The potential of the Bible to give us a good bashing

The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (four volumes)
December 10, 2004

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all derive directly from ancient Israelite religion. From this common root comes a world-view in which good and evil are ranged against each other in perpetuity, and this archetypal dualism provides the lens through which all life is interpreted. Cosmic good and transcendental evil are depicted as being in mortal combat at every level of human experience, from international relations, through social values, to the yearnings of the individual heart. This violent metaphor of divine warfare grew from its origins in ancient Mesopotamia, energised by Zoroas-trian influences from the 6th century BC, to become the "master story" of Western culture. Today's hero-touting movies, popular literature and crowd-pulling TV evangelists all push the same apocalyptic model.

Such is the picture of our condition painted by editor Harold Ellens in his introduction to The Destructive Power of Religion . But, he claims, this "primal archetype of our understanding" is a huge mistake, "reflecting a schizoid misunderstanding of the real way things are". The whole notion that evil is cosmic and that reality is split along a moral faultline from top to bottom is, he says, "profoundly untrue".

I am sure Ellens is right, both in his analysis of the situation and in his judgement of it. As a Christian minister, I too reject the idea that evil has an independent existence (either as a personal devil or as a less tangible disruptive force). Evil comes into being only when individuals do wicked things. But this key insight is nowhere picked up and discussed by other contributors, and the collection as a whole lacks coherence or a sense of common purpose.

This four-volume set is part of an even larger series published under the general heading "Contemporary Psychology", and this colours the choice and content of the contributions, even when they are superficially concerned with Scripture.

Ellens brings relevant experience to all aspects of the project. He is a licensed psychotherapist in clinical practice and a retired professor of psychology, in addition to being a retired Presbyterian theologian and ordained minister and, last but by no means least, a former colonel in the US Army.

The first volume is titled Sacred Scriptures, Ideology and Violence , and none of the essayists can deny that the Scriptures of all three Abrahamic religions contain much incitement to violence, praise of violence and, in general, portray a violent God. Abraham himself was a Middle-Eastern warlord of a type all too familiar. The divine call he answered centred on a promise that God would give to his descendants the Promised Land from which the current occupants would be driven by force. Central to the worship of God was the ultimate violence of blood sacrifice.

The authors use two basic strategies to cope with these unpleasant facts.

The first may be called the gun-law defence (guns do not kill people, people do). Thus Simon John de Vries, in a chapter on "Scenes of sex and violence in the Old Testament", makes the plea: "The trouble is not with the Bible, but with the misuse of the Bible by fundamentalists and other exploitative ideologists." That misuse can take a number of forms. Andrew Kille, exploring the excuse that "The Bible made me do it", concludes that sacred writings do not in general give rise to particularly violent attitudes or actions, but they are used retrospectively to bolster and defend such positions reached on other grounds.

The use of the Bible to legitimise violence, even if it does not initiate it, is confirmed by John Collins in his discussion of "The zeal of Phinehas" - the Bible has contributed to violence in the world because it has been taken to confer a degree of certitude that transcends human discussion and argumentation. He suggests that "the most constructive thing a biblical critic can do is to show that that certitude is an illusion".

This provides an example of the second approach to violence in the Bible: to tackle it head on by denying it the authority it is presumed to have. It is a line followed even more strongly by Donald Capps and Jack Miles, both of whom refuse to accept the infallibility of God as presented in the sacred texts.

In "Abraham and Isaac", Capps homes in on Abraham's initial willingness to sacrifice his son (in the Muslim tradition it is Ishmael) and eventual failure to do so. The official Jewish and Christian reading of the story sees the outcome as proof of Abraham's total faith in God, but Capps praises Abraham for a humane act of rebellion against an unjust divine command. He says: "If Abraham is finally worthy of being remembered, it is not because he was a man of unquestioning faith, but because he finally came to his senses and repented of what he had intended to do to Isaac."

Miles is more radical. In "The disarmament of God", he depicts Jesus's pacifism and self-sacrifice as God's repudiation of his own warrior past.

Given the persistent failure of the God of Battles to deliver salvation, says Miles, "the only choices left are atheism or some otherwise unthinkable radical revision in the understanding of God". That is why, in an adaptive evolution essential for survival, the aggressive Lion of Judah has become the sacrificial Lamb of God.

The second volume of the quartet focuses directly on Religion, Psychology and Violence . The most telling chapter is one on "Revenge and religion" by Zenon Lotufo and Cassio Martins, two Presbyterian ministers in Brazil - one a psychotherapist, the other a clinical psychologist. They start with the doctrine (found still in the official teachings of the major Christian churches, and present in other religions) of eternal damnation of the wicked, a belief that entails "a terribly vengeful God, prone to submit his creatures to unspeakable horrors, eternal and void of any meaning".

Unlike spontaneous emotions, such as fear and hostility, which we share with other animals, vengeance is an "artificial" emotion, possible only where there is language to enable past wrongs to be recalled and resentment over them to be fed by dwelling on them. With their emphasis on corporate remembering, religious traditions are well placed to harbour and sustain vengeful attitudes, and the violence to which they lead. Suddenly the familiar injunction to hold past conflicts in remembrance, "lest we forget", takes on a chilling aspect. Maybe the world would be a better place if we did forget. Or maybe not. In the final pages of this four-volume odyssey, the editor returns to the topic of vengeance, using the story of Laura Blumenfeld (whose form of revenge on the terrorists who shot her father was to befriend them, anonymously, so that they came to know her as a person before discovering her identity) to argue that, while justice is a good idea, "revenge" of the transforming and healing kind worked out by Laura "works". It works because it leads to forgiveness and "the revenge of forgiveness" is the only way to assuage the evil done.

