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The Bible’s Authority in Its Proper Place

Since my family recently moved to the Portland area, we’ve been looking for churches to attend. Besides visiting a church, the best way to gain a feel for a church is to visit their website. Specifically, their About Us page.

Since examining church websites, I’ve noticed some pretty strange beliefs out there. Many churches have a list of beliefs that are important to them. What is the first belief on many church websites? The Bible.

On one church begins its list of beliefs like this:

  1. The Authority of Scripture
  2. The Nature of God
  3. Jesus, God’s Son
  4. The Holy Spirit
  5. Salvation
  6. Nature of Man (Sorry, women. You apparently don’t have nature … but if you read the description, you might decide that’s a good thing.)
  7. The Role of the Church

Now, those are all important aspects of Christianity, and I don’t mean to pick on fellow Christians, but the order tells us what’s wrong with American Christianity.

We have elevated the Bible above God. It’s time we stop that form of idolatry. Bibliolatry has no place in Christianity. But, unfortunately, the Bible has become another god, above the Trinity, above Jesus, above the Holy Spirit.

I appreciate the passion that many “Bible believing” churches have. That passion is a good thing, but it’s misdirected. Christians shouldn’t “believe” in the Bible. We are not Biblians. We are Christians.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Bible. It’s an important book and has authority in my life in that it points beyond itself to God. But the Bible is not a member of the Trinity. It deserves to be respected, but it shouldn’t be elevated above God.

“Bible believing churches” tend to think that “the Bible is the very Word of God – supernaturally inspired in every word and absolutely free from error in the original documents. God’s word is the final authority in all that it says. Therefore, it must be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.”

But the Bible doesn’t work that way. It contains within itself many disagreements about the nature of God and how events unfolded. For example, did Noah take two of every animal onboard his ship, as Genesis 6 claims, or did he take seven of every animal, as Genesis 7 claims? Does God require sacrifice, as Leviticus suggests, or does God require mercy and not sacrifice, as the prophet Hosea claims? Does God punish children for their parents’ mistakes, as Exodus claims, or is each generation responsible for itself, as the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah state? Did Jesus overturn the tables in the Temple at the end of his ministry, as the synoptic Gospels claim, or did he do it at the beginning of his ministry, as the Gospel of John claims?

Those who believe in the Bible’s inerrancy will do all kinds of interpretive gymnastics to put the round peg of the Bible into the square hole of inerrancy, but it just doesn’t fit. That’s because it’s not meant to fit.

The Bible is a document written by human beings who tried to recognize what God was doing in their lives. But it’s not inerrant. Interestingly, if the Bible were inerrant you would think it would tell us. It simply doesn’t use those terms. The Bible never says, “Hi! I’m the Bible. I’m the inerrant Word of God. Believe in me!”

There are disagreements that run throughout the Bible. Those disagreements are one of the things that I love about the Bible! The Bible models for us how to wrestle with God and ask questions about faith.

The Bible contains human testimony about how God works in the world, but it is not God’s inerrant Word. The Bible points beyond itself to God, and in the New Testament, to the God revealed in Jesus. The Bible even claims that Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible itself.

Jesus warned people about elevating the Bible above himself. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Jesus claimed that the scriptures are limited. You cannot have eternal life by believing in the Bible. In fact, when we elevate the Bible above God, it blocks us from our only access to eternal life.

The Bible is important, but we are not Biblians. We are Christians. We are not called to believe in the Bible. We are called to believe in Jesus.

Christians need to put the Bible’s authority back in its proper place. The Bible’s authority rests in the faith that it points beyond itself to the God revealed in Jesus.

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Photo: michaklootwijk / 123RF Stock Photo

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“God’s Authority”: Same Sex Marriage and a Kentucky County Clerk

A Kentucky clerk claimed “God’s authority” yesterday when she refused to issue a marriage license to same sex couples. As I read her story, I was reminded of Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, who had a vision about God’s authority.

This story is told in the book of Acts, chapter 10. The story about God’s authority comes down to this verse:

God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

This verse was an absolute game changer for Peter and the early church. And it should be a game changer for us today.

Peter made this statement after he had a vision of a sheet falling from heaven. On the sheet were “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” Many of the animals on the sheet were unclean according to religious law. For example, Leviticus 11 provides the classic biblical teachings, supposedly from God through Moses, about what animals are clean and unclean to eat.

Well, those clean and unclean animals appear on the sheet in Peter’s vision. God tells Peter, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” God makes no distinction between clean and unclean; rather, God just tells Peter to eat up because it’s all good!

Peter protested, because, you know, the Bible. And that was Peter’s problem. He elevated the Bible above God. Peter complains, saying that he would never eat that unclean stuff. “For I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Then God gives Peter a lesson in God’s authority, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Okay. Is God pulling a Jedi mind trick? I mean, Peter was right! After all, Leviticus says you can’t eat bacon. But damn I love bacon! And there on the sheet in Peter’s vision was a nice, fat pig. God told Peter to go kill it and fry up some bacon. Understandably, Peter was confused because of the purity codes in Leviticus. But God was now saying that he had actually made all those animals clean and they that they are good to eat.

