May 1, 2019

The Wizard and Leviticus 19:18

Beware of turning a text into a pretext.

John McVay

Not long before the tragic events of August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, Black and Latina reporter Ilia Calderón from Univision News did an interview with Ku Klux Klan (KKK) imperial wizard Chris Barker and his wife, Amanda, on their North Carolina property. Barker’s group, the Loyal White Knights of the KKK of Pelham, North Carolina, would later participate in the Charlottesville White supremacist protest.

A short video of the interview opens with Calderón watching the all-too-familiar hoods and burning cross, KKK rituals. Then Barker notes that this is the first time in 20 years that a Black person has been allowed on his property. He calls Calderón a “mongrel.”

She describes herself as a “Black person and an immigrant,” to which he responds, “Yeah, exact same thing.” Calderón asks, “Are you gonna chase me out of here?”

Barker retorts, “No, we’re gonna burn you out.”

A bit later, Calderón asks, “Are you a hate group?”

Barker and his wife respond, “No.”

So Calderón asks, “How do you define yourself?”

Barker answers, “We define ourselves as a Christian group,” and together with his wife declares, “We don’t hate anyone.” Barker expands, “We tell the Bible—what the Bible says.” To paraphrase: “We read the Bible just the way it was written. We take it at face value. We believe. We do exactly what it says.”

Calderón tests that assertion by responding, “The Bible says that we were all born equal.”

The KKK imperial wizard pounces: “No! Wrong! Leviticus 19:18 is what you’re saying: ‘Love thy neighbour.’ It says, ‘Love thy neighbour of thy people.’ My people are White. Your people are Black.”1

Barker’s obvious conclusion? “You are not my neighbor. The Bible asks me to love only my own kind of people. It does not ask me to love you.”

Every Christian a Bible Stuent

Is he right? Is KKK imperial wizard Chris Barker correct in his understanding of Leviticus 19:18?

Grudgingly, we must admit that he is reading that particular passage quite literally. In its immediate context Leviticus 19:18 is not a broad rule to love everyone everywhere. It is more focused than that. It is an exhortation to love your own. Barker is, from one point of view, doing just what he says he does: “We tell the Bible—what the Bible says.”

Imagine that you are conducting an interview with Barker, and the interview turns to his interpretation of Leviticus 19:18. What would you say to him? How is it that he is actually terribly twisting and misrepresenting the Bible when he seems to be attending rather closely to its words?

Before I suggest answers to that question, perhaps I should share why I am exploring this case study. I am doing so to make this point: Careful Bible study is something every Christian should be prepared to do. Though we sometimes attach the academic label “hermeneutics” to this task, it is one we must all perform. It is not a technical, obtuse, and challenging task reserved for Ph.Ds. It is a necessary and unavoidable one. We must all be alert to the possibility that we may be twisting Scripture, all the while professing our dedication to take God’s Word as it reads. And we must not be taken in by seemingly correct but actually warped views of the Bible sometimes offered by others.

Recalling and applying important, basic Bible study principles is key. Here’s one: We must interpret any passage of the Bible in the light of its context.

Context, Not Pretext

As we read the context of Leviticus 19:18 we come quickly to Leviticus 19:31, “Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God.”2

We might say to Chris Barker, “I notice that you are a KKK imperial wizard. Leviticus 19:31 tells me that I should not listen to wizards. So I’m not going to listen to you.”

But to use the passage that way may be to fall into Barker’s own too narrow and overly literalistic way of understanding the Bible (and to borrow from his harshness as well!). Keep reading a little further, and you will come to Leviticus 19:33, 34: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

Is the Bible’s command to love one’s kin, one’s neighbor, to be interpreted restrictively, as a command to hate everyone else? The context—Leviticus 19:33, 34—denies that interpretation.

Applying another basic Bible study principle here, we should interpret any passage of the Bible in the light of the whole. Compare scripture with scripture. We need to search the Bible to find passages that deal with the same theme or idea as the one we are studying, building a biblical résumé for our theme.

How Do We Read It?

What about this idea of loving one’s neighbor? Does it occur elsewhere in the Bible? It certainly does. It does not take us long to come to Jesus’ own reading of Leviticus 19:18 in Luke 10. It comes in the form of repartee with an attorney who asks, “Teacher, . . . what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (verse 25).

Being a good teacher, Jesus invites His new pupil to answer the question himself: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (verse 26).

“He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself’” (verse 27).

Jesus answers the attorney’s question by telling one of His greatest and best-loved stories. It is not a story about how one Jew loves and cares for another Jew. Instead it is a story about how two Jewish men—a priest and a Levite—fail to do so, ignoring the needs of their fellow Jew who has been attacked by thieves and left for dead.

Then along comes a Samaritan, someone from a different, alien culture. Someone naturally inclined to mutter “He got what he deserved” under his breath as he hurries by. Instead he stops and cares for the man, medicating and bandaging his wounds. Turning his donkey into an ambulance, the Samaritan delivers the man to the closest thing he can find to an emergency room and pays the man’s health-care expenses.

Jesus’ story ends with a searching question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (verse 36). Which one, Jesus asks, truly fulfills the dictum of the Torah in Leviticus 19:18 to love one’s neighbour?

The Jewish attorney, unable (it seems) to speak the word “Samaritan,” demurs with his answer: “The one who showed him mercy.”

To which Jesus responds—to the attorney and to us—“Go and do likewise” (verse 37).

God’s Message, Today and Always

Two people read the same passage. Two radically different interpretations and applications of it. KKK wizard Chris Barker sees in Leviticus 19:18 a call to love his own and only his own. Others are to be ignored and driven out whether hated or not.

Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords, hears in Leviticus 19:18 an expansive call to love one’s neighbor. One’s neighbor includes not only those close at hand—people who look and act like us—but also those at a distance, a cultural and racial distance. The stranger. The other.

Jesus draws everyone—Chris Barker included—into the circle of the divine command “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

So whose interpretation should we follow? Chris’s or Christ’s? That of the KKK wizard or that of the King of kings and Lord of lords?


  1. “Univision Noticias journalist Ilia Calderón Confronts an Imperial Wizard of the KKK,” YouTube video, 02:22, posted [August 2017],. www.youtube.com/watch?v=My99imFzeWw.
  2. Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.

John McVay, president of Walla Walla University, lives in Walla Walla, Washington, United States.

John McVay
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