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Numbers 31 – An Unsatisfactory Response

Numbers 31 – An Unsatisfactory Response

Since I have been reading the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy along with the text, I wanted to place a short note about the response to this passage in that commentary. (The author of the Leviticus portion is Dale A Brueggemann.)

He notes the command to slaughter all the males, including the children, and all the women who were not virgins, then on page 403 he says:

This slaughter was not the result of “collateral damage” in the heat of battle, or even an outrage committed in the heat of war’s bloodlust. It was purposeful judicial slaughter after the battle was already over. In fact, this action fits the modern definition of ethnic cleansing or possibly even genocide. The conquest was a holy war aimed at driving out an entire human population from Canaan (33:50-53), annihilating everyone there to purge idolatry and remove its temptations (Deut 20:16-18). …

He continues (p. 404) to note that Israel was promised similar judgment if they did not follow God and stay clear of idolatry. It’s interesting to note that at this point the chapter turns to the issue of ritual purity, specifying purification rituals for the spoils as well as for the warriors who, at God’s command, have come in contact with dead bodies. Dale Brueggemann notes (404):

… Even glorious battles fought and won with God’s blessing cause death, which doesn’t belong in the presence of the God of the living.

Alright then …

It is here that I must note that this passage presents an interesting problem for those who want to quote the Qur’an and use texts, apart from their interpretation by representatives of any branch of Islam, to demonstrate that Islam is not a religion of peace. The Bible has similar passages which can be interpreted, and indeed have been interpreted by some, as justifying violence. Our commentator in this case calls this action a “holy war” and then a “glorious battle.” Apart from your particular means of reading this passage, could you blame someone not involved in your particular hermeneutic for concluding that Judaism or Christianity are not religions of peace either?

There are a number of ways of looking at this passage, some of which I enumerated in my article in Sharing the Practice, Preaching an Unpreachable Passage. Very few Christians would use this passage today as a justification for this sort of act of war. Reasons range from “that’s the Old Testament,” though it should be noted that few Jews would use it to justify slaughter either, to such violence is only at God’s specific and rare command, to noting that it was a violent time, and God worked with people as they were.

I must confess that I find the explanation give in the CBC on Numbers to be extremely unsatisfactory. The Canaanites were so wicked that the Israelites were justified in slaughtering everyone including the baby boys? Note as well that the women were not spared due to mercy. They were spared as spoils of war. I discuss my own responses in the article linked above, but I think that there is a requirement that we see a process of learning going on in scripture, that this was a way in which people behaved in the past in a world in which that behavior was standard, but that we have been told better (by the Prince of Peace, among others), and we have (I hope) learned better by now.

Most importantly, in our relations with other faiths, I would suggest that we need to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” We would object to the statement that Christianity supports genocide based upon this passage. We would reject interpretations by others that say this is so. We’d present our hermeneutic in support of our position. Just as we would like others to allow us to use our scriptures in our way, we should allow them the same privilege.

The Old Testament: Serious Illness, Strong Medicine

The Old Testament: Serious Illness, Strong Medicine

9781893729902I ran across this while looking for something else. Dr. Alden Thompson was the author of the first book sold by Energion Publications, though it was published before I bought and renamed the company. We’ve now published a 5th edition, and this is overall our best selling book.

In this presentation Alden using a number of Adventist specific references, but I think the message comes through. There are a variety of responses to the violence in the Old Testament. One of the keys to Alden’s approach is his insistence that it is all inspired, even the parts we don’t like very much, and he makes that claim in the video. Alden’s teaching at Walla Walla University was quite formative of my theology and I still enjoy working with him. We’ll be releasing a second edition of his book Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers later this year, as the publisher of the first edition allowed it to go out of print.

