different ways.” Not an earth-shattering announcement, I know, but actually it is greater than we realise.
Growing up into Christ, I became part of a conservative Christian tradition called Protestantism. The watchword in Protestantism is “Sola Scriptura” - Only the Scriptures. Now let me state before I go any further that I do believe that the Bible is the Inspired Word of God and nothing else trumps it or supersedes it in this regard. However, having acknowledged this fact, the Bible is not the ONLY WAY God communicates with us. If God is God – in other words, if He truly exists, then He is free and able to communicate with us through many different means. Not only that, but God has to speak to us through different means, because of our uniqueness – God uses different 'media' to get through to us.

I think God has shown me something through the play I went to watch. It is called “XII angry men” and it was written by Sergal Sherman. For those not familiar with this play, as I was not, I shall include here the synopsis provided in the programme.

The defence and the prosecution have rested and the jury is filing into the the jury room to decide if a young Spanish-American is guilty or innocent of murdering his father. What begins as an open and shut case of murder soon becomes a mini-drama of each of the jurors' prejudices and preconceptions about the trial, the accused and each other.

“12 angry men focuses” on the jury's deliberations in a capital murder case. A 12-person jury is sent to begin deliberations in the first-degree murder trial of an 18-year-old Latino accused in the stabbing death of his father, where a guilty verdict means an automatic death sentence. The case appears to be open and shut: the defendant has a weak alibi; a knife he claimed to have lost is found at the murder scene; and several witnesses either heard screaming, saw the killing or the boy fleeing the scene. Eleven of the jurors immediately vote guilty; only Juror No. 8 casts a not guilty vote. At first Juror No. 8 bases her vote (the play I saw featured both men and women, and Juror was a lady) more so for the sake of discussion, after all the jurors must believe beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. As the deliberations unfold, the story quickly becomes a study of the jurors' complex personalities (which range from wise, bright and empathetic to arrogant, prejudiced and merciless), preconceptions, backgrounds and interactions. That provides the backdrop to Juror 8's attempts in convincing the other jurors that a not guilty verdict might be appropriate.

So, as the synopsis says, it seemed like an open and shut case until they began to look at the evidence that was presented, I mean, really look at it. Eleven of the twelve had made made up their minds before their bums left their seats in the courtroom that the accused was 'guilty as charged'. To eleven of the jurors, this business of going into the jury room was a mere formality. It was plain as the noses on their faces that the boy was guilty, but Juror No. 8. wasn't about to just let it go like that. One of the jurors said to Juror No. 8, “What we need to do is convince you that we are right and you're wrong.” Gradually, as the deliberations went on, Jurors who were once convinced that the boy was definitely guilty begin to see that it is not so open and shut as they had originally thought, and start to change their vote. Then it is ten guilty – 2 not guilt, 8 – 4, 6 – 6.

Some of the jurors want to give up at this point and simply declare a hung jury – let there be another trial – make it someone else's problem. Some jurors think they've been in that room too long already. Of course, to begin with, all the abuse is hurled at Juror No. 8. There's the name calling, the accusations of a political agenda, then there is the accusation that she was behaving like a kid. It's hard thing to stand your ground, when everyone else seems to be singing from the same (but different to yours) hymn sheet. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor!!!!). Then the vote goes to 10 not guilty – 2 obstinate guilty votes. During the deliberations – it becomes clear that for some of the Jurors, the accused was not the only person in the dock. For one juror, the whole Latino community seemed to be on trial, for another, it was a son who defied his father and while he did not physically kill the father, his behaviour was such that it emotionally did.

Well, that was the story, it is fiction, a good yarn, but is it a parable? Am I not going a bit OTT here? Let me try and do a Juror No. 8 on you. When many of us come to the Bible, we have made up our minds about what it says before we even open the book or find the verses. We, especially coming from a Christian background, have heard it all before. It is, in that sense, 'an open and shut case' – open the Bible read the words, and shut the Bible. There are some who can quote lengthy portions verbatim and remember amazing details, that pass under the radar as far as rest of us are concerned. However, what came to me, as a result of seeing this play, was the understanding that when people read and understand things from the Bible, or whatever sacred text one may use, you usually read into it that which you expect to get out. It is a bit like when you proofread something that you've written, you tend to overlook some errors because you are reading what you think you wrote.

At the beginning of the play, eleven jurors were convinced and no doubt sincerely believed that it was proven, that the accused was guilty. As the story unfurled, they become less and less convinced. We may be sincerely reading the Bible but what we need to understand, is that we will read it with our own theological background guiding our reading. This is why an Anglican and a Baptist can read the same texts regarding baptism in the Bible and yet arrive at very different opinions. This is why a Presbyterian and a Pentecostal will read the same texts about the gifts of the Holy Spirit and come to diametrically opposed conclusions in regard to the matter of speaking in tongues. In both cases, the people who take up the particular stance are amazed that the other group can come up with such a 'wrong' answer. We may even go so far as to say that they are heretics, not-Christian, there to sow discord. We may, if we have that kind of authority – put the person under 'Church discipline' – or even excommunicate them.

