biblical violence and reading the Bible like Jesus did

biblical violence and reading the Bible like Jesus did December 3, 2014

disarming scriptureToday’s post is an interview with Derek Flood, author of Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did, which has just been released this week.

The book deals with the problem of violence in Scripture, tackling a wide range of troubling passages—from commands to commit genocide and infanticide in the Old Testament to passages in the New Testament that have been used to justify slavery, child abuse, and state violence. Flood is also author of Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross. His blog is The Rebel God and he also blogs at Red Letter Christians, Sojourners, and the Huffington Post.

Flood argues that learning to read Scripture like Jesus did will move us beyond typical conservative and liberal approaches, which seek to either defend or whitewash violence in the Bible.

Many Christians struggle with the Bible’s violent passages and commands, especially in the Old Testament. They ask, “How can I believe in a God who orders people to commit genocide or women to be taken in as sex slaves?” Where do you start to address these objections?

There’s often an assumption that these are the objections of atheists, and so the Christian response needs to be to defend the Bible. My own experience, however, was that the more time I spent with Jesus, the more I got to really understand his heart for the lost, the more troubled I became at the violence in Scripture—particularly human violence in God’s name. In other words, the problem I had with violence in the Bible was not a result of a weak faith, but the result of growing deeper in my faith. It was the result of a mature faith.

Still, I felt a conflict because I was questioning my own sacred Scripture. What I discovered as I began to dig into this though was that exactly that kind of questioning was all over the Bible. We find it in the psalmist’s complaints, in the prophets, in Job, in Ecclesiastes, and following in that same line of faithful questioning so characteristic of the Hebrew Bible, we also find that questioning in the name of compassion continued in Jesus and Paul.

So what I would want to say to those who are struggling, wrestling, questioning with violence in the Bible is that you are in some very good company, and that the biblical canon itself invites us, calls us to question. So what I try to demonstrate in my book, looking at the examples of both Paul and Jesus is that we don’t need to stop questioning. Rather, we need to learn to do it well so it leads us to love better and grow closer to Jesus. That’s what faithfulness looks like

Some would object here that since we as humans have a fallen nature, our sense of morality is broken. So how can we question the Bible? Shouldn’t we let the Bible decide what is right or wrong?

The choice is not so much between our fallen morality and the Bible, but between our fallen and limited morality and our fallen and limited interpretation of the Bible. In other words, everything we do goes through our broken lens—including our interpretation of Scripture. So rather than shutting down our brains and conscience as we read, we need to instead learn to read with our hearts and minds fully engaged.

That of course is not a guarantee that we will get everything right. We won’t. That’s a reality that we need to face as adults. But the reality is that when we read the text blindly in a “the Bible said it, that settles it” unquestioning kind of way, we are virtually guaranteed to get it wrong. As evidence for this we just need to look at the long history of how people have used Scripture to justify all sorts of atrocities and hurt.

Questioning is good. Questioning is an act of faith. To not question is dangerous because it means shutting down our conscience, and history shows over and over that really terrible things happen when people do that.

Also I’d want to point out the fact that the Bible—and in particular the Old Testament—is simply not one single view. It contains a multitude of conflicting views, from different authors in different times with different beliefs. For example, some parts of the Old Testament teach that foreigners are corrupting and should be expelled or killed, other parts say in contrast that they should be sheltered and treated with compassion.

That’s just one example of a pattern that we find over and over again in the OT. We don’t find a single view, but a record of dispute with differing understandings of what faithfulness looks like, side by side within the Hebrew canon. That reality means that we must choose between these conflicting views. To do that we need to think, to question, to wrestle.

That kind of questioning is typical of Jewish biblical interpretation—after all, the very name “Israel” literally means “wrestles with God.” It is also something we see Jesus doing constantly (which is not surprising since he was Jewish). Yet for some reason we Christians have been taught to think that questioning is bad, that it is a threat to the faith rather than a way to strengthen it. In fact, there is a history of branding those who question as “heretics” and seeking to use violence to silence them.

That’s tragic because it means we lose the art of encountering the text morally when we forbid questioning and conscience. If we want to read Scripture as Scripture we must learn to engage it morally. 

What do you make of the places where Jesus seems to affirm God’s violent judgment in the New Testament? For example, Jesus “predicts” the violent end of Jerusalem and seems to be fine with it. How would you respond to that?

Well, first, I’d want to clarify that when you say Jesus did not have a problem with it, what this means is that he did not see a conflict in calling us to a life of radical forgiveness and enemy-love while at the same time affirming God’s judgment for those who instead follow in the way of violence. That of course does not mean that Jesus was okay with people’s suffering. It says, Jesus “wept” over Jerusalem.

In seeking to understand this, it’s critical not to miss the big picture. That is, many of us today struggle so much with this understanding of God’s judgment that we can miss the radical shift that is taking place in regards to the NT’s message of how we humans are to live—the huge move of the NT away from the idea that justice comes through human acts of violence.

