The subject of religious violence demands a much more thorough treatment than I can include in one or two posts. So the following notes about my previous blog are basically an acknowledgment that there’s more to the story.
The inclusion of the quote by Richard Marcinko might have seemed strange, given that it was not directly related to religious violence or terrorism. And it even seems to glorify violence. I’ll admit, I included the quote for its sheer outrageousness. Marcinko has a way of being entertaining and describing actions of deadly force without compromise or apology. I enjoyed reading the book a number of years ago even though I did not necessarily agree with all the ideas expressed through the fictionalized account of his exploits. I respect him as a soldier, especially as one who sees the torture of prisoners as repugnant and wrong. But he does enjoy the actual act of violence a little too much, in my view. Reading the book (it’s actually a series) reminded me of the biblical David who was accused by his brothers of enjoying the prospect of watching the battle. Little did they know that their little brother would enjoy shredding the Philistine giant. Marcinko, like David, certainly does not mind making his enemies suffer. And there’s a lot of bravado and self-promotion; but only to stop evil (and maybe entertain himself); never just for the sake of causing suffering. I included the quote to illustrate how we sometimes condemn violence and are entertained by it at the same time. We really are a violent species.
I make a sharp distinction, however, between scapegoating violence, and what I call disciplinary force. The former expresses rage, hostility, revenge, and the desire to make others suffer and die. And the victims are often chosen on the basis of their group identity, rather than for any personal guilt or responsibility. In contrast, disciplinary force may involve proper police action, defense, and a desire to bring about reform and reconciliation. Disciplinary force can be deadly but only as a last resort and never out of revenge.
Unfortunately, sharp distinctions rarely exist in real life. In human history, including that in the Bible, as well as in present day experience, the line between scapegoating and discipline often appears blurred. A parent who disciplines out of anger, for example, might truly love the child but in the heat of the moment become verbally abusive and/or physically violent. Discipline then becomes motivated by the parent’s feelings rather than by the best interests of the child. Whether done verbally or physically, abuse is scapegoating the child. It is revenge, not discipline. The same type of thing can happen in police actions especially those that turn ugly with an excessive use of force. Likewise, military actions designed to appropriately stop an evil group sometimes become revenge killings and even target innocent civilians. And that is one reason soldiers are admonished to keep military discipline even in extreme situations.
We should also note the role of anger in discipline and in scapegoating violence. Anger by itself is not wrong or abusive. In discipline, anger simply means you care enough to confront, to stop the process of evil, and hopefully to put things right and reconcile. That kind of anger does not find satisfaction in the suffering of others even when they supposedly deserve it. And reconciliation is the goal, not punishment. In verbal abuse and scapegoating violence, anger seeks satisfaction in the suffering of others. This kind of anger looks, on the surface, to be concerned with justice. But the scales of justice in this case tend to balance the amount of suffering rather than seek an equitable distribution of benefits. This way of satisfying one’s anger is the logic behind chewing someone out—verbal abuse to feel better by making someone else feel worse. And it is the foundation for belief structures involving the last judgment, purgatory and hell. In these constructs, God himself, God’s wrath, or God’s justice, is believed to be satisfied by a proper amount of suffering. In common parlance, “Go to hell” is thus the ultimate expression of scapegoating violence and the wish for revenge.
The Gil Bailie quote about sacrificial violence represents a turning point in my thinking about violence. It also affirms a conviction I have regarding biblical interpretation. Here is the quote:
The myth that justifies scapegoating or sacrificial violence is a product of the primitive sacred. Religion is the final arbiter of violence in cultural life. Violence Revealed, 267.
There is a lot more to the context and meaning of that quote than I can explicate here. But I would emphasize that religious violence often expresses the way we read scripture. I don’t mean to say that scripture is what causes violence. I would not even say that interpretations of scripture cause violence. I would say that humans often use scripture in ways that express their violent natures. There is a rather scary association between religion and the interpretation of scripture. But it is our violent nature that is the causal factor, not scripture.
Furthermore, some scriptures and some interpretations anthropomorphize God by projecting human violence and revenge on God. A prime example of this is the book of Hosea where God is depicted as a jilted lover who alternately wishes revenge and then reconciliation. Future blogs will deal with this in more detail, highlighting the necessity for responsible criticism of the biblical text. Responsible criticism does not discount the divine element in scripture. But it does give due attention to the human agent and historical context.
If what we are seeing today is a resurgence of the violence of primitive religion, then we had better pay attention to the way we read our sacred texts. Those Christians, for example, who pray for Jesus to come and destroy everyone who does not read the Bible as they do, are in principle no different from who those who threaten violence on those who disrespect the Quran. The big difference is that leaving the violence up to God theoretically minimizes the violence perpetrated by humans. Unfortunately, David Koresh and many others have managed to fulfill their interpretations of divine vengeance by provoking human violence. Sometimes twisted beliefs do make a tragic difference in real life. There are natural consequences to reading the wrath of God passages literally and prescriptively. When we do that, we do violence to the message of the Bible and to the people that God loves.