Preaching from the Old Testament

Preaching from the Old Testament

violence and scripture booksNo, I’m not going to do it, but I’m going to ask Dr. Bob Cornwall some questions about it. He’s currently preaching a series in his church from 1st & 2nd Samuel. Bob is one of my Energion authors (see his book list here), and is editor of the two book series we publish in cooperation with the Academy of Parish Clergy, Conversations in Ministry and Guides to Practical Ministry. You can find more information about this event on its Google+ event page.

I’m going to ask Bob how he handles the authority of the text he is preaching from, and especially whether he will deal with some of the more violent passages and how he will preach from them. There are quite a number of passages in the books of Samuel that could be very troubling to a 21st century conversation.

This morning, I was reading one of those: 1 Samuel 15. You can read the whole thing if you want to get a general picture, but let me just summarize here. God tells Samuel to pass the order to Saul, King of Israel, that he should go and wipe out the Amalekites. He is supposed to designate them as herem, meaning that they are devoted to destruction, every person, every creature, every thing is to be destroyed. And lest we be tempted to soften the story, we are told that this included men, women, and even nursing babies.

Saul disobeys God and doesn’t kill everyone. The best of the animals are preserved, and the king is taken captive. Saul blames this on the people. God blames Saul and says he has cut Saul off (or at least Samuel says God says this) from being king over Israel. This story opens the cycle of stories about the conflict between David and Saul, which ends with Saul’s death in battle and David’s accession to the kingdom.

I have heard this story handled in a number of ways:

  1. Get a modern lesson from it, ignore the gory details, and hope nobody notices. I remember hearing it in my early years taught as a story about obedience. When God tells you to do something, you better do it. When I did ask about the killing, I was told that it was God, so it was OK.
  2. Emphasize the gory details. We’ve all become too cowardly to truly uphold God’s will in the world. (Yes, I’ve actually heard this.) We can just hope folks like this aren’t too serious.
  3. Some things in the Bible are less inspired than others, and this is one of the less inspired. Bloodthirsty people did bloodthirsty things and blamed God.
  4. When people lived in a violent world God worked within their context. So things that might be commanded then could be forbidden now, not because God has changed but because he is staying the same, and working with us where we are.
  5. The Old Testament God was violent. That’s why we stick with the New Testament. (If you take this approach, you should likely avoid texts like most of Revelation and Acts 5:1-11.)
  6. Let’s never read this in church and hope nobody notices.

I could probably come up with some more given time. I’ll be interested to see how Bob Cornwall handles the text. He’s both a good preacher and accomplished scholar, so I expect his comments to be helpful.

In the meantime, two things. Following a challenge on a similar text, I wrote two blog posts. The first was a story/dialogue discussing the text, titled The God-Talk Club and the She Bears, on my Jevlir Caravansary fiction blog. (In the God-Talk Club series I write dialogue without any intention of expressing my own point of view. It’s sort of an exercise for me in trying to express several views on a topic.) The second was a homily on the same passage, titled Real Guy Interpretation.

Finally, I recently interviewed two authors, Allan Bevere, author of a book based on a series of Old Testament sermons he preached titled The Character of Our Discontent, and Alden Thompson, author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. I’m embedding that video below.

Discussion Tonight: Violence in the Bible

Discussion Tonight: Violence in the Bible

violence banner

On the Energion Hangout tonight at 7:00 PM central time, we’ll be discussing the topic of violence in the Bible, with a particular emphasis on the Old Testament. But as participant Dr. Alden Thompson will doubtless remind us tonight, there’s violence in the New Testament as well. Alden Thompson is author of the very first title in the Energion catalog, now in its 5th edition, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. Joining Alden will be Dr. Allan Bevere, author of The Character of Our Discontent, a book that resulted from his decision to preach from the Old Testament more, even though he’s a New Testament scholar.

I’ve known Alden Thompson for a long time. He was my professor for two years of undergraduate Hebrew and for my first quarter of Aramaic. It is no accident that Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? was first in the Energion catalog. It was out of print and I ask to reissue it because I wanted to use it in my own teaching.