That was the common assumption at the time—they believed God’s kingdom came through people killing in God’s name. This was why the people expected the messiah to come as a violent warrior-king. We find human violence in God’s name affirmed throughout the Old Testament, too—for example in the divine commands for people to commit genocide.

So there is an absolutely huge shift taking place in rejecting the idea of humans killing others in God’s name. The NT rejects that way and calls followers of Jesus to a life of forgiveness and enemy-love. So what we have here is agreement within the NT in proclaiming that our way as followers of Jesus is a way of radical forgiveness and enemy-love, as opposed to the way of violence in God’s name.

There is, however, within the NT diversity in how we are to live out that way of Jesus. In some NT writers (for example Matthew’s depiction of Jesus as opposed to the other Gospels) we see a belief in God’s judgment as integral to our following in the way of Jesus—similar perhaps to Miroslav Volf who insists “the practice of nonviolence requires the belief in God’s vengeance.” Elsewhere in the NT we find a different view of God expressed, but again the same focus in our need to act in compassion and enemy love.

What this means is that rather than one way, we find a conversation in the NT about how to live out the way of Jesus. This invites us to enter into that conversation, too. That means that we need to work out what it means to love our enemies today, what it means to care for the poor, how we can resolve conflicts, work for justice, and so on.

The bottom line here is that Jesus demonstrates a way of questioning the cultural and religious assumptions of his time in order to pull people towards greater love. To read Scripture in our time like Jesus did requires that we learn to ask those same kinds of questions—questioning ourselves, our culture, and our religious assumptions, including our assumptions of how we read the Bible.

The goal in all of this is to read Scripture in a way that leads to greater love. We don’t get there by shutting down our brains and conscience, but by fully engaging them as we read.

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  • SC

    This honestly felt like a non-answer. Or, Just keep asking.

    I think it helps to understand that God works with people where they are and this will always require degrees of concession. But Should this truth affect the way we view the Bible?

    The fact of Divine concession started early in history. It actually began with the convergence of a divine promise and a divine concession that set the tone for all of the ways of God with humanity:

    • A good deal of Dr. Enns’ I&I seemed like a non-answer as well. However, why should that be surprising? For a long time, going anywhere in the territory both Enns and Flood describe was heartily punished. It seems like the accounts of that territory which are most well-known by laypeople come from extremely liberal Christians, and so the threat for exploring that territory becomes: “If you go there, you’ll become like them!” If I’m even close to being right, is it all that surprising that there is a ton to learn in this domain, that Enns and Flood don’t have the specifics you would like?

      • The main motivation, at least from my perspective, is twofold:

        First, these are complex issues that really require a book length treatment (hence me wringing a book) so all I am doing here is pointing in a direction which primarily involves us developing the skill of faithfully questioning in the name of compassion as we read.

        Second, and related to the first, my goal is not to give people “answers” so much as it is to equip people to be able to think intelligently and ethically themselves about Scripture. That way a person “owns” the answer. I believe that is a crucial part of a mature faith.

        To be sure, the book goes into a lot more detail. Heck, if I could just explain everything in a few paragraphs I’d just write a blog post on it rather than a book! Even so, the goal is not to give “answers” that stop people from needing to think and wrestle, but to do something that I think is a lot deeper–empowering people to read Scripture in the way Jesus did, and applying that way of reading to the challenging social issues of our time.

  • Mike H

    Look forward to reading the book.

    “In some NT Writers (for example Matthews’s depiction of Jesus as opposed to the other Gospels) we see a belief in God’s judgment as integral to our following in the way of Jesus – similar perhaps to Miroslav Volf who insists “the practice of nonviolence requires the belief in God’s vengeance.”

    This is where things get difficult, at least for me. At the heart of the non-violence ethic, IMO, is not that it’s an arbitrary kind of new “rule” that we’re supposed to follow. It’s that enemy love, forgiveness, overcoming evil with good, etc. reflect reality, that is, they reflect the true heart and nature of a God who is love in His very essence. Surely one would have a difficult time supporting a view of Jesus as presented in the Gospels ACTING as a violent person (no, making a whip doesn’t count). Parables, etc. can all find their place within a larger context IMO, but I do certainly respect the difficulties those can create. But then you get to this statement – “the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in God’s vengeance.” It’s not hard to find God acting (or biblical authors saying that He will act) in vengeance with violence (as opposed to redefining vengeance to mean something else). And not just in the OT or Revelation (though I think that the idea that humanity is inevitably tumbling towards an ultra-violent Left Behind future is one of the most dangerous, tragic, and hope destroying beliefs there is).

    Honestly, I don’t see how a non-violent ethic can ever become the Christian norm unless a host of other things are addressed first. Certain theological traditions believe that a large portion of humanity exists solely for the purpose of being God’s future “vessels of wrath” and that the other “vessels of mercy” (when perfected) will actually enjoy seeing their punishment. Try having a non-violent ethic in that system. Not going to happen. Even in the many traditions that completely reject this particular belief, I think there is still the uncomfortable belief that, in the end, God solves problems with divine violence. No matter how much we might try to tiptoe around it, the (sometimes unspoken, sometimes loudly spoken) message of the Gospel is that it’s primarily about a way to avoid that divine violence. What’s communicated is that violent divine punishment is perfectly fine for God – it’s just not ok for people because we aren’t wise enough to dish it out properly. I don’t know how, in the long term, a non-violent ethic can sustain such a “do as I say not as I do” backdrop.

