I was listening to NPR’s Steve Inskeep interview Jerry Falwell Jr., president of evangelical Liberty University, about his support for Donald Trump when I was struck by Mr. Falwell’s misuse of the Bible.
SI: Is his (Trump’s) personal life or any candidate’s personal life relevant to you?
JF: I think Jesus said we are all sinners. When they ask that question, I always talk about the story of the Woman at the Well who had five husbands and she was living with someone she wasn’t married to and they wanted to stone her and Jesus said, “he who is without sin cast the first stone.” I just see how Donald Trump treats other people and I’m impressed by that.
Let me start by saying that this post is not about Donad Trump’s suitability for the presidency. It is about a prominent evangelical misusing the Bible. As a priest who takes the Bible seriously, and who also supports marriage equality as well as other progressive issues, I am tired of evangelicals claiming ownership of the Bible.
So here’s my critique of this very short exchange:
First, Jesus did not say we are all sinners. It’s mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, but not on the lips of Jesus. I suppose this isn't such a big deal. I just mention it because there is a tendency to falsely attribute things to Jesus - like condemning people who are gay.
What really caught my attention was the misuse of the story of the Woman at the Well (John 4:1-42.) Mr. Falwell is conflating that story with the Woman caught in Adultery (John 8:1-11.) They are two different people, two very different stories. If Mr. Falwell “always” tells this story, he should know better.
More importantly, he demeans an important woman in the Bible, the Woman at the Well, by painting her as a sinner – a judgement that is not supported anywhere in the Bible. This may seem minor, but it is part of a wider pattern of demonizing the sexuality of women. Yes, she was married five times. And yes, the man she is currently living with is not her husband. But why assume she is at fault?
Mr. Falwell may see her as a woman trading in husbands like people today may trade in cars – upgrading for a newer model. He may see her as a sexually “loose” woman. But is that really the most reasonable interpretation? Since men had more power to divorce in Jesus’ day, isn’t it more likely that the Woman at the Well was the discarded one, the used car? She had been discarded by five husbands and now the man she is with won’t even dignify her with marriage. She is the outcast, going to the well at high noon, when no other women would be there. Labeling this woman as a sinner is akin to labeling women today who are trafficked into sex work as sinners, rather than victims. In the Biblical story, this victim, this outcast, has the courage to engage Jesus, debate with Jesus, and become the first evangelist, drawing the men of her village to Jesus.
Mr. Falwell dismisses this courageous, victimized woman as a sexual sinner (making her the woman caught in adultery.) She is no longer a hero and role model. Not only should he know his Bible better, in doing this he is perpetuating a worldview that diminishes powerful women figures.
I realize this is may seem nit-picky - insider Biblical baseball - but it bothered me. And then there's this:
SI: Do you think he (Trump) is a truthful person?
JF: I do. I just know you don’t get where he is in life by not telling the truth or by being dishonest in business or by treating your employees unfairly, and it’s just not possible.
Really? Is Mr. Falwell really saying you can’t be successful if you mistreat your employees or you are dishonest? Has he read the Bible? It is chock full of powerful, successful, dishonest leaders. That is the core of much of the lament in the Bible. Jeremiah’s complaint “Why do the wicked prosper?” is echoed throughout the Prophets and Psalms. Again, I’m not writing this to criticize Mr. Trump. I’m writing to encourage religious leaders to be more thoughtful in their use of scripture. My reading of the Bible encourages me to be critical of those in leadership, and careful with my support or endorsement.
I understand that Mr. Falwell and I may disagree on how we interpret passages in the Bible. I’m just tired of evangelicals claiming to have the Biblical high ground. It just isn’t so.