And I’m so thankful because bacon is amazing.

But for Peter, this vision was about much more than saying all animals are now clean, despite any previous biblical teachings. It was about human beings. It meant that we could no longer use religious principles or laws to call certain people clean and unclean. Hence Peter’s statement that, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

After the vision, Peter went to a town called Joppa and baptized a Roman soldier named Cornelius. An important element of the story is that Cornelius was a Gentile, and a member of the hated Roman army. Just like Peter didn’t think it was kosher to eat bacon, he also didn’t think it was kosher to hang out with Gentiles, especially a Gentile who was a Roman centurion. But when Peter arrived at Cornelius’s house, it was full of Gentiles. Peter said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

Peter’s vision was about animals, but it was about much more than animals. It was about human beings. It’s important to note that every culture has these kinds of purity codes that tell us who is included and who is excluded, who is clean and who is unclean. Sometimes those purity codes are based on religious principles and sometimes they are based on other cultural standards. The point is that these purity codes create a barrier of hostility between “us” and “them.”

But God’s vision to Peter changed all of that. He could no longer call anyone unclean. Later in the story, Peter explained his actions by stating, “The Spirit told me … not to make a distinction between us and them.”

Why? Because “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” This is such an important verse because our words mediate reality. When we call others unclean, when we decide who is included and who is excluded, we construct a reality that is in opposition to God. God shows no partiality, so neither should we.

In Peter’s day, it was the Gentiles who were thought to be unclean. Who is it in our day? This brings us back to yesterday, when the Kentucky county clerk claimed she was “under God’s authority” to deny marriage licenses to same sex couples.

The Kentucky clerk is using her interpretation of biblical principles to call certain people profane or unclean. Because, you know, the Bible. But Peter’s vision tells us that we “should not call anyone profane or unclean” – and we certainly shouldn’t use the Bible as justification to make those kinds of distinctions. That is to elevate the Bible above God. It turns the Bible into an idol. Just as the Spirit told Peter not to use the Bible to “make a distinction between us and them,” so we shouldn’t use the Bible to make a distinction between us and them.

We aren’t under God’s authority when we make declarations of who is clean and unclean, who is worthy of marriage and who isn’t. Rather, that authority comes from the demonic. As Peter’s vision shows us, God’s authority doesn’t divide us from them. Rather, it includes us and them.

Photo: Screenshot from YouTube.

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President Obama, Christianity, and the Truth about American Exceptionalism

President Obama just laid to rest all the speculation that he isn’t a Christian.

During his speech in Kenya, he said one of the most Christian things any U.S. president has ever said. No, he didn’t shove Jesus down anyone’s throat. He did something much more important. He definitively pointed to what makes the United States a “Judeo-Christian Nation.”

“What makes America exceptional is not the fact that we are perfect. It’s the fact that we struggle to improve. We’re self-critical. We work to live up to our highest values and ideals, knowing that we’re not always going to achieve them perfectly, but we keep on trying to perfect our union. And what’s true for America is also true for Kenya. You can’t be complacent and accept the world just for what it is. You have to imagine what the world might be. And then push and work toward that future. Progress requires that you honestly confront the dark corners of our own past. Extend rights and opportunities to more of your citizens. See the differences and diversity of this country as a strength, just as we in America try to see the diversity of our country as a strength, not a weakness.”

What’s so Christian about that statement? Many will disagree with the President. They will say that his emphasis on self-criticism is actually anti-American. But the freedom to be self-critical is an important freedom that the United States models to other nations. Just as important, that self-criticism is based on America’s Judeo-Christian roots.

I tend to bristle whenever politicians talks about American “exceptionalism,” but self-criticism is actually exceptional in human history. Throughout history, very few nations ever attempted to be self-critical, certainly not in a way that confronts “the dark corners of our past” or is concerned about extending “rights and opportunities” to those who are marginalized by society.

René Girard calls this the “modern concern for victims” in his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. He writes,

“Examine ancient sources, inquire everywhere, dig up the corners of the planet, and you will not find anything anywhere that even remotely resembles our modern concern for victims. The China of the Mandarins, the Japan of the Samaria, the Hindus, the pre-Columbian societies, Athens, republican or imperial Rome—none of these were worried in the least little bit about victims, whom they sacrificed without number to their gods, to the honor of the homeland, to the ambition of conquerors, small or great.”

For example, take ancient Rome, one of the greatest empires in human history. Rome promised peace to its citizens, but the Pax Romana was waged with a sword. Because Rome benefited from that violence, there was no Roman self-criticism of its political system. When Rome conquered another nation, there was no self-critical discussion about “human rights.” Nor did Rome have anything like the modern impetus for “social justice” that sought to change unjust political and economic structures. As theologian James Alison writes, in ancient Rome, “the defeated would be killed or enslaved without further ado. They had no rights: that’s what being defeated meant.”

The exception in the ancient world were the Jews. Unlike other nations, the Jews were self-critical and that self-criticism stemmed from their experience of oppression in Egypt. The Egyptian Empire enslaved the ancient Israelites. Like in ancient Rome, there was no self-critical voice in ancient Egypt. No Egyptian prophet would ever say to Pharaoh, “You know, maybe we should treat those Israelites with a little more compassion and respect.”

