Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 320 pp., $26.99.
[amazon 006199071X full]A DECADE after the national trauma of 9/11, a rude chorus swells in the homeland, calling for restrictions on American Muslims’ rights to free assembly and free speech. The controversy over the Islamic prayer center in Lower Manhattan—characterized as “the victory mosque” by Islamophobes, who labor under no abrogation of their First Amendment rights—is a notable but hardly isolated effort to deny Muslims access to public space. Anti-sharia measures, already the law in three states and being considered by a dozen more, serve as warnings to any Muslims who would dare advocate for legislation consistent with Islamic norms. Such morality-based, religiously inspired speech is, of course, as American as apple pie. But no matter: Muslims, whether natural-born or naturalized citizens, are today’s “traitors” of choice for the new McCarthyites.
The critics of Islam, whether secular conservatives, evangelical Christians or Zionist defenders of Israel, now inhabit not only the blogosphere and sensationalist media outlets but also some local churches, state assemblies and even the halls of Congress. How do they justify the bigotry evident in proposals and policies that deny (or would deny) full civil rights to some of their fellow Americans? By framing Islam as an inherently violent religion and portraying Muslims as closet jihadists harboring sympathy for al-Qaeda and other jihadist networks. This canard is reinforced by the claim that the Holy Koran is, in the final analysis, a terrorist manifesto.
From an unlikely source comes a powerful and provocative riposte. The prolific scholar and public intellectual Philip Jenkins is a Welsh Catholic turned Episcopalian who has written insightfully on topics ranging from designer drugs, child pornography and serial homicide to, more recently, global Christianity, internal church conflict and the revival of anti-Catholicism in the wake of the sexual-abuse crisis. In Laying Down the Sword, he has delivered a thoughtful and frequently penetrating analysis of the Bible’s own bloodthirsty passages—and how Christians have both enshrined and ignored them over the course of two millennia of church history.
At issue are the “Conquest texts” found in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua and 1 Samuel, in which the Lord God of Israel commands the utter and merciless destruction (herem) of the Canaanites, the Midianites, the Amalekites and the people of Jericho. Compared to these apparently genocidal passages, Jenkins remarks, the Koranic verses (suras) that seem to legitimate deadly violence come off as relatively restrained. In his vengeful disdain for wayward tribes and people, Yahweh takes a backseat to no deity, not even Allah. “While many Qur’anic texts undoubtedly call for warfare or bloodshed, these are hedged around with more restrictions than their biblical equivalents, with more opportunities for the defeated to make peace and survive,” he writes. “Furthermore, any of the defenses that can be offered for biblical violence—for instance, that these passages are unrepresentative of the overall message of the text—apply equally to the Qur’an.”
Laying Down the Sword is not designed to please everyone, and it will infuriate many. The Islamophobes will recoil at Jenkins’s repeated assertion that when it comes to violent scriptures, the differences between Islam and Christianity are minimal: “If Christians or Jews needed biblical texts to justify deeds of terrorism or ethnic slaughter, their main problem would be an embarrassment of riches,” he notes wryly. Jenkins even provides a table categorizing “violent and disturbing scriptures” and finds that the Bible abounds with “extreme” texts—those that call for the annihilation of the enemy or direct violence against particular races and ethnic groups. By contrast, “the Qur’an has nothing strictly comparable.” Unlike the Bible, he reports, “no Qur’anic passage teaches that enemies in warfare should be exterminated.” Nor does the Koran “teach principles of war without mercy, or propose granting no quarter.”
Even more provocative is Jenkins’s expressed doubt that Islam surpasses Christianity in incidents of scripture-inspired violence. Those who despise Islam will not stand still for such heresy, responding (as Christian evangelist Franklin Graham put it) that whereas the Bible only reports violence that occurred in the distant past, the Koran “preaches violence” (my emphasis) in the here and now. Jenkins dismisses both claims as nonsense. He insists on using the term “Old Testament,” rather than the politically correct “Hebrew Bible,” as a way of reminding Christians that the Conquest texts are their sacred scriptures too; this part of the canon may be “old” and “Jewish,” but the church, following the example of Jesus himself, incorporated the Law and the Prophets and the Wisdom texts fully into its own identity and mission. In doing so, the early Christian bishops overcame the popularity of contrarians such as the eventually excommunicated Marcion, who simply jettisoned the Old Testament when he found it impossible to reconcile the genocidal tendencies of Yahweh with the compassionate and forgiving God revealed by the Jesus of the New Testament.
