October 27, 2011


Lest Ye Be Judged: a review of Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses (R. Scott Appleby, October 25, 2011, National Interest)

The prolific scholar and public intellectual Philip Jenkins is a Welsh Catholic turned Episcopalian who has written insightfully on topics ranging from designer drugs, child pornography and serial homicide to, more recently, global Christianity, internal church conflict and the revival of anti-Catholicism in the wake of the sexual-abuse crisis. In Laying Down the Sword, he has delivered a thoughtful and frequently penetrating analysis of the Bible's own bloodthirsty passages--and how Christians have both enshrined and ignored them over the course of two millennia of church history.

At issue are the "Conquest texts" found in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua and 1 Samuel, in which the Lord God of Israel commands the utter and merciless destruction (herem) of the Canaanites, the Midianites, the Amalekites and the people of Jericho. Compared to these apparently genocidal passages, Jenkins remarks, the Koranic verses (suras) that seem to legitimate deadly violence come off as relatively restrained. In his vengeful disdain for wayward tribes and people, Yahweh takes a backseat to no deity, not even Allah. "While many Qur'anic texts undoubtedly call for warfare or bloodshed, these are hedged around with more restrictions than their biblical equivalents, with more opportunities for the defeated to make peace and survive," he writes. "Furthermore, any of the defenses that can be offered for biblical violence--for instance, that these passages are unrepresentative of the overall message of the text--apply equally to the Qur'an."

Laying Down the Sword is not designed to please everyone, and it will infuriate many. The Islamophobes will recoil at Jenkins's repeated assertion that when it comes to violent scriptures, the differences between Islam and Christianity are minimal: "If Christians or Jews needed biblical texts to justify deeds of terrorism or ethnic slaughter, their main problem would be an embarrassment of riches," he notes wryly. Jenkins even provides a table categorizing "violent and disturbing scriptures" and finds that the Bible abounds with "extreme" texts--those that call for the annihilation of the enemy or direct violence against particular races and ethnic groups. By contrast, "the Qur'an has nothing strictly comparable." Unlike the Bible, he reports, "no Qur'anic passage teaches that enemies in warfare should be exterminated." Nor does the Koran "teach principles of war without mercy, or propose granting no quarter."

Even more provocative is Jenkins's expressed doubt that Islam surpasses Christianity in incidents of scripture-inspired violence. Those who despise Islam will not stand still for such heresy, responding (as Christian evangelist Franklin Graham put it) that whereas the Bible only reports violence that occurred in the distant past, the Koran "preaches violence" (my emphasis) in the here and now. Jenkins dismisses both claims as nonsense. He insists on using the term "Old Testament," rather than the politically correct "Hebrew Bible," as a way of reminding Christians that the Conquest texts are their sacred scriptures too; this part of the canon may be "old" and "Jewish," but the church, following the example of Jesus himself, incorporated the Law and the Prophets and the Wisdom texts fully into its own identity and mission. In doing so, the early Christian bishops overcame the popularity of contrarians such as the eventually excommunicated Marcion, who simply jettisoned the Old Testament when he found it impossible to reconcile the genocidal tendencies of Yahweh with the compassionate and forgiving God revealed by the Jesus of the New Testament.

More to Jenkins's point, the troubling passages of the Torah did not become dead letters once the pre-Christian eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth era had passed. Instead, they proved handy age after age: for Christian theologians and heresy hunters (Augustine, Calvin, Torquemada), conquerors and colonizers (Oliver Cromwell, Cotton Mather, Theodore Roosevelt), racialists and eugenicists (Jonathan Bayley, John W. Haley), and genocidaires (present-day Rwandan pastors). Nor was the political utility of the Conquest texts lost on subsequent Jewish leaders, Jenkins avers, not least the modern Zionists, up to and including the current prime minister of Israel and the religious nationalists and irredentists who keep him in power. If contemporary Muslim extremists retrieve violence-justifying suras and interpret them as timeless and timely injunctions to crush the presumed enemies of the faith, they are only upholding a long-standing Abrahamic family tradition.

Quite reasonably, Jenkins lays the blame for religious violence on its perpetrators alone. Scriptures do not justify terrorism; terrorists do.

Posted by at October 27, 2011 4:07 PM

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