Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fundamentalism and Genocide

After the capture of former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic for alleged war crimes, I've been reflecting on atrocities as of late. Mladic is accused of overseeing the slaughter of 7,500 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, during the ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Such atrocities should shake us to our core, reminding us of the human capacity for evil, as well as our moral duty to our fellow human beings.

Something in most people cries out against the very idea of genocide, horrified at bloodshed on such a grand scale, at attempts to wipe entire communities from the world. We instinctively label genocide as wrong, stunned that anyone could carry out such atrocities.

And yet, among fundamentalists, I've stumbled upon more than a few apologists for genocide in Scripture, an attitude that has troubling moral implications. First, in an online essay at Reasonable Faith, Christian apologist William Lane Craig tried to justify God's command to the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites in the Bible (see Numbers 33:50-56 and Judges 1:17).

Arguing that the slaughter was morally obligatory for Israelite soldiers because it was commanded by God, Craig contests claims that such genocide was immoral. Craig insisted that Canaanite culture was supposedly "debauched and cruel", mired in abominable practices such as child sacrifice and ritual prostitution, although he provides no evidence for such claims. Thus, the Canaanites were supposedly "corrupt and deserving of judgment," ignoring the inconsistency of killing innocent people to show that killing innocent people is wrong. To boot, allowing the Canaanites -- including the children -- to survive would have contaminated Israelite society with paganism and spelled its undoing, he claimed.

These ideas -- blaming genocide victims or other scapegoats for the slaughter, dehumanizing victims with monstrous accusations, and demonizing them as supposed contaminants endangering a "pure" race -- are all familiar tropes that have been used by genocide perpetrators for centuries. By depicting genocide victims as subhuman, dangerous, and disgusting, apologists try to make such victims responsible for their own destruction, thereby deflecting accountability from perpetrators.

As for arguments that slaughtering Canaanite children was evil, Craig claims that such children received salvation in death, so it wasn't really wrong to kill them. This argument horrified me, as it implies that killing innocent children is somehow acceptable because a nice afterlife allegedly awaits them. The fact that killing children robs them of the lives ahead of them and is an affront to their basic dignity is not considered.

Craig expressed pity for the Israelite soldiers who were likely traumatized by slaughtering thousands of innocent women and children. He lamented the "brutalizing effect" that perpetrating genocide would have had on Israelite fighters, who were the ones truly wronged by the slaughter, not the Canaanites. In a mind-boggling reversal, the perpetrators are made into the victims, and the reader is encourage to sympathize with them, not the people they killed.

In his online essay on Canaanite genocide, Craig goes out of his way to absolve the Israelite conquerors of moral culpability for the slaughter, preferring to place all wrongdoing on the Canaanites. Whether the story of the Canaanite genocide in the Bible is true is not key here; what is key is the condoning mindset Craig demonstrates.

Second, my encounter with The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel was an equally disturbing look at genocide apologetics. Years ago, when my friend Derek (mentioned in the prayer group fiasco post) first became a born-against Christian, he agreed to read a book of my choosing if I agreed to read The Case for Faith. I consented, lending him a book of progressive theology while I read Strobel's Christian apologetics book.

The book was deeply disturbing. I particularly abhorred his chapter on why God allegedly isn't evil for killing innocent children. Like Craig, Strobel defended the genocide accounts in the Bible, including the slaughter of babies and children. Since we are all born sinful, he argued, no one is truly innocent, so complaints about the deaths of innocent children are invalid. Killing the pagan children was actually merciful, he insisted, because they would have otherwise grown up to be wicked on account of their wicked parents and society.

Once again, genocide is justified through victim-blaming, in this case blaming the supposedly wicked Canaanites for their own destruction and that of their children. Just as disturbing was the dehumanization of the entire human race, achieved by branding all humans as sinful and none as innocent. When the labels of innocent and guilty cease to have meaning, when no human life has intrinsic value and no person has intrinsic dignity, it's easy to justify unspeakable atrocities.