More to Jenkins’s point, the troubling passages of the Torah did not become dead letters once the pre-Christian eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth era had passed. Instead, they proved handy age after age: for Christian theologians and heresy hunters (Augustine, Calvin, Torquemada), conquerors and colonizers (Oliver Cromwell, Cotton Mather, Theodore Roosevelt), racialists and eugenicists (Jonathan Bayley, John W. Haley), and genocidaires (present-day Rwandan pastors). Nor was the political utility of the Conquest texts lost on subsequent Jewish leaders, Jenkins avers, not least the modern Zionists, up to and including the current prime minister of Israel and the religious nationalists and irredentists who keep him in power. If contemporary Muslim extremists retrieve violence-justifying suras and interpret them as timeless and timely injunctions to crush the presumed enemies of the faith, they are only upholding a long-standing Abrahamic family tradition.
Quite reasonably, Jenkins lays the blame for religious violence on its perpetrators alone. Scriptures do not justify terrorism; terrorists do.
YET JENKINS is concerned with more than poking self-righteous Christians in the eye or defending Muslims; he wants to understand the ways in which both Christianity and Islam and, by extension, other religious traditions have coped with their respective “problematic” sacred texts. Replete with passages congenial to slave traders, absolute monarchs, ethnic chauvinists, self-styled holy warriors and patriarchs of all stripes, these foundational scriptures have become more and more embarrassing to faith communities. After all, they have increasingly found it necessary (or at least honorable) to adapt the texts’ teachings and practices to modern, “enlightened” sensibilities. Conforming to the human-rights regime which now prevails across much of the world, at least in theory, and which was constructed over several generations by secular and religious thinkers alike, has not been a straightforward process for religions, even for the Jews and Christians who recognize this modern tradition as largely their own. The age-old temptation to coercion and violence is particularly hard to resist. Ever since the Protestant Reformation, Christians have largely ceded to the state the responsibility for large-scale killing on behalf of God. But this thinly veiled sacralization of state violence, accompanied by the relevant hymns and Bible passages, faces withering criticism from religious and secular humanists, whose putative creed is summarized elegantly in the lyrics of the folk singer John Prine: “Now Jesus don’t like killing / no matter what the reason’s for / and your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.” With all this Jesus talk, and with Jesus portrayed as the original nonviolent champion of “universal human rights,” what’s a would-be Bible-thumping, empire-building Christian politician to do?
It would fill several volumes to survey the strategies of accommodation, resistance and adaptation to secular-religious humanism employed by the Christian churches alone, so Jenkins can be forgiven for confining himself to a handful of tactics for dealing with the Bible’s dark side, which he evaluates on the basis of how directly and frankly each tactic confronts the most disturbing passages and books. Thus the rejectionists (my term) are scorned for taking the easy way out. These Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment figures, outraged by what they consider the ethical bankruptcy of some or all of the Bible, cope by jettisoning the parts they do not like. For the radical American revolutionary Thomas Paine and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, that means the story of Moses, Yahweh, and the chastened but triumphant Israel. (Jenkins quotes Buber: “Nothing can make me believe in a God who punishes Saul because he has not murdered his enemy.”) For the deists Matthew Tindal and John Toland, everything in the Bible that does not conform to reason and rational morality must go. For creative rewriters such as Thomas Jefferson, “coping” means starting with the New Testament and excising all references to supernaturalism and divine intervention. For the new atheists of our own day (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and the like), “dealing with the Bible” means dismantling the God business entirely (and then elevating secular humanism to the vacated perch in the heavens).
Jenkins notes, correctly, that most of the solutions proposed by the rejectionists put them outside the orbit of the Christian tradition. The vast majority of Christians, while accepting secular assumptions of science and technology, continue to practice their faith vitally and vividly—all the while ignoring the books of blood held in their churchgoing hands.Pullquote: Judaism and Christianity have made their respective Bibles into virtual rubber bands, the interpretive options so multiple and elastic as to stretch the range of possibilities such that almost any proximity to the text is permissible.Image: Essay Types: Book Review