28 November 2020

Out of Context: Matthew 10:35 and The Trial of the Chicago 7

Last night I watched The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix, which is based on the trial of seven anti-war protesters who were arrested during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I very much enjoyed the movie, but I was especially struck by its portrayal of Abbie Hoffman's testimony, in which he quotes a verse from the Gospel of Matthew.

Here's the portion of the script from the movie, where the prosecuting attorney, Richard Schultz, is questioning Abbie Hoffman (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) about something his fellow defendant, Tom Hayden, had said.

Did you hear the tape we played of Tom Hayden?


-You heard the tape? Did you hear Mr. Hayden give an instruction to his people to take to the streets?

“His people”? Hayden’s not a Mafia don and neither am I.

Did you hear him say, “If blood is gonna flow, let it flow all over the city”?

The beginning of that sentence was supposed to be… Yes. Yes, I did.

What’d you think of that?

I think Tom Hayden is a badass of an American patriot.

I didn’t ask what you thought of the man, I asked of his instruction of the crowd.

I’ve also heard Tom Hayden say, “Let’s end the war,” but nobody stopped shooting.

You can do anything to anything by taking it out of context, Mr. Schultz.

“If blood is gonna flow”? How do you take that out of context?

A guy once said, “I am come to set a man at variance with his father and the daughter against her mother.”

You know who said it?

Jerry Rubin.

Yes. No. It was Jesus Christ. Matthew 10:35.

And it sure sounds like he’s telling kids to kill their parents.

Until you read Matthew 10:34 and 10:36.

Although I haven't seen the actual court transcript, I very much doubt the Abbie Hoffman quoted this Bible verse during the trial. Hoffman was a rather irreverent Jew, and probably wouldn't have quoted Jesus in his testimony. But Aaron Sorkin had Sacha Baron Cohen do it for him anyway.

In any case, the movie script quoted Matthew 10:35 correctly, using the King James Version.

The problem is that that verse says exactly what it sounds like it says. And the previous and following verses don't make it any better.

Here are the verses that are supposed to put Jesus's words in context.

Matthew 10:34: Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

Matthew 10:36: And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.

Apparently neither Aaron Sorkin or the movie's Abbie Hoffman bothered to read these two verses. They just figured that context would make Jesus's words say something acceptable, rather than what they so clearly actually say.

The Jesus in Matthew's gospel came to break families apart, to set fathers against their sons, and daughters against their mothers. To make enemies within families.

In this case, as in almost all cases when it comes to the Bible, context only makes it worse.