I think it is important to ask the question, as if I were a Juror Number 8: When you read the Bible, do you take it all literally, or figuratively? Is the creation account, for instance, in Genesis 1-2, a literal account of how it happened or an analogy to explain a spiritual reality? I know most of you have answered this question in your head. What I don't know is how you answered it. I will leave my answer out for the time being. The point is, that on both sides of the discussion, you will be completely confident that you are right about this – even if you cannot explain why – you just know. For some of you – 'reason' is worldly and should be cast out if it is in 'contradiction' to what the Bible says. To others – this is such a fanciful story – the world coming into existence complete with all vegetation, and animal species and humanity in the space of six days that the WHOLE BOOK is a waste of time.

Forgive me for pointing out the obvious here but the Bible consists of 66 books – of varying length and from various earthly authors. And there are very many verses to read. Also, what we have in our hands today as “The Holy Bible” is not the original text – written by the hand of the author – there is not a single example of any of those original texts in any collection or museum anywhere. What we have are versions of the Bible. Versions in our own languages – thanks to wonderful people like Martin Luther and William Tyndale, but even within the English language Translation there are very many versions of the Bible. While rendering in most cases is pretty similar with inconsequential differences – sometimes the difference is very significant. Surely they were using the same texts to translate from the original language? Well, apparently not always.

Originally, before there were printing presses, manuscripts were copied by hand by dedicated people who wanted to reproduce the document, the Word of God, so more and more Christians who were spread all over the then known world, and so the original was 'copied' a few times – but because different people did the copying, small differences would appear in the copies that were not in the original, and were not in the any of the others, well copies were made of the original, and then copies of the copies and so on. Even the compilation of the Bible has disputed as to what books and documents are part of it, and what are not. Catholics recognise what is called the 'Apocrypha' while protestants don't – rather like in a case where one juror will accept a witnesses testimony as accurate while another will doubt it.

Some of the original manuscripts omit whole sections that other manuscripts include. For example Mark 16:9-20, and John 7:73 – 8:11. If you look those texts up, you will find that it says that 'some early manuscripts' do not contain these verses. As you can imagine a great deal of discussion and debate – heated debate – has arisen as to whether or not these texts are originally from the author, or some forgery – later inserted. Again, depending on your theological background, you will either decide that of course it should be there – why would exist if it didn't, or, obvious it should not be there – can't you see that it obviously doesn't 'fit with the rest of the Bible? Again, I'm just doing a Juror No. 8 and drawing your attention to some things that might have escaped your notice.

So, I'm sure by now some of you are wondering, - am I doubting the veracity of the Word of God? No. A categorical nobut I am doubting my own ability to really understand it – and things that were plainly obvious before – are not as obvious any more. I am realising that previously I looked at certain parts of the Bible – in regard to certain matters and I allowed myself to think that that was ALL the Bible had to stay in that regard, but now, I am starting to realise that the WHOLE Bible might be saying something different to what I originally thought.

Does this mean that the Bible contradicts itself? No – but sometimes we read into what is said, a lot that is not being said, and then, we may find ourselves in a quandary.

Jesus shook people's cages on regular occasions:

  1. He did not hesitate to rebuke the religious elite and their pomposity and hypocrisy.
  2. He would fellowship with “drunkards and sinners”
  3. He would heal a man on the Sabbath.
  4. He spoke to the Samaritan women, and did not show the same disdain for Samaritans as did the Jewish men of his time.
  5. He healed lepers by laying hands on them. Lepers were regarded as unclean and had to live 'outside the camp'.
  6. He washed the disciples' feet. Peter said: no, you won't wash my feet. Jesus said, if I don't wash your feet, then you have no part of me.” Peter's ingrained ideas about Master-Servant Rabbi-Disciple relationships gets thoroughly challenged.

Peter firmly believed that it was anathema for him to step into the home of a Gentile, but God sent him a vision, and very 'controversial' vision at that, where God commanded him to eat all sorts of non-Kosher food. Oh no! Peter Protested: Lord forbid that I should do such a thing. God answered him, “Don't call anything impure that God has made clean” And so Peter responded by following God's commands and actually going to the house of Cornelius, the Roman Soldier and he and his household were saved.

Paul was livid with the Christians – he really had it in for them. He was ready to kill the lot of them, but Jesus met him on the road to Damascus – his ingrained ideas set aside in one fell swoop.

Martin Luther – he was a monk – a learned man – on his way up through the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and then he gets it - “ The just shall live by faith” - He suddenly understands that indulgences and and a whole lot of Catholic traditions of that time were of no effect – that it was one's faith in Jesus Christ that saved you, nothing else – no bells or whistles – no incense or masses – only faith in Christ would save you. And he took his stand – at the Diet at Worms where he famously said “Here I stand, I can do no other.” And boy did they call him names.

Slavery was defended as being completely acceptable by ministers preaching from their pulpits, but gradually, more and more people began to understand that actually, Slavery is wrong. It took a few people to start to look at things differently move beyond the proof texts that they usually quoted by heart, and see that perhaps God was not saying what they had thought He was saying all along. If you haven't seen it, get out the DVD “Amazing Grace”.

