Monday, July 09, 2012

Laying Down the Scriptural Swords

I have been a fan of the work of Philip Jenkins for some time now. Previously I enjoyed his work on a variety of topics, including new religious movements through his book Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History (Oxford, 2000), and the changing face of Christianity in The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford, 2008), and The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, 2011). Although I enjoyed another of his recent books, it was far more troublesome than his other materials for me. It is his book Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses (HarperOne, 2011).

In this volume Jenkins notes how Christians, particularly evangelicals, as well as other conservatives, are quick to point out the violent verses of the Qur'an that have been used by Muslims as scriptural justification for terrorism and violence. These too have been used as justification for violence in history as well as more recently, including a 1994 attack by a Jewish man against a mosque, and a 2011 attack by a self-described Christian in Norway. In both of these contemporary instances the victims were Muslims, and the perpetrators were Jewish and Christian respectively.

We are very familiar with concerns over Qur'anic texts used in support of violence, but what is not as often reported are the violent texts that appear in the Jewish sacred texts, the Old Testament in the Christian tradition. These include texts dealing with the Jewish conquest of the promised land, such as Exodus 17:8-16; 28:23; 34:11-17; Numbers 21; 25:1-18; 31:1-24; 33:50-56; Deuteronomy 2:24-37; 3:1-7; 7:1-2; 7:16; chapters 13, 20 and 25; Joshua chapters 6, 8, 10; 11:29; and 1 Samuel chapter 15.

Jenkins asks the reader to consider how many times evangelicals will select "life verses" from the Bible, a particular text "that summarizes the teachings they want to keep before their minds." What if, he asks, a Christian stood up at a meeting and offered this as a life verse, Deuteronomy 7:1-2?:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations ... and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. make no treaty with them, and show then no mercy.

Jenkins continues to note that most Christians would like fail to recognize that such passages exist in the Bible. He calls this "holy amnesia." But surely in our post-9/11 world where global tensions and the threat of violence remain high largely as a result of a clash of civilizations related to Christianity and Islam, the time has come for Christians to remember, not only to demonstrate concern about the violent passages in the Qur'an, but also also within our own tradition as we consider the proportionately higher number of violent and even genocidal passages in the biblical tradition. Before we attempt to pull the mote from the eye of our Muslim neighbors perhaps we should address the beam in our own eye.

How should the Christian respond to this phenomenon? Jenkins provides some thoughts, but in my view, particularly after recently reviewing the New Testament passages of Jesus' interactions with Gentiles and Samaritans, and thereby having a desire to follow the hermeneutic of Jesus in regards to Scripture in his day and his manner in engaging those of other religions, I suggest that we do as Jesus did in regards to Scripture. That is, we emphasize those passages and their accompanying ethic for praxis that commend loving God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves, even while remembering that our scriptural tradition and history includes dark elements that we must wrestle with.

I have a few essays coming out shortly that will touch on some of these subjects in more depth. I will update this post and announce them here as they become available. This includes a piece at Qideas that discusses loving our religious neighbors, and an essay for The Interfaith Observer that addresses the messiness of our religious traditions and how we can overcome this problem.

Update: Related to this post is the essay "Dealing with Religion's Mesiness" in The Interfaith Observer.

Related posts:

Philip Jenkins on The Next Christendom

Bob Robinson and Jesus and the Religions

Op-ed: Pig-Headed Engagement of Islam


Mike Duran said...

John, the HUGE difference between Christians and Muslims here is that Christians have a New Testament. Nowhere does the Bible command its followers to commit such acts TODAY. The OT is clearly viewed as a period in which such actions were deemed necessary. The Koran is completely opposite. It commands ALL Muslims to carry out specific acts of violence. Which is why there is not a schism w/in Christianity (as there is w/in Islam) as to whether literal jihad is a legitimate means to further God's rule.

John W. Morehead said...

You miss a major point of the Old Testament, and Jenkins' argument, Mike. The Old Testament *does* include commands for followers in certain contexts to engage in these acts of violence and genocide. We are not told to follow them in future generations necessarily, but they were commandments which allegedly some carried out. This is a dark and difficult aspect of biblical revelation, and subsequent history when such texts have been used as justification for violence by Christians and Jews.

So first we need to come to grips with what these dark texts mean in our overall understanding of biblical revelation, and then come to grips with what they mean today. We dare not critique Muslims who have proportionately far fewer such texts in the Qur'an, while not acknowledging and coming to grips with such texts in our own scripture.

True, we do have the New Testament and the example of Jesus, which is why I suggested a christological hermeneutic and praxis by way of following Jesus' way in engaging religious others.

Finally, the Qur'an is interpreted variously by Muslims in regards to these troubling passages, and it is an interpretive error and a lack of fairness to Islam and Muslims to put one particular interpretation of jihad texts out there as *the* understanding. This unfortunate hermeneutic and treatment of Islam is made all the more problematic by your failure to grips with the beam in the Christian's eye where our violent scriptural texts are concerned.

