"What I've noticed is this. When you read the bible on the margins people don't seem to notice just how horrible the bible is.Beck wondered why the disenfranchised people he'd met were not offended by the Bible's violent content.
For example, when I lead a bible study with liberal, educated folks the horrific parts of the bible quickly come to the surface and become the focus of attention. These texts, it seems, sit at the heart of the liberal, educated experience of the bible and represent a constant, chronic threat to the integrity of the bible and faith itself. These passages in the bible threaten to delegitimize the bible and, thus, the entire Christian faith. Everything seems to hang on those texts. For liberal, educated folk.
But for the uneducated? Not so much, at least in my experience.
I've read some of the most scandalous passages in the bible to men in prison or with the poor and, for whatever reason, they haven't blinked an eye. With liberal, educated audiences such passages would completely hijack the conversation. And no judgment about that, these passages hijack the conversation for me. But I've noticed that they haven't hijacked the conversation at the margins. To be sure, sometimes they do. There is a guy, Steve, in the prison bible study who isn't very educated but Steve asks some really sharp, probing questions. But generally speaking, the horrible passages in the bible haven't alarmed, shook, or disturbed those on the edges of society with whom I've studied."
"Maybe it's education. Maybe you need a liberal arts college education to be properly shocked by the bible.
Maybe it's life experiences. On the margins life is more brutal and violent. There, in the midst of that social location, the bible doesn't sound strange at all. It seems to fit. And this seems to be the case worldwide. The bible speaks to the third world, it is alive and powerful. But in the educated and liberal Western world the bible is a shock and a scandal.
Or perhaps something else is going on. But if either of these two factors are in play then it seems that offense at the bible is associated with privilege. Whenever I've heard complaints about the bible being horrible I've generally been talking to a person of advantage and privilege. Generally White. Generally educated. Generally rich (by the world's standards)."
Beck insisted that he was not dismissing the Bible's shocking passages, adding that he wrestles with the text himself. However, he wrote that he was "much less interested" in "the complaints of the privileged" regarding Biblical violence.
Beck's commentary was unsettling to me for several reasons. First, his privileged/marginalized dichotomy regarding who trembles at Biblical atrocities doesn't match up with what I've heard. Second, I worry that by reducing criticism of Biblical violence to the chatter of privileged elites, one makes it easier to ignore the implications of Biblical atrocities.
First, some people from 'privileged' backgrounds have condoned atrocities in the Bible, just as some have condemned those atrocities. For example, Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig and Lee Strobel have defended Biblical genocide stories, as I discussed in a prior post
Similarly, some Christians and non-Christians from marginalized backgrounds have looked closely at Biblical violence. If Beck thinks that marginalized people are largely unfazed by the Bible's violence, he needs to look further. Plenty of commentators from marginalized groups not only shudder at the atrocities in Scripture, but condemn such violence and interpret it through a lens of social justice.
For instance, in a patriarchal society, women are a marginalized. Some of the most insightful examinations and rejections of Biblical atrocities against women have come from female theologians. From Phyllis Trible's Texts of Terror to Pamela Cooper-White's The Cry of Tamar, from Cheryl Anderson's Women, Ideology and Violence to Renita Weems' Battered Love: Marriage, Sex and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, women have cried out against the misogynist violence of the Bible.
In a predominantly white society, people of color are marginalized. Commentators of color have articulated hard-hitting responses to the atrocities in the Bible. For example, in "A Native American Perspective: Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians"*, Robert Allen Warrior (Osage) urges readers to examine Old Testament stories "with Canaanite eyes" as he likens the European conquest of the Native Americans to the Israelite conquest of the Canaanites. Also, in "The Letter Killeth", Hector Avalos frowns upon the atrocities in the Bible, calling for a decanonization of Biblical texts that celebrate violence. Avalos urges peace-loving Christians "to follow the logic of a pacifistic theological principle that any depiction of God as violent must be understood as false. Violence in our canon can be viewed as a theological corruption we have allowed to exist and poison us long enough." There are plenty of voices from the margins criticizing the Bible's violent passages, and they're not hard to find.
Ultimately, none of this changes the fact that the violent passages in the Bible depict atrocities. Even if voices from the margins were not calling them out, would that make them any less horrific? Stories such as the divinely-sanctioned Canaanite genocide or the mistreatment of sexual assault victims justify oppression, violence, and marginalization. If we value justice and human dignity, we cannot turn a blind eye to these stories. Evil is evil, whether it's being pointed out by 'privileged' observers or people from the margins.
If Beck is concerned about the marginalized, he must remember that many violent Old Testament passages justify marginalization. The victims of genocide were marginalized. Prisoners of war reduced to booty by their captors were marginalized. Honor killing victims were marginalized. Rape victims who were executed or forced to marry their rapists were marginalized. Slaves and slave families were marginalized. If we're going to talk about the Bible and marginalized people, we need to wrestle with how some passages actively encourage marginalization of innocents.
As Philip Jenkins notes in Laying Down the Sword, we ignore or forget the Bible's violent passages at our peril. Throughout history, Biblical atrocities have been used to justify conquest, colonization, and slaughter. For instance, Biblical stories of Israelite devastation of the Canaanites were used to defend the European conquest and subjugation of the Native Americans. European narratives associated the New World with Canaan and the Native Americans with the Canaanites, who had to be conquered so that Europeans could live in the promised land. (Steven T. Newcomb, a Shawnee/Lenape researcher, explores this narrative in depth in Pagans in the Promised Land.)
Some Spanish Catholic officials cited the Canaanite genocide to lend moral authority to Spanish conquest. For instance, in the 16th century, Catholic official Pedro de Santander likened Florida's indigenous population to "idolators, the Amorite, Amulekite, Moabite, Canaanite", who had to be slaughtered so as to free up the "land of promise". Another 16th century Spanish theologian, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, also used the Canaanite conquest story to justify subjugation of indigenous people in the New World. In short, how people approach Biblical violence has real consequences.
In short, zeroing in on Biblical violence is not some academic exercise of elites. We must pay attention to atrocities in the Bible, how they have been used to oppress, and how people from many backgrounds have weighed in on them.
* - Featured in the anthology Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World.