Monday, March 11, 2013

Honest Scholarship Admits that the Violence of Jesus Is in Continuity with the God of the Old Testament

There is so much talk about honesty when dealing with the Old Testament representation of God (a representation that God gives to Himself in the minds of the orthodox), but very little call for honesty in dealing with whether Jesus' teaching is not only in continuity with what the Old Testaments says about God, but also whether His teaching in one place is in continuity with His own teaching in another. In other words, when we read texts that call for loving our enemies, we need to ask whether Jesus meant that to be read as many modern pacifists read it.

So let's remove the need to whitewash Jesus for the modern pious pacifist, since he commonly claims to be getting his pacifism from Jesus, and therefore, needs to remake Jesus as a gentle pacifist. I can think of doing this in no better way than to quote from an atheist who says both good things and bad things about Jesus using the same standard that liberal pacifists often do.

Having granted the excellence of these maxims [e.g., love your enemy, give to the poor, etc.], I come to certain points in which I do not believe that one can grant either the superlative wisdom or the superlative goodness of Christ as depicted in the Gospels . . . There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching -- an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane toward the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation. You probably all remember the sorts of things that Socrates was saying when he was dying, and the sort of things that he generally did say to people who did not agree with him. 

 You will find that in the Gospels Christ said, "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell." That was said to people who did not like His preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about Hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: "Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this World nor in the world to come." That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world. 

 Then Christ says, "The Son of Man shall send forth his His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth"; and He goes on about the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It comes in one verse after another, and it is quite manifest to the reader that there is a certain pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth, or else it would not occur so often. Then you all, of course, remember about the sheep and the goats; how at the second coming He is going to divide the sheep from the goats, and He is going to say to the goats, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire." He continues, "And these shall go away into everlasting fire." Then He says again, "If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched." He repeats that again and again also. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him asHis chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that. 

 There are other things of less importance. There is the instance of the Gadarene swine, where it certainly was not very kind to the pigs to put the devils into them and make them rush down the hill into the sea. You must remember that He was omnipotent, and He could have made the devils simply go away; but He chose to send them into the pigs. Then there is the curious story of the fig tree, which always rather puzzled me. You remember what happened about the fig tree. "He was hungry; and seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, He came if haply He might find anything thereon; and when He came to it He found nothing but leaves, for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it: 'No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever' . . . and Peter . . . saith unto Him: 'Master, behold the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.'" This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects (Bertrand Russell, "Why I Am Not a Christian").

 The point here is that Russell had the same modern sensibilities by which he judged the presentation of God in the Bible, but he also applied it to Christ Himself. When he did this, it was clear to him that Jesus came out as very violent, and in his words, cruel.

My point here is to say that this is how pacifists read God in the OT. They believe God comes out as violent and cruel. The question becomes, then, how to read this violence. Is it to be understood as cruelty or as love and justice (love for God's people through the enacting of justice upon their, and God's, enemies)? I believe one must take Jesus as a whole, as well as God as a whole, and understand that Jesus is claiming to be the God of the Old Testament, not just some other reimagined God, as I've argued before, and thus, He needs to be read in light of the Old Testament presentation of God, as well as His own presentation of Himself when He is violent. This is the context of His other teaching. If the Scripture cannot be broken because it is the Word of God, as Christ taught, then His words which are the Word of God cannot be broken up from one another in order to craft some pacifist Jesus. He is the Warrior God who dies for His people (that much is true), but still enacts justice and war upon His enemies (what is often ignored). Hence, he who has the Son has life, but he who does not obey the Son, the wrath of God remains upon him. 


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