    Just saying, this topic is closely tied to larger conversations about atonement theory, heaven/hell, the nature and purpose of scripture, etc. I know (from his blog) that Derrick is well aware of this, and maybe that’s what the book is about (I have it but haven’t had a chance to look at it yet).

    • In the end, while I have a great deal of respect for Volf, including what he has gone through as a victim of war, and appreciate his commitment to nonviolence, I also see similar difficulties to the ones you articulate here. I discuss this at length in the penultimate of the book, including a proposal for how we can move towards a more Jesus-shaped understanding of God without ignoring the difficulties in Scripture, including in parts of the NT.

  • Mark Roncace

    Compelling discussion. It seems to me as if Flood has essentially reduced Jesus and his message to one of love, forgiveness, peace, etc. But if we apply Jesus’ own method of reading Scripture (challenging, questioning, etc) to the teachings of Jesus himself–that is, if we read the Gospels carefully and critically and honestly–then we’d have a very difficult time determining “the core” of Jesus and his message. For instance, what about the places where Jesus himself says he comes to bring a sword and division, where he (initially) refuses to help the Canaanite woman because she is not Jewish, where his parables assume–and do not challenge–the status quo (eg, parable of Ten Virgins and its inherent patriarchy), where he encourages self-castration, or at least celibacy, where he curses the Jewish leaders who oppose him. And the list goes on and on. In short, if we read the Gospels and Jesus’ own words with truly fresh eyes, I don’t think a message of love, peace, and compassion emerges all that clearly. Never mind the violently brutal image of Christ in Revelation. So where does that leave us?

    • Carlos Bovell

      Hi Mark,

      These are some challenging hermeneutical observations you make. Jesus inaugurated a religion of love. Everyone who claims to believe in him has a responsibility to interpret the Gospels, and their own lives for that matter, in light of the cross. The cross is the focal point of God’s program to redeem the world. Love your neighbors even when they intend to kill you. Forgive your neighbors from the heart even when they are the ones who are going to kill you. This is the kind of love Jesus has for humankind. This is the kind of love we are supposed to have for each other.

      Christians are called to take up their cross and follow him. May the Lord send now his Spirit to us so that we can love each us other the way he loves us.

      Grace and peace,

    • To be sure, it can be difficult for us, looking at it from a different time and culture, to understand some of Jesus’ parables. I therefore discuss each of the issues mentioned above, along with many more, in the book.

      The bottom line is that a careful study of how Jesus interpreted and applied Scripture leads me to a clear and undeniable conclusion: The intent of everything that Jesus does is to lead us to love. Nothing is more central than this. A Jesus-shaped hermeneutic is therefore not simply about critical questioning, but specifically about questioning motivated by compassion.

    • toddh

      From what I remember from your book, I think even you admit that you have to end up somewhere. A person has to come to some theological conclusions, despite the diversity in the biblical material. I think that the love, forgiveness, and peace message is probably more fair than any, despite the examples to the contrary.

  • Cb Shepherd

    Christians still war in the name of Jesus, law and order takes force. I can,t justify how God governs, so I don’t try.

    • mollysdad

      Christians wage war by the authority of Jesus – not in His name – namely when they serve as members of the military under civil authority.

  • mollysdad

    The OT passages concerning violence, including the curse of destruction, apply only in limited and highly improbable circumstances. The Cannanites had to be wiped out because the Exodus from Egypt had taken place only forty years earlier, and so they were defying God’s manifest judgement when they knew better than to do so.

    As King, Jesus had no mandate to order the use of violence, because He did not have to deal with a case in which the mandate was lawfully engaged. It is so under only two conditions: (1) that it is called for in defense of Israel when it has political sovereignty; and (2) in the case of a holy war against Amalek – this when there is a crime of genocide against the people of God.

    • Dean

      Yeah, I’ve heard this before. The only thing I would say is I’m just not sure the best defense for divine commands to mass murder in the Bible should be, well, it only happened once or twice. I think Evangelicals need to question whether trying to keep the Bible on this makeshift and increasingly unstable pedestal is worth both the moral and intellectual integrity you need to sacrifice to maintain it. It’s also unclear to me that this kind of framework for understanding the Bible is truly a “high view” of scripture, to use the tired platitude. Just to anticipate your response a little bit, this is a very honest point I am making to you that I think you should sit down and think about rather than respond instinctively in a defensive fashion. What I mean is this, conservatives are terrified that if you tear up the paper tiger of Chicago mafioso style biblical inerrancy that you’ll destroy Christianity as we know it. I just think maybe you should have a little more faith than that, maybe destroying Christianity as we know it is precisely what Christians need now more than ever.

  • Tim

    I have started reading this book. It’s excellent. I highly recommend it.

    I read Derek’s “Healing the Gospel” awhile back also. which was also very good.