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Of Biblical proportions

February 21, 2012

Though it has other uses, the above phrase is most often applied to one of two things: natural disasters and wars. There’s a reason for that: the Bible is full of both, most of them commanded by God. That makes it somewhat hard to say, as one so often hears, that “Christianity is the religion of peace.”

Something like that is the claim of the book reviewed here. I haven’t read Laying Down the Sword, by Philip Jenkins, but the review, by Patrick Allitt, gives a decent summary (assuming it’s not inaccurate). Jenkins’ main concern is to make sense of the depictions of genocidal violence commanded by God in various books of the Old Testament, which after all we have to see as somehow divinely inspired if we don’t want to be Marcionites or gnostics. Jenkins, Allitt writes, offers the following solution:

Jenkins believes that these much later writers attributed to Joshua actions [viz. the divinely ordered massacre of the Canaanites] that never happened. Their motive was to exhort their own contemporaries to live up to the rigors of monotheism and not to let their attention be drawn away by the multitude of other gods, from the surrounding empires and societies, competing for their loyalty. He admits that praising their forefathers for genocide implies that they were familiar with the concept, but takes consolation from the fact that the pitiless massacres in question almost certainly did not take place.


What does all this imply for practicing Christians today? In Jenkins’ view, ministers and worshipers should face up to the genocidal texts because they are an integral part of the Bible, whose Old and New Testaments, he believes, depend on one another. He invokes the authority of Martin Luther, who reminded the excitable first generation of Protestant Bible readers not to take any passage out of context, always to think of the overall meaning of a book, and to be attentive to the setting and specifics of a passage. Deuteronomy 7, for example, can then be understood not as a claim that it’s right for Christians to massacre their enemies but as “a call to absolute dedication.” If we continue to ignore or deny these texts rather than face up to them in their proper context, we will be taken by surprise when another fanatic uses them to justify murder.

Sadly Catholics aren’t much better about this; I’ve certainly never heard a homily on “And the Lord thy God shall have delivered them to thee, thou shalt utterly destroy them. Thou shalt make no league with them, nor shew mercy to them” (Deut 7:2). (Though I’ve also never heard… well let’s not get into the topic of the quality of Catholic preaching.) These are issues that demand our attention; that’s one of the main reasons I write so much here about violence, agony, theodicy. (If nothing else to come to some understanding of them myself.)

But one reason they demand our attention is that we can’t just say “well the Bible says it but doesn’t really mean it”. As Allitt ends his review:

On the other hand it’s hard to escape the feeling that he is making excuses for the biblical authors. Perhaps it is true that they used the language of genocide only figuratively, but in doing so they gave warrants to people who not only committed actual genocide but claimed God’s blessing for it into the bargain.

[…] That got me thinking about another biblical genocide—Noah’s flood. […] It’s a horrifying tale but one that our culture treats as colorful and uplifting, a prelude to the first rainbow. I’ve never heard a sermon on it as an act of divine rage and apocalyptic destruction. Perhaps that just confirms Jenkins’ general point that we should be a lot more self-aware and self-critical when we think about our religion and a lot slower to condemn the violent tendencies in the religions of others.

I think Catholics are (or can be) more aware than Protestants of the bloody side of their religion. We do, after all, believe what we drink at Mass to be not fermented grape juice, but Christ’s actual blood. I think that’s why saying that the massacres didn’t actually happen is so unsatisfying. Perhaps they never happened (or at least weren’t as bad as the Bible makes them sound); maybe (probably) Noah’s flood never happened either. Maybe it’s just symbolism. But what do we even mean by that? Our religion is centered around the literal reality of a symbol.

And at times, it’s hard to see what difference it being “just symbolism” would even make make when our religion is about our killing God by nailing him to a tree. Not in mythic time–in history, sometime around 33 AD. Yet not just murdered by some ancient Jews and Romans–murdered by us. We want–need–for him to die because if he doesn’t, we cannot be saved. He is the sacrificial lamb–and before him, sacrifice was always an act of atonement, not what had to be atoned for. Is it now both? Do we commit an act of violence in order to atone for that very same act? What the hell are we doing saying Christianity is a religion of peace? It’s a religion centered around a successful theomachy.