I would say, in fact, that Alden is one of the major reasons why, despite all the doubts I’ve had over the years, I’m still a Christian. No, he didn’t prevent me from leaving the church following seminary, and I’m no longer a member of the same denomination, but the kinds of approaches to the various problems in both biblical studies and theology have stuck with me. In addition, I use some of the approaches he teaches, both to inspiration and to dealing with diversity in the church, quite frequently.

Alden takes a kind and gentle approach to working with those who disagree, no matter what their perspective. He’s careful with questioners’ faith, while still being willing to take their questions seriously.

I met Allan Bevere more recently, through the medium of blogging and then of print publishing, but I’ve also developed a friendship with him. Allan takes orthodox Christian doctrine seriously and is a pastor first and foremost. He is also an adjunct professor, and helps prepare other pastors.

Tonight I intend to challenge both these scholars regarding difficult passages of scripture. Can we bypass the violence? Can we look at some aspects of scripture as just plain wrong? If not, how do we deal with such passages as Numbers 31?

I think this discussion will be lively and lots of fun!

If you prefer YouTube:

On Violence and Suffering

On Violence and Suffering

9781893729902fMy friend and Energion author Allan Bevere posted this morning on this topic, and I want to call attention to it for several reasons. First, this is a topic I find very interesting. Second, I think it’s appropriate to discuss the problems of violence and suffering together at some points. Third, I don’t think that emphasizing a distinction between the Old and New Testaments really solves the problem. It ditches some texts, so if your plan is to explain things away text by text you make your task easier. But the basic issues remain the same.

I also was reading my own book notes on Bart Ehrman’s book God’s Problem. Ehrman tends to set a lot of people off, but I don’t find him all that annoying. Do I disagree? Yes, in many ways. But that just makes life interesting. Recently, I published a book on this topic, Bruce Epperly’s Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job. It’s interesting to see what different results people get from reading the same material. Note that Epperly is a progressive Christian and his approach illustrates one of the problems in religious dialog: We dialog with one group and it is applied to a much broader group. I used Waltke in my notes (link above), and Waltke definitely takes a different approach from that of Ehrman. Yet so does Epperly, and it’s a different different approach.

Then there’s the book Allan is reading, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? As the publisher, I’m obviously very happy with that book, but I should add that Alden Thompson was my undergraduate advisor and taught me Hebrew (2nd & 3rd year). The fourth edition of the book was also the first title released by Energion Publications.

Now, to add to the fun, we’re planning a discussion between Allan Bevere (The Character of Our Discontent), Alden Thompson, and myself. It’s scheduled for June 2, 2015. Watch for more information here or on any of my social media feeds.

 

It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases

It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases

The Christian Post has a portion of an interview with John Piper in response to the question:

Why was it right for God to slaughter women and children in the Old Testament? How can that ever be right?

And the first sentence of his answer is the title of this post.

I can hardly tell you how many ways this bothers me. I say that just in order to get on the nerves of the folks who like to quote Paul “Who are you, o man, to answer back to God?” (Romans 9:20). I’m just this human who, like many people in the Bible, including prophets, isn’t satisfied with leaving all the questions unanswered, even when I know I’ll hardly get started on finding the answers. It’s interesting how certain Christians quote Paul in Romans 9, while others are more likely to quote Habakkuk or one of the Psalms where people question God quite a lot.

Unless you add that God will never “please” to do something wrong, Piper’s statement makes nonsense of any idea of right and wrong. It is not meaningful to say that God is good or God is loving, both statements found in the Bible, and then to suggest that no matter how unloving or ungood an action of God may appear, it’s really OK because God willed it, or “pleased” to do it. But if mass slaughter isn’t wrong, what is wrong?

Thus the first half of Piper’s answer is, in effect, a non-answer. It states simply that whatever God does–and I’m fairly certain that for him, whatever is alleged in scripture that God does is something God actually does–that is acceptable. And for many people this seems to be adequate.

