By Jim Tune
There’s a scene in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I will never forget. Huck Finn has helped hide Miss Watson’s runaway slave, Jim. But Huck was sure he was committing a grave sin in helping the fugitive. Huck had learned in Sunday school, “People that acts as I’d been acting . . . goes to everlasting fire.” Eventually Huck writes a note to Miss Watson as an act of repentance.
Desperate to save his soul, he tells her where to find her runaway slave. Huck prays the “sinner’s prayer” and “gets saved.” Even though he feels great relief at coming clean in his letter—which he is yet to mail—he is conflicted about his experience. Huck remembers Jim’s gratitude, and his own inability to harden himself against him. He regards Jim as a friend, but feels the pressure from society to “reform” and turn from the great sin that burdened him—the sin of helping a slave escape his bonds.
Finally, Huck rejects the cultural and religious pressure of his times. Twain wrote how Huck looked again at the note of betrayal he had written: “I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll GO to hell’—and tore it up . . . and never thought no more about reforming.”
I was a child when I read the book. At some point during my preteen years, I had read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But I was not ready for Huckleberry Finn. The story bothered me, but I didn’t know why. As an adult, I have more clarity about the point Twain was making. For Huck to act justly, he had to think he was in opposition to the Christianity he’d learned about in Sunday school. In choosing to love his neighbor as himself, Huck Finn believed he was condemning his own soul to Hell.
I wonder how often we compromise Christianity in order to accommodate the conventions of the times? Churches that defended slavery embraced a distorted faith. They went to church on Sunday. They got saved. They loved Jesus. Without even understanding what they were doing, these good Christians had used the Bible to validate their racist assumptions and protect their vested interests.
The bloodiest, most tragic episode in all of American history was a civil war fought by myriad Bible-believing Christians on both sides, many of whom were convinced the Scriptures taught the rightness of slavery, on the one hand, or the imperative of abolition on the other. As to the adversaries, “both,” President Abraham Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, “read the same Bible and pray to the same God.”
I believe the Bible is authoritative. I am committed to the idea that the common man can “pick up and read” and understand the gospel. I also acknowledge the existence of cultural issues—disputable matters—that are not so clear. Our movement has always embraced the slogan: “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things love.”
Six hundred twenty thousand American soldiers died to settle differences that were, at least in part, an argument over how to read the Bible. Let’s focus on the essentials while resisting the temptation to divide over disputable issues. There have already been far too many casualties.
Read a new column by Jim Tune each Wednesday at christianstandard.com.