The question of a ‘flat Bible’ dominated a Sunday School class I guest taught a few years ago. The group had been reading and discussing a book I wrote and invited me to class during a trip I took to visit family. The book didn’t raise issues about whether each part of the Bible should be considered equally inspired and authoritative (a flat reading of the Bible). But a Baptist college professor in the class jumped in that direction after learning I attended a Mennonite church at the time. He argued Mennonites wrongly put the words of Jesus ahead of other parts of scriptures instead of viewing all of the Bible as equal.
I didn’t push the topic too strongly since I wanted to focus on the issues I’d been invited to teach. The quick answer I gave included a defense of reading the ‘red letters’ as more authoritative and important. They are mountain peaks far above the small hills and valleys elsewhere in the Bible. We should read the rest of the Bible through the lens of Jesus rather than reading Jesus through the lens of the rest of the Bible. I pointed to the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ where Jesus himself rejected the idea of a ‘flat Bible.’
“You have heard that it was said … but I tell you…”
The things his audience had heard said before are still in our Bibles as teachings in the Mosaic laws. Jesus didn’t fully reject those teachings but instead expanded them. To say the Mosaic laws are equal with the teachings of Jesus is to ignore the very words Jesus spoke.
I hadn’t thought of that Sunday School class for a couple of years. And then came Donald Trump. Asked about his favorite Bible verse, the Republican presidential frontrunner offered a surprising answer.
“Well, I think many, ” Trump said in his characteristic hem-haw manner. “I mean, when we get into the Bible, I think many, so many. And some people, look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us. … And we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”
It’s a nearly unbelievable answer, almost as if Saturday Night Live’s Trump character uttered the words. Has Trump even read a Bible before? Did he start in Genesis and give up long before making it to Matthew? Did he really have no clue that Jesus literally repudiated the very verse Trump lifts up as the best moral guide?
Upon further reflection, I wonder if I should applaud Trump. For his honesty. Few—if any others—would name the ‘eye for an eye’ passage as a favorite Bible verse. Yet too often it seems we live as if it’s our favorite. From cheering for war to backing the death penalty. From demanding ‘tough on crime’ policies to advocating for nuclear weapons. From endorsing torture to consuming violent entertainment and sports. We may say with our mouths that our favorite verse is John 3:16 or 1 Corinthians 13:4 or Philippians 4:13 or some other inspiring verse. But too often our actions and politics suggest we really admire the text about ‘an eye for an eye.’
Only a ‘flat Bible’ perspective can justify living in such a blind way. Instead we must recognize that the ‘red letters’ of Jesus—especially in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’—call us to another path. A path our fear-mongering politicians hope we’ll ignore. A path that calls us to embrace radical grace and love and forgiveness. A path that remains much harder to follow than merely swinging for someone’s eye.