Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence
True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth
Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence
By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.
Part 20: Violence in the Hebrew Scriptures
As discussed earlier, all primal religions involve blood sacrifices which, the religions hold, are prescribed by the gods. Failure to perform sacrifices in the proper ritualistic manner would anger the gods and leave people vulnerable to catastrophe. The ancient Hebrews, likewise, feared God’s wrath and offered sacrifices. However, a distinctive feature of the Hebrew Scriptures is that they rarely attributed wrathful violence directly to God.
Violence is a central theme of the Hebrew Scriptures, with over 1000 passages discussing violence or threats of violence. (See Raymond Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?) Rarely, God is violently destructive for no apparent reason. Uncommonly, God angrily takes out revenge for evildoing. Much more frequently, God hands over evildoers to violent humans, who do the punishing for God. An example of God turning over evildoers to violent humans is Ezekiel 21:31, which describes God’s wrath against the Ammonites: “And I will pour out my indignation upon you; I will blow upon you with the fire of my wrath; and I will deliver you into the hands of brutal men, skillful to destroy.” One might see this as divine retribution, but one may also read this passage as illustrating the effects of mimetic violence. The Hebrews, hating their enemies, believed that their own violence was ordained by God--sacred acts of retribution and justice. It is certainly possible that God is indeed bent on violence and revenge. I think that one may also, reasonably, adopt a Girardian approach and conclude that the ancient Hebrew’s own written account of conflicts attributes their own vengeful violence to the will of God.
It is remarkable that, in about 70 passages of the Hebrew Scriptures, people are punished by the effects of their own sinfulness. For example, the writer of Proverbs observes, “He who digs a pit will fall into it; and a stone will come back upon him who starts it rolling.” (26-27) Similarly, the Psalmist writes, “He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole which he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own pate his violence descends.” (7:15-16) From a Girardian perspective, this is a profound insight. These passages assert that our violence is not the solution to injustice but rather the cause of discord and misery that ultimately hurts everyone.
How are the Hebrew Scriptures different from the justifications for violence seen among other people? The answer is that the picture is ambiguous. The ancient Hebrews were starting to recognize the process of victimization. Perhaps their experience as slaves in Egypt made them more sensitive to the predicament of the scapegoated victim. Whatever the cause, the Psalmist’s lamentations articulate well the victim’s perspective. About 100 of the 150 psalms relate the writer’s anguish at being a victim. He is, for example, “despised” and “hated without cause” and his tormenters are “numerous” and “deceitful.” However, like other ancient people, he often dreams of revenge (for example Psalm 137: “O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall be he who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”). The ancient Hebrews often sought mimetic, reciprocal violence, even if the victims of revenge were innocent children, but at the same time they were starting to recognize the scapegoating mechanism, the process of victimization, and the hazards of mimetic violence.
Next week, we’ll explore another challenging story—the violence against the Egyptians in Exodus.
Go on to
Part 21: Exodus
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