But Moses set the course for the transformation of the human understanding of God. The Judeo-Christian tradition primarily begins with the Exodus. The God of the Exodus doesn’t identify with the powerful, but with the victims of human culture.

Exodus reveals that God breaks into our world as One who is with the scapegoats of human society. The prophetic word from this God doesn’t justify political action that leads to oppression, injustice, and poverty like the ancient gods of Rome or Egypt. Rather, this God, the God of the Hebrews, sides with the oppressed.

For ancient Israel, the political message was clear: God sides with the oppressed, so don’t become an oppressor. Whenever Israel’s political establishment neglected to care for the poor, the widows, the marginalized, there was a self-critical message that demanded the nation care for the poor and marginalized:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:9)

Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. (I Samuel 2:8)

Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise, says the Lord, I will protect them from those who malign them. (Psalm 12:5)

A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops. (Proverbs 28:3)

The reason the Bible was so insistent that the good people of Israel care for the weak, poor, and scapegoated victims of Israel is because good people often fail to question their own goodness. Because good people can be so pleased with their goodness, they simply cannot believe that they have become oppressors and so they cannot be self-critical about their oppressive ways. The prophet Ezekiel spoke directly to and about people who refused to doubt their own goodness when he said, “The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.”

Jesus continued to highlight the particularly Jewish concern for victims of culture. For Jesus, to participate in the Kingdom of God was to structure our lives in a way that cares for those in need. He stated his mission in his first sermon, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed.”

Jesus took this a step further near the end of his life. He explicitly identified himself with the poor and needy, the very ones that good people ignored without remorse:

“‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’” Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you to drink, a stranger and welcome you, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the last of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

President Obama has never been more Christian than when he emphasized America’s exceptional ability to be self-critical. Amidst human history, that ability to doubt our own goodness for the sake of victims we have created is exceptional. If the U.S. has any claim to Judeo-Christian roots, it’s because of that ethical concern.


Photo: President Obama speaking in Kenya (Screenshot from YouTube, KTN News Kenya)

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The Supreme Court: Why Christians Can and Should Support Marriage Equality

Today’s Supreme Court decision that ruled same sex-couples have the right to marry nationwide has many Christians asking a question, “Can faithful Christians support same-sex marriage?”*

I believe that not only can faithful Christians support same-sex marriage, faithful Christians should support same sex marriage.

First, the can. Many people think the Bible is a stumbling block when it comes to this issue. They feel that they can’t support same sex marriage because the Bible is against homosexuality. But what if we’ve misunderstood the Bible? That’s the case that James Alison makes in his lectures The Shape of God’s Affection. Alison points out that heterosexuality and homosexuality are modern concepts. The terms were coined around the 1860s and it’s only been during the last 60 years that we’ve come to a scientific understanding of sexual orientation in general, and homosexual orientation in particular. Pre-modern people generally assumed all people were naturally attracted to members of the opposite gender. Although the percentage is often debated, we know now that roughly 4% of human beings are naturally attracted to members of the same gender. Why does that matter? There are 7 passages in the Bible that we moderns use to discuss homosexuality. The problem is that the people who wrote the Bible weren’t talking about our modern concept of homosexual orientation. To impose our modern concept of sexuality on the Bible is to misunderstand the very important critique the Bible makes in those 7 passages. Indeed, those passages denounce sexual sins, but they are the sins of gang rape and cultic prostitution. The ancient Hebrews and the authors of the New Testament were concerned about sexual abuse and believed the sexual humiliation of another was a very bad thing, but they were not commenting on homosexuality as we understand it today.

Let’s take the verse most often referred to in the New Testament: Romans 1:26.  Previously, Paul stated that many have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.” It is “For this reason,” Paul continues, that

God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The New Testament scholar Neil Elliot wrote an essay called The Apostle Paul on Sexuality. The essay supports Alison’s argument that the biblical authors weren’t talking about homosexuality, but about sexual abuse. Elliot claims that Romans 1 was principally about the Roman Emperor Nero, who led a very infamous and active sex life. Elliot quotes ancient historians and claims:

Nero’s sexual passion for his own mother was “notorious,” … but then Nero “practiced every kind of obscenity,” defiling “almost every part of his body with men and women, usually under threat of force” … His cruelty and sexual predations paled, in the eyes of the Roman aristocracy, next to his profligacy with money: when he had devoured his personal fortune he turned to “robbing temples.”

In the Romans 1 passage, then, Paul is not against our modern understanding of homosexuality, but rather against sexual abuse and excessive sexual indulgence.

Now for why Christians should support same sex marriage. The speech made by Washington State Representative Drew Hansen provides an important theological account of what God is doing on this issue. Representative Hansen is a Christian committed to the way of Christ who voted for Washington State’s same sex marriage bill when it came up a few years ago. Hansen said, “What if God is doing a new thing in the church right now on this question?  I mean, remember, as Christians we believe that it is the stone the builder rejects that becomes the capstone.”

