Arts and Culture

Sacred Texts with Violence as Sub-text and Struggle for Nonviolence

By Michael Drohan

(Photo caption: Dr. Carol Zinn. Photo credit: The Catholic Leader)

Review of Book Is Religion Killing Us?: Violence in the Bible and the Quran by Jack Nelson Pallmeyer, 2003.

The title of this powerful book is a tad misleading since in addition to the violence of God as expressed in sacred scriptures, it addresses many other topics which are crucial in our struggle for nonviolence and the defeat of the culture of violence, war and militarism. The book, however, does start with emphasizing the importance of the role that violence in many of our so-called sacred texts plays in the perpetration of massive violence in our world today. Pallmeyer pulls no punches in declaring that the mother of all violence-advocating texts is the Hebrew Bible. Sadly it does not stop there, as he maintains that the New Testament ( the Gospels and other documents) and the Quran proclaim the same “violence of God” tropes that the Hebrew Bible initiates.

Pallmeyer goes into great detail in explaining in what ways the God of the Hebrew Bible is a violent God and is the exemplar of all violence. There are three dimensions to this violence of God. The first dimension of the violent God is [the] liberating [violence of God], as told in the Exodus story. God liberates his “chosen people” and drowns in the sea their oppressors and opponents. He is a powerful God who liberates his “chosen people” but their liberation is dependent upon their submission and obedience to him.

The second dimension to the violent God of the Hebrew Bible is the punishing God, as revealed in the exile of the Jewish tribe leaders to Babylon under the Persian empire. Their exile was a punishment for their disobedience and straying from subservience to the dictates of the Almighty.

The third dimension of the violent God is the apocalyptic God, who visits upon his subjects destruction and war which wipes them out or saves the elect. Examples are the visitation of the flood upon the earth, with the destruction of all living things except for the elect few. Pallmeyer illustrates these three facets of the Hebrew God with copious and devastating quotations from the sacred texts.

Many people  believe  that the New Testament (the Christian Bible) presents a concept of God which is in marked contrast to the Hebrew Bible. By this they mean that the God of the New Testament is a God advocating love for one’s neighbor and even one’s enemies. Pallmeyer, however, maintains that the God of the New Testament, as presented in the Gospels and the other writings of  Saints Paul and John, has many of the same violent characteristics of the God of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus’ death and crucifixion is understood by the Gospel writers as Jesus, instead of us, being punished for the sins of mankind. It is still the punishing God who goes even to the extent of killing his own Son for mankind’s redemption. Exile and apocalyptic memes are replicated in the New Testament in parables such as the sheep and the goats and the apocalyptic themes of the Book of Revelations.

In regard to the Muslim holy book, the Quran, Pallmeyer strives to show that al-Lah  betrays the same characteristics of the Hebrew and Christian God–he is  a liberating, exiling and apocalyptic God who rewards those who obey him and punishes those who disobey him.

Pallmeyer, however, does not end there. In essence he presents the thesis that the New Testament or Gospel writers misrepresent Jesus and what he stood for.   He has many   things to say about Jesus that will seem extraordinary to many people, such as, “we have scholarly tools that show that Jesus neither claimed to be God nor to be the only way to God, as John’s Gospel suggests in many ‘I am’ statements attributed to Jesus.” With many illustrations from what some scholars consider  to be the authentic words of Jesus, Pallmeyer asserts that he did not subscribe to the concept of a punishing violent God.

Beyond the sacred texts and the violence of the God they present, Pallmeyer is concerned with the extreme violence that US society and its ruling institutions exhibit and how they are reinforced by sacred texts and religious traditions. He maintains that in many ways the Bible and the Quran help to perpetuate  “male conceptions of punishing, coercive violence that are projected onto God and used to justify violence against women and outsiders.”

Pallmeyer’s book is full of many other reflections on the violent state of today’s world and the overweening power and violence of the United States.. He goes into some detail on the concept of a “chosen people” and its demonic consequences as played out in the Middle East. The self-understanding of the US elite as the “exceptional country” or the “indispensable country “ has its basis in the sacred texts and betrays a similar will to violence and domination.

Michael Drohan is a member of the Editorial Collective of the New People and a member of the board of Thomas Merton Center.

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