Cutting Off the Hand, Plucking Out the Eye

I’ve long wondered how fundamentalists justify certain stances. I can only conclude that it’s because they take Scripture literally but not seriously.

Consider this past week’s Gospel reading from Saint Mark:

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

Fundamentalists often use this as a text to support their evidence for the Dante-esque vision of hell as eternal conscious torment in a burning lake. And indeed, that description is in the text as plain as day: a place of unquenchable fire and gnawing worms. In his essay on the matter in Four Views on Hell, SBTS professor Denny Burk points to precisely this passage in Mark 9 as proof of his argument that hell “is an experience of judgment that has no end.”

And yet I can’t help but notice that Denny Burk still has both his eyes, both his arms, and both his feet. He apparently chose to only interpret part of Mark 9 literally.

Hell is a complicated topic, and seeing as most biblical descriptions of the matter are situated within parables and other figurative language, it’s hard to discern any literal understanding. There are numerous ways of understanding what hell is, who will be there, and what will happen to them. (This is precisely why Burk was asked to contribute to a book on four opposing views of damnation: because Christians have disagreed on the subject of hell for two millenia.)

So what if we take up yesterday’s point that the Bible should be taken seriously but not always literally?

If we take Jesus’ words seriously, then we see that he is not commanding us to mortify the flesh in order to avoid a torturous and fiery hell. Instead, Christ is warning that those things which cause us to stumble should be removed. More than that, they should be excised. Even though Christ’s language is not literal, it is still visceral. The pain of removing a sinful eye or hand, he says, is nothing compared to the cost of leaving it in.

If sexual abuse is not a sin, then nothing is. And how have fundamentalists handled the sin of sexual abuse? Not well.

Have they excised the tumor? Have they removed abusive leaders and enablers from positions of power? Have they cut ties with a political party led by an admitted abuser?

No. No. And no. Instead of cutting off the hand that violates or plucking out the leering eye, these leaders have made excuses and provided a veneer of pseudo-religious respectability for abusers.

Rather than protect these little ones from the σκανδαλον (lit. “stumbling block,” and the root of our modern word scandal) of sexual abuse, Burk et al are more concerned with warning that the millstone they themselves are wearing is a place of eternal conscious torment.

As previously noted, men like Jerry Falwell Jr. have stumbled over themselves trying to suggest that attempted rape does not disqualify a judge from a seat on the Supreme Court.

Paige Patterson, the disgraced leader of the fundamentalist takeover within the Southern Baptist Convention, is somehow making a comeback less than six months after his ouster. Even though he covered up a rape on a seminary campus, he has been invited to teach a course on ethics at a seminary.

And Denny Burk, who has written about the need for a traditional gender norm that “blesses, honors, and protects women” has spent the past week explaining why Dr. Blassey Ford should not be believed. (As an aside, here we see the most dangerous consequence of excluding women from ministry. When prominent Christians state that women’s voices matter less, we silence them not only in the pulpit but also when they warn us of abusers in our midst. Telling women that they cannot preach the Good News leads us to disbelieve them when they share their stories of abuse.)

Burk has also publicly and vocally sided with CJ Mahaney. (Mahaney, for those unaware, actively covered up rampant sexual abuse of children within his ministry.)

These men act so concerned about the literal interpretation of Scripture and the reality of a fiery hell, and yet they are remarkably unconcerned with excising the cancerous tumor of sexual abuse. In short, they may claim to take Scripture literally, but they sure as hell don’t take it seriously.

Show me a fundamentalist who truly takes Scripture literally, and I’ll show you someone missing an eye and a hand.

Show me someone who takes Scripture seriously, and I’ll show you someone working to prevent sexual abuse.

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