Since writing my entry on “Biblical Language and Life as a Battle” over a month ago, I have taken time to read and study more about the place of violence in the Bible. In this study I have come across some good sources such as Does the Bible Justify Violence by John J.Collins, Is Religion Killing Us by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, and Terror in the Mind of God by Mark Juergensmeyer. I also went back and reread portions of John H. Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and articles by Richard Horsley on the political milieu of the New Testament era. These are only a small sampling of books on this important topic.
What all these authors affirm conclusively is that the “violence of God” theme is part and parcel to the Old and New Testaments. In his classic work The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Neibuhr drove home that human beings are a paradox in that we are inherently self-centered and sinful, while still having the capacity to transcend that self-interest in works of peace, justice and love. However, when Niebuhr looked at institutions and nation-states, he said that by design all organized groups are be self-oriented and tend toward polarization and violence. The need for group self-preservation moves the group or nation-state seek its own survival at the expense of others.
This insight helps us understand why even in the Scriptures we find an inherent tendency to divide people into “us” and “them.” Whether talking about the Jews in the Old Testament or the followers of Jesus in the New Testament, inevitably the stories are written from the standpoint that “God is with us and those other folks are against us.” By extension anyone who is against “us” is therefore against God. This dichotomy of “us” and “them” leads to justifiable violence on the part of “us.” So the Jews see God working on their behalf in escaping the Egyptians, conquering the Canaanites and dealing with the various nations that threatened their existence. Likewise, in the New Testament, the followers of Jesus who felt persecuted by the Jewish and Roman authorities believed that in the end God punish would punish “them” as a form of vindication.
Violence is woven throughout human history, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer identifies a five stage spiral of violence that can not only be found in the Bible, but also in all of history.
Violence 1 – An oppressed group experience the economic and political violence in the form of domination, hunger and injustice
Violence 2- The oppressed group rebels countering violence with violence.
Violence 3 – The state responds with repressive violence to quell the disturbance. Or, the oppressed groups gain power and uses repressive measures against their former oppressors.
Violence 4 – There is a dysfunctional deflective violence in which oppressed person do violence against one another – poor on poor violence.
Violence 5 – Violence of all sorts is justified and rationalized by attributing the violence and its result to God. Violence is not only physical, it is now deeply spiritual.
This natural human tendency to return violence with violence and attribute at least some of it to God is found not only in Christianity and Judaism, but as Juergensmeyer points out, in all major religions of the world.
Having said this, what do we do? Some would say that religion itself is the problem and so we just need to get rid of religion. This is Sam Harris’ solution in The End of Faith. While it is true that religion is at the root of much of the world’s violence, religion is also responsible for much of the world’s good, such as schools, hospitals, development projects and community. Getting rid of religion won’t change the human tendency toward self-interest and domination. Such a solution is naïve, and betrays a skewed view of religion.
Some like Nelson-Pallmeyer believe that we need to give up the notion that the Bible is some sort of “sacred text,” and recognize it for what it is – a human document with human prejudices and biases written into it. His rationale goes something like this: Since the authority of the Bible (as well as other so-called “sacred texts” like the Quran) are used to justify violence, we need to respond by rejecting the authority of these “sacred texts.” This then makes it possible for us to excise those parts of the “sacred text” that run against our modern sensibilities and then religiously-inspired violence can be eliminated. He goes so far as to say that Violence is the true god of the Bible. By removing the authority of God in Scripture, we dethrone the sacred god, Violence.
I think Nelson-Pallmeyer goes too far to say that Violence is the God of the Bible. Moreover, I think he goes too far in saying that we should reject the Bible’s authority outright. What people like Nelson-Pallmeyer want is a god who fits their sensibilities, that feels comfortable, and accommodates their politics. While attractive, such an approach seems to miss the point that God is the ultimate Guide in life, and perhaps some humilityon our part is in order.
However, I am caused to ask several probing questions: Is there not a way one can doubt portions of the Bible without a full rejection of Scripture as reflecting the word of God? Is there not a kind of doubt and challenge to the Bible that respects rather than rejects its authority? Is it not true that the Bible itself has questioned the justification of violence in the first place?
I know that last question is true for me, I challenge the “violence-of-God tradition” because of people like Clarence Jordan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi, who saw in Jesus a model of nonviolence and a model of the nonviolent life. I can accept that human biases and tendencies have found their way into the Bible stories without rejecting the overall authority of the Bible. It is a respect for the Biblical story of Jesus that moves me to question the “violence-of-God” images found elsewhere. In that sense the Bible questions itself and corrects itself.
Furthermore, running alongside the violence-of-God tradition is the tradition of the Suffering Servant found in many passages, such as Isaiah 53, Mark 10.45 and Philippians 2.5-11. In those passages Jesus offers a model of life that counters violence with a willingness to suffer. I think of Martin Luther King who said to his adversaries, “Our capacity to endure suffering will match your ability to inflict it.” In his words and example of Jesus showed that not only are Christians called to reject violence, but they also are called to embrace a way of sacrifice and suffering. Suffering overcomes the violence – in essence this is the message of the Cross and the Resurrection.
The message that needs to go out in this time of war is not that God will vindicate us with divine violence, but rather that God calls us to serve through redemptive suffering. What that means is both vague and frightening, and worthy of more thought and a lot more action. When I think of groups like Witness for Peace, Doctors Without Borders, and Christian Peacemakers, I see examples of people extending themselves to the point of suffering to say “no” to violence.
I cannot reconcile myself to the violence I find in Scripture. I am still troubled by battle language and divinely sanctioned violence that I find there. But in Jesus I see another theme emerging that unmasks and disarms violence through the power of redemptive love and suffering. Concretely, what does that mean for me, for us? I am still exploring.