Tuesday, June 19, 2007

God Is Alive... But We Are Dying

In 1965 Time Magazine published an issue whose cover story addressed the question, “Is God Dead?” Today, the cover would read, “Is God Deadly?””

God is alive and well. It is we who are dying by the thousands and tens of thousands in his name. Whether you are a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim, liberal or conservative, the god of violence has his claws in you to one extent or another. You cannot read the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the Koran without hearing his voice condoning acts that we would call evil if he did not endorse it.

“Ancient history,” cry the Jews about the genocide of Israel’s Bronze Age enemies. “Future retribution,” cry the Christians about the transformation of Jesus into a war god in the Book of Revelation. “Self-defense,” cry the Muslims about the Koran’s call for jihad and murder of the infidel. The truth is, however, no matter how liberal or moderate you claim to be, no matter how clever you are in spiritualizing the violence of your scripture, these texts are poisoning your soul, and sending us into what may well prove to be a century dominated by religious warfare.

Years ago I wrote an article for Tikkun Magazine in which I distinguished the Torah of Love from the Torah of Fear. The first I claimed represented true contact with the Divine, the second was an all too-human (and most often male) use of a violent god in the service of human domination and exploitation. The Torah of Love speaks of universal justice, compassion, and humility. It honors each person as the image and likeness of God, and promises a future of universal peace where swords become ploughshares, and no one is afraid. The Torah of Fear offers us a world of endless conflict, the Chosen killing the not chosen, and god killing the Chosen for not killing the not chosen effectively.

What is true of Torah is true of the New Testament and the Qur’an as well. They too pass off human depravity as divine sanctity. The world is at war because we still worship at the alter of this barbarous god of death. It is time to stop. Not next year, not next month, but now.

It is time for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy to decry the madness of their respective scriptures, to affirm the human origin of sacred text, and to call on their co-religionists to reject the violence of their scripture and religions, and to seek the God of Love and the life of compassion and justice to which this God calls us.

The effort to free our texts, our faiths, and ourselves from the god of violence and violence of god will be slow and difficult. But there is no alternative.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

I have a problem with this. Leaving aside (momentarily) the question of the Bible's moral authority and its position at the center of Western ethics, I can't imagine (or would rather not) a literature that eschewed violence.

Imagine a Cain and Able story where Cain simply accepted God's unfortunate preference for bloody hunks of sacrificial meat over fresh produce. He and Able shake hands, God learns to love beansprouts, and all is right with the world. Or imagine the Exodus without the plagues or the parting of the red Sea. Moses to Pharaoh: "Let my people go!" Pharaoh: "Hey, why not!" It's a very short Bible.

Conflict is intinsic to drama; without struggle there's no story. Does that mean I have to applaud when Joshua slaughters the Canaanites? No, but I do have to admit that a major land grab like the one the Israelites pulled off (Biblically, not historically)isn't likely to occur without spilling blood. That story would simply be unbelievable.

The Exodus, similarly shorn of violence, would have no power as a foundational myth for a national identity and, more importantly, wouldn't present any ethical difficulty: is it Just to win your freedom by murdering children? Was the final plague a necessary condition? Should we celebrate the drowning of thousands of Egyptian soldiers, likely pressed into service by their own poverty and subjugation?

Taking violence out of the Bible would be the equivalent of what Disney did to Grim's fairytales. A gross oversimplification that denies the reality of violence not only in human history, but in nature. Predation is a basic fact of life, even for vegetarians. And while we can choose to prey lower on the food chain, and strive not to practice wanton destruction, we cannot purge ourselves of the necessity for violence. If we did, to quote Orson Scott Card, "the tigers would run the Earth."

Karen Armstrong puts this idea at the center of religion in her book The Great Transformation. For her, it is precisely the moral dissonance created by the necessity of predation that leads early humans to develop religion; sacrifice, for example, comes about as a way of paying nature back for what we've taken from her.

However you feel about this reading, its certain that the instinct for and experience of violence is rooted deep in the human brain. A Bible, or a religion, that simply avoided the issue or conveniently demonized violence would have no hold on our imagination. The Bible is not history, and owes no allegience to historical fact (whatever that is), but as literature it does owe allegiance to truth. I don't mean a transcendent absolute reality (we could argue about that all day) but the sense of felt truth necessary to any successful story.

I fear a Bible stripped of the reality of violence would play us false--it would paint a comfortable picture, but it would be cloying. It would lose the ability to move us or challenge us as readers. Instead, I feel that, reading the Bible, we ought to be made uncomfortable. Like Job facing the whirlwind, we too must acknowledge a terrible and disturbing reality, and yet maintain the hubris, or the courage, to keep asking it impossible questions.