Violence & Sacred Texts

KnockoutA few years ago, I made a retreat at a Trappist monastery near Atlanta, Georgia.  One of the things I love about going to a monastery of this kind is the way in which the monks get up at 3:30 in the morning for the first prayer service of the day (I know — it sounds crazy, but there’s something particularly sacred about that time of the day).  At that early morning service, the monks read through the Bible more or less in order, and at the time I was visiting, it just so happened that they were reading through the Book of Judges.

Now, Judges is rather a violent book.  At its heart, it is about a woman who is raped, and the violent revenge that is visited upon the perpetrator’s people by her people (the people of Israel).   It is not easy to hear.  At some point in the course of my visit, one of the more elderly monks apologized to us.  He said, “I’m sorry you’re here when we’re reading Judges.”  He went on to say that he had been telling the abbott for years that the Book of Judges shouldn’t be read in church because of its horrible violence.  He felt there was no spiritual value to it.  “We can’t change the Bible,” he said, “but we can decide what we read from it.”

The monk’s comments touch on two important issues:  the violence that appears in our sacred texts (including, and perhaps most particularly, the violence attributed to or sanctioned by God) and the nature of the texts themselves.

For many people, the Bible seems like a book that fell from heaven, written by God.  After all, we call it “the Word of God”, don’t we?  Yet the truth of the matter is that the Bible arose out of the experiences of two particular groups of human beings – the people of Israel in the case of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and the early Christian community in the case of the New Testament.  The texts that ended up in our Bible are there because people in those groups decided that those texts were sacred.  And in some cases, like the Book of Judges, it’s not always easy to discern why.  When we realize that the ancients exercised some discernment in determining what would be included in the Bible, we should be helped to realize that we have the right – indeed, I would argue, the obligation – to exercise discernment and judgment in determining when, where, and how we read those texts.  And despite what some people may tell you, nobody uses the whole of the Bible in support of their spiritual journey.  True, some people have a practice of reading the entire Bible every year.  But that doesn’t mean they give equal regard to every part of it.  Everyone has their “favorite” verses or passages that are particularly meaningful to them.  In other words, everyone is already exercising some discernment with respect to their Bible reading, even if that discernment is nothing more than “this passage speaks to me” and “this passage doesn’t speak to me.”

When we realize our responsibility with respect to our sacred texts, it becomes a bit easier to deal with the problem of violence in the Bible, and especially God-initiated or -sanctioned violence.  When we realize that the texts arise from human experience, when we realize that the Bible in many ways represents the human struggle to be in relationship with God and to make some sense of that relationship, then we can appreciate how deeply human the biblical texts are.  And that makes them capable not only of revealing to us something of the mystery of God, but also capable of revealing to us something of the truth of our own humanity.  And so the question that we must always ask in relation to any biblical text is this:  is this text telling me about God or is it telling me about myself and my fellow human beings?

There are a number of people who suggest that, when we ask this question in relation to the biblical texts in which either God inflicts violence on others or seems to sanction human violence against other people, we are not so much being told about God as we are being told about ourselves, and about humanity generally.  They suggest that in the Bible, human beings have made our problem with violence God’s problem, so as to make the use of violence seem acceptable.  When you think about it, this is not much of a stretch.  Consider the justifications for using violence that you have heard in your own life.  How many times have you heard political leaders justify the use of violence by implying (or even directly saying) that God is on their/our side?  Is this not an attempt to validate the use of violence by arguing that it has divine sanction?  So it is not so difficult to imagine biblical writers doing the same thing.  It is not hard to imagine that those who wove the history of Israel with the story of Israel’s experiences of God wanted to justify the violent episodes of that history by appealing to divine authority or even divine agency.

What is perhaps remarkable, given the ease with which human beings resort to violence, is how many texts there are in the Bible that oppose violence, and long for a transformation of the human heart that would bring about peace both within and without.  It is these passages, I think, that tell us about God’s dream for us – and that also speak of the deepest longings that are buried within us.

So the next time you read or hear a biblical text that has God wreaking havoc on one’s enemies, ask yourself this critical question:  is this really telling me of God, or is this really a human attempt to justify violence that breaks God’s heart?

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