The second volume contains a number of overtly psychoanalytical chapters that readers not committed to this discipline may gloss over. There is also a curious exploration of the Gerasene demoniac's story, aptly titled "Legion". The author, Michael Willett Newheart, is quite open about where he is coming from: "I suffer from generalised anxiety disorder (Gad) and depression, for which I am medicated and participate in psychotherapy." I call the piece curious, first, because "generalised anxiety disorder" sounds like a satirist's creation (akin to the Ministry of Administrative Affairs in Yes, Minister ) and, second, because the acronym Gad calls to mind Gadarene, the better-known variant of the term Gerasene. Newheart also admits to being "attracted, one might almost say 'possessed'" by the character he discusses. I am sure the chapter is serious, but with elements such as this it constantly teeters on the brink of parody.

With volume three, Models and Cases of Violence in Religion , the spotlight swings back to the sacred writings of the three monotheistic faiths and, particularly the "toxic texts" that overtly or otherwise underwrite a culture of violence in the name of religion. Ellens uses his editorial introduction to show how St John's apparently benign and positive story of Jesus healing the man born blind carries a sinister justification for exploiting others. The disciples use the presence of the blind man as an opportunity to quiz Jesus on the causes of suffering: whose sin resulted in the man's being born handicapped - his own or that of his parents? To which Jesus replies: Neither. The man is blind not on account of anyone's sin, but "that the works of God might be made manifest in him". For Ellens, this shows God exploiting the man - condemned to 40 years of blindness - for the "narcissistic advantage" of making a big show of healing him through Jesus.

And this "understory" subtly legitimises all such exploitation in family, social and political life. It gives religious backing to violence.

This third volume contains a number of fascinating and informative contributions, notably "The Cain-Abel syndrome", in which Ricardo J. Quinones tracks the archetypal dual role of murderer and sacred executioner through the writings of, among others, the Bible, Augustine, Machiavelli and Shakespeare.

Donald E. Sloat, in two chapters called "Terrorising the self to save the soul" and "Imposed shame", puts legalistic religion in the dock and looks at the violence religious people exercise against themselves and their families and co-religionists. He does not pull his punches. "The Christian church has devised a systematic methodology designed to terrorise in order to save," he writes. For example, the mother who softly denied her daughter the choice not to attend Sunday School "committed a violent act against her that was no less damaging than the (9/11 attack on the World Trade Center), except her behaviour was sanctioned by the church, wrapped up in a spiritual disguise, and there is no blood on the floor". Really?

There is also an illuminating chapter by the editor on "Jihad in the Qur'an", enlightening not least for the author's gratuitous and virulent anti-European - and especially anti-French - sentiment. He is not the only American commentator with this prejudice, but it is the more striking, and more shockingly unacceptable, coming from this generally sensible writer in a book on religion. That it is no temporary lapse is shown by a recurrence of the opinion - in stronger language - in his introduction, "Spirals of violence", to the fourth volume. The chapter starts with an ambivalent discussion of the violence perpetrated by Jesus: it cannot be denied, but it has to be seen as the inevitable outcome of the violent context in which he lived, even though he opposed violence. The motivation of this exegesis becomes clear when it is applied to the US after 9/11, forced into violence against its will and destined to fulfil the dual role of New Israel and New Rome.

Volume four, Contemporary Views on Spirituality and Violence , picks up a number of topics of a more specifically theological nature, some touched on in earlier contributions. Chief of these is the question of whether monotheism - with its inevitable claims to exclusiveness - is inherently coercive towards other points of view. In volume two, Edmund S. Meltzer had pointed out that, in the ancient Near East, polytheism was tolerant of other religions. Persecution and the delegitimisation of other gods came only with the prophets of monotheism such as Elijah.

On the other side, Charles Mabee's "Reflections on monotheism and violence" in the final volume presents the thesis that "an authentic monotheism is a rhetoric of religious conviction that has the capacity of lessening human violence". He acknowledges this is not immediately obvious, since the denial of the reality of other gods is non-violent "only if those other gods do not actually exist", which is to beg the question at issue. However, he claims that while polytheism is elitist and competitive and so intrinsically violent, authentic monotheism implies an inherent transcendental unity that eschews violence. Faced with the history of violent and imperialistic monotheistic faith, his solution is to distinguish three elements in religion: biological, cultural and spiritual. The hold that the first two have on all aspects of our lives "can be mollified by monotheistic belief, but not eliminated". It is the gun-law defence again: monotheistic traditions are not inherently violent, but they are subject to violent "misuse", which is "a matter of erroneous style and distorted application of faith to life".

I approached this project with high expectations. The subject is of supreme importance and the space allowed is more than generous. But the result is disappointing and the reason not far to seek. Despite the work's subtitle, the contributors are overwhelmingly Christian and Protestant and American, with a token Jewish presence and (so far as I can see) not a single Muslim theologian or psychologist among them. This is an unforgivable omission, given the daily prominence afforded Islamic terrorism in the media. Anyone who wants an informed background to such events will do better to read Malise Ruthven's A Fury for God than to plough through these essays.

There is useful material in some of the individual chapters, but there is no overall coherent argument and nowhere do the authors engage with each other's contributions, either in support or disagreement. Even the editorial introductions are free-standing articles that make no reference to or comment on the chapters to follow. A great opportunity has been missed.

Revd Anthony Freeman is managing editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies .

The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (four volumes)

Editor - J. Harold Ellens
Publisher - Praeger
Pages - 1,210
Price - £170.00 for the set
ISBN - 0 5 97972 5, 97973 3, 97974 1 and 98146 0. Set: 0 5 97958 X

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