Laying down the sword: why we can’t ignore the Bible’s violent verses by Phillip Jenkins
Just like I am a fan of the fiction Laurie B. King, P.D. James and Connie Willis, I am a fan of the non-fiction of Philip Jenkins. Jenkins’ works have focused on religion, sometimes in an historical sense (Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years), sometimes more as a reporter (The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity). An academic who writes widely in the popular press, Jenkins uses a nice blend of scholarship and accessibility that hits the interested amateur just right.
Here he is looking at the Bible verses where God commands and commends violence, genocide and murder. Indeed, those who refuse to kill in His name with sufficient ruthlessness are punished. Why do these obscure texts matter? They have been used throughout the centuries to justify war and cruelty. They are being quoted now, as Israel readies an attack on Iran. They are a scandal to believers (when they acknowledge them) and a weapon for those who attack Christianity.
Jenkins starts by looking at the violent verses of the Koran and how they have been used to attack Islam. But this is just a prelude to looking at the many more violent verses in the Bible. God orders genocide, the wiping out of entire cities and peoples. He looks favorably on murder if it involves killing religiously mixed couples. He punishes those who fail to be sufficiently ruthless.
What has this wrought? The Crusades used the verses to justify what most would consider immoral and unChristian actions. So did Cromwell in Ireland (excuse me while I pause to spit on his grave). So did English Christians when faced with moving into their Canaan in North America. So did Southern racists when faced with mixed marriages. So do modern racists (check any news feed for Phineas priesthood, which had nothing to do with my love of Phineas and Ferb). Then listen to Israeli politicians and U.S. right wingers cite the Amalekites as a model for how to deal with Iran. This is a past that is truly alive.
Jenkins has suggestions for how to handle the matter. Can’t pretend that the verses aren’t there, because they keep resurfacing. Can’t claim they are all in the past, as they keep resurfacing. Can’t claim that no true Christian / Jew would use them, as they keep being used in God’s name. Can’t spiritualize them, unless we face those who want to bring them to action in our time. Jenkins helps place the texts in context with the times they were written in and makes suggestions concerning how to use them in a way consistent with modern Judeo-Christian religion. He also considers the impact of ignored verses on those who consider the Bible infallible or a word for word prescription on how to live.
This is a thought provoking book for Christians and Jews alike, while the historical parts would be useful to anyone who loves history.