This is a crucial point for Christians. Hansen illuminates the “truth about God” that Paul referred to in Romans. Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man, the One who reveals who God truly is and what it means to by truly Human, is the Cornerstone that the builders rejected. As the Son of God and the Son of Man, he has become the capstone to our theology and to our anthropology. By being rejected, Jesus radically identifies with those who are rejected by other human beings. Theologian Walter Wink reflects on this principle in his essay Homosexuality and the Bible:

God sides with the powerless.  God liberates the oppressed.  God suffers with the suffering … In light of that supernal compassion, whatever our position on gays, the gospels imperative to love, care for, and be identified with their sufferings is unmistakably clear.

It is unmistakably clear because the particularly Jewish Jesus suffered in order to show us that God in Christ identifies with all who are rejected and excluded. In this way, African American theologians can say Jesus is Black. In this way, GLBT theologians can say Jesus is Gay. But here’s the next important point: Jesus freely allowed himself to suffer and be rejected by his fellow human beings so that our pattern of rejecting others would be transformed into a pattern that loves and embraces others. Refusing to allow GLBT people to participate in the joys and challenges of marriage is a way of rejecting them. The Holy Spirit guides us to include people into relationships of love and compassion, whether we are straight or LGBTQ.

When it comes to same sex marriage, the authentic Christian response is not one of exclusion and rejection, but one of love and affirmation.

And that’s why faithful Christians can and should support same-sex marriage.

*This article is reposted with revisions from a previous Raven Foundation article published in 2012.

What About the Canaanites?: On the Bible, Violence, and Genocide

Nicolas Poussin, The Victory of Joshua Over the Amalekites (Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons)

Nicolas Poussin, The Victory of Joshua Over the Amalekites (Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons)

Suzanne and I recently delivered a workshop on the Bible and violence at the Faith Forward conference in Chicago. We highlighted the differences between the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus and the biblical story of Cain and Abel.

You can read the description of our workshop here, but to summarize, in the Roman myth, Romulus kills his brother Remus, founds the city of Rome, and the god Mars vindicates Romulus by welcoming him to heaven and divinizing him as the god Quirinus. The biblical account is similar, but has important differences. Cain kills his brother Abel, founds a city, but God doesn’t vindicate the murderer. Rather, God actually vindicates the victim by hearing Abel’s blood crying out from the earth.

In the Roman myth, the god vindicates the persecutor’s violence and ignores the victim. In the biblical account, God hears the voice of the victim and seeks to heal and protect the repentant persecutor from a cycle of violence that might turn against him.

The differences couldn’t be more profound.

But as we talked about those difference, someone asked an important question, “You are telling us about the compassionate God of the Bible, but what about the Canaanites?”

It is the most troubling story in the Bible. As they enter the Promised Land, God commands the Israelites to kill everything that breathes – including women, children, men, and animals. As if God wasn’t clear enough, God instructs Israel to kill more than just the Canaanites. God says to “annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perrizites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God commanded, so that they may not teach you to do abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you do thus sin against the Lord your God.”

Our questioner was right. How can we talk about a biblical God of compassion in the face of genocide and Holy War? What about the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perrizites, Hivites, and Jebusites?

Great question.

Peter Enns does a remarkable job exploring some answers in his masterful book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Peter discusses the various answers historically offered to justify God’s demand for genocide, but there are two answers in particular that interest me.

Did God Actually Command Genocide?

First, it’s important to note that while the Bible tells a horrific story of the conquest of Canaan, there is no evidence outside of the Bible that the conquest actually happened. Generations of scholars have known that there are no textual sources to corroborate the conquest. So, scholars looked to archeology to support the biblical claim. But archeology has come up empty, too. Peter states,

Biblical archeologists are about as certain as you can be about these things that the conquest of Canaan as the Bible describes it did not happen: no mass invasion from the outside by an Israelite army, and no extermination of Canaanites as God commanded.

Archeologists could be wrong, of course. Maybe archeological evidence of a conquest will emerge. Still, with such a massive conquest, you would expect archeological evidence to be easy to find. The lack of archeological evidence sheds serious doubt on the historical facts of the conquest. But if we claim that the conquest never happened, we’re still left with an important question – Why is the genocide in the Bible? Peter postulates,

It seems that, as time went on and Israel became a nation (after 1,000 BCE) stories of these earlier skirmishes grew and turned into exaggerated stories of Israel’s wars against the Canaanites in days of old…What most everyone is certain about, however, is that the Bible’s version of events is not what happened. And that puts the question, “How could God have all those Canaanites put to death?” in a different light indeed. He didn’t.

In a similar vein, James Alison talks about the “conquest” of Canaan in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim. James also highlights the lack of archeological evidence and provides another explanation for the violent story. He states that the story as we have it was finally solidified by the ancient Jews, known as Judeans, who were returning from the Babylonian exile. As they entered into the Promised Land, they told the story to those who remained in the land during the exile. Understandably, those who remained in the land feared those who were returning from exile. James states that the story’s purpose,

[W]ould have been a way of letting the current occupiers of the land know, among other things: “You needn’t fear us returning Judeans from Babylon, for, as our text shows, so completely did Joshua extirpate the former occupiers of the land, many centuries ago, that if you are there now, you must in fact really be part of us already.” In other words…the account of the ancient conquest becomes a backdrop to a modern co-opting without conquest.

