For all of the good that religion does in our world through the generous acts of people from all faiths, much attention has been given over the last few years to evil acts performed in the name of religion. Yet, no single religion monopolizes evil done from religious conviction, as Westerners tend to think. Christian history demonstrates that the Christian religion has often been used as a pretext for supporting demeaning attitudes and violent acts against others.
At the pinnacle of the Medieval Church, Christians slaughtered Muslims, persecuted Jews, and tortured “heretics” all in the name of God. During WWII, one of Hitler’s reasons for exterminating millions of Jews was that, in his mind, the Jewish people were responsible for Jesus’ death. Since the birth of the modern State of Israel, conservative Christians have mostly supported Israel’s oppression of Palestinians because of a misguided apocalyptic theology. And Christian faith is frequently a basis for intolerance and subjugation of people because of gender, race, or sexual orientation.
Is Christianity a religion that legitimizes intolerance, subjugation, and violence, or is it a faith of tolerance, equality, and peace? More importantly, what does the Bible say about violence and oppression, and how do we solve the theological conundrum that views the Christian faith as a peaceful religion when parts of scripture sanction oppression and violence?
To answer these questions, we need to consider why the Bible might authorize intolerance and violence, and then we need to propose how to read the Bible from a critical position that recognizes that not every part of the canon exhibits normative patterns of behavior and values.
An exhaustive discussion of how the Bible legitimizes oppression and violence would take a more extensive investigation than I can offer here, but a good place to begin is with Ancient Israel’s war against the people of Canaan. While the Hebrew Bible tells the story of God ordering and giving Israel violent victory over their enemies, we need to consider that these stories were expressed from a backward looking theological interpretation.
This was not an uncommon way of viewing victories in the ancient world. In the ancient world, one’s victory over one’s enemies was always the victory of one’s god over the gods of one’s enemy. This means that when we read the stories of the Bible, we need to think critically about these narratives and question whether or not God actually gave authorization for this violent conquering of the land. If we do not, we run the risk of forming a theology that legitimizes religious intolerance, subjugation, and violence.
Yet, since these stories are included in what the church has affirmed as the Word of God, how do we handle a canon of scripture that at times sanctions demeaning attitudes and violent acts toward others, but at other times calls us to promote peace, love, and justice in our world?
First, every text of the Bible must be understood within the norms of its original context, and thus the initial commands and behaviors offered in particular texts do not necessarily apply equally to the contemporary world. Indeed, forcing certain “principles to live by” from some of these texts will only lead to misguided theology.
A case in point is the way some biblical texts seem to place females in inferior positions to males. The society of the first century viewed women as inferior to men, and thus the biblical commands that limit the rights of women reflect the society at large, even if theological reasons are given for supporting male authority over women.
However, as the rights of women have progressed in the modern world, these particular biblical texts should no longer be normative for how we see the roles of women in the family, society or the church. This way of reading could also apply to the way that we view other marginalized populations in the modern world.
Second, we must understand that not every part of the Bible witnesses equally to God’s character and will. The Bible was not written by God, but was written by historically situation humans who were seeking to understand God, humanity, and the world. Thus, those passages of scripture that picture God as one who legitimizes demeaning attitudes and violence must be assessed in light of those that speak more fully about the God who loves all human life. A faithful reading of the Bible must give careful attention to the original meaning of a biblical passage, but such readings must also give preference to those texts that testify most clearly to the God who is discovered in Jesus.
Finally, we must recall that scripture points to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Christianity is a christocentric religion that views Jesus as the full revelation of the unseen God. Early Christians understood Jesus in light of promises found in the Hebrew Bible and they reread the Hebrew Bible in light of their experience of Jesus. Thus, the words and deeds of Christ serve as the interpretative filter through which we understand all scripture.
From a Christian point of view, Jesus’ authority has primacy over other portions of the Christian Bible. Scripture’s normative message of God’s desire to love and redeem all humanity calls us to repent of our intolerance and violence toward others, and opens our hearts and minds to authentically love our friends and enemies through acts of peace and generosity, not oppression and violence.