Monday, July 9, 2012

Violence, Christianity and the Bible


I’ve just finished reading Daniel Clendenin essay, ‘Sacred Scripture, Violent Verses: How Should We Read the Bible’s Texts of Terror?’ in this week’s edition of his Journeys with Jesus: Notes to Myself.    Clendenin raises the disturbing issue of the many passages in the Bible, the Old Testament in particular, that not only relate horrific scenes of violence, slaughter and suffering, but seem to indicate that some of the atrocities, at least, are committed at God’s behest.  Just off the top of my head I can recall God’s sanction of Amorite genocide, or Moses’ command to the Levites to slaughter the debauched Israelites in the aftermath of the gold calf debacle,


or the slaughter of most of the tribe of Benjamin in the aftermath of the rape and dismemberment of the concubine, or David’s use of a measuring stick to single out those captured Edomites he was going to slaughter.  There is the deception used by Simeon and Levi to ensure that all the men of Shechem would join their sister’s rapist in getting circumcised, after which they went through the town and murdered them all.  God himself is responsible for the death of Egypt’s firstborn, both human and cattle, just as he is responsible for the annihilation of the Assyrian army camped outside the walls of Jerusalem.  One of the songs in Psalms describes the joy the singer will feel when he is able to return the favor and smash Babylonian infants to death on rocks (Psalm 137:8-9).  Joab, David’s military commander, is allowed to continue in his position even though it is known by every one that he murdered both Abner, who had defected to help restore Israel to David, and then Amasa, a later rival for his position.  And then it would seem that to be born a male in an Israelite royal family was to live as a marked man.  Almost every dynastic change (and there were many) resulted in all of the male relatives of the preceding king being slaughtered.  Even hero Gideon’s entire male progeny was slaughtered by the usurper Abimelech, who blackmailed the lords of Shechem into handing over the seventy sons of Gideon, whom he then slaughtered ‘on one stone’ (Judges 9:1-7).  And then there is the bizarre episode of David agreeing to the Gibeonite’s request:   “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel – let seven of his {Saul’s] sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord at Gebeon on the mountain of the LORD.”  The king said, “I will hand them over.”…and he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the LORD.  The seven of them perished together.  They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.  Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of the harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night.  When David was told what Rizpah daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the people of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hung them up, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa.  He brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan,; and they gathered the bones of those who had been impaled.  They buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of his father Kish; they did all that the king commanded.  After that, God heeded the supplications for the land.’ (2 Samuel 21:5-14)  


This is in our Bible.

Clendenin notes the offense these ‘texts of terror’ (the title of Phyllis Trible’s 1984 book) has caused over the centuries.  They were so offensive in some 2nd century Gentile Christian communities that some leaders thought the entire Old Testament a scandal to New Testament sensibilities.  One influential and persuasive leader named Marcion went on to claim that the god of the Old Testament was inferior to the God of love revealed by Jesus in the New Testament.  Marcion also got caught up in a lot of Gnostic ideas that made him persona non grata in the Orthodox Churches, but his concerns were by no means solitary.

Interestingly enough, Biblical violence does not cause much of a scandal after the early Christian centuries until the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment and the advent of modernism in western Europe.  Once again religious and intellectual authors professed themselves appalled at the blood-soaked pages of Scripture.  And just as in Marcion’s days, the offending stories of the Old Testament were declared to be not worthy of the exalted ideals of love and brotherhood found in the pages of the New Testament.  And ironically, just like Marcion so many centuries earlier, men (mostly) used this as justification to pare away those parts of Christianity that they did not like and keep those parts that suited them.  The end results were often noble and certainly interesting, but were not recognizable as historic Christianity.  These passages have continued to cause offense even into the 20th and 21st centuries, as Clendenin points out. (see, for example, this blog)  They continue to be the fodder of many late night discussions in dormitory rooms as earnest undergraduates wrestle with what they can believe from a Bible that is filled with stuff like this.  When I was a college student there were several members of my student fellowship who wandered away from the faith as a result of the difficulties these passages presented to their understanding of who God should be.  This undoubtedly still goes on.

I have gotten old enough that either I’ve lost my earlier idealism, grown out of my naiveté, or become more realistic in my view of the world and of religion, or maybe a bit of all three.  First, an observation.  Perhaps this is obvious, but it needs to be said.  The Bible, with all its violence, reflects the real world in which we live.  The very same people who profess shock and disgust at the fact that God would order the Israelites to clear out the baby-sacrificing idolaters of Canaan seem to be oblivious to the fact that mass murder and genocide has been going on almost non-stop for as long as history recalls.  To observe this is not to justify or celebrate it.  But even in this century, whether you are Armenian or Greek or Jewish or Russian Orthodox or Indian Hindu or Indian Muslim or Gypsy or Bosnian or Croat or on the wrong side of politics in China or the USSR or Argentina, not to mention the incessant genocides and murderous conflicts in Africa from Rwanda to Congo and Liberia and Sierra Leone.  In our lifetime, our planet has been soaked in human blood.  Even today, my own country is involved in a war in Afghanistan, another in the mountains of Pakistan, as well as remote control conflicts in Yemen and Somalia.  Then there is the horrific daily slaughter in Syria, as well as much quieter conflicts in Myanmar and China.  And dare I mention the narco-slaughter in Mexico?  Now bring the focus in much closer to home and one is forced to the inescapable conclusion that we live in a violent world.  Not far from where I live, a thief was run down by a mob, clubbed and beaten senseless and then doused with petrol and burned to charcoal.  I was checking the paper in my South Carolina hometown, and in one day, two people had been killed in a car crash, one lady drowned after she slipped when wading in a lake, another man was murdered behind a local ball field and a two-year old found his step-father’s loaded pistol and shot himself dead.  We live in a tragic, senseless, violent world which bears almost no resemblance to the world of peace and love and upward and onward progress dreamed up by the religious and philosophical progressives of our day.  We certainly have made amazing progress when it comes to the technologies we enjoy that make our lives interesting.  But in terms of how we treat each other, I don’t think we can make a sustainable claim that we are any better than our ancestors who held slaves or who fought the Native Americans or who fought in a gazillion European wars or who raped, pillaged and plundered our way across (choose your time and continent).  As far as I can tell, it has always been this way.
The Old Testament reveals that God has entered fully into the reality facing the descendants of Abraham.  It is a bloody reality, and horrific wrong was being done on all sides.  It was in this context and with precisely this sort of people that God made a start of his plan to redeem humanity.  The Old Testament is written as if we all understand that this is the situation being addressed and that God’s interventions reflect the necessities of the situations he engages.  And let’s face it, even in this more ‘civilized’ day, we human beings habitually do terrible things to each other.  To pretend otherwise is to ignore both history and the daily paper.

A second point that needs to be made is that the God of the Bible does not pretend that this violence is not a problem or that it doesn’t exist.  Instead he takes it on, embraces it, draws its fangs out and slays it.  The incarnation is wonder enough – that God would become one of us in our world.  But God chooses to take on the ultimate act of violence against human beings – death itself.  And he does so not by inflicting violence, but by become the victim of extreme violence.  And so as a human being he is tortured and killed horribly.  And as God he confounds death, breaks its power and rises again as a human being no longer bound by death or anything anyone might ever do to him.  Violence is defeated through the violence of the cross, and a way made for everyone who wants to be saved from what our sin has wrought in our lives and in our world.


The violence in the Bible is horrific.  But it reflects our reality.  And in the end it becomes in God’s hands God’s means for our deliverance from the violence that surrounds us and fills us.


What about you?  Any thoughts on violence and the Bible?