Divine Violence and the Quest for a Non-violent Faith

I applaud Preston Sprinkle’s Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence.  He presents a timely word to Christians who wrap the Bible in the American flag and support the USA’s military adventurism, when led by Republican presidents, whole-heartedly, claiming divine sanction for our militaristic policies.  His words invite us to take a second look at violence as a way of solving diplomatic disagreements.  He also reminds us that Jesus’ radical hospitality embraced foe as well as friend. At the very least, national war-making must be morally justified and carefully considered, and not a knee-jerk military reaction to any affront on our nation’s honor. Moreover, Christians must cast a critical eye on all military action, recognizing that self-interest, greed, manipulation, and sin may contaminate even the best of causes.  In the spirit of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Neibuhr, we need to recognize the ambiguity of all human endeavors, including national and individual self-defense.

Shane Claiborne has it right when he claims: “the cure to bad theology is not ‘no theology’ – but good theology.” Both Sprinkle and Claiborne want a Jesus-shaped theology and ethics and affirm that Jesus’ vision of Shalom applies to the work of nations as well as individuals.

The struggle I have as I read Sprinkle’s excellent book is not with Sprinkle but with scripture. Sprinkle has a high view of biblical inspiration and believes that God truly inspired and led the Israelites in conquering Canaan. He sees the stories of Israel’s conquest of Canaan as reflecting actual events in the divine-human relationship. Moreover, Sprinkle believes that God fought for the Israelites and commanded on several occasions the mass murder, for example at Jericho, of the Canaanite people. The God of scripture appears bloodthirsty and polarizing. While the Canaanites were far from perfect peoples, did they deserve to be supplanted and, in some cases, the victims of divinely inspired genocide? Was God oblivious to their suffering and tears?

I like to view Biblical stories and Christian history from the point of view of the losers as well as the winners. I wonder how the Canaanite mothers felt as the Hebraic warriors killed their children. How did they feel when their gods were defeated by the God of Israel? I expect that just as other peoples love their nations as much as USA citizens love America, the Canaanites were as devoted to their gods as Israel was to Jahweh. Their defeat led to a spiritual as well as political crisis.

Perhaps more important, are the questions raised by the biblical narratives: Were the Canaanites exempt from the divine affirmation that humankind was created in the divine image? Does God’s image and the inherent respect given as a result of God’s presence in human life apply to Canaanite children and their parents, who – for the most part – were innocent victims of Hebraic genocide? Is God’s good will bestowed on some peoples and not others, some ethnicities and not others?

If theology is known by its fruits, then the narratives of the Hebraic conquest have given birth to wild and sour fruit. They have inspired slavery and the destruction of aboriginal peoples in Africa, Australia, and North and South America. They have also inspired the belief among Christian triumphalists that some people are less than human, deserving of no rights and possessing no value apart from their benefit to their oppressors. The moral arc of the Sermon on the Mount has been relegated to a far second behind the violent images of divinely-commanded genocide and displacement.

I take scripture seriously but believe that we need to rethink the notion of biblical inspiration. Revelation requires receivers and these receivers shape the nature of revelation, even when it is in the Bible. Can bad theology inspire ethical behavior? From my perspective a literal reading of the Israelite theology which asserts that God is the source of genocide and displacement is bad theology, requiring a readjustment in light of the Hebrew prophets’ vision of Shalom, the peaceable realm intended in creation, Jesus’ radical hospitality, and the crossing of ethnic boundaries characteristic of the Jesus movement (described in Acts of the Apostles) at its best.

As a preacher and teacher, I treat the Hebraic liberation stories with care. I make clear that while the Hebrews may have been divinely-inspired in their exodus from Egypt, I suspect that God did not kill the first-born children of the Egyptians. I see the conquest of Canaan as ambiguous, reflecting as much human intentionality and bloodlust as divine inspiration. I am sure that the victors, looking back on the settlement of Canaan, saw God’s hand at work and believed the divine hand justified their destruction of  the Canaanite peoples.

Despite my concerns about Sprinkle’s vision of God, I believe that Sprinkle’s text invites us to a transformed Christian politics, more representative of Jesus’ kingdom of nuisances and nobodies (J.D. Crossan) and the radical hospitality of Jesus’ healing ministry and table fellowship. Sprinkle invites us to a life-supporting universalism that may ultimately call into question his understanding of hell as an expression of God’s final judgment, for our visions of hell as embracing “others,” whether as a result of their turning their back on God and suffering the consequences of divine wrath or by divine predestination, is the ultimate form of divinely sanctioned violence, an infinite punishment for finite unbelief.  At the end of the day, Sprinkle invites us to ponder a larger vision of God than he himself has claimed, a god who has no enemies in life and in death, and inspires us to that same moral and political inclusiveness.

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).

  • Preston

    Thanks, Bruce, for this well-written piece! I’m honored to have you read and respond to my book; much honored, indeed, that you’ve given it such a positive review.

    Regarding the Conquest, you’ve given us much to think about! I too like to consider the biblical narrative from the perspective of the “losers.” It keeps you real.

    The only thing I’d like to add is really for our audience. For what it’s worth, I spend a whole chapter wrestling with Joshua’s conquest and interact as thoroughly as I could with the moral dilemmas therein. So, with you, I do see potential problems with the “genocide” (though I argue that this term is not actually very helpful) but end up with a different conclusion. There’s much more to the conquest than what meets the eye–as I seek to explain in the book.

    Of course, you’ve raised some larger issues about inspiration and authority that would take us too far from the topic at hand. Perhaps next time I’m in Massachusetts, we could grab a cup of coffee and have us a fine discussion?

    Thanks again, Bruce!

  • http://www.missionalyouthministry.com/ Robbie Mackenzie

    Great post Bruce. I love this line, “I expect that just as other peoples love their nations as much as USA
    citizens love America, the Canaanites were as devoted to their gods as
    Israel was to Jahweh.” When reading these stories it’s hard not to wrestle with what happened. I find myself often proclaiming: “Is there another possible explanation?” I appreciate your wrestling with this and you offer a great explanation. I find a lot of hope in your discussion as well as Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation. Also helpful for me will be when I read Sacred Word, Broken Word by Kenton Sparks. I think there is some helpful dialog about the difficult parts of Scripture.

  • Lothars Sohn

    Hey Bruce, this is a quite interesting analysis and I agree with many of your points.

    But I am by no means a pacifist. I believe that violence can be necessary and actually required by morality, like in the case of German theologian Bonhoeffer trying to assassinate Hitler.

    However I obviously reject violence without morally sufficient causes, and it is clear that the genocidal stories of the OT cannot be justified in any way, they’re fully incompatible with God’s perfection.

    But if we give up Biblical inerrancy and infallibility, how are we to view the following events:

    1) God’s revelation to Abraham

    2) Moses leading a bunch of slaves out of Egypt

    3) the “promised” land

    4) the installation of the Israelite

    I’m well aware that the archaeology of the late bronze age is at odds with both the conquest of Canaan and the exodus as narrated in the Bible.

    William Dever, who famously defends the non-historicity of the accounts believe it is possible that a relatively small group of slaves really escaped Egypt under the guidance of a man and that they had a religious experience underway.

    I’m under the impression that the five points I’ve listed up are important for the truth of the Christian faith.

    So what’s your take on that?

    Many thanks for your answer.

    Kind regards.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son