In the temple courts [Jesus] found men selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my father’s house into a market.”
John 2: 14-16
Violence Without End
The Hebrew Bible, known by most Christians as the Old Testament, is one of the most violent books ever written. According to Biblical scholar Raymund Schwager, there are six hundred passages of overt violence in the Old Testament and one thousand verses describing God’s own violent acts of punishment. In addition, there are a hundred passages where God orders others to kill people. And as Walter Wink has noted, in some of these Biblical accounts of violence, “God irrationally kills or tries to kill for no apparent reason.”
Beginning with the murder of Abel by his brother, Cain, in the book of Genesis and continuing through the entire Old Testament to the books of Zechariah and Malachi, there are endless accounts of murder, rape, mayhem, war, and genocide, not to mention adultery, polygamy, incest, and prostitution as well as a plethora of stories describing examples of the so-called “seven deadly sins” of pride, envy, anger, dejection, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Indeed, much of the Hebrew Bible reads like the screenplay of a cheap XXX-rated movie.
Thirty-three of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament contain explicit acts of violence. Although the kidnapping of Joseph by his brothers, David’s slaying of Goliath with a slingshot, Saul’s attempted murder of David, Daniel’s encounter with the lions, and Jonah’s bout with the whale are popular stories in children’s Sunday school classes, the violence described in these stories pales in comparison to the violence and chaos found throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Consider the following examples:
In Deuteronomy (20: 13-14) the Lord admonishes the Jews to “put to the sword” all men in Canaan. “As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves.” Indeed, the entire book of Joshua is about the violent conquest of Canaan and the division of the land among the twelve tribes. In 1 Chronicles (21:5) we learn that, “In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who could handle a sword.” God threatens in Isaiah (24:1) to “lay waste the earth and devastate it; to ruin its face and scatter its inhabitants.” Later in Isaiah, Jehovah speaks of “vengeance and retribution,” saying (63:6) “I trampled the nations in my anger; in my wrath I made them drunk and poured their blood on the ground.”
“Cut off the heads of all the people – those who are left I will kill with the sword,” orders God in Amos. And in Haggai we read, “I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.”
In The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine’s unrestrained attack on the authority of the Bible published in 1794, the author had this to say about the Bible:
When we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God.
The pre-eminent atheist Richard Dawkins expressed these sentiments even more forecfully in his 2006 book The God Delusion:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, ifanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
This is very heavy stuff. Who is this God? What’s going on here? Is this the same God whose son Jesus tells us, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” a few pages later in the New Testament? What does it all mean?
But the New Testament is hardly free of violence. The defining event in the Gospels is the crucifixion of Jesus followed by his resurrection. We also read about the stoning of Stephen, rioting in Ephesus, arming Christian soldiers in Ephesus, and rebellion and lawlessness in Thessalonians.
And then there is Revelation – the most mysterious, the most fascinating, the most troubling, and one of the most violent books in the Bible. With its cabalistic collage of loosely connected images of chaos, violence, rebellion, and salvation, Revelation is an enigma to most theologians. Some have even speculated on what its author, thought to be the apostle John, was smoking when he wrote the bizarre concluding book of the Bible.
Everything comes up in sevens in Revelation – seven lampstands, seven churches, seven seals, seven angels, seven trumpets, seven thunders, seven bowls, seven spirits, seven stars, and seven plagues. The book is filled with grotesque-looking creatures including a lamb, a lion, an ox, a great speckled bird, a red dragon, a woman clothed with the sun, and a beast of the sea. Some of the creatures have six wings and are covered with eyes all around, even under their wings. The beast of the sea has “ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns and on each head a blasphemous name.” It resembles a leopard, but has feet like those of a bear and a mouth like a lion. This is pretty scary stuff!
Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1956 film “The Seventh Seal” is based on the story in Revelation of the seven-sealed scroll whose seals represent respectively conquest, war, famine, death, martyrs, cataclysm, and the ultimate triumph of Jesus Christ. A half hour after the seventh seal is opened there are peals of thunder, flashes of lightning, and a tremendous earthquake. The battle of Armageddon is about to begin—the final battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.
There are the thundering hoofbeats of the red, white, black, and pale horses of the four horsemen of the apocalypse representing respectively war, deception, hunger, and death. Out of their mouths come fire, smoke, and sulfur killing a third of mankind. There are also seven angels with seven plagues and seven bowls of God’s wrath. Blood, fire, and chaos are everywhere. The end of the world is near.
But in the midst of all of this turmoil, a great speckled bird flies a lone woman to safety in the middle of a desert. The city of sin, Babylon, falls, and Jesus arrives on a white horse dressed in fine, white linen and a robe dipped in blood. “His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns.” Out of his mouth comes “a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.” The beasts are destroyed and Satan is thrown in a lake of burning sulfur. Out of this confusion the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, emerges and Jesus promises to return someday soon.
If there is a God, we can only hope and pray that he or she is not the one portrayed in the Bible.