If Peter and James are right, God didn’t call for genocide. Nor was the point of the story to strike fear in Israel’s enemies. Rather, the point was to alleviate the fears of those who were left behind in Judea during the Babylonian Exile.

Jesus and the Canaanites

Which leads me to Peter’s second point – Jesus and the Canaanites. Interestingly, there were no Canaanites in the first century. They were long gone as a people. And yet, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus met a Canaanite woman. Peter claims this “Is the only time Israel’s ancient foes are mentioned in the New Testament.”

The woman wasn’t actually a Canaanite. In fact, Mark and Luke claim she was a Syro-Phoenician. But Matthew intentionally called her a Canaanite, not because he was lying, but because he had a point to make about their “ancient foes” – that the Canaanites might actually have been exemplars of faith.

The Canaanite woman begged Jesus to heal her daughter, but Jesus refused by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She persisted and Jesus refused again, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Dogs?!? Ouch. Jesus, that wasn’t nice.

But the Canaanite woman softened Jesus’ heart, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Like Joshua destroyed the walls around Jericho to defeat the Canaanites, this Canaanite woman destroyed the wall around Jesus’ heart. “Woman,” Jesus replied, “great is your faith. Let it be done as you wish.”

What about the Canaanites?

In the end, I don’t know if these answers are satisfying. Whether or not it actually happened, the story of Israel’s conquest over the Canaanites is horrific. But the last word in the Bible about the Canaanites belongs to Jesus, and it’s a positive one. Peter claims that Jesus was fully immersed in his Jewish context when he healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter. Jesus and the Hebrew prophets lead us to a different view of, and a different ethic toward, our enemies:

Jesus, taking a page from some Old Testament prophets (like Isaiah) would complicate things. God’s people are a light that shines into dark places, or salt that makes the whole meal taste good, or a pinch of yeast that makes the entire loaf rise. Wherever God’s people are, it makes a difference—for better, and without violence.

Why Biblical Violence is Good for Children


What’s all that violence doing in the Bible? Does it make you uncomfortable? How are we supposed to teach these stories to children?

I mean, the first family was marked by violence. Cain killed his brother Abel. How’s that for a dysfunctional family system?

Just two chapters later, God floods the earth, killing everyone and everything on the planet except for one family and two of every animal… And somehow we’ve made that a cute children’s story?

A boy named David kills a mean, nasty giant named Goliath. Hey, kids! You know that bully at your school? Go ahead and fight that jerk! You may think you’re weaker, but God’s on your side. You got this!

And then there’s Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. It takes years of therapy to recover from that one.

But here’s the thing. Violence doesn’t just happen in the Bible. Children see violence all the time on the news, in cartoons, and in video games. Unless children are growing up in a bubble, we can’t stop them from witnessing violence.

Nor should we want to. Violence happens. It happened in biblical times and it happens in our time. The problem isn’t that there’s violence in the Bible. If there wasn’t violence in the Bible we would accuse it of naively hiding the truth that humans have a tendency to be violent.

The problem is how we interpret that violence. Children and adults shouldn’t avoid those violent texts. Rather, we need to learn how deal with them.

Suzanne and I recently delivered a presentation on biblical violence at the Faith Forward conference. We specifically examined the murder that started it all – Cain and Abel.

We began by explaining that mimetic theory claims that the Bible is a “text in travail.” It struggles with two competing forces. One force seeks to hide the voice of the victim. It tells us the story from the point of view of the perpetrator. The victim is silenced in these stories, which are known as myths. Interestingly, the word “Myth” comes from the Greek root “muo,” which means “to close eyes or mouth” or “to keep secret.” By closing the mouth of the victim and our eyes to the victim’s suffering, myths keep the victim’s story a secret.

The competing force in the biblical narrative keeps our eyes open and listens to the unheard voice of the victim. Generally speaking, victims get to tell their side of the story in the biblical account. I say “generally” because there are plenty of mythical stories in the Bible, but we also frequently hear the voice of the victim. That’s what makes the Bible a text in travail.

To highlight the difference between myths and Bible, we compared the two ancient stories of sibling murder. First, the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus and then the Bible’s story of Cain and Abel. Romulus and Remus were sons of the Roman god of war, Mars. Together, they killed their great uncle, who was a threat to their rule. Then they decided to build a city. Romulus built walls to protect the city, but Remus thought the walls were too short. To prove his point, he jumped over them. Romulus was enraged, so he killed his brother. Romulus continued building the city and named it Rome, after himself. He populated with city with outlaws and fugitives, all of whom were men. Without any women around, what was Rome to do? Romulus came up with a plan. He kidnapped Sabine women. How romantic! Well, the Sabines didn’t like that, so they went to war with Rome. Romulus defeated the Sabines and the Sabines accepted him as their king. When Romulus died, Mars looked with favor upon his beloved son of war and welcomed him to the heavens. Romulus was then deified as the god Quirinus.

The Bible tells a similar story. The founding of the first city was also based on a murder, but this time God doesn’t approve.

