On Wednesday, 17th March we met at Moca to study the important topic of violence in the Bible.
The scene was set with the following study; then followed a lively and very interesting discussion.
God, Jesus, the Bible and violence.
I’ve always found the violence in the Bible troubling – even when I was still an evangelical storm trooper! The Bible is riddled with violence from Genesis to Revelation.
You can read the Bible — from cover to cover — and draw up two contrasting pictures of God. In one, God is a God of violence who expects and commands humans to act violently. In the other, God is a God of non-violence who expects and commands humans to be non-violent and to act with compassion.
In Joel 3: we read: “Beat your ploughshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, ‘I am a warrior’”(Joel 3:10).
Numbers 31: God tells Moses to take vengeance against the Midianites. When the victorious Israelites report to Moses that they have only slaughtered the men, he tells them to go back and kill all the males of whatever age and all the women who aren’t virgins, and to take for themselves the virgins – presumably to use as sex slaves!
Joshua 6: on taking Jericho Joshua tells his men to spare Rahab and “all who belong to her”, then every living thing – men and women, old and young, and all livestock must be put to the sword.
Samuel 15: God tells Saul through Samuel to punish the Amalekites – “do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys”.
It’s important to realise that the Israelites by slaughtering people after taking their towns are not behaving in a godly fashion but are acting as every tribe, civilisation and nation did until armies were paid! (And even sometimes after they were paid!!!)
In contrast Zechariah: says: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor.” (Zechariah 7:9-10).
And in Isaiah and Micah: we read: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4 & Micah 4:3). And “every man will sit under his own vine, and under his own fig-tree, and no-one will make him afraid…..” (Micah 4:4).
Is God non-violent and/or violent? Is it honest to accept only one biblical portrayal of God and, if so, which one?
Even in the New Testament we are given two very different images of Jesus presenting even more difficult questions.
In his “first coming” the non-violent Jesus rides on a donkey into Jerusalem. And as Zechariah says: “he will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow will be broken, and he shall proclaim peace to the nations”. (Zechariah 9:9-10; with V9 quoted in Matthew 21:5).
But then in Revelation at his “second coming” the violent Jesus rides on a “white horse … makes war” and “from his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty” (Revelation 19:11,15).
We have God revealed in a Jesus who is both non-violent in the Gospels and very violent in Revelation. Has Jesus changed or have Christians changed Jesus?
How can we reconcile these two different pictures? Are we to imagine a God of both violence and non-violence? Could it be that a combination of violence and non-violence belongs to God alone and humans must leave violence to God? But we are made in God’s image so does divine violence mean that humans can’t help but be violent? Christians can’t be expected to be the non-violent people of a violent God, can we? As Christians how can we explain the Bible’s contradictory pictures of God?
Our starting point has got to be Jesus of Nazareth. No one has ever seen God. But for Christians, God is visible in the person of Jesus. Central to Christianity is the claim of the incarnation: that Jesus is God made man; that Jesus is the son of God; that Jesus is the image of God; that Jesus shows us what God is like; that Jesus is if you like God in sandals.
Therefore, Jesus is the norm and standard by which we must understand the entire Bible.
John’s Gospel tells us that God so loved the world that he sent us a Person, not a Book, but a person – Jesus (John 3:16). That is why we are followers of Jesus rather than followers of the Book. We are the People of the Person. Not the people of the book! That is why we count time “down” to Jesus birth (BC) and count time “up” from his birth to the present (AD).
But you may ask, how do I know that Jesus himself was non-violent? The best answer comes from Pontius Pilate who executed Jesus publicly but never bothered to round up his followers. Don’t you think that if Jesus had been a violent revolutionary then the Romans would have rounded up his followers and executed them as well. But because Jesus and his followers were non-violent the Romans just executed Jesus and left his followers alone (although from the Gospel accounts the disciples were very fearful of being arrested, as they hid themselves away until they thought they were safe from the threat of arrest).
For me the non-violent character of God is fully revealed in Jesus as the non-violent radical against Roman and Sadducee injustice. Jesus presents the Kingdom of God with its values of non-violence, justice, and compassion as God’s alternative to “the powers that be” obsessed with violence, status, and power.
Secondly, when we read the Bible it is important to understand that we are reading a library rather than a book. It was written by many different people who had very different pictures of what God is like and had very different purposes for writing. If we read the various books of the Bible with an open enquiring mind we’ll see that they are competing against one another with opposing visions of God.
