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 75: Forgiveness and Theology
Rev. Paul Nuechterlein has argued that there are two ways of doing theology: accusatory and forgiving. In other words, we can see God as either harsh and judgmental or as loving and forgiving. As I discussed in essay 51, monotheism calls us to see God in unitary terms, which indicates that we must choose one or the other. Historically, humans have leaned heavily towards the accusatory mode. Primal societies have offered sacrifices to their God (or gods), fearing divine wrath. Though the ancient Hebrews similarly envisioned God as wrathful, they increasingly also saw God as concerned about victims. I regard this evolving view of God as a gradually increasing understanding of God’s loving nature. As the ancient Hebrews increasingly recognized God’s love, compassion, and concern for victims, they prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry among them.
It is tempting to see God in the accusatory mode, because we humans tend to be accusatory. Religions throughout the world have always projected human attributes and desires onto their god or gods. The Bible relates that, in the Garden of Eden, Eve accused the serpent and Adam accused Eve, both trying to deflect blame from themselves. There is a universal temptation to project what we despise about ourselves onto others. This process maintains self-esteem by attributing to others what we are ashamed of ourselves. To illustrate, consider how often a tempted man hates the woman who “tries to seduce” him or how some of the most virulent anti-homosexuals have turned out to be homosexual themselves.
It is temping to regard God as fundamentally accusatory, judgmental, and harsh, perhaps because we want to envision God as hating the same people we hate. In any event, this theology makes it easier for us to adopt accusatory, judgmental, and harsh attitudes. Implicit in this theology is a conviction that sin defines reality. We see so much conflict and suffering that this seems a reasonable perspective. I think the Garden of Eden story, if understood metaphorically and anthropologically, offers insight into the origin of sin as well as God’s intentions for Creation. In other words, I regard the Garden of Eden story as true, but not literally true. Just as we describe complicated things to children with stories and metaphors that they can understand, the Garden of Eden describes creation with stories and metaphors that the ancient Hebrews could comprehend.
Looking at the Garden of Eden story metaphorically and anthropologically, we may regard God as lovingly creating the world, and sin arising when humans became self-conscious, symbolic creatures. Pre-humans competed for food and mates, but they had no anger, bitterness, resentment, or desire for vengeance if they lost. Their desires were immediate and material (like food and sex), not symbolic (like self-esteem and sense of meaning). Anger and frustration at not getting material objects of desire ends when the material object is gone; anger and frustration regarding symbolic objects of desire persist indefinitely.
Metaphorically, the Garden of Eden describes pre-human existence – they did not see themselves as apart from nature or even apart from each other. Even though there was suffering and death, they did not perceive evil, because they lacked the capacity to empathize (an activity that requires abstract thinking)*. They did not even have individual selves, because the self is an abstract, mental construct. What exists is the universe. As the human mind developed, it conceptually broke up the universe into discrete parts, including the “self.” The symbolic human mind started to configure human desires in symbolic terms, particularly self-esteem. Now, competition for objects of desire caused long-standing bitterness and cravings for revenge, rather than brief frustration. Mentally, humans no longer lived in the Garden of Eden; they lived in a world in which God’s showing favor for Abel embittered Cain, generated a desire for vengeance, and led to murder.
Another way to look at this is that self-consciousness brought the capacity to think in terms of good and evil, which had previously been the exclusive province of God. Humans now saw themselves not as embedded in nature but as distinct entities, discerning some things as “good” and other things as “evil.” They defined good and evil in terms of how things affected their well-being. Consequently, humans no longer related to God and God’s creation as in harmonious balance; instead, human self-consciousness and symbolic representation made it impossible to live in the metaphoric Garden of Eden. By analogy, the infant does not separate herself from her mother and her mother’s breast. As she gains self-consciousness, she rebels against restrictions on her desires, angry because her sense of entitlement (a symbolic concept) has been violated. Thus, we have the “terrible twos.”
Once humans see the world in terms of good and evil, humans readily lapse into the accusatory mode, accusing what they don’t like as “evil.” They justify their accusations by projecting the accusatory mode onto their god or their gods. They come to believe that the only way to thrive as individuals and as communities is to root out and destroy the “evil” in their midst. Consequently, as long as people live in the accusatory mode rather than the forgiving mode, they cannot enjoy the harmonious existence of the Garden of Eden. However, another way to live – the way Jesus taught – is to forgive each other, reflecting God’s love for God’s Creation. The Hebrew Scriptures also expressed this message, though not as consistently, for example when Joseph forgave his brothers and Esau forgave Jacob, paving the way for familial reunification.
Satan is often called the accuser. The way satanic forces breed discord is by encouraging people to accuse others of sin. This prompts counter-accusations, escalating hostilities and, eventually, violence. In contrast, Jesus taught forgiveness, which naturally flows from love and is essential for reconciliation. Next week, we will begin a series of essays looking at love.
* There is scientific evidence of empathy in some other animals, which is one basis for granting legal “personhood” to certain animals.
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Part 76: Love, part 1: God is Love
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