Cain became jealous of his brother Abel. God responded to Cain’s jealousy by saying, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

From the very beginning of the story, God doesn’t condone violence. Later, Jesus would say, “You have heard it that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” The Cain and Abel story is a warning against anger, for anger leads to murder.

But Cain didn’t master the sinful anger that was crouching at his door. He was consumed by it. He invited his brother to the field, where he killed Abel. God came to Abel and said, “Where is your brother?… What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

In the myth, we never hear from Remus after his death. The mythical gods don’t care about Remus. But the Biblical God listens for the voice of the victim, whose blood cries out from the earth. God not only hears the voice of the victim, but disapproves of the murder. God holds the perpetrator of violence accountable. Whereas the myth endorses violence, the Bible disapproves of it.

Cain then freaks out. He has an anxiety fest as he worries that he has unleashed a cycle of violence and cries out, “whoever finds me may kill me.”

Interestingly, God also hears the cry of the perpetrator of violence. God’s purpose for human life isn’t a cycle of violence, but to end violence with nonviolence. So, God “put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.”

Cain then built the first city and named it after his son. Romulus named his city after himself – after a murderer – thus locking Rome into a pattern of pride and violence. Cain, on the other hand, named the city after his son, Enoch. In doing so, Cain offered a new pattern of being in the world – one based on humility, repentance, and new beginnings.

Both stories attribute the founding of cities to a murder. In the myth, the murder is condoned, the victim silenced, and the murderer is vindicated in his violence by being elevated to divine status. In the Bible, God disapproves of the murder, speaks for the victim and reveals the truth of the utter nonviolence of God.

But what about those other stories? You know, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Isaac, and David and Goliath?

The violence is critiqued in all three stories. God actually repents of violence in the flood story. It is the gods (Elohim is the Hebrew word for gods) who call Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But it is the specific Hebrew God Yahweh who stops the sacrifice. While it seems that God endorses David’s violence and wars, do you remember why David wasn’t allowed to build God’s Temple. He had blood on his hands. It was his son Solomon, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for peace (shalom), who built the Temple.

Biblical violence is good to teach our children because in virtually every biblical story that seems to endorse violence, even God sanctioned violence, there is a critique of that violence. If Christianity is to have any credibility moving forward into the 21st century, it is that critique of violence that we need to teach our children.

The future of Christianity, indeed, the future of the human race, depends on it.

Is God the Biggest Serial Killer of All Time? – A Response to the Friendly Atheist

atheist and religious


The Friendly Atheist is one of the most influential atheist blogs on the Internet. The website’s 10 bloggers have contributed to CNN, Fox and Friends, NPR, the Washington Post, and the USA Today.

You may be surprised to read this, but I owe the Friendly Atheist a personal debt. My atheist brother invited me to officiate at his wedding ceremony with this condition, “As long as you don’t say anything about God.” I’m very close with my brother, so of course I agreed. I wrote the majority of the wedding ceremony with no problem. I easily secularized everything else, but was stymied by how to secularize the final blessing.

Since Google has all the answers, I typed the words “secular wedding ceremony blessing” into my search engine. The first link that appeared was the Friendly Atheist’s article “A Secular Wedding Ceremony from Start to Finish.” The entire transcript for the secular wedding is beautiful. As I spoke the words of the Friendly Atheist’s final blessing, I experienced a profound sense of awe:

May the glory which rests upon all who love you, bless you and keep you, fill you with happiness and a gracious spirit. Despite all changes of fortune and time, may that which is noble and lovely and true remain abundantly in your hearts, giving you strength for all that lies ahead.

My brother and his wife expressed their appreciation for those words. My dad, a devout Christian, said it was the perfect capstone to the wedding. And all I could think were words of gratitude. “Thank God for the Friendly Atheist,” I said to myself.

Because I have great respect for the Friendly Atheist, I was deeply humbled when contributor Terry Firma responded to one of my recent article. My article is titled, “Don’t Tell Me that God is in Control: On Sovereignty, Tragedy, and Sin.” It’s about a horrific tragedy in my community where three children were killed by a car that ran a red light. In response to people saying, “God is in control” and “Everything happens for a reason,” I wrote that God isn’t in control of such tragedies. God isn’t sovereign in the sense that God causes such events to occur. Rather, God is “sovereign” in God’s ability to empathically suffer with us and lead us to suffer with one another.

Terry appreciated my comments about empathy, but couldn’t grasp the concept that God empathizes and suffers with us:

For real? He suffers? The Almighty, the biggest serial killer we’ve ever known, suffers – just like those parents of the three dead children do, you reckon?

An all-powerful, all-knowing entity empathizes? After either causing the accident or not lifting a finger to prevent it? He feels the parents’ pain?

I would more or less understand this if Ericksen were a Deist who thinks God created everything and then permanently retired, leaving his grand experiment to unspool according to the input and interaction of all human players. But Ericksen’s blog frequently refers to prayer, and he believes in the Bible, and he says that God’s greatest goal is to ultimately heal and console all of us.