The idea that no one is innocent, including children, was repeated by Ken Ham at a 2011 CHAP convention workshop entitled, "Not Ashamed: Understanding a Loving God in a World of Death and Suffering." Although Ham was speaking in the context of a natural disaster, his idea that no one is innocent has ramifications for other issues.
How could a loving God send the Israelites into a place like Jericho, and to kill the Canaanites, and kill every man, woman, and children? How can that be a loving God? So how do we even begin to answer those sorts of questions? What about the tsunami that hit Indonesia? You know, it's interesting, when the tsunami hit Indonesia, people asked questions like, how could a loving God do this? Why would God allow all those children to die? In fact, I even heard, why would God allow all those innocent children to die? By the way, there's no one innocent, because all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
I theorize that some fundamentalists are reluctant to label other people as "innocent" because a person's innocence implies that they are undeserving of harm or punishment. To label them as such would mean that God inflicted harm upon undeserving victims, making him unjust. Because these fundamentalists define God as good and just, committing unjust acts would be incompatible with their definition of him. Rather than question their deity's goodness, such fundamentalists are forced to conclude that God's victims must have been non-innocent.

What lies at the root of fundamentalist apologetics for genocide in the Bible? Is it authoritarian thinking, manifesting as deference to Biblical authority? Is it insistence on the inerrancy of scripture and the goodness of the Old Testament God, forcing believers to perform mental gymnastics to explain why a loving deity would order genocide? Is it a problem of empathy? I don't know, but the question deserves reflection.

If we are to prevent future atrocities such as those seen in the Belgian Congo, Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur, we must hold perpetrators morally accountable and refrain from blaming victims. We must not allow excuses such as "God commanded it" or "I was only following orders" to be used to defend heinous acts. We must honor the intrinsic dignity of every human being. We must acknowledging that no race, ethnic group, nationality, or religious community deserves to be wiped off the Earth. We must question the propaganda of genocide apologists, proposing an ethic of justice and human dignity instead.

For additional commentary, visit the following links.

Alternet: One More Reason Religion Is So Messed Up: Respected Theologian Defends Genocide and Infanticide

USU Shaft: William Lane Craig Defends the Canaanite Genocide

Pharyngula: Wait, I Thought They Believed in Absolute Morality

Feminism--The Other "F" Word: Biblical "Morality", Rape, and Serial Killers


  1. I believe a big part of the problem is ethnocentrism, that us vs. them mentality that many people are born into (::raising my hand::). When one is taught to trust the in-group and to distrust and even see as dangerous the outside world, and when one is taught that s/he is one of God's Chosen (as is everyone else in her/his social network), the effect is to somewhat dehumanize all the "thems." Makes it much easier to kill them, or, more often than not, feel little if any empathy for them.

  2. Cognitive Dissenter -- A very good insight!

  3. The attackers were traumatized by the slaughter -- unbelievable.

  4. According to the Bible, God not only commanded genocide, but actually committed it on the same basis -- at Sodom and, earlier, globally with the great flood. In both cases, the implication is that huge numbers of innocent children must have been killed along with the "guilty".

    Indeed, if you take standard Christian belief literally, it's hard to object to the killing of anyone, anywhere; you're just sending them to God's judgment and to either Heaven or Hell (whichever they deserved) a little ahead of schedule. Indeed, the early conquerors who baptized pagan infants and then immediately killed them so they would go to Heaven were behaving perfectly morally according to the morality implicit in Christianity.

    The Bible is no source of morality for the real world.

  5. Donna -- Fundies say the wildest things sometimes. The fact that he encouraged readers to sympathize with the perpetrators rather than the Canaanite victims says volumes.

    Infidel753 -- Aye, it's difficult to construct a working morality if one has an inerrant interpretation of scripture. Biblical inerrancy forces believers to justify all sorts of unspeakable horrors, and not just the Canaanite genocide or the great flood.

  6. I've been planning a post like this one for quite some time, but now there's no need; I think you've summed it all up much better than I can. But it's funny how similar Genocide for Jesus argument are to Third Reich propaganda. Just swap out "pagan" and "Canaanite" with Jews, Slavs, blacks, homosexuals and gypsies, and presto! Joseph Goebbels inks through. Face it, Christians; you have no "objective morality", and your bible is just as depraved as Mein Kamph(in fact, Hitler even cited God as his inspiration).

    Is anyone here surprised that most of the Nazis were devout Christians?

  7. BR -- Thanks, and welcome! Sadly, genocide apologists use many of the same techniques to justify violence, as you pointed out.


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