Shedding Blood in God’s Name

I’ll admit I’m a sucker for stories about the malleability of human morality. From the mob movies, where a guy can whack his cousin but better not show his Patron any “disrespect,” to justice-seeking serial killers like “Dexter,” there’s plenty of justified violence to be found.

Where do such seemingly contradictory value systems come from? And do they actually happen in the real world today?

How about the politician who claims a platform that values a respect for “all life,” while justifying war and advocating for capital punishment? Or those who celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein? And the list goes on.

It’s common in western culture to objectify the Islamic faith, cherry-picking texts from their scripture and plucking choice sound-bytes from extremist leaders, to portray the whole of the religion as inherently violent. This, in turn, is employed to justify violence in-kind, or worse, preemptive violence, as in the case of our invasion of Iraq.

I call this “Dexter” theology, named after the Showtime Network series of the same name. In it, Dexter is a serial killer who justifies his killings because he only preys on those he deems to be morally corrupt, such as sexual predators and others who prey on the weak. In fact, this past season Dexter has even begun to employ religion as a buttress for his actions. No, not Islam, but rather Christianity.

How in the world could someone take a peaceful religion like Christianity and use it to justify a killing spree? Or how about, say, the Crusades? Or hate crimes against gays, African-Americans or pretty much anyone different than we are? I was reading an article on the Huffington Post today by Phillip Jenkins called “What To Do About Violent Biblical Texts?” In it, he notes that such white supremacist groups as the Phineas Priesthood even draw their names from scripture.

This same organization of which Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was a member was inspired by a story we rarely hear preached about from the pulpit. But it’s in there.

To quote Jenkin’s piece:

The children of Israel have intermarried with Moabite women, so that the two peoples begin to share in worship. God furiously commands that the chiefs of Israel be impaled in the sun as a means of quenching his anger; Moses commands his subordinates to kill anyone who has married a pagan; a plague kills 24,000 Hebrews. Fortunately, Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, takes decisive action to preempt the worst of the catastrophe. He slaughters a mixed-­race couple, the Hebrew man Zimri, who had married a Midianite woman. Mollified, God ends the plague and grants Phinehas a “covenant of peace.”

So not only is Phinehas doing “God’s will,” but the case is made that he is actually saving lives and ensuring peace by sacrificing this mixed-race couple. Sure, they are collateral damage, but it’s for a greater cause. It had to be done.

Sound familiar?

Some even suggest that a culture of justified violence was applied to Jesus’ own crucifixion. This can even be found in the writings of Paul, who came from a culture in which blood was used to purify one of sinfulness. The sacrifice of life, was a common practice in ancient Judaism as well. So it’s understandable when this same model is applied to Jesus’ death.

Yes, many argue, it’s tragic that Jesus died, but it was necessary. It was for a greater cause. He died so that we could live.

Just like Phinehas justified killing the mixed-race couple so that the Jews would be spared God’s wrath.

Just like Bin Laden’s death is justified because he can no longer kill more innocent people.

Just like McVeigh and Dexter justify their actions. And we justify our own actions.

Plenty of people talk about the life and ministry of Jesus being counter-cultural. But generally, we only apply that to our contemporary culture. But his life was counter to the culture of his own day and his own religion of Judaism. Jewish religion called for redemptive violence in the form of sacrifice. Even Paul, who came from a similar Roman culture of redemptive violence, attempts to overlay this historical value of blood atonement over the death of the Messiah. But there are inconsistencies we simply can’t ignore.

Jesus forgave sin while he was still alive. Was this a lie? A Mistake? Or did he actually present a grace to the world that was greater than sin, even then?

And if so, then what is the difference between the forgiveness of the sin of one, or the forgiveness of the sin of many? What about all of humanity? Is it a matter of volume? Can God only handle so much? Does something change about the nature of sin when it’s bundled all together? After all, we Christians often say that “sin is sin,” with no real distinction based on degree or amount.

All fall short. All need grace. Jesus manifest that grace. And he did it while still alive. What’s more, Jesus never justifies violence, even against his captors. He acts just as he preaches, responding to violence with peace.

Call me a peace fundamentalist, but I believe that the justification of one act of violence opens the door for the justified violence of Phinehas, Timothy McVeigh and all other extremists who employ God to justify their bloodshed.

