Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Atrocities Are Atrocities, No Matter Who Points Them Out

Richard Beck is a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University who blogs at Experimental Theology. In his September 5th post, "Not Getting How Horrible the Bible Is", Beck was puzzled that poor or incarcerated people reading the Bible with him were far less horrified by its violent content than liberal, educated people.
"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.

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."
Beck wondered why the disenfranchised people he'd met were not offended by the Bible's violent content.
"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 GinĂ©s de SepĂșlveda, 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.


  1. You most definitely don't have to have a liberal arts degree to be disturbed by what's in the Old Testament. I was a Biblical Studies minor for only a year, and yet about 2 years after I left, after having a crisis of faith, and re examining the Bible again, it started to repulse me.

    I don't think it has anything to do with college degrees, but he may have a point in some ways. He was talking about prisoners, and their lack of disgust at the atrocities of the Bible. That would make sense, people who are violent felons are probably desensitized to violence, and even if their sentence wasn't for a violent crime, many of them have probably spent quite a bit of time in violent environments with violent people, and many are probably abuse survivors as well.

    It's about the exposure to violence in one's past, not their education level.

    1. Sheldon -- Very true. For some people, exposure to violence might normalize violence for them and reduce their empathy for victims of violence. It's a scary thought.

  2. Great post, Ahab.

    Perhaps the poor, oppressed, and marginalized see their own life and experiences in the horrid stories of the Bible? The greater issue is why this class of people is still drawn to this God and the Christian religion. Perhaps they buy into the whole god is different now, a God of mercy, love, and grace. ( which this class of people desperately needs)

    Of course, the God of the Bible is a myth. However, the violence done in his name is very real. And who does this violence affect the most? The poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

    1. Bruce -- All good points. When someone is suffering, a god who promises love and absolution can be very appealing. Unfortunately, that god is tied up in systems and belief systems that perpetrate a lot of suffering too, which is ironic.

  3. I left a long comment that blogger and my iPad decided to delete.

    So here is the shorter version. Perhaps the poor, oppressed, and marginalized see the violence as normal because of what they experience in their own life?

    What is interesting is that this class of people is drawn to the violent God of the Bible. Perhaps preachers have convinced them that the NT God is a much nicer God now. But..the book of Revelation seems to belie such thinking.

    Of course, the Christian God of the Bible does not exist by people who commit violent acts in his name do. And who is most affected by this violence? The poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

    I know plenty of rich liberals who couldn't care less about violence of any kind. As long as the money keeps rolling in they no concern for the welfare of others. (And the same could be said of rich conservatives)

    1. Bruce -- No, it wasn't deleted, thankfully. See above.

    2. Well now you see how my mind doesn't work. :) After the comment disappeared, I thought, #$%^ now exactly what did I say, as I prepared to rewrite it. This only happens on my iPad. I think it has something to do with how blogger authenticates users. Evidently the comment post is successful but I don't get a screen showing the new comment or telling me it was moderated. (I am typing this comment on my desktop PC)

  4. Richard Beck lives in Abilene Texas. Since that's not far from where I grew up, I'll go ahead and say I understand what he's saying. The typical street Baptist in Texas never questions the violence in the Bible. The people who do seem to question things are the universities. My professors in college, some of which Beck likely knows, did not think the Bible was the inerrant word of God. My mom was shocked, and told me not to listen to my professors. I think many of the students, myself included, were blown away, too, but overtime education expanded our minds.

    So I'm not saying education is necessary for expanding your mind, or that education makes you not bigotted and not sexists. But I think for people who grow up in the dark ages, education can be the real first opportunity to expand the mind beyond the basics.

    1. Lana -- I can definitely see how education can expand one's mind and make close examination of scripture much easier. This might be part of the reason why educated people are more likely to criticize some of the Bible's content, as you observed.

      Still, Beck's wording rubbed me the wrong way. At times, it felt like he was looking down his nose at "privileged" people who express horror at the Bible's atrocities. We need to take Biblical violence seriously, no matter who points out the Bible's violent verses.


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