This coming week I have an article coming out through The Interfaith Observer, co-authored with Paul Metzger of Multnomah University, that touches on this and suggests ways forward. Perhaps this essay will be more helpful and persuasive for you than my blog post.

Mike Duran said...

John, I'll be looking forward to your essay. I suppose it comes down to what "dark texts" you're referring to and what, if any, contemporary implications they have. While Muslims may have "proportionately far fewer such texts" than the O.T., they have nothing close to a "christological hermeneutic" to interpret them by. Mohammed, who is viewed as superior to Christ by Muslims, was a warrior. Jesus was not.

John W. Morehead said...

Mike, I think/hope you'll enjoy the essay. I doubt that it will resonate with you though in light of your comments here, unfortunately. When you mention my reference to Old Testament "dark texts" and then add if there are any or what the contemporary implications may be, it is clear that you have yet to wrestle with the thesis of my post, and parts of the Old Testament.

If you look at my post again you will see a list of these dark texts, so there are indeed some that Christians need to acknowledge and wrestle with. In addition, present day implications have to do with our hermeneutic in how we come to grips with this dark part of our scripture and history. In addition, we cannot quickly dismiss those in our history, past and present, who have used such biblical passages for violence, whether in the Crusades or the Norwegian Christian who attacked Muslims.

As to Muslim interpretations of jihad in the Qur'an, many Muslims have found resources in their own religious tradition which facilitates alternative interpretations and peaceful praxis. The christological hermeneutic is a resource we Christians can thankfully draw upon, but in order to do that we have to acknowledge the biblical passages which advocate the sword.

John W. Morehead said...

My essay with Paul Metzger, "Dealing with Religion's Messiness," in The Interfaith Observer, can be read at

Unknown said...

Peter Enns has some interesting comments related to this that spring from recent comments from John Piper on God's commanding genocide. See the discussion here:

John W. Morehead said...

Peter Enns has a discussion related to this with recent comments by John Piper on God's commanding genocide as the point of departure:

Mark James said...

John, both you and Mike in your own ways seem to write as if Christian 'dark texts' are an Old Testament problem. Surely the NT has plenty of difficulties of its own, not least Jesus' apparent clarity about hell (which many find more morally objectionable than Canaanite genocides -- at least death is finite).

Even if one were willing to play Jesus against the OT (a dangerously Marcionite strategy), I think I'm less convinced than you that this will solve the problem. Jesus explicitly says that his mission is only to Israel, and he tends to resist doing miracles for Gentiles. He also, of course, calls a needy Canaanite woman a 'dog.' No doubt it's important to consider the difference in his historical context, and the fact that his vocation may be different than ours. Still, the example of Jesus raises its own set of problems, and it's difficult to appeal to Jesus 'example' without selecting the stories we find compelling and interpreting in light of our own a priori principles.

This, of course, is only to insist that the messiness of Scripture is thoroughgoing, which I hope is consistent with your over all concern here, particularly with the kind of argument Mike makes in his comments above.

John W. Morehead said...

Hello, Mark. Thanks for stopping by to comment based upon our initial exchange at State of Formation.

I acknowledge the messiness of Scripture in both Testaments. Mike and I are not coming at this issue from the same understanding at all.

It should also be noted that I do not play Jesus against the OT and am not a Marcionite. Peter Enns recently posted on his blog that this has been a charge leveled against him with his critique of the OT and genocidal passages (among other things), and he has defended himself against he false accusation. The same holds true where I am concerned.

I didn't mention NT problems, but that doesn't mean I don't acknowledge their presence. My reference to a hermeneutic involving Christ and his handling of scriptural texts is surely a step in the right direction, even if not the entire solution to the problems we must wrestle with.

As to Jesus and his clarity on hell, of course there is some debate over what he refers to, and while the major conservative position is eternal conscious torment, alternative positions have been offered that are more palatable to this difficult topic. Of course I do wish Evangelicals would spend more time articulating the Kingdom of God than hellfire.

Finally, you reference Jesus and his problematic statements, such as calling a Gentile woman a dog. I think this is handled hermeneutically, and I really appreciated Bob Robinson's treatment of this in light of his book "Jesus & the Religions" which you might find helpful. This is not a problematic text in my view.

At any rate, I appreciate and am sensitive to the concerns about Scripture raised by those labeling themselves post-Evangelical. This post of mine on genocide was in that vein, and I'm sorry the connection wasn't more strongly made, and that it didn't come across with the force you felt it should.

I enjoy your writings at State of Formation. Thanks again.

Mark James said...

John, thanks, this is a really helpful clarification. I look forward to hearing more. God bless your ministry!