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The Violence of God & the War on Terror

by Jeremy Young

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As a rule, they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. On that somewhat precarious principle, I like books that challenge my faith. I like to be forced to enrich my concepts of God, my superstitions about Word and Sacrament, or my unexamined assumptions about what the cross and resurrection mean.

The Violence of God and the War on Terror is one such book. Let its author, Jeremy Young, into your head long enough to convince you of the basic point in his book, and you have to change either how you think of faith or what authority you give to the Bible – or both.

Young, an Anglican priest and family therapist, starts with the thought experiment that the Bible is the report of a family about an abusive family member. The people of the Old Testament describe a pattern sadly familiar to a family therapist. This God is apt to uncontrolled rage if he doesn’t get his own way. Often he orders total destruction of his enemies , and lets that anger hover over his family as a threat. Ultimately, as the historical books record, God uses superpowers Assyria and Babylon to crush his own people, destroying the kingdoms and allowing them to be taken into punitive exile. To cap all that, God then makes the Israelites feel that they had brought this punishment on themselves.

The family therapist notes the similarities between this wild rage, the actual violence, inducing guilt and the behaviour of a violent husband towards his wife, the people of Israel. Even passages like Hosea 11 extolling God’s gentle love are suspect: they are like the “honeymoon” phase in the abuse cycle.

In Young’s exposition, the New Testament God is not much better. There God behaves towards his Son as an abusive father. Young argues that the NT authors take this view whether you read the atonement expresses God’s love or God’s wrath. In fact, if God allows his son to be abandoned, tortured and crucified as a demonstration of love, this may be even sicker than a father striking his son in a rage or in an attempt to avenge his honour.

I loathed Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of Christ. It dwelt so lovingly on scarified flesh and unspeakable pain, and then had the temerity to place these horrors in the framework of God’s love. A loving father, surely, would do everything in his power to prevent his son being treated with such violence.

The tragedy family therapists often see is that the victim of abuse often repeats the cycle of abuse in the next generation or the next relationship. Abused children can become abusive parents. Battered spouses often escape one violent partner only to fall into the brutal hands of another man who initially seems strong and protective, but turns out to be as violent as the first.

Young wonders whether the violence seen in Christian crusades, Islamic jihad or in Israeli over-reactions to Palestinian provocation is an outworking of Biblical religion. As children of Abraham’s God, we inflict on others what God has inflicted on us. Alternatively, we, the bride of Christ, allow ourselves to be so pathologically passive that we invite violence onto ourselves.

Of course, we have heard these allegations before – but usually from virulent atheists like Richard Dawkins, not, as here, from a Christian theologian noting this pattern in Scripture and daring to speak out his insight. Young goes further to claim that accounts of this violent God are not just a small part of Scripture, a minority tradition. Rather the abusive God is the Bible’s central message about him.

Young makes his case well. His unflinching honesty disconcerted me at times, though his conclusion did give me a little comfort.

Essentially, Young concludes, you have a choice between three logical consequences of his reading of Scripture:
1. You can agree that God is violent, and God’s violence justifies my violence and that of others. This is the stated position of many jihadists, and the implied position of many Christian fundamentalists.

2. You can decide on other grounds that God is not by nature violent. Rather, the minority view in Scripture is that God is essentially love (as in, for examples, the epistles attributed to St John ), and this view more nearly approaches the truth about God. This response raises huge questions about the authority of Scripture because your acceptance of Scripture becomes conditional. As I attempted one day to justify homosexuality from Scripture Hugh McGinlay said to me with some exasperation, “Why don’t you just say that homosexuality is OK, and admit that the Bible is wrong on that point?” Hugh will be glad to know I am coming around to his viewpoint.

3. You can join Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and throw God out completely on the grounds that belief in God is dangerous , and those who worship God will sooner or later emulate God’s violence.

I take the second view, but with some fear and trembling. It seems to exalt my view over that of the Bible. However it may be less arrogant than that. As Young points out, the community of interpretation, both Christian and Jewish, has tended to interpret Scripture as though “God is love” is the majority tradition.
The Violence of God is the last in a series of books I have been reading about Scripture’s “difficult” passages. Ellen Davis’ The Art of Reading Scripture urges us to read Scripture as Christians, rather than primarily as scholars or fundamentalists. Surely it makes sense for Christians to see, for example, Isaiah’s suffering servant as prefiguring Christ – rather than as scholars insisting only on the text’s original context, or as fundamentalists reducing the image to just one meaning. For Davis, any text can yield its blessing for us now.
Living through Pain encourages the reader of the Psalms to “hang in” with the Psalmist in her suffering, even if there is no solution or remedy for the Psalmist’s pain; to the extent of maybe concluding with Psalm 88 that all that remains is “darkness” – unresolved pain.

The world has become darker: for me, as chronic pain tries to further restrict my life; for the world, as an abusive President keeps striking out in rage against the trauma of 9/11, whose perpetrators were replicating the violence earlier directed against them.

It is an important time to look with courage into both the world’s darkness and the darkness at the heart of Scripture. Only an unflinching gaze at the Bible’s horrors will reveal the love at its heart burning away the darkness, which has not overcome it. ( )
  TedWitham | Jun 20, 2008 |
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