I don’t think anything in the above paragraph is false; it’s simply mysterious. (An open mystery?) At the same time, it can be easy to slip from mysticism to mystification. There’s important differences between Christianity and the various mystery cults that sprung up around the same time centered on the killing of a god.

If the Wikipedia version of René Girard can be trusted, Girard has some interesting ideas about Christ’s death as an unmasking of the scapegoat mechanism and revelation of our complicity in it, and of the two millennia since as the instability that follows from this unmasking as society struggles to come to terms with it. I find these ideas intriguing (particularly Christianity as destabilization) but I have a vague sense that they don’t do justice to the way the Bible makes violence characteristic of not just humanity but also divinity.

In these speculations there’s always danger of heresy (a worry secular readers probably find incomprehensible, but so be it). Still, I’d like to merge Girardian anthropology with that of David Jones (whom some have called a “sacred heretic”), at least what we can extract from his writings. In In Parenthesis Jones makes the WWI soldier into sinner and scapegoat and sacrifice and faithful blasphemer. What I want to say is this: the only successful theodicy would be a kind of theomachy. (Which is, I suppose, one way to read Job.) But I can’t know if I can say that until I can answer, what kind?

Three postscripts.

First, I am very open to being challenged on this–more so than with most posts. But quoting the peaceful passages of the Bible can’t settle the matter, since the point is that we somehow have to reconcile the two.

Second, what I’ve tried to suggest here is that one just can’t read Christianity as a religion of peace, not if you take it seriously, not if you understand “religion of peace” to mean something even remotely akin to “religion of pacifism”. It’s a valid question, I think, why one would endorse such a violent religion at all–don’t we all know violence is bad?–but that’s a question for another day. It was actually on that topic that I thought I was writing when I began this, but the prologue ran away from me.

Finally, as you’ve perhaps guessed, I’m most comfortable cutting short the omnibenevolent leg of the stool; I lean towards fudging “freedom” rather than “omniscience” and don’t see how you can reduce omnipotence without it completely disappearing (note: SMBC is amusing but often extremely vulgar so don’t read beyond the one I linked to if you have a weak stomach for that sort of thing).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom B. permalink
    February 23, 2012 12:48 am

    Wow. this might be my favorite post so far. excellent stuff to discuss. Thanks for writing!

    I’ve been grappling a lot lately with the curiosity that is the Abraham and Isaac story- how Abraham is seen as a model of faith after he has shown himself to be willing to commit violence in the name of God. (Even if God does show some benevolence in calling off the sacrifice and providing another lamb, what does it say about Abraham? Why is this violent type of faith seen as a positive thing? I’m curious what you make of that story.) It does definitely seem for better or worse, that Christianity has a strong relationship to violence, as you pointed out – it is indeed based on the scapegoat sacrifice, the violent crucifixion.

    Great SMBC comic btw.

  2. February 23, 2012 1:53 pm

    I’m still not sure what to make of the Abraham-Isaac story. It feels wrong to comment on it without having read Fear and Trembling. But from what I’ve heard Kierkegaard’s argument has to do with a suspension of the ethical in favor of the personal which somehow leads to the re-institution and justification of the ethical… it’s an interesting idea, which I’m not sure I buy.

    Genesis is full of weird stories like that. Jacob wrestling with the angel, for example. And Noah’s flood. Speaking of which, after I wrote this, I read an article by Stanley Cavell about Samuel Beckett’s Endgame that suggested we see Noah’s flood as the reverse of the book of Job–Job’s question is, “why am I, among all men, made to suffer, when I have done nothing to deserve it?” while Noah’s question is, “why am I, among all men, allowed to survive, when I have done nothing to deserve it?” Neither ever receives a real answer.

    I’m still not sure what to make of the Christian emphasis on violence. In a way it’s life-affirming, since you can’t have life without death, so to reject the latter you must also reject the former; then you get various forms of gnosticism… but this isn’t an argument so much as a vague feeling.

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