If you’ve spent any time discussing theology with other Christians, you’ll likely hear about so-called biblical truths. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with using language such as this—that is, there are things that are pretty clear—but what it generally comes to mean is “I’m right, you’re wrong, and the Bible agrees with me.” Then, what will typically happen is that you’ll be met with a litany of prooftexts that, on the surface at least, back up whatever theological claim is being made.
As I’ve gone along in my theological journey, however, I’ve realized that this method of exegesis—if we can even call it that—misses the whole point that the Bible is trying to make. Indeed, the Bible can be made to say whatever one wants it to say. Hence, biblical truths can come in any number of shapes and forms. The reason? As French anthropologist René Girard taught, the Bible is a “text in travail.” In other words, the Bible is a discussion, a debate, an argument over, among a litany of other things, the nature of God. If I could oversimplify this debate, then, I’d say that the Bible includes 3 distinct “voices,” namely the voice of religion, the voice of the retributive victim, and the voice of the forgiving one. In this article, I’d like to elucidate what I mean by this.
Lens 1: The Voice of Religion
Religion goes by many names, but what is behind all things religious is the practice of sacrifice. In its most archaic forms, virgins and other “unblemished ones” are tossed into volcanoes with the hope that the religious community could be not only blessed, but spared from the wrath of the gods. And in a very real way, it’s easy to see why folks think this barbaric practice works. It’s easy to see, for example, that when a religious community can unify around and forever silence an “other”—rather than them spiraling out of control under the weight of their own violence—they find catharsis. It’s also easy to see why they would then think this is some divine blessing.
Allow me to provide an example.
In Numbers 25, we read of a myth about how a plague befalls the Israelites because of their collusion with the Moabites and their god Baal Peor. The solution to this problem, then, at least according to the writer, is that anyone yoked with the Moabites and their god is to be “impaled in the sun before the Lord.” So, what does Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, do? He rams his spear through an interracial couple while they are in their tent, immediately ending the plague (one that kills 24,000 people). In other words, peace, according to sacrificial religion, is believed to have been achieved by killing a surrogate “other” to appease an angry god. To that end, Phinehas is then given a “perpetual covenant of peace and priesthood,” while the voice of the victims are lost to the annals of “history.”
Lens 2: The Voice of AbelThe Bible, however—unlike other religious myths—indeed contains many tales that include the voice of the victim. In the murder myth from Genesis 4, for instance, just after Cain murders Abel in cold blood, Abel’s blood cries out to God from the ground. In other words, after Abel is unjustly slain, he cries for retribution. And it’s easy to see why. It’s easy to see just how unjust this is and why someone would want vengeance to be taken on their victimizers.
Yet, as the Bible so accurately predicts, this “voice” only leads to further violence. In spite of God marking Cain so that “no one who came upon him would kill him,” humanity continues the violent cycle. In a mere handful of generations, a man named Lamech even boasts of his vengeful streak and by the time we get to Noah, the entire world is corrupt and filled with violence.
This is why, if we are truly going to take the Bible seriously, if we are going to ever begin talking about “biblical truths,” then we must transcend this voice of retributive “justice.” Even if we are victims of injustices, even if we want to cry out for vengeance, we must take heed because, as the Bible clearly shows, it will only lead to further violence that can only end in a flood of epic proportions.
Lens 3: The Voice of the Risen Christ
Thankfully there is a third voice: the voice of the forgiving victim. This is the voice that transcends, not only religion, but the voice of the retributive victim. The writer of Hebrews makes this exact point when he writes that the sprinkled blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” What is this word? To put it as simply as possible: Shalom. It’s the word of peace, most pointedly witnessed when Christ enters the upper room in John 20. To his disciples, Jesus speaks the following:
Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you . . . Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
To be a disciple of Jesus, then, is to live in this Spirit. But it is such a difficult thing to do, is it not? Our human urges are to cry for vengeance whenever we are wronged. Conservative Christians are guilty of this. Progressive Christians are guilty of this. And I, first and foremost, am guilty of this. And yet, our Lord always comes to us in the Spirit of Peace. He comes to us when we are our most terrified, when we are shaking with anger, indeed even when we, like Saul of Tarsus, are foaming angrily at the mouth. And he always brings peace.
Now, this doesn’t mean that, as Christians, we sit idly by and allow injustices to happen. Of course not! We must, as Christ did, speak truth to power, confronting the Powers and Principalities that hold others in bondage. However, we mustn’t give in to the urge to fight these Powers with anything but the voice of the forgiving victim (to do so would be to attempt to cast out Satan with Satan). No other way is possible, and in fact will only lead to more death and destruction. And neither those who cling to sacrificial religion nor those who cry for vengeance will ever achieve the peace we all long for. Only following the non-vengeful risen Lord will ever do that.
Be at peace.