Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today, a contributing editor at The Week, a fellow at Defense Priorities, and the author of A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today (Hachette).
Disgusted with the evil that plagues our world and struggling with confounding portrayals of God in Scripture, the second-century theologian sliced up the Bible to his liking by excluding all the Old Testament and even some of the New. I can’t follow Marcion in his editing project, but I certainly get the tension that prompted it: The Old Testament is a difficult book full of difficult stories and difficult people. In many ways, it would be easier to safely scuttle its strange and grim passages out of the canon.
I suspect Marcion’s end product possessed a clarity the unabridged version frankly lacks. But I also suspect it would leave Christians far less equipped to grapple with the moral ambiguity we cannot edit out of our society’s past—or its present.
This has been a summer of iconoclasm. Protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers have picked up the purgatorial impulse of previous demonstrations against police brutality and racial inequality. Protestors demanded the removal of—or, in many cases, simply vandalized—Confederate statues and flags. Then the scrutiny broadened. A mere three years ago, President Donald Trump was roundly mocked for his musing that progressive iconoclasts eventually would come after George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. This year they did exactly that. Monuments of other historical figures (including Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ulysses S. Grant) were torn down, voted down, or became the subject of contentious debates.
These conflicts are not easy to resolve. What do we make of someone like Jefferson? Should he be honored or deplored? He wrote about the inherent rights of all humanity in words that have inspired movements for freedom the world over—but at the same time he enslaved hundreds and raped Sally Hemings, impregnating her when she was about 15.
Jefferson condemned slavery but did not act to end it, even rejecting, as columnist Noah Millman describes, “a large bequest from his old friend, the Polish nobleman and Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciusko, intended for the purchase of slaves to give them their freedom, along with land, livestock, and farm equipment to enable them to live the life of yeoman independence that Jefferson claimed to favor over all others.” And yet, for all that, abolitionist Frederick Douglass deemed Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence “the ring-bolt to the chain of [our] nation’s destiny,” a document of “saving principles” to which we should be true “on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”