Years ago I took a survey that asked, “Is Islam a more violent religion than Christianity”?
I’m ashamed to say that I answered yes.
I’m not ashamed of my answer because it was wholly informed. I’d studied Islam and read the Quran as an undergraduate, and there’s no doubt that you can find violence in the sacred writings of our Muslim brothers and sisters.
I’m ashamed of my answer because I didn’t see, or chose not to see, the violence in my own tradition. In reality the Bible contains just as much violence, some would even say more, than the Quran.
Don’t believe me? Check out the body count.
- God hardens Pharoah’s heart so that he will not grant the Israelites their freedom, then kills the first born of each Egyptian family as punishment (Exodus 12:29).
- As punishment for Israel’s worship of the golden calf, God orders Moses to have the sons of Levi take up their swords and kill their brother, friend and neighbor (Exodus 32:27).
- When Israel defeats the Midianites, they follow God’s directions and execute all the men, women and boys
except for the virgin girls (Numbers 31).
And although there may be less bloodshed in the New Testament, there is still plenty to go around. Just ask poor Herod, who was struck down by an angel of the Lord and “eaten by worms” for refusing to acknowledge God’s role in his success (Acts 12:23).
So what are we to do with all this bloodshed?
Well, there are several options. One is to say “God is God, don’t question it”! But I’m guessing that answer is less than satisfying for most of us.
Another option is to sanitize the Bible by ignoring its violence and stick with the Sunday school version. But eventually you grow up and realize that just pretending something isn’t there doesn’t make it go away.
I think most Christians opt for the third alternative, reading these violent parts of the Bible in light of the overall message of Scripture. This is where I come down on the issue. I don’t believe that God is violent. I believe that God’s true nature is most clearly revealed on the cross where we see God as a victim, rather than a perpetrator, of violence.
But there’s still something that doesn’t feel completely satisfying about this option.
Maybe it’s because I’ve listened to too much commentary about the senseless deaths in Tucson, Ariz., following the attempted murder of Gabrielle Giffords, a member of the Arizona delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
So much of the coverage has attempted to pin blame on one group or another.
I do think that the conversation about our political rhetoric is important, especially in a time when we are drawing cross hairs over the seats of our political enemies.
But I’m also concerned with how quickly we become self-righteous when pointing the finger at others.
If the story of God’s people tells us anything about human nature it’s that even our heroes are capable of justifying violence when they think they’re right. Sometimes even using God’s name to do it.
So I’m glad that there’s a lot of violence in the Bible. Not because I like violence but rather because I know that I’m as capable of it as anyone.
Brian Beckstrom is campus pastor at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.