This post begins a review series of Jennifer Butler’s Who Stole My Bible?: Reclaiming Scripture as a Handbook for Resisting Tyranny. I received a free Kindle edition of the book through Speakeasy in exchange for writing a candid book review within 30 days. No other goods or services were exchanged. Jennifer Butler is a community organizer and ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church (USA). She serves as the CEO of Faith in Public Life, which coordinates advocacy work by faith leaders who support a progressive policy agenda.
In her introduction, Butler recalls her efforts in organizing faith communities to support social justice causes that are emblematic of leftwing politics: “voting rights, economic equality, health care access, the protection of immigrant and religious minorities, LGBTQ rights, criminal justice reform, and many other issues.” She draws upon Christian Scripture as the necessary “grounding of resistance” for her work. In contrast, she repeats a familiar litany of opposing stances for which the Bible has also been appropriated in justification, as well as the diminishment of the Religious Left’s voice due to a misconstrual of the Constitutional principle of church-state separation.
Butler contends that contemporary threats to a functioning and just democracy, such as persistent racial injustice and economic disparities, can be countered in part by “reclaiming this radical book called the Bible and acting to make its vision for radical justice, equality, and liberation a reality.” The justice-centered hermeneutic of Scripture is necessary to overcome misrepresentations enacted by powerful forces that seek to oppress others. Butler states that she has organized her book to demonstrate what she sees as the Bible’s central theme: resistance to tyranny. Each chapter rewrites a biblical story, correlates it with later faith-based justice efforts, and builds the toolkit for contemporary anti-oppressive action. Citing Latina feminist-liberation theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Butler portrays the goal as the “kin-dom” of God’s libertad: the “interconnected community…that works to create God’s justice in the world.”
Who Stole My Bible? is prefaced by an substantial list of endorsements, including famed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, postmodern-pastor-turned-bestselling-author Brian McLaren, and evangelical activist Shane Claiborne. In his blurb, Brueggemann claims that this work “reaches out to ‘Bible believers’ even as it appeals to the most faithful impulses of ‘progressives.'” Admittedly, I am doubtful about the success of such an outreach. While I am, in the main, supportive of every policy item named in the first quote given above, I strive for a political independence that avoids comfortably embracing a given ideology, party, or movement. My own engagement with radical democratic theory and its intersections with Baptist ecclesiology has instilled a discipline to remain ever open to contestation and challenge from voices that I would, left to my own inclinations, readily dismiss. So I always feel rather queasy in every encounter with yet another declaration about the meaning of faithful Christian witness within the political realm. I certainly have my fair share of critiques of American conservatism (especially in the Trumpian age), but I don’t write it off as a complete loss. Will Butler do so in this book? Or are there shared hopes, values, and commitments that can be the basis for an invitation to rethink the meaning of Scripture and living its narrative in a gospel-centered, justice-seeking way here and now? Is it still possible that conservatives have something to teach the Religious Left in this journey toward wholeness and liberation?
I ask these questions as much of myself as I do of Butler and her writing. Let’s see where we go from here.