Holding a personal theology based largely on radical Grace, I have long struggled with the more violent passages of the Bible. What does it mean that parts of scripture condone and even command violence? Further, are these passages compatible with the loving God we see through Jesus? Unfortunately, I have often decided to reconcile this cognitive dissonance by ignoring the violent passages and focusing on the parts of the Bible that seem more in-line with the message of grace and peace.
According to Derek Flood, “[Violence] is our legacy as Christians, and we need to face it head-on, rather than trying to ignore or excuse it” (p. 17). In his book, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did, Flood address these questions directly and provides a framework to read the BIble and these violent passages.
The Problem with Cherry-Picking
While, I would have never admitted to being a “Cherry-Picking Liberal” after reading Flood’s explanation of this classification, I must admit that the description fits. I have often focused on the good in the Bible while ignoring the pervasive themes of violence, genocide, and conquest. Flood brings us back to the definition that: “Cherry-picking is a classic logical fallacy that involves misrepresenting evidence-- citing only the good parts as if they are representative of the whole, while ignoring the bad parts as if they were not there.” (p. 23) By focusing only on the peace filled passages, we are whitewashing the Bible and denying its true nature as a multi-vocal narrative with passages that point to God and passages that hold a contradictory view. Flood asserts, that the deep problem with this tendency is that when we choose not to address or examine these violent passages, we leave them lying dormant and are vulnerable when the passages are revived as a justification for violence in times of conflict.
Approaching Biblical Violence
When dealing with violence in the Bible, Flood states that as Christians we often feel pulled toward one of three unattractive options:
“The conservative approach of advocating things we know are profoundly wrong in a an attempt to defend the Bible and our faith.”
“The atheist approach of maintaining a conservative/fundamentalist reading, but consequently abandoning one’s faith altogether in an attempt to maintain moral integrity.”
“The Common liberal approach of denying the problem and simply whitewashing over the evidence.” (p. 26)
These three approaches fall exceedingly short and necessitate a fourth option, a framework that allows us to honestly address the violence in the Bible from a perspective of faith while also incorporating our moral conscience.
A Multi-Vocal Narrative
In developing this fourth option to addressing biblical violence, Flood emphasizes that the Old Testament is a multi-vocal narrative written by many authors, expressing multiple, and at times contradictory, views and morals. The Old Testament is “a record of dispute” with an ongoing debate between two principle narratives: the majority voice of “unquestioning obedience” and the minority voice of “faithful questioning”.
“Unquestioning obedience” is seen in stories such as Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. In this narrative, if the command is to kill you kill without questions as questioning would constitute a sin. At the root of this is, “the promise of reward for those who obey and punishment for those who do not.” (p. 44) Unquestioning obedience is the voice of religious violence and genocide whose legalism is later embraced by the Pharisees of Jesus time.
The way of “faithful questioning” by contrast is exemplified by the protesting of experienced violence as unjust. Seen in the lamentations of the Psalms, the story of Job, and the Hebrew prophets, this is the voice calling from the margins and the voice of the rejected. This is the voice Jesus aligns with and the perspective Flood argues we should accept as well.
Jesus, Experience, and a Trajectory Reading
Throughout the New Testament, we see Jesus prioritize this minority narrative of faithful questioning as he repeatedly turns Old Testament passages upside down. While the Pharisees prioritization of religious law over all else represents the way of unquestioning obedience, Jesus’ way exemplifies an emphasis of love and caring for others. At times, this led him to violate the letter of the law because for Jesus, “the correct interpretation of Scripture all comes down to how we love.” (p. 74)
The New Testament gospel stands in contrast to the majority narrative of the Old Testament as Jesus rejects violence as the means of bringing God’s justice and instead asks his followers to embrace the ways of enemy-love and nonviolence. Although this was leap forward, we cannot stay frozen in time and utilize the New Testament as an immutable view on all issues. Jesus expected his disciples and continues to expect you and I to follow his example of faithful questioning, to examine what to embrace and what to reject in Scripture.
We need to learn to identify the trajectory of scripture and take it further, rather than reading the New Testament as the final word. We need to see it as the ground we stand on. Flood provides many strategies for this through the examination of both Paul and Jesus’ reading of Scripture, but the final task is left up to us.
In the last chapter, Flood argues that our approach to scripture should be based in our experience in life rather than in text; that Scripture is not our master, rather that Jesus is and “the role of Scripture is to serve a servant function leading us to Christ.” (p. 242) Within this framework, our experience is crucial as we evaluate the merit of a reading based on the observable evidence of whether it is leading us to love and life or to death and destruction. This experience must be understood in the the context of our relationship with God and with others. We need to be interpreting Scripture in community with others who are following Jesus while listening to the tradition of those who have tried to walk this road before us.
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