A Theology of Rebellion
What do we make of all of the violence found in the Bible – particularly in the Old Testament? How are we to rationalize this violence in light of Jesus’ message “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” How is it possible to have it both ways – violence and nonviolence?
Theologian Walter Wink in his book The Powers That Be suggests that the violence in the Old Testament does not originate with God but rather is a projection onto God by those who seek revenge. Wink points out that “God’s alleged punishments are usually carried out by human beings attacking each other.” God’s followers project their own anger on God and make God as angry as they. All of this is related to Wink’s theory of scapegoating in which we humans typically blame all our problems on someone else. We seem to have great difficulty in assuming responsibility for our own plight.
Although we do not reject Wink’s analysis of the source of violence in the Old Testament, we do think that it is somewhat oversimplified. Violence is a form of rebellion and rebellion is grounded in the human condition.
The Bible is replete with stories about the human condition including the story of Adam and Eve and original sin in Genesis, the plight of Job, and the book of Ecclesiastes. So important is meaninglessness that the entire book of Ecclesiastes is devoted to this subject.
Our fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits us both; as one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; we have no advantage over the animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
How many times have you heard a minister or a priest preach a sermon based on Ecclesiastes, arguably one of the most important books in the Bible? In my own case, the answer is, “Never.” In ”feel good” mainline churches in America, meaninglessness and death are not considered to be politically correct sermon topics.
During Biblical times, what was humankind’s response to separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and death? Very often it was to rebél. Since nonviolent rebellion was still uncommon at that time, rebellion often took the form of violence against family members, tribal members, other tribes, and even God Almighty. Murder, rape, mayhem, war, and genocide were among the options exercised by Biblical rebels including Abraham, Ahab, David, Gideon, Isaiah, Jephthah, Jeremiah, Joshua, Malachi, Moses, Samson, Saul, and Zechariah to mention only a few. Jacob actually had a wrestling match with the Lord and won!
The human condition, authority, law, tradition, and culture were all targets of Biblical rebellion. God also rebelled quite violently from time to time resulting in widespread death and destruction. “It is the God of the Old Testament who is primarily responsible for mobilizing the forces of rebellion,” said Albert Camus in The Rebel..
So threatening was Jesus’ life of loving, caring, sharing, and healing to the prevailing culture, that he had to go. Just as the crucifixion of Jesus was an act of rebellion, so too was his steadfast refusal to resist the advances of his protagonists. In his final act of rebellion as life slipped away, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God chose not to reply.
The Game of Life
Is it possible that the human condition itself not only engenders rebellion but violence as well? To better understand the relationship between the human condition and rebellion we turn to game theory, a method of analyzing complex decision-making situations in which the choices of two or more individuals or groups influence one another. The historical origin of game theory can be traced back to the 1944 book by Hungarian-born mathematician John von Neumann and Austrian economist Oskar Morgenstern entitled The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. We employ game theory to analyze the game of life — the game between God and 6.3 billion human beings.
In game theory each player is assumed to have a known payoff function, which depends upon the strategy selected by that player and the strategies selected by other players. A strategy is simply one of a number of courses of action available to each player.
According to psychologist Harold Maslow, human payoff functions depend on the degree to which fundamental human needs are satisfied. These needs include hunger, thirst, safety, love, and self-actualization, not to mention money, power, and things.
But where does God fit into the picture? Over ninety percent of Americans believe in God, and nearly seventy-five percent believe there is a heaven where good people go when they die. If there is a God, who is this God? Deists believe God created the world and its natural laws but takes no active part in its functioning. Pantheists, on the other hand, believe God is not a personality but the sum of all beings, things, forces, etc. in the universe. They believe in the worship of all gods. And then there are theists who are convinced that there is only one God who is creator and ruler of the universe. This God is an interventionist.
What is the nature of God? In the Bible you can find any kind of God you want – beneficent, vengeful, loving, caring, cruel, powerful, evil, active, passive, arrogant, narcissistic, egocentric, vindictive, omnipotent, or a mixture of various combinations of these attributes. And how does God expect to be treated by humankind? Does God wish to be praised, loved, adored, worshiped, or ignored by us? These are tough questions, and the Bible doesn’t shed much light on their answers. Those who claim to have pat answers to these questions are kidding themselves.
Games can be classified in a number of different ways. A constant-sum game is one in which the payoffs of all players add up to a fixed constant for all possible outcomes. An example of such a game would be a situation in which several players are competing for a fixed amount of money. There is no advantage to be gained by cooperation among players, and the players are said to have directly conflicting interests. A special case of the constant-sum game is the zero-sum game in which the fixed constant is zero. In zero-sum games, my gain is exactly equal to your loss and vice versa. Often labor-management negotiations in America are played out as though they were zero-sum games in which there is no incentive for cooperation.
The problem of the game of life as depicted in the Bible and otherwise is that the human players have only limited information about the game. We don’t know who we are, why we are here, how we got here, or where we are going. Likewise, we are completely in the dark as to whether there is a God, and if there is one, what kind of God is he or she? Furthermore, the rules of the game, the endgame, and God’s payoff function and strategies have not been revealed to us. Is it any wonder that we are overwhelmed by feelings of separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and fear of death?