I believe that Walter Wink’s interpretation of Jesus’ message rings the most true, and it can be summed up in three simple words:

Violence never redeems.

It’s love that redeems, and love requires no blood to be spilled in order to exist, or else it’s not really love. There’s no such thing as conditional love; love never comes with an asterisk, a caveat or fine print. It is whole, complete and absolute in and of itself.

Justified violence may be culturally acceptable. It may even be considered Biblical in some cases. But it’s not Christ-like.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Craig M. Watts

    Violence inflicted never redeems. But I haven’t given up on the belief of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,  and many others, that violence endured can redeem. Not inevitably but potentially. Surely, one should not seek after or passively submit to violence that serves nothing but the ends of the violent. This violence should avoided, if at all possible. Even Jesus avoided such violence (Luke 4:29-30; John 8:54). But to say that the violence endured by those who nonviolently confront unjust and oppressive powers is not redemptive, opening the eyes of the blind to systemic evil, is counter-productive, undercutting such protest. Any belief in redemptive violence that undergirds victimization is rightly repudiated. But an insufficiently nuanced condemnation of redemptive violence is no aid to justice. Neither is an unnuanced rejection of the redemptive violence of the death of Jesus an aid to either justice or good theology. No, he didn’t die to satisfy God, as the dominant atonement of the West suggests, but in his death he struck a decisive blow against evil because “he disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15).  And as we work for justice we need to walk in his steps.

    • Christian Piatt

       Very interesting thoughts Craig. I do think that there’s an important distinction to make between seeking and finding good in the wake of a violent act, as well as not backing down from what is right in the face of the threat of violence. But my effort in the case of this piece is to point to the inclination to justify violence because it in itself is a redemptive act.

      Yes, redemption can be born even in the midst of violence. But that doesn’t mean the violent act itself is redemptive.

  • http://www.thebiblespeakstoyou.com/ James Early

    Christian,  Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.  For many years I’ve been saying the same thing that Jesus forgave sin before he was crucified.  I don’t really believe it was his death/sacrifice that redeems us.  It was his victory over death and the world’s evils that redeems us.  On the  surface it looked like he was defeated by hate of Truth and crucified by the evil forces of which the Pharisees and Romans were mere, unknowing pawns.  But on a deeper more substantial level, Jesus was crucifying hate, evil, sin, and death.  He proved them ultimately powerless in the context of God’s supremacy.

  • Anonymous

    I draw a line between violence and force. Violence would be the unconstrained/uncontrolled use of force. You can use force without being violent. Though use of force cannot be “redemptive” it can accomplish goals. This is why we have a police force and a military. 
    I do not believe in God wacked Jesus instead of us, and I do not support unjust wars, and I am against the death penalty. However, we need both police and a military to maintain a just and fair society. It is part of the social contract we live in. I think the choice to use force (including deadly force) is a decision that needs to be used and thought about ethically, in the same way we think about divorce and sexuality, without turning to fundamentalist ideas of absolutes (It is absolutely wrong to [kill/divorce/sex outside heterosexual marriage]  all the times always because Jesus is God and He said so).
    I know you probably disagree with me on that, but it is a whole lot easier for you to disagree with me because you will hopefully never have to face the kinds of decisions that are faced in combat. 
    I do not buy the slippery slope fallacy of “once you justify the use of deadly force on one thing, it justifies all uses of deadly force”. You are justified to use deadly force to defend your life and the life of your loved ones if they are in deadly danger. That is MUCH, MUCH different than slaughtering millions of Jews in the Holocaust. It is not about “redemption” at that point, its about survival.

    • http://www.christianpiatt.com/ Christian Piatt

       But I am left wondering how we would even justify this kind of force given Christ’s teaching and example? I’ll admit I may be a bit of a nonviolence fundamentalist :-) But I don’t see examples where Jesus ever supports the use of force to protects one’s self or way of life.

      And Aaron, you are completely rigth. I’m grateful I’ve never been faced with a situation, in the military or otherwise, where I personally had to consider the use of deadly force. 