In one way I don’t mind that. I too believe God does what is right (ignoring, for now, the question of whether it’s right because God does it or God does it because it’s right), and if he doesn’t do what’s right, there’s nothing I can do about it in any case.

But in this case we’re bringing different arguments in scripture together.  The Bible says both that God has commanded the death of many, many people, or has killed them himself, and also that God is good and that God is love. Put up against what I might think about God, perhaps Piper’s answer has a point. Put alongside the Bible’s indications of how God cares about humanity, I think it fails completely.

It’s beyond a simple blog post such as this to give my own response, but I will point to a book I publish, by my former teacher Dr. Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. Alden takes quite a conservative approach to scripture and yet takes both of these items, the stories of God’s destructive acts, and the assertions of God’s love, care, and goodness. Piper, on the other hand, empties any assertion of God’s love and goodness of any meaning.

Piper regards the question of God’s commands to kill as more difficult than that of God killing directly, but I think with this he makes an even more dangerous error:

With Joshua there was a political, ethnic dimension, God was immediate king, and he uses this people as his instrument to accomplish his judgment in the world at that time. And God, it says, let the sins of the Amorites accumulate for 400 years so that they would be full (Genesis 15:16), and then sends his own people in as instruments of judgment.

From this I would conclude that being ruled closely by God would make atrocities committed right, and very likely more common. This is consistent with the first part of Piper’s answer. I must concede to Calvinists this: They are philosophically consistent. I just don’t believe that consistency is a very good indicator that a philosophy reflects actuality.

On the contrary, I believe that we must either find some better reason why these stories occur in the Old Testament, or we must seriously back off of any pretension that “God is good” or “God is love” has any meaning at all.

We regularly argue that it must be that all the Canaanites deserved to die. A Calvinist will certainly note that we all deserve to die. Yet what is the basis for this? Were they more wicked than others? Pointed out the 400 years, as Piper does, suggests that. But I don’t think the evidence would support such a claim. What effort was made to bring them to God? What reason might there be to suggest that Israel could not have brought the Canaanites to repentance through proclamation?

This latter is not, in fact, what I would suggest as a solution. But I do think it points out the difficult with Piper’s solution.

As I have time, I do intend to address this topic some more. Even the smallest portion of an answer requires many threads brought together.

Why I am Not a Pacifist

Why I am Not a Pacifist

Recently there have been a number of articles on pacifism in the Methodist blogosphere, and not a few elsewhere. The most recent set started on Locusts and Honey with his recommendation of this article by Dave Kopel. Another of my blog favorites, Mark Warnock, has challenged the foundation of Kopel’s arguments in Pacifism Got Wrong. John Meunier, member of both the Methodist blogroll and the Moderate Christian Blogroll (thus doubly read by me!) responded thoughtfully to both in his post The Impossibility of Christianity.

Now I’m not going to try to respond directly to any of these. Instead, I’m going to make a brief (I hope) Sunday morning statement of my own view on this fine Veteran’s Day. When I link to several people who got me thinking on a topic, and then write without responding directly, I almost always get a comment or an e-mail saying that I have misconstrued something one or another of the linked posters said. My only response is that I’m not critiquing anyone. I found all of the articles helpful. I’m making my own statement, not trying to critique that of others.

I come to this subject with some bias. I am a veteran. I spent 10 years in the U. S. Air Force, during which I collected two Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals (Grenada, Panama), and did my time in the first gulf war. I was honorably discharged, having decided that the 20 years required for retirement was not for me, and went to work for a defense contractor. Bible teaching came a couple of years later.

On the other hand, my father spent World War II planting trees in Canada as a conscientious objector. He would have served in a medical capacity (after the war he became an MD), but he was not given that option. For refusing to bear arms he was given alternate service. Thus I have a certain amount of sympathy for the conscientious objector, even though I do not accept that position for myself.

