Thursday, January 08, 2015

Violence and the Bible

Yesterday's barbaric shooting in the newsroom of a satirical French magazine cannot but raise the
question (again) about the supposed connection of religion and violence. The Bible itself seems guilty of promoting murder and mayhem at God's orders: just look at 1 Samuel 15:3 (although if you keep reading to verse 6, that pesky mercy finds its way in). Certainly, over the years I have fielded enough questions on that score! There are not a few places where similar commands are given, so one can be forgiven for assuming that war by obliteration is simply part of God's modus operandi.

And yet.

By the time we get to the prophetic books (800 BC), the people Israel are not Bronze Age warriors on the march to acquire territory. In fact, after a brief golden era (the reign of Solomon, whose very name means "peace"), they had been divided and conquered and are about to lose their land (if, as with the later prophets, they hadn't already been forced into exile). And yet the prophets still use the language of the "ban of destruction"! Sometimes, to encourage the disheartened people, the prophet speaking in God's name promises a ban of destruction against their oppressors, or says that God will strengthen the people so that they will be unconquerable. As much as the recipients of those prophecies may have desired the extermination of Assyria or Babylon it was clear that they were not being commanded to carry something out: it was so far beyond their abilities as to be unthinkable. By this point, the language of the ban was symbolic of complete deliverance--a deliverance brought about solely through God's power.

Somewhere between the Bronze Age and the prophet Isaiah, the people outgrew the old patterns of warfare that characterized their primitive, fundamentally tribal society. Their leaders were no longer rugged chieftains with battle scars, but hereditary kings, priests and scribes--roles that can only develop in a stable culture with the luxury to devote to planning and to books. Even when Jerusalem was conquered and subjected to a ban of destruction, the king, nobles and most of the population was not put to the sword, but taken to Babylon as exiles, while the poorest of the people were left to live off the land. Total extermination was no longer a tool of war. There is one late witness to a kind of "ban of destruction" shortly before the Roman period, when the now-Jewish people was being itself obliterated under the Seleucids and the Maccabees reverted to the tactic to defend the recently restored Temple. (As a sign that this was a reversion to primitive conditions, the early Maccabees and their sympathizers had fled the city to live in caves.)

The Bible itself witnesses that the "ban of destruction," the wholesale slaughter of populations within a settlement (along with the destruction of the houses and cattle) was not so much God's command as it was simple, untrammeled human violence projected onto God; a form of violence very much tied up with what could be called a developmental stage not only in human civilization, but also with the growing knowledge of God. The famous dictum "quidquid recipitur" (that which is received is received according to the mode of the receiver) applies here. "When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son" to make even more explicit what God's actual intentions for human society are: "Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you" (see Luke 6); "Bless those who curse you; do not repay evil for evil" (see Romans 12).

So, no: the Bible, read and interpreted as a whole (no cherry picking!) does not condone or sacralize violence. Given our fallen state, however, it may be a constant temptation even for Christians. Aren't shunning, dismissing people (or whole groups) on the basis of their leftist or rightist stance on a particular issue, scapegoating, labeling or calumny simply milder, perhaps more sophisticated forms of the ban?

For some insightful reading, I recommend the books of James Alison. Here's a sample. This is what I'm reading right now (second go-through, this time with a pencil!). This is what's waiting on my bookshelf.

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