Under the Third Reich – in Germany, most of the preachers supported the political moves of Adolph Hitler, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer took a stand and saw the wrong of what Hitler was doing. He said that the church must not simply "bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself." (The idea of opposing a government was considered revolutionary at the time, and still is in many cases. When governments perceive that the Church, or individual people in line with their religious beliefs oppose what the government is doing, they can be very hostile and very nasty.) Read Dietrich's story on the Internet. It's very interesting. You can read of his shift from “phraseology to reality”. And other such things. For his pains, he was executed by the Germans just weeks before their defeat in the Second World War.

Apartheid was, according to the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, firmly based on biblical teaching. Every Afrikaner knew that they were superior to the black man. It was obvious to them that God wanted people not to integrate, but to develop separately, and so it would seem that the whole Constitution was built around this one premise in this “Christian Nation”. But there were Jurors No. 8 by the dozen, whose voices gradually got heard, saying, “Is that really so – is that what God is saying?”

So, here is the conclusion of the matter, just like in XII Angry Men – it took one person to say something different – to stand against the tide of traditional thinking – resist the pressure, and to ask the questions that no-one else was asking. When we come to the Word of God, we can often read into it what we want to read, and overlook the less palatable truths, regarding them as “irrelevant.” We may treat it as an “open and shut case” - not bothering to explore its meaning because the 'truth is plain to see' or we can linger a bit and ask the difficult questions, and see what comes out of it. You may take longer and ask all the questions and still come up with the same answers, but at least you have opened your mind to the possibility that there are other answers. In fact, if you have come back to the same answers, after asking those awkward questions, you should find that you are firmer in your faith than you were before.


Anonymous said...

Perceptions, preconceived ideas, judgments and decisions are made by everyone. The ultimate question for me, should not be, who is right and who is wrong but how do we apply these understandings to our lives? How do they shape and influence our choices and actions in life, and, how do these decisions impact and influence people who come into our lives? To argue the rights and wrongs of anything is merely a battle of opinions. Regarding scripture the only thing true about the scriptures is the scriptures themselves. To enter into a biblical debate or discussion about its meaning is futile because all that comes out is our interpretation. The Word is not in question, only the interpretation. Three questions generally govern our understanding of scripture, What does it say?
What does it mean?
How does it apply?

There is no question about what it says. What it says is what it says, simple. What it means is quite different and because it’s meaning is open to interpretation it will mean something different to everyone. The meaning you give to scripture will ultimately influence the application. Since no two meanings are the same, no two applications will be the same either. “We see in part and we see in part dimly. In this regard, the teacher and the student have the same dilemma, both are limited to their dim interpretation and their interpretation influences their application.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what interpretation is given to scripture. We are not accountable for our understanding but our application of our understanding. We are to walk in the knowledge of the truth we understand. If our understanding changes, likewise, our application changes also. The scriptures say we are to “walk in the light” of the knowledge we have. It doesn’t say we are to walk in the light of someone else’s knowledge. Does this mean the opinions and understandings of others are invalid? No, we should consider it as “new light,” review it thoroughly, determine our own understanding and make our own decision. God is not going to judge us for having a different point of view. Rather, He will judge us according to the application of the point of view we have.

When we consider the eternal verses the immortal, the infinite verses the finite, the temporal verses the immortal, the unseen verses what is seen, how can we possible have an opinion which is more valid than any one else’s? If God is a personal God, residing in the hearts of those who believe then surely we are accountable to God and to Him alone? Even the scriptures teach us to search the scriptures because in them we believe we have eternal life. Therefore, we search, we interpret, we apply.

David Bertram said...

Hi John,

Thanks for your write-up on Twelve Angry Men. Some points which occurred to me:

1 I LOVE the scriptures. The more I know about them, the more I love them. I think that the story of how they came to be written and collected together is absolutely amazing. Yes, there are discrepancies, some glaring ones, like: did Jesus cleanse the Temple at the start of his ministry (John) or at the end (Synoptics)? Were there two of types of each animal in the Ark or seven? Etc. There are also variant readings. When I pick up a new translation, I always check how they translate 1 Cor 13.3 (most get it wrong, including the revered King James – the NRSV gets it right). BUT and it is a huge BUT, none of these discrepancies and differences actually affect our theology.

2 Some churches have a mission statement that include the words, we believe in the Infallible Word of God. By Word of God, they mean the Bible. But the Bible is not infallible, it contains discrepancies. Have they actually read it? BUT and this is also a big BUT, I believe that the Bible is not the Word of God. I believe that the Bible contains the Word of God. To use an analogy, when you drink a cup of tea, you don’t eat the cup itself. In the same way, reading the Bible exposes us to the Word of God, which is a different spiritual reality. (This may be heretical, maybe I should be kicked out of the church!). So I agree that the Word of God is infallible, but not the Bible. This means that we have to use the Bible intelligently, sensitively, and prayerfully. We can’t use it to attack other people. Not allowed!

3 It is fascinating how the more conservative churches are moving in the direction of the Catholic Church. The latter has an incredibly rich heritage of spirituality, and the other churches are beginning to appreciate it. I think it’s a great move, and I will do anything I can to open up traditional Christian spirituality to other churches.