I think that we in the United States often fail to appreciate the value of a professional military under civilian control. I experienced being part of that military. We came from a variety of political persuasions and religious views. We could argue about practically any political topic you would hear debated in a civilian forum. I served most of my two enlistments under commanders-in-chief for whom I did not vote, and went to wars I personally opposed. But that is the task of one who serves in professional armed forces under civilian control. If you do not appreciate that, it’s possible you aren’t carefully observing the rest of the world.

Our troops are sometimes vilified as warmongers, and sometimes praised as the protectors of peace and freedom. They are invoked in arguments on both sides of the political arguments about any conflict. They are described as the poor of society, and as those who couldn’t get any other job, by those who somehow claim to defend them.

But what they are is the folks who will go out there and carry out the policies of those we elect, and they do so almost universally with professionalism and honor. The vast majority could get other jobs, if they chose, but they have taken a job–a profession–that is challenging and dangerous. Whatever we think of any particular policy, they should have our thanks. I’m proud to have served.

But getting back to pacifism, over the years in my discussions on this issue I’ve heard two basic categories of arguments. First is the “gentle Jesus” argument. Let’s become more and more like Jesus, and Jesus was a pacifist, even going to the cross without fighting. Second is the utilitarian argument, which says simply that pure pacifism doesn’t work. Now in summarizing those arguments I do them some violence, because they are generally a bit more nuanced than that, and there are also many positions in between. I’m not trying to tell anybody who they are and what they have to believe–I’m just categorizing the arguments I have experienced.

My personal position is driven by two principles that I teach in Bible study and theology. The first is the toolkit. The toolkit is a metaphor I use to illustrate selecting scripture and/or doctrinal principles suitable to the circumstances. Scripture frequently gives multiple answers, my favorite example being Proverbs 26:4-5. You need to apply appropriate principles to applying each possible response.

The second principle is prioritizing. Not all doctrines or principles are equal. In this case, I would ask the following questions:

  1. Is the principle of non-violence universal or specific?
  2. Where and how does it apply?

This involves nuancing the toolkit idea just a bit, because it is not just a matter of selecting one tool or another; it’s also a matter of selecting where to use them, how much, and how many different tools to use. When building a cabinet I may well use a hammer, a saw, and a screwdriver. I don’t have to decide that a particular job is a “screwdriver” job, and thus throw out the hammer and saw.

When I look at the question of the use of violence as a Christian I do see a number of principles that I must apply. Some major ones are:

  1. Being a peacemaker
  2. Protecting the weak and disadvantaged
  3. Carrying out justice
  4. Doing to others what I would have them do to me
  5. Last, but not least, loving God, and loving my neighbor as myself

Now let me dismiss out of hand the utilitarian argument in its blatant form, at least. God can ask me to do things that do not appear to have utility by the standards of this world. My primary citizenship is in God’s kingdom, and kingdom activities don’t have to have worldly utility. At the same time, however, I can seek means that are successful in accomplishing kingdom goals.

Let’s look at the goal of being a peacemaker. One can pursue peace in quite a number of different ways. At home or in church, I have observed that very often some authoritative speaking, and even application of authority, is very good for making peace. There may be a need for some people to move on before there can be peace in a community. (This doesn’t necessarily mean violence; I’m simply pointing out that different strategies may be useful.) How much talking, how much separation of angry parties, how much compromise, and so forth are all elements of a peacemaking strategy. I think I can justly ask how appropriate my peacemaking strategy was, and a good test will be just how much peace I made!

In the case of war or any other type of violent activity, we can look at the results of those activities to see just how appropriate the means was to the end. The question, I believe, is utility for what? What are we trying to accomplish and have we done so successfully?

This is not a case of putting up a worldly goal and standard against Biblical principles. I’m not going to extend this essay by extensively quoting scripture, but I will be glad to respond in that way in comments or future posts. What we are looking at is not the world vs the church, but rather different values and goals that are provided in scripture.

