Monday, July 28, 2008

Coming to terms with Biblical brutality

In a previous squib I confessed to wondering how pacifist Quakers such as George Fox came to terms with all the violence and aggressive behavior depicted in the early books of the Bible. I was pretty sure there was an answer, but I did not yet know what it was. Since then I have been reading George Fox's Journal, and some hints have emerged. The one I'd like to focus on now is this passage:

I saw the state of those, both priests and people, who, in reading the scriptures, cry out much against Cain, Esau, Judas, and other wicked men of former times, mentioned in the holy scriptures; but do not see the nature of Cain, of Esau, of Judas, and those others, in themselves. These said, it was they, they, they, that were the bad people; putting it off from themselves: but when some of these came, with the light and spirit of truth, to see into themselves, then they came to say, I, I, I, it is I myself, that have been the Ishmael, the Esau, &c. For then they saw the nature of wild Ishmael [Gen 16:12] in themselves; the nature of Cain, Esau, Corah, Baalam, and of the son of perdition [John 17:12, 2 Th 2:3] in themselves, sitting above all that is called God [2 Th 2:4] in them. (For context, see George Fox's Journal on line

George Fox chooses a slightly different set of villains than I would choose. Cain, of course, killed his brother. But that villainy is as nothing compared to the genocidal brutality inflicted by Joshua on the peoples living in Canaan. In the book of Joshua we read of entire towns being levelled to the ground, and all the human beings and their livestock killed, and their holy shrines desecrated. Similar abominations are found in two books of Samuel, as Saul and especially King David continue the conquest of the Philistines and other inhabitants of the land of Canaan. Acts of horrible cruelty follow one another with tedious succession, all of them justified with the claim that the god of the Israelists had promised this land to the descendants of Israel and had grown disgusted with the Canaanites because of their wicked behavior, about which we are told almost nothing except that these people worshiped gods other than the god of Israel. In the relations between Saul and David, and then between David and his own sons, and among the various offspring of David through his many wives (one of whom he acquired through an adulterous affair and an aborted attempt to have her lawful husband killed in battle), we find few examples of anything morally uplifting. We find plenty of examples of ugly, uncivilized, aggressive, self-centered, anti-social behavior, none of which a person would wish to emulate.

The paragraph in Fox's Journal cited above helped me to realize that looking for anything admirable or heroic in the Bible may well be looking for the wrong thing. Perhaps what one ought to be looking for is simply a description of how human beings behave, and how they find a way to justify doing to others the very things they would find loathsome and unconscionable if those things were done to them.

Is the story of the brutal conquest of Canaan by the Israelites not the history of everyone who had built a nation? It is certainly the story of everyone who has built, or tried to build, an empire. It is the sad and disgusting story of how Europeans (and their African slaves) took control of North America, and of how native North Americans dealt with each other before the Europeans came along with horses, sharper swords, and gun powder. One looks in vain for much to admire in the building of a continental empire justified by the self-serving ideology of manifest destiny. As the descendants of Israel did to the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Jebusites and the Philistines, so the Spanish, French and English did to the Cherokee, the Lakota, the Arapahoe, the Comanche, the Apache, the Ute, the Haida, the Inuit and the Hawaiians. The same story continues with new locations and a new cast of characters from one century to the next.

It is not primarily in looking for inspiration that one reads the Bible wrongly, says Fox. The greatest mistake in reading the Bible is to read all these accounts of hideous human conduct and to think that barbarism and savagery belongs to others and not to oneself. The wrong way to read the story of David's oldest son Amnon's rape of his half-sister (2 Sam 13) is to see rape as a vicious act that other men (they, they, they) do and that one would never do oneself, as if testosterone is toxic only to others but an ambrosial nectar in one's own bodily chemistry. (I speak as a man, because I have experienced being a man. I am sure women have their own toxins to contend with.) Similarly, the wrong way to read the story of Absalom's vengeful killing of his half-brother Amnon is to see vindictive anger as a vice that afflicts others but not oneself. The wrong way to read the story of Absalom's rebellion against his father, King David, is to think that others, but never oneself, are driven to dethrone their fathers out of jealous impatience.

The wrong way to read the bloodthirsty rampages of the Bible is to pin such labels as “terrorist” and “insurgent” on those who fight back against empires that have taken their land or imposed their cultural standards on the colonized, not realizing that military and economic imperialism is itself terrifying to those who are subjected to it. Folly gives way to wisdom only when self-righteousness gives way to humility and blaming turns into confession.

I admit that I was on the verge of giving up reading the Bible, so distasteful did I find the conduct narrated in it. I longed for something inspiring, something sacred. I had forgotten the observation of David Elkins in Beyond Religion: A Personal Program for Building a Spiritual Life Outside the Walls of Traditional Religion that the sacred is made up of two components: 1) what he calls the spiritual, which aspires to lofty heights and nobility and transcendance and triumph; and 2) what he calls the soulful, which dives into the abysmal depths of the human experience and into the pain and suffering that we inflict upon ourselves and others through our short-sightedness and moral blindness. There is plenty of soulful material in the Bible—enough to keep one going for a lifetime—but only if one remembers that the constant failures are not only the failures of them, them, them, but also (and more importantly) the failures of me, me, me.

Dare I say it? George Fox read the Bible as a Buddhist might read it.