15 February 2012

Laying Down the Sword -- or the Book

Philip Jenkins is a historian of and to some extent an apologist for Christianity who has written a bracing critique of his faith's violent heritage. Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses is aimed at those complacent monotheists who argue that Islam is a uniquely violent religion, and the Qur'an a uniquely violent scripture. Jenkins's response to such assumptions is to warn readers against denouncing the Muslim mote while ignoring the beam in their eyes. To that purpose he spends much of his book contemplating the bloodiest books of the Old Testament -- Deuteronomy and Joshua -- summarizing what is known or believed about their origins and how they fit into evolving perceptions of both Judaism and Christianity. In Jenkins's account, these two books alone are as atrocious as anything or everything deplorable in Islamic scripture. He notes, however, that most Christians probably don't realize what's happening in these books, even though throughout Christian history, including American history, believers have justified massacres and wars of conquest or extermination by drawing analogies with Moses and Joshua's dealings with Amalek and other doomed nations. This book is most eye-opening in its detailing of how many Jews have used Amalek as an equivalent for the forces of Satan in Christian propaganda, so that any enemy -- Nazis, Muslims, Reform or secular Jews -- can be identified with Amalek and theoretically placed under God's extermination order. If anything, Jenkins may overemphasize the relevance of Old Testament violence for Christian extremism. My impression is that most such extremists, today at least, are incited more by what they expect to happen, thanks to the Book of Revelation, than by what they believe happened thousands of years ago. In any event, Jenkins finds extremist readings of violent verses to be exceptional among both Jews and Christians, the majority of both faiths having forgotten both the violence and the alleged imperative to violence. He finds this a mixed blessing, good insofar as he sees no mass constituency for religious violence among those faiths but bad insofar as it makes them unjustifiably judgmental regarding Islam. Ultimately he would prefer that believers not forget the violence of their faiths, nor censor it, but confront it by acknowledging that Joshua, for instance, must mean something different for a 21st century reader -- is presumably intended to mean something different by God -- than it did for its original audience. The urgency of such teaching seems questionable to an atheist, but as I acknowledge that eliminating religion won't eliminate violence, I suppose we should encourage believers who try to discourage others from feeling authorized to kill or make war by scripture. Jenkins himself closes with the sensible observation that religion is rarely a sufficient cause for "religiously-motivated" violence, but I wish he had made the point more forcefully more often in the book, particularly when discussing Islam -- if only to remind readers that, justly or not, most if not all Islamist terrorists believe themselves to be waging a defensive jihad and not the war of aggression Islamophobes claim to perceive. If we get to the bottom of why religious people feel threatened or besieged, we may get closer to suppressing the violent tendencies of all religions than we will by studying how to spin scripture toward peace.

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