I’ve had some communication with Terry since he posted his response. Terry is everything I would hope for from someone who blogs at the “Friendly Atheist.” But let me propose a friendly stop to my new atheist friend. For clarification, I don’t “believe in the Bible.” This is one of the biggest misconceptions about Christianity that both Christians and atheists make. Here’s the thing, Christians shouldn’t believe in the Bible. That’s a form of idolatry called bibliolatry. There is an important reason that we are not called “Biblians.” We are called Christians. That’s because we believe in Jesus Christ. Take Jesus’ own words for example, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; but it is they that testify on my behalf.”

For Christians, the Bible is important in the sense that it points to Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God. Who is God? The Christian answer isn’t found in random passages of the Bible. It’s found in Jesus Christ.

In other words, God is not like the Bible. God is like Jesus.

Why does that matter? Because, as Michael Hardin points out, Jesus had an interpretive principle for reading the Bible. In Hardin’s words, Christian need to understand “How Jesus Read His Bible.” It’s important for Christians to know that Jesus was a cherry picker. He did not treat every verse in scripture with equal importance. In fact, he picked one strand of verses over another strand.

Those two strand of verses permeate the Bible. The first strand claims that God desires sacrifice. It claims that God is angry at human sin and that God’s wrath needs to be appeased. Sacrifice then becomes a “pleasing odor to the Lord.” Ahh, God is no longer angry. You do not need to fear God’s divine Hulk Smash after making a sacrifice. In this view, God is violent and humans are victims of his just wrath. If you read violent passages in the Bible with a violent view of God, then sure, you will conclude that God is “the biggest serial killer we’ve ever known.” No one can deny that there is horrendous violence in the Bible that is attributed to God.

But does that violence point to Jesus? After all, if Jesus is the full manifestation of God and God is violent, then why didn’t Jesus kill people? Because Jesus came to change our understanding of God. Jesus didn’t do that by going against the Bible, but emphasizing the second strand within the Bible – the non-sacrificial strand of love. Jesus firmly planted himself within this strand when he quoted the prophet Hosea and stated that God “desires steadfast love and not sacrifice.”

Jesus fulfilled the Jewish tradition that led to the theological statement that “God is love” and that God desires us to live in relationships of steadfast love and not violent sacrifice. Jesus never lifted a violent finger to his enemies because God has nothing to do with violence and everything to do with nonviolent love that offers universal forgiveness.

god is alien to violenceThat love was concretely revealed on the cross. The Atonement is where we see the answer to Terry’s question, “For real? He suffers?” Yes. On the cross we discover what has always been true about God. Rather than inflicting violence and suffering upon us, God absorbs human violence and offers divine forgiveness in return. God can’t prevent human violence. Jesus prayed that he wouldn’t have to drink the cup of human wrath and that there would be another way. That other way would have been the same way humans have dealt with violence throughout our history – with more violence. But Jesus revealed that the way of violence is not the way of God. Rather, God stops our cycles of violence by responding with forgiveness. And so in response to the wrath of human violence, Jesus spoke these words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus, God-with-us, didn’t use violence to kill anyone. He didn’t pray for God’s vengeance upon his enemies. Instead, he transforms our understanding of God. And so, Terry doesn’t believe in a god who “is the biggest serial killer we’ve ever know.” And frankly, because of Jesus, I don’t believe in that god either.

So, yes. For real. God suffers. God empathizes with us. God has been in human shoes. God weeps with us. And God calls us to weep with one another.

Bible Matters: Lamentations: Political Protest, Grief, and Transforming Theology

Lamentations comes from the word “lament” which means a “passionate expression of grief or sorrow.”

(For the entire Bible Matters series, click here.)

The book was written during the Babylonian exile, a traumatic time for the ancient Jews. Jerusalem was conquered, the temple was destroyed, and many people were exiled throughout the Babylonian Empire.

Lamentations is about grief. It implores us to express our sorrow and grief and to honor sorrow and grief in others. If we do not express our sorrow and grief, we will not heal from that pain. Instead, we will try to medicate it through drugs and alcohol, or through acts of self-destructive or socially-destructive behaviors.

Lamentations is also about the human propensity to scapegoat. Rene Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, claims that former enemies find unity by converging their hostility against a common enemy, or a scapegoat. This phenomenon of the scapegoat mechanism is clearly on display in Lamentations, as one character asserts that enemies and former friends have united against her. Lamentations is a political protest. It claims that the world isn’t right and is a direct critique of the scapegoating mechanism.

The book also explores that nature of God. Zion, a character who represents the city of Jerusalem, claims that God is behind all the scapegoating and that God’s violence is out of control. Zion asserts that God is abusive and oversteps the bounds of justice. But another character, the “Strong Man” of chapter 3, says that God punished Jerusalem because of its sins. The Strong Man claims that the God’s punishment is just, that it fits the crime of Jerusalem. Yet, Zion continues to assert that it is innocent and doesn’t deserve this punishment from God.

Lamentations understanding of human nature is profound. We need to express grief and we do have a propensity to unite against scapegoats. But its theology crumbles due to inner conflict. The protest of Zion is part of the Bible’s theological trajectory that claims God desires mercy, not violent sacrifice. We see this trajectory in the prophets. Christians ultimately see it in the Jesus, who took human violence upon himself and offered divine forgiveness in return.