Thirdly, we also need to grasp that throughout the Bible God provides a radical vision for society – one of non-violence, justice and compassion, while all the time “the powers that be” are constantly subverting and undermining that vision with our human obsession for violence, greed, vengeance, status and power. The Bible is a struggle between God making us in God’s non-violent image and we humans making God in our violent image.
Here are some examples of diversions around God’s radical vision:
God says in Leviticus 25: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; and you are but aliens and tenants”.
The powers that be say: “OK, but we can still make loans with land as security. So it’s not about buying and selling but about loaning and foreclosing”. (Foreclosing means that everything is taken and not just the value of the actual debt).
God says in Deuteronomy 23 & Leviticus 25: “You cannot take interest on loans to your fellow countrymen”.
The powers that be say: “OK well perhaps no interest charges, but we can still charge penalties for default, and get another’s land that way”. (Isaiah 5:8 provides judgement against this practice – “woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land”. Also Micah 2:1,2 “…woe to those who plan iniquity…because it is in their power….who covet fields and seize them, and houses and take them….”).
God says in the Law: “In every Sabbatical Year all loans must be cancelled, all debt-slaves freed, and the land get a rest from exploitation”. (Exodus 21:2-11; 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:2-7; Deuteronomy 15:1-2,7-18).
The powers that be say: ”That may be so but we will find loopholes whereby we can transfer our claims to the courts. (The device to avoid cancelling debt was provided by the “Prosbul” – a loophole devised to get round the law of cancelling debts during the Sabbatical year by transferring a creditor’s claim to the courts).
Jesus showed humanity that God is very different and far better than religion up to then had depicted. Jesus personally had the full human experience of failure and rejection – while still forgiving his enemies – and told us; “Follow me” and “do likewise”. Jesus message has always been too much for us and for 2000 years we’ve managed to avoid almost all of his radical teaching.
To briefly recap –
- Jesus is the yardstick and standard by which we understand the entire Bible.
- If we read the various books of the Bible with an open enquiring mind we’ll see that they are competing against one another with opposing visions of God.
- The Bible is a very honest record of the constant struggle between God making us in God’s non-violent image and we humans making God in our violent image.
- In the Bible God provides a radical vision for society – one of non-violence, justice and compassion; while all the time “the powers that be” are constantly subverting and undermining this vision.
- Once we begin to realise what’s going on in the pages of the Bible we can begin to read it with new eyes and change our understanding of much that’s written there.
Questions for discussion:
The Sabbatical/Jubilee principles placed radical social justice at the centre of a fair and harmonious society, one where all people get a fair share of God’s good earth. Do you think these ideas are outdated and inappropriate for modern society? What might modern applied versions of these principles involve doing today?
In Jesus’ time, Rome with the cooperation of the Sadducees was forcing many Jewish families into destitution, with high taxes and land seizures. People who had owned small pieces of land ended up as day labourers. Some Jews – the Zealots – advocated violent rebellion, others chose non-violent resistance. I believe Jesus called for nonviolent resistance to Rome while advocating social justice with regard to land, wages and food. Was he crucified because the Romans saw him as a threat to stability and the Sadducees saw him as a threat to their financial activities?
Jesus came proclaiming the message that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Yet “the powers that be” continually say: “We are about power and wealth. Who are you to bring up this social justice thing? It’s nothing but a race to the bottom!” Is this how God’s radical vision for society has continually been subverted, and undermined?
Ideas for further study?
Does God really need Jesus – his only son – to be a blood sacrifice before God could love what he has created? Is God really that needy, unloving, unfree and unable to forgive? Is violence and vengeance really the way of the universe? Does a violent theory of redemption legitimise violence as a way of problem solving in human affairs? What does Franciscan Incarnational Theology have to say on these questions?
Was violence legitimised in Christianity when it became the religious arm of the Roman Empire? As a result was the life and teaching of Jesus sidelined and spiritualised so as not to offend the “powers that be”? Was Christ emphasised at the expense of Jesus? Was God portrayed as Jupiter/Zeus and Christ as the Emperor?
Haven’t all Christian groups & denominations evaded major parts of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, Jesus’ warning about idolising “mammon,” his example of non-violence, the parable of the sheep & the goats, and his instruction to love our enemies and forgive 70 X 7. Jesus has always been too difficult for us!