Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Trickle-Down Effect of Justifying a Violent God

Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world.
Walter Wink, Engaging The Powers

If one decides to put on soldier’s gear instead of carrying one's cross, one should not seek legitimation in the religion that worships the crucified Messiah. For there, the blessing is given not to the violent but to the meek.
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace
Where we come from, two important aspects of the pastoral hiring litmus test within Christian Evangelicalism are (1) a firm commitment to an "apolitical" Jesus and (2) a clear-cut subscription to biblical "inerrancy." If an applicant gets either of these two "wrong," then he (and it's virtually always a "he" in Evangelicalism) will be automatically disqualified from the job. We've observed these in play with multiple pastors at Evangelical churches. The Bible, for them and their congregations, must be error-free and self-evident and they must never get "political" with their interpretations (and this framing almost always makes room for two key political issues: gay marriage and abortion).

We can appreciate the need for common convictions within congregations, but we continue to observe a disconcerting brand of fear that plagues the minds and hearts of those aspiring to pastoral leadership with a trickle-down effect on congregations. Many questions are off-limits ("don't even go there") and there becomes a overwhelming need to defend the whole project (what Evangelicals call "apologetics") from the sincere questions of non-believers, not to mention fellow heretical Evangelicals (like him and him).

One key voice of the apologetic project is Biola-Talbot Seminary's William Lane Craig, just 30 miles up the freeway from us. Craig recently crafted a blog post responding to questions about the disturbing slaughter of Canaanites in the Hebrew Bible. How could God possibly command the recently exodused Israelites wipe out an entire people group, even women and children?! Craig responds:

According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God. Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill. He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are. For example, I have no right to take an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses. We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.” Human authorities arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God. God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second. If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.

...So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives. The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them. Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder? No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder. The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their own initiative, it would have been wrong.

For Craig, God can do whatever he wants...because he's God. This "sovereignty" is the conversation killer, placing God on the throne without further discussion. Here's the logic: if God says so, it has to be right. And therein lies the problem: if God said so at some point in history, then it is possible for God once again to say so now.

Craig continues:

By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable. It was His way of preserving Israel’s spiritual health and posterity. God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives

Genocide is justified in order to protect the physical and spiritual health of God's People. This is how favored-nation status works. And if children's lives are cut decades short, it's no big deal because they go to heaven when they die (the nitty-grityy socio-political reality deferred for a soulish salvation beyond history).

But Craig continues:

...Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.

So the real victims in this whole atrocity are the Israelites themselves who are forced to kill women and children out of their faith and duty to the God of the universe. Not the Canaanites. Not God.

But Craig's whole post slowly winds down to his real agenda: juxtaposing Christianity (loving religion) and Islam (violent religion).

Islam sees violence as a means of propagating the Muslim faith. Islam divides the world into two camps: the dar al-Islam (House of Submission) and the dar al-harb (House of War). The former are those lands which have been brought into submission to Islam; the latter are those nations which have not yet been brought into submission. This is how Islam actually views the world!

By contrast, the conquest of Canaan represented God’s just judgement upon those peoples. The purpose was not at all to get them to convert to Judaism! War was not being used as an instrument of propagating the Jewish faith. Moreover, the slaughter of the Canaanites represented an unusual historical circumstance, not a regular means of behavior.

The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it’s that it has got the wrong God. If the Muslim thinks that our moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, then I agree with him. But Muslims and Christians differ radically over God’s nature. Christians believe that God is all-loving, while Muslims believe that God loves only Muslims. Allah has no love for unbelievers and sinners. Therefore, they can be killed indiscriminately. Moreover, in Islam God’s omnipotence trumps everything, even His own nature. He is therefore utterly arbitrary in His dealing with mankind. By contrast Christians hold that God’s holy and loving nature determines what He commands.

Craig's major dilemma is that his account does not match up with reality. Does Craig know anything about Christian history since Constantine? And how about the colonial baggage from 1492 until yesterday? Triumphalistic, married-to-political-power Christianity (an overwhelming majority of Christians since the early 4th century) has, indeed, divided "the world into two camps," justifying political violence and economic greed and racism to get the indigenous peoples of the "Third World" saved by any means necessary. May the words of Jomo Kenyatta (the first President of Kenya) ring in our ears forever as a reminder of just how savage Christianity has been:

When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, we had the Bible in our hand, and they had the land.

But, sadly, the beat goes on. Some of our American political leaders continue to justify military adventures as "God's Will," as the American Department of Defense decorate their top-secret intelligence briefings with "inspirational" Bible Verses. In short, events have discredited Craig's commentary on competing religions.

But Craig is always armed with "logic" to defend his brand of Christianity:

1. Whatever God teaches is true.
2. Historical, prophetic, and other evidences show that Jesus is God.
3. Therefore, whatever Jesus teaches is true.

4. Whatever Jesus teaches is true.
5. Jesus taught that the Scriptures are the inspired, inerrant Word of God.
6. Therefore, the Scriptures are the inspired, inerrant Word of God.

This is how Absolute Truth works. Cling to certainty by using the veto power of God's Sovereignty and prove your moral highground with Deductive Logic. And if the pagans and heretics do not share your same rationality: to hell with them. Literally.

Yet all of this would actually not be that big a deal if this worldview was confined to Craig's classes or a small circle of Christians in Orange County. However, at its core, this is how most Evangelicals think about the Bible, God and everything else there is. This brand of Christianity makes up more than a quarter of the American population and represents the faith of many political and corporate elites who not only hold power, but also garner tremendous influence through the media outlets that they own, control and/or sponsor.