What does this mean for today? What does it mean for the protests of racism in the US? For violence in general? And what is God doing about it?

Ellie Wiesel, the 20th century Jewish thinker and survivor of the Holocaust, claimed about God, “Ought we not to think of your pain too? Watching your children suffer at the hands of your other children, haven’t you also suffered?”

The Jewish-Christian Story transforms our theology so that we no longer think that God behind our violence or anyone’s violence; rather, God suffers with our scapegoats – the victims of violence – and implores us to stop our propensity for violence so that we can “love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”

How Christians Reject Jesus: On Trying to Outsmart God

Here at the Raven Foundation we have written a lot about nonviolence. We take seriously the words of Jesus that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We believe that violence begets violence, or as Jesus put it, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” We also take seriously the words of Rene Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, that we are now “confronted with a perfectly straightforward and even scientifically calculable choice between total destruction and the total renunciation of violence.”

Many Christians look to the Bible to justify divinely sanctioned violence against our enemies. Excuse me for stating the obvious, but Christians are not Biblians. We are Christians. As Christians, we should be putting Jesus first. Not Deuteronomy. Not Joshua. Not Judges. Not David. Not Solomon. Not Peter. Not Paul. Not the Bible.

Jesus first.

And Jesus calls us to nonviolence. As one of the early Christians stated, the way of Jesus, the way of nonviolent love that embraces our enemies, is the way of the cross and the world thinks that way is foolish.

We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Notice the distinction being made between God’s wisdom and human wisdom. The wisdom of God is the way of nonviolent love in the face of violence that often leads to the cross. The wisdom of God doesn’t lead to Christians violently putting others on a cross; rather, it leads to Christians carrying our own crosses.

Human wisdom, on the other hand, is the wisdom of retributive violence. From the beginning of human culture to this very moment, human wisdom claims that if you hit me, I’m going to hit you back. Only I’m not going to just hit you back. I’m going to hit you a little bit harder than you hit me so that you won’t mess with me again.

In the first century, the wisdom of Christ crucified was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. In the 21st century, the wisdom of God that led to Christ’s nonviolent love in the face of violence is a stumbling block and utter foolishness not primarily to Jews and Gentiles, but to Christians.

Christians have rejected Jesus’ wisdom for human wisdom. Let’s at least be honest and admit it. The only way Christians can honestly go to war is by bearing the sin of rejecting the wisdom of God, which is the nonviolent love of God revealed through Jesus.

Last night the United States began bombing Syria in an effort to destroy ISIS. We have discovered that the wisdom of Jesus is as true today as it was 2,000 years ago – violence generates violence. We can’t outsmart the wisdom of God – the more we bomb ISIS the more recruits they find. Terrorism isn’t a cancer we can destroy. Terrorism is a beast that only grows stronger when we feed it with violence.

The only alternative to terrorism is the nonviolent way of Jesus. Nonviolence starves the beast. And yet, I’ll admit that, despite my efforts to argue for nonviolence and loving our enemies, human wisdom exists inside of me. When I hear about the murders and destruction ISIS is committing against Muslims and Christians across Iraq, I ask questions like, “Should we allow minorities in Iraq to be murdered? Shouldn’t we us violence to stop a larger outbreak of violence?” And then the thought enters my mind – let’s to blow those bastards back to the middle ages.

Tragically, that’s exactly what we will do. I hope you see the tension I’m struggling with. As Christians, I suggest that if we choose war, we consciously admit that we are rejecting Jesus and the wisdom of God. I suggest that as we bomb ISIS, our fellow human beings who, like us, are created in the sacred image of God, that we not celebrate killing them. I suggest that instead, we repent of our violence. As Christians, any time we pick up the sword or the gun or the bomber or the drone, we should mourn the fact that we’ve rejected the very one we claim to follow as our Lord and Savior.

But the wisdom of God calls us to do something more than repent and mourn our violence. The wisdom of God calls us to love our neighbors, who include even our enemies. How might we love our neighbors in the Middle East? In the same way we help our neighbors closer to home – by listening to them and helping them solve the problems that they face. According to Unicef, the Middle East and North Africa suffer from severe “Drought, food insecurity, unemployment, poverty, conflict, military operations, natural disasters and epidemics” that continue to devastate the region and create a sense of hopelessness in many young people. Economist Jeffrey Sachs points to the wisdom of God when he claims in a recent article that if, “US politicians had the bravery to build coalitions to improve the lives of people through development rather than through bombs, the US public would be amazed to see how much agreement and goodwill could quickly generate.”

We know that violence generates violence, but it is also true that goodwill generates goodwill. Of course, according to human wisdom on both sides of this conflict, that’s foolishness. According to our enemies, we are stubborn and evil people deserving death. According to us, our enemies are stubborn and evil people deserving death. Tragically, in the midst of war, both sides are stuck in foolish human wisdom.

That’s why, even as we drop bombs on ISIS, we need to repent of our violence. That’s why we need to live according to God’s wisdom. It’s our only hope for generating a world of goodwill.