Saturday, November 16, 2013
There was a comment left recently on another blog post here that I thought warranted a longer response since it raises some important issues around how we read the Bible in regards to violence. Here's the original comment from Cole:
I've often wondered why God's punishments in the Bible often seem cruel and barbaric. They don't seem to fit the crime. People are commanded to be stoned to death for things like picking up sticks on the Sabbath when Israel was a Theocracy. Some (like Jonathan Edwards) have said that the correct punishment for a crime is proportional to the status of the wronged individual and that the Bible teaches that all sins are against God (which they are). But this principle isn't entirely correct. It's not just to punish a person more severely because of the status of the one he has sinned against.
Part of what determines the severity of the punishment isn't the status of the person one offends but the type of being one offends (after all, a crime against a human merits worse punishment than the same crime against a dog and a crime against a dog merits worse punishment than the same crime against an ant). All sins are against God (analogy: all crimes in Pennsylvania are also crimes against the state of Pennsylvania), who is a different type of being than all. This is why God's punishments can seem so severe. Yet we know that they are just and not abusive because they fit the crime.
Now there are several assumptions going on here that we need to consider: Let's begin with the assumption that punishment is an appropriate and moral response to crime. In the past this was simply assumed, which is why children were beaten all the time. We are, as a society however, increasingly questioning whether this is really a good thing. The first question we need to ask here is: what is the intended purpose of punishment? Is it to avenge the offended party? If so, can we really call revenge moral? I think that most of us would agree that revenge is not moral because it is intended to cause harm to the other.
What if the intent of punishment is instead to reform the offender? If so we would need to ask if this is effective. For example does killing someone for picking up sticks help them reform? That's pretty much ruled out since they are dead. Does it serve as a deterrent to the community? Perhaps, but only in the sense of how the mafia might terrorize people. Again, we need to question whether motivating people through fear is healthy. I think it is pretty clear that this does not lead to a good relationship or healthy development of a person.
Moving on, while it is true that a crime against a human is considered more severe than the same crime against an animal, what is being assumed in both is that they are being harmed, not that they are being "offended." Offending a person is not a crime at all. It might be rude, but it is not a crime because the "harm" is trivial. If we are mature we are able to handle being offended without flying off the handle and reacting in some extreme and hurtful way. Is God less mature than we are?
If God is a higher being, then the assumption really ought to be that God is more mature than we are, not less. However, in the Old Testament the deity we find there frequently appears to be less loving, less mature, and less moral than we are. That's why we struggle when we read the OT, frequently finding it "cruel and barbaric" as Cole says above. What are we to do with this?
A frequent response is to try to make sense of it, as Cole does above, to try to argue why what at first appears to us as barbaric is in fact reasonable and right. I've done this myself... I'm sure we all have. But even if we manage to come up with an argument that demonstrates that the violence in the OT is justified and reasonable, it still cannot touch grace. What we end up with is simply an explanation of why it was okay to hurt, okay to suffer, okay to cause harm. No matter how reasonable that may be, it simply cannot hold a candle to grace.
Grace is not about what is reasonable, or deserved. Grace is about getting a second chance after we have blown it. Grace is about losing something dear to us and then finding it restored. Grace is about being healed, made new. It's what we long for. Grace is amazing. Anyone who has experienced grace will know this. Once you have known grace you are drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Grace is what we were made for. It makes us come alive.
So the bottom line is that no matter how reasonable we may find the violent punishment in the OT (and it is frankly debatable whether it is reasonable at all) it simply is not grace. Grace is better. Grace is superior.
We can find occasional glimpses of grace in the Old Testament (for example in the stories of Joseph and his brothers or Jonah and God's heart for the enemy Ninevites), but in comparison to the New Testament the Old Testament is... in a word... less.
That's something that is really obvious. All of us immediately notice that there is a huge gap between the OT where we find the command "show them no mercy" and the way of Jesus who teaches that mercy, grace, and enemy love are the only way to please God. The difference here is glaring and obvious. Yet we somehow have gotten it in our heads that the OT must be defended as good and right. So I want to ask:
The assumption here is that we have a perfect book, and so it all must be right. But the fact is, Jesus did not see the Old Testament that way. That's why he did not teach killing of enemies as the OT does, and instead taught love of enemies. That's why he forgave the woman caught in adultery when the law clearly commanded killing her with zero possibility of forgiveness or mercy allowed. That's why Jesus frequently broke the Sabbath to heal (the same "crime" that got our stick-collector above killed in the OT).
So we frequently see Jesus both disagreeing with and outright breaking the law, and he does this in order to love, in order to be faithful to God. Jesus did not see the Old Testament as infallible and perfect. He did not defend it, he instead changed it.
We see a similar approach in the OT itself where the prophets for example question the law, question rituals and sacrifice, and question punishment in the name of mercy and justice (which by the way they did not view as opposites like we do).
So if the prophets and Jesus could question the Bible, why is it that we feel we need to defend it? Why do we need to try so hard to call something good that is clearly not good, to call something moral that is clearly immoral, to call something right that we all know is deeply wrong? Is that what Jesus wants us to do?
Based on the fact that he did the opposite, I think it is safe to assume that he does not. So what we need to do is learn to read the Bible like Jesus did.
A first step to doing this is facing up to the fact that the assumption of biblical infallibility has the inevitable result of making us less moral because it causes us to seek to accept and justify as good things that we would without question clearly recognize as profoundly immoral in any other context. I'll say it again: belief in the doctrine of infallibility makes us less moral. It leads us to call evil "good" and to justify harm and hurt in God's name. That's how the Pharisees read their Bibles. Why is it that we read our Bible's like them and not like Jesus?