      • Anonymous

        I don’t see Jesus as speaking particularly to state functions in the gospels. Now, this doesn’t mean that what he taught shouldn’t be applied to state functions, or that Jesus and the early Christians weren’t overly political, I just mean that I don’t see Jesus ever mentioning how to run a government. I know Walter Winks and John Crossans argument; however, I think that it is a historical fallacy for us to assume we can know inner thoughts of Jesus. I know both John Domic Crossan and N.T. Wright do this a lot, but that doesn’t make it not a fallacy (I owe that observation to Luke Timothy Johnson). IMO, if Jesus didn’t want anyone to serve in the military ever, he would have kind of mentioned it to the centurion when he healed his daughter, like in the story of when he forgives the adulterous and says “Go and sin no more” (yes, I know it is not in the earliest manuscripts). You are right, the only time Jesus uses any sort of force in the gospels was to cleanse the temple, he was no advocate of violence and took that with him to death.
        I could say the same thing about forgiveness. I believe very strongly that Jesus calls us to forgive, and to forgive all, and to forgive often. I see forgiveness as one of the highlights of his ministry. However, I find no problem with a judge convicting a criminal to prison despite how Jesus says we are not to judge and that we are to forgive people not 7 times but 70 times 7. You can get in the details and say that the judge is forgiving him, or not judging him in the sense Jesus is talking about, or that he is acting with God’s authority to preserve order, but then I can make the same arguments about having a military and police. That fact is that the judge did not forgive the criminal for the crime, and judged accordingly. This is necessary to preserve society. Is it against Jesus’s clear teaching on forgiveness and judging others? Well, that depends how you interpret his teaching on forgiveness. Certainly we can improve the justice system, can we not? Just like we can improve warfare, put limits on it, and seek other means as much as possible?

      • Gerrie Malan

        I am all with you on the feeling towards violence. And yes Jesus did not instigate violence even to the very end. And I suppose the money changers’ tables on the temple square just fell over all by themself? Heh-heh.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Christian,
     You know, it was God that told Abraham “The wickedness of Canaan was not yet full”, and it was according to the doctrine of Balaam(that Jesus hates) that the Moabite women lured Israel to worship other gods, that caused Phinehas to act. It most certainly was not a “mixed-race couple”, it was mixing religion at issue.  Didn’t You read Genesis to know the “Moabites” were descendants  of Lot, Abraham’s nephew?
      Phinehas had foresight that “Achan” did not, which was evident at Ai. God lived among the Israelites, and required holiness, of the nation. When Jesus said “If your right hand offends thee cut it off”, it  makes this personal, instead of national.   Have You read Foxes book of Martyrs? Now there’s some examples of  “non violent” religious testimony for the kingdom of heaven, and some damning legacy for the worldly  kingdom religions.
     Jenkins has the story wrong about the “mixed-race” thing, even though Phinehas had it right on the “mixed-religion” one. This is the problem with Biblical illiteracy, only through it, would people believe such silly things as Abraham’s descendants, and his nephews would be different “races”. Obviously Numbers 12 where mixing race is an issue wasn’t brought up, why not? Was it because God didn’t have a problem with it?…Even though the family did?

  • Gerrie Malan

    The sad thing about posts like these, I am afraid, is that they hardly ever start at the beginning – the raw meaning of what was written by whom and to whom and the correct cultural, historical, geographical and literary background. Christendom has been tossed about by all kinds of doctrinal waves over centuries by the influence of all sorts of philosophical techniques, but more so the past three decades with the celebrity preachers on “Christian” television who rake in millions with their books or error.
    Why is Christianity so in love with labels? They do it to others – calling the preterists, dispensationalists, etc. But in recent times the self-imposed lable of “progressive Christian” makes me shudder. Unless people become true “Bible-ists” again, searching honestly for what was written and not reading above that, the spate of derogatory attacks on anything connected to the term “Christian” will grow. I am an ex-pastor who left institutional “Christianity” and the “church”. At age 68 I am understanding the Scriptures and instead of leading me away from Christ as it has done to many “progressive Christians” I have become more and more aware of the truth – the truth that was written, and the titrated “truth” that so much of the institutional church preaches.
    There are some good points in this posts, but it loses so much because it does not start at the right place.

  • http://kingscriercommissions.blogspot.com/ thekingscrier

    Mr. Piatt, while I do not share your religious beliefs (I do not have any), I can agree with you on the concept of redemption through love rather than violence. The violent aspects of religion, especially Christianity (which I was raised in), are one of the biggest complaints atheists can throw at the religion. If you have an all-loving god, why is violence given divine mandate?

    Your article is well-written and tackles one of the most troubling aspects of the human condition. Well done, sir.


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