Thursday, May 8, 2014

Violence and the Bible

What are Christians to do with all the violent passages in the Bible? Most of the time we avoid them, or forget them, or spiritualize them. Like the Sunday School lessons from the Old Testament for children, we sanitize these violent stories in order to draw out some spiritual lesson. Lately, though both Christian and non-Christian authors have been drawing our attention back to the violent parts of the Bible and asking uncomfortable questions. Philip Jenkins, a historian at Baylor, in a 2011 book entitled Laying Down the Sword wants Christians to play by the same rules they want Islam to play by. It's not fair to judge Islam by certain violent words in the Koran when we make exceptions for the violent parts of the Bible. There is no doubt the Bible has some ugly, nasty stuff in it, a whole lot of blood is shed. What has God got to do with it? Mark Buchanan in a recent issue of Christianity Today referred to passages in Scripture that make God look like a cosmic bully throwing a colossal tantrum. Non - Christian authors want to know how Christians can relate to a God who would order the destruction of an entire people, the Cannanites.

Many years ago there was a Christian bishop, Marcion, who decided the only way to deal with the wrathful God depicted in the Old Testament was to get rid of the Old Testament. The God of the OT was not the same God of the NT. Other Christian leaders wisely saw the error of Marcion's way and strongly asserted that the Old Testament does not show us a different God from the New Testament or one whose purposes or character are fundamentally distorted from what we find in the New Testament. As Buchanan says, the God of Moses is the God of Paul.

Even so it is important for Christians to "own" the story and stories in the Bible and not explain them away or simply take a spiritual message from them. What spiritual lesson can we draw from Jael putting a tent peg through Sisera's skull (Judges 5) or the graphically told account of the disemboweling of Eglon (Judges 3)? Judges is full of such violent stories, some told with coarse humor. What's the point? Barry Webb, an OT scholar and author of a commentary on Judges, points out that Judges is interpreted history. Judges gives us a theological interpretation of the history of some of Israel's heroes (the Judges). They were men and women who were defined by their violence. Judges gives us that violence but it is reworked theologically. So, Webb says, "the challenge for those of us who read it as Scripture is not whether we can identify with the violence but whether we can identify with the theology that frames and interprets it."

That is not saying, oh well, if it can be explained theologically then it's not so bad really, is it? Webb says, there may never be a way to dispel the  unease we feel over some of the violent passages in the Bible. The point of theology is not to give us a tidy way to deal with human suffering so we can feel better about it. But, he cautions, a response based totally on our feelings is also inadequate. Part of the challenge of being a Christian, he says, is to bring our thoughts and feelings under the discipline of scriptural teaching. A thing is not necessarily wrong because it is presented in an insensitive way or because we experience a strong negative reaction to it.

Webb gives us a few guidelines which may help when dealing with some of the violent passages in Judges and other places in the Bible. First, culture is not morally neutral, it is the manifestation of what humans are. Second, the nature of evil is far too deep and  complex to be dealt with by the punishment of this person or that act. There have been times and there are times when things are so bad that "root and branch" judgment is justified, i.e., Noah's day, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Canannites. Third, not all religion is good and it is not a guarantee of protection from divine judgement. Both Canaan and Israel are judged in Judges.

The cross was a tool of violence, too. On the other side of the Cross followers of Jesus find themselves in a totally different environment. "God has taken the sword of his wrath and plunged it into his own heart." (Webb) Christians share in the victory of Christ by embracing suffering. Our weapons of warfare are God's Word and prayer. Evil is overcome, as Jesus did, not by preserving our life but by laying it down. Wrath remains only for those who refuse to do this and it is God's place to judge them, not ours. (Webb)

Judges is no model for Christian living. But, it and other troubling passages in the Old Testament canon contribute to our understanding of faith, the character of God, the human condition, and divine judgment. If we find Judges shocking, that may be a good thing. (Webb).