I have been thinking a lot lately about stories of violence. Both stories of terrible things happening out there in the world (the attacks in Paris and Beirut, the bombing in Nigeria, the on-going violence in Syria and in so many other places) and stories of violence in our sacred texts. Just as there seems to be no shortage of violence in our world, there is no shortage of violence in our sacred stories. And what is most unsettling is when it is asserted that this violence is somehow connected to God.
The terrorists who carried out the attacks in Paris last Friday seem to be connected to those doing violence in Syria and Beirut, and they like to cite verses in the Quran as justification for what they are doing. In other words, they like to say that they are doing God’s work and carrying out God’s will. As many prominent Islamic scholars have pointed out, their theology is the result of what I like to call a bad digestion of their scripture, and the interpretive tradition that surrounds it. In other words, they are taking verses out of context and cherry-picking from their tradition to justify their own violence. I have no doubt that the leaders of their movement do believe that they are doing God’s work. But I also think their desire to do violence came first, and searched the Quran with its twisted lens to find what it needed to justify itself.
Lest us Christians be tempted to think ourselves better than that, I would remind us all that while violence in the name of Islam may currently be the focus of our attention, violence in the name of Christ has recurred many times in history. The most infamous example that comes to mind, perhaps, are the Crusades. But the Lord’s Resistance Army has been operating in Africa for a number of years now essentially as a Christian terror group, and the Ku Klux Klan’s long history in America is also a history of terror dressed up within a twisted interpretation of the Christian tradition.
Just as there are those who twist the Islamic tradition by focusing on Quranic verses and stories that seem to show God either doing violence or endorsing it, so there are those who do the same with the Bible. And there is no shortage of stories in the Bible that seem to involve God in violence: acting directly against people (as in the flood story in Genesis), or ordering people to do violence to each other (as in some of the stories connected to ancient Israel’s entrance into the promised land), or seeming to justify the use of violence (as in legal injunctions requiring capital punishment). When these sorts of stories are read casually, and without much digestion, it is frighteningly easy to convince one’s self that God endorses the use of violence.
But for those who us who are Christian, claiming to be followers of Jesus, all these stories that seem to involve God in violence must be read and understood through Jesus and his proclamation of the kingdom or reign of God. It is this Jesus who told us to turn the other cheek and counseled us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. It is this Jesus who forbade his disciples to fight against those who came to arrest him, and who allowed himself to be killed on the cross. Jesus dedication to non-violence was deep and profound.
Christians trust that when we see and hear Jesus, we are seeing and hearing God expressed in the context of a human life. Thus, if we see in Jesus a commitment to non-violence, then it seems to me we must conclude that this is a proclamation of God’s own non-violence. In other words, we must conclude that God is not involved in violence. Rather than being something sacred, violence is revealed to be something secular. It is revealed to be a human thing, not a divine thing.
So what, then, are we to do with all these stories that seem to involve God in violence? We are, I think, to understand them as stories that are, in fact, revelatory of our devotion to violence, a devotion that runs so deep in us that we will go to great lengths to justify it. And that includes using God and claiming divine command or approval of our violent acts. We are accustomed to thinking of the Bible as teaching us about God — and it does. But it also teaches us about ourselves.
The philosopher René Girard, who died just recently, saw in the way the gospels present the crucifixion of Jesus an incredible honesty: they show the crucifixion as exactly what it was, an act of murder by people who were deeply fearful of who Jesus was and what he represented. Girard believed that the crucifixion narrative had the power to reach out to us and reveal to us our own violence, the way in which we make others into victims for all sorts of reasons. When we read the rest of the Bible in the light of what the crucifixion reveals about us, then the connection between God and violence is broken, and we see these older stories for what they are: human attempts to justify their own violence.
But notice what Christians did with the crucifixion story. Rather than allowing it to stand as an event that revealed our own violence, we turned it into a story about God’s violence. We constructed elaborate theologies that imagined that God needed or wanted Jesus to die so that we could be forgiven. We turned the crucifixion of Jesus into a fairy tale about God’s need for violence rather than allowing it to be an honest, deeply real story about our own need for violence. And if we are able to imagine God needing the death of the one we call God’s Son, then we can imagine God needing all kinds of violence in the service of some supposedly righteous end.
There perhaps has never been a greater need in the human family than there is today for us to seriously go about doing the work of deconstructing the myth of sacred violence in our religious traditions. As we begin to really get in touch with the truth that God is not involved with violence, it will become much harder for us to justify our own violence in God’s name.