Yet we do not place the blame on Joe-&-Jill-Six-Pack-Evangelical who are consumed with trying to stay afloat in the American social and economic realm: pay the mortgage, coach the little league team & attend the local church (they never have time to even consider the perversity of God-ordained genocide in the Bible). Since Constantine, in manifold ways, this brand of Christian theology has trickled down from on high, from the ones who truly benefit from its convictions. If God is a man who has justified violence before and is really only concerned about getting people's souls saved for heaven, then He will probably ordain war again. And, surely, corporations and political leaders who benefit from war (overwhelmingly male & wealthy) will justify the widening of their own wargames and profit margins. This is the counterfeit Christian consciousness we must courageously question.
At EasyYolk, we do not find Craig's arguments justifying God's violence in the Hebrew Bible compelling and we are gravely concerned that this kind of logic continues to justify violence within a variety of brands of American Christianity (not just Evangelicalism). The whole system of Evangelicalism perpetuates the problem: their Bible is error-free, their God is arbitrarily sovereign and those who disagree with their interpretation of Jesus' death go to hell.

We believe that the Bible should be studied more carefully and more critically and with a lot more sensitivity to how the Bible has actually been used to justify the sins of many powerful elites throughout the 100 generations of Christianity. The irony is that when other sincere Christian pastors and scholars interpret the Bible differently than them, Evangelical leaders like Craig schlep them off as "trying to get away with" sin (this is often used in current debates about sexuality, especially homosexuality). In reality, throughout history, the Bible has been (and still is) used by Christians in leadership positions "to get away with" war, slavery, patriarchy, white privilege, ecological rape and bloated bank accounts.

We believe that passages in the Hebrew Bible that narrate God commanding his People to slaughter their rivals unveil the slow progress of God's Spirit redeeming the world. The Bible is multivalient, with a plethora of voices making sincere claims about this mysterious and powerful God who creates the universe (but not exactly like it says in the first couple pages of Genesis) and is determined to heal it (but not exactly like it says in the last couple pages of Revelation). Some of these voices in the ears of these marginalized people consistently whispered violence and domination, both interpersonally and politically. These voices reveal our own human penchant towards revenge and greed, and we can constructively use these narratives to "take our own inventory" and be reminded of the tragedy of the subtle justification of violence.

There is a prophetic strand, however, that weaves through the Bible, illuminating a God who loves every tribe in the human race with passion, inclusivity and forgiveness. This God is climactically revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the one that original Christians called the the Prince of Peace, who put a stamp on real success: humble service to society's most vulnerable while confronting the oppressors with nonviolent the point of death (something that rabbinic Judaism was calling for centuries before Jesus). If we are going to be like God, then we will love our rivals, not slaughter them. Christians are those who refuse to use violence no matter what...because that's what God did when God became enfleshed in humanity. This is what virtually every Christian believed for the first 3 centuries and what a minority report has believed since.

The words from the Hebrew Bible that claim God commanded the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites on their way to cleanse the Promised Land and keep their nation pure were written by human beings who saw God through a glass darkly. Over time, through the prophets and on through the Gospels, worshippers of God were penetrated by the mysterious nudges of God's Spirit and understood more clearly just how strange and subversive this Creator and Healer truly is. But in the Hebrew Bible, "God planted a seed of nonviolence" (James McClendon, Ethics) in the exodus rescue. The greatest moment in Israelite history was not a raw military victory, but a great escape from Empire that was sealed with a natural disaster (Exodus 14:14)...miraculously, Yahweh did all the work.

In closing, we simply ask that readers consider that, perhaps, the Bible can still be tremendously authoritative and transformative without being "inerrant" and that the God-Revealed-in-Christ is thoroughly socio-political because God cares about the plight of both the poor/marginalized/oppressed/vulnerable, as well as the powerful oppressor/ruler/elite/comfortable/privileged. We ask that you consider joining this God in a scandalous commitment to nonviolence in every aspect of your life.


  1. I think its really important that you highlight action. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and many Evangelicals also try to pave that road with apologetic logic games... highlighting and playing up the violence of the competition, while down-playing (and at worst, explaining away) their own long history of violence against the non-Christian "Other." Do I think these Evangelical apologists are bad people? No (most of them are actually really likeable - they are just shaped by a system of Absolute Truth that says their way is the only way and that "truly loving" the other means convincing them of this, by any means necessary - afterall, the others' eternal salvation depends on it... or so the logic goes). Having been there myself, I think that at best, many Evangelicals have the tendency to try so hard to "make the sell", that the rules of respectful, self-critical, honest discourse are discarded. Its kind of like a bad first date, where the other person tries so hard to play himself up, exaggerating the good, hiding the bad... slandering and misrepresenting the competition... all the while not even realizing how dishonest and manipulative he is being (nor how blind/in denial he is about his own glaring weaknesses and ugliness), so concentrated is he on winning the prize.... so its understandable (not okay), but we all do this at some point or another. But this is not a faith (or way of life) worthy of another date (certainly not if it is going to continue on such a foundation lacking in self-critical reflection, humility, and honest self- and other- appraisal). My prayer is that we can move beyond in-grouping and out-grouping in order to see (and practice!) the deeper truth that everything belongs. This is such a HARD way to see and live... may God help us put more of our energy here, and less into self-protecting/-justifying.

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  3. Preach it, Brother Gavin! So encouraged by the commitment and courage of voices like yours. You help bolster my faith that, as that great non-violent leader once said, we will in fact "be the change we wish to see in the world."

  4. I absolutely agree that non violence is the answer whenever possible. But one need only look to the example of Jesus driving the moneychangers from the temple to see that certain levels of perversity justify physical force. Is anyone naive enough to think that the Lord didn't use the "whip made from cords" to strike out at them? At the very least, His _intent_ is undeniable. Non-lethal force is justified at times. It is certainly on a "case by case" basis, but sometimes evil deserves, and will only be motivated by, a swift kick in the pants.