What does God want from us? What is expected? What are the rules? What happens if we break the rules? Do we get a second chance? These are the questions. What about the answers?
Bergman’s movie “The Seventh Seal” is the story of a medieval knight returning home from the Crusades through plague-stricken Europe. The knight, played by Max Von Sydow, soon encounters Death, who sportingly agrees to a zero-sum chess game with him. In the balance hang the lives of the knight and an innocent group of traveling players. The film is a stunning allegory of man’s search for meaning when confronted by his mortality. Guess who won the game?
Unlike the chess game between Von Sydow and Death, the game of life is an ill-defined game in which there are no agreed upon rules with an unknown God who possesses an enigmatic payoff function. At best, this makes for a very stressful situation in which to find oneself. That rebellion and violence have erupted from the human condition is hardly surprising. That the United States and Israel are two of the most violent nations in the world flows directly from their Judeo-Christian traditions.
What is unique about Jesus Christ is not that he rebelled against the human condition, but that he rebelled against the violence of the Old Testament.
The problem with Christianity is that it tries to be all things to all people. By retaining the Old Testament in toto, Christianity sends out a very mixed message. On the one hand Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” On the other hand, the Old Testament advocates “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It’s not possible to have it both ways.
This ambiguity in the Bible has surely contributed to what environmentalist Bill McKibben calls “the Christian paradox” in America, “America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in behavior.”
Consider the Vermont Congregational minister who often delivers eloquent anti-war sermons, yet prominently displayed in the sanctuary of his church is the American flag—the patriotic symbol of the American Empire, one of the most violent nations in history. Numerous members of the church are employed by military contractors. The chairman of the board of deacons, who regularly serves communion, works for a company which manufactures the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, the Hydra 70 anti-armor rocket, and the Gatling gun. Other members own shares in defense-related corporations. Shortly after 9/11, one prominent member, who sings in the choir and is in the Army reserve, announced at a church meeting that he couldn’t wait to get over to Afghanistan and “kick some ass.” When the flag issue was brought before the deacons, they refused to even consider it. The vote was unanimous.
Is not the real God in this Congregational church, and many others, the U.S. government which protects our cherished American “way of life”? If you were to poll the members of this congregation, all would profess to believe in Jesus Christ, each justifying his or her own particular stance on violence on the basis of some specific Biblical quotation. Almost any type of behavior can be justified by the Old Testament. For example, Christian fundamentalists often use passages from the Old Testament to justify racism, homophobia, slavery, poverty, war, the death penalty, and killing in self-defense.
Many of the rules of the game of life outlined in the Hebrew Bible are so ambiguous and mutually contradictory, that anything goes. Since the onset of Christianity, self-professed Christian political and military leaders have always led their respective nations into war in the name of God. Indeed, that’s what the Crusades in the 11th through the 13th centuries were all about. American presidents are no exception to the rule. The failure to decouple the New Testament from the Old as well as the failure to expunge whole sections of the Hebrew Bible have done irreparable damage to Christianity for over two millennia and have provided terrorists and militarists alike with a very powerful tool to justify their nihilistic deeds.
However, the New Testament is by no means clean either. There are numerous passages in Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter condoning the subordination of women, children, and slaves. The book of Romans suggests that civil government is inspired by God and, therefore, Christians are obliged to obey their rulers even if it involves carrying out acts of violence.
In a statement made at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg in 1948, unbeliever Albert Camus had this to say about the response of the Roman Catholic Church to the violence of World War II:
What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man.
When a Spanish bishop blesses political executions, he ceases to be a bishop or a Christian or even a man; he is a dog just like the one who, backed by an ideology, orders that execution without doing the dirty work himself.
How is it that for the so-called peace churches such as the Amish, Church of the Brethren, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonites, and Quakers the message of Jesus is so unambiguous? These churches all refuse to take oaths, avoid violence, and refuse to fight in wars.
Although the Bible is one of the most powerful, poignant, and provocative books ever written, it is also one of the most convoluted books of all-time. The vast majority of the millions of readers of this incredible tome are neither Biblical scholars, theologians, psychologists, nor literary critics. How are ordinary mortals supposed to make any sense whatsoever out of this crazy hodgepodge of logical inconsistencies all said to be the inspired word of God? What is one to make of so many mixed messages?
Is there no contemporary Christian scholar with the courage to step forward and write A Christian Manifesto which summarizes the essence of Christianity in the twenty-first century? Such a book would attempt to condense the relevant messages of both the Old and New Testaments into fewer than one hundred pages. The purpose would be to spell out exactly what it means to be a Christian. The Manifesto, if skillfully written, would no doubt be quite controversial and the subject of intense debate. It might also energize an otherwise moribund faith desperately in need of rejuvenation. Biblical scholars, theologians, and clergy should perhaps consider what the Bible preaches – rebellion.
Thomas H. Naylor
November 30, 2010
This piece is based on Chapter 5 of a manuscript by Thomas H. Naylor entitled Rebél.