Let me look at a very simple example. Let’s say I see someone in a wheelchair who is about to become the target of violence. Some thug, let us say, is going to rob him. There are a number of principles that come into play, as I read scripture. I am commanded to love not just the man in the wheelchair. I am commanded to love the thug. I am also commanded to protect the weak. I combine these principles as requiring me to take a best choice of actions to defend the weak, while at the same time requiring me to give consideration to the thug. (I use the word thug to emphasize the contrast.) Thus I must avoid a hands-off policy on the one hand that allows unnecessary injury, but I should also not simply draw a gun and blow the attacker away, unless that is the only avenue open to me consistent with protecting the weak. (Note that I give priority to “protecting the weak” over “loving the thug.”)

I see a similar weighing of principles on the question of war. The question, in my view, is which type of behavior is closer to kingdom behavior. Now many of my friends and colleagues will take the view that obviously the most “kingdom-like” behavior is to refuse to engage in violence. I see where that comes from, but I don’t agree.

The main line of defense on this is such things as the commands and example of Jesus. I agree that Jesus lived his life and went to the cross without committing violence against any person. He commanded people to turn the other cheek, and to carry a burden the second mile. I also believe that Jesus, because of the incarnation, was God in the flesh, and in practical terms this means that he presented God to us in the clearest way possible.

But there are two points I would like to add. Jesus was also finite as a human, that is, he presented God to some folks in 1st century AD Galilee and Judea, and a few people elsewhere. That is, he acted in a divine manner in a particular place and time, and his actions were, by definition, appropriate to that place and time. Second, we do not directly perceive the physical, 1st century Jesus. We see his reflection in his followers. Again, this ties the teachings of Jesus to time and place.

Amongst the characteristics of that time and place were the Roman occupation of Palestine and a powerlessness on the part of most of his audience. We do not, for example, have any record of the advice Jesus would have given to a good Roman soldier if he was confronted by a colleague engaged in brutality. Might the good Roman soldier, who possessed some civil authority and physical means, have been given different instructions than the disenfranchised peasant who lacked both? I think it is quite possible that he would have. But if Jesus ever did give such advice we have none of it available.

We do know that Paul was willing to place himself in the hands of the Roman authorities from time to time, allowing them to protect him when they were willing to do so. What might he have done if those authorities had been even more friendly than they were?

I believe that the implementation of kingdom principles will differ based on the means available. Being a follower of Jesus requires me to implement those principles in the best way possible in my circumstances. Whether I call in the police, take action on my own, or choose to suffer without resistance is not a universal choice. It is a choice specific to the circumstances under which I encounter the choice.

When we look at the broader lines of scripture I think we see this kind of thinking repeatedly implemented. The same God appeared at Sinai who later appeared on Golgotha, but he acted very differently in the two cases. Why? The circumstances and the needs were different.

There are times when he Israelites are ordered to collect a large army and attack their enemies. Deuteronomy 20 assumes that there will be occasions for war. God will fight for them, but they are to fight as well. Then there are other times when they are to get rid of most of the army and wait for God to respond (Gideon). When God has a lesson to teach, he can even call in the heathen enemies of Israel, such as Assyria and Babylon to attack them. Different circumstances, different actions.

There are times when failing to employ violence is equivalent to collusion with violence. That is why, for example, I cannot stand with my father’s position in World War II. I would feel that failing to stand up to the violence of the axis powers would be, for me, equivalent to collusion with it. I am not, however, going to disrespect those, such as my father, who saw the matter quite differently. I would place a much higher value on living in accordance with your own conscience.

I want to make clear, however, that I don’t see this approach as permission to do whatever we want in terms of war or violence. We have seen folks condone torture because of violence that has been done to us. Others here in the U.S. accept any amount of violent action simply because we were attacked. I think it is important here to note that we are not the primary victims of terrorism in the world. That doesn’t mean that we need to roll over and permit any amount of terrorist action, but it does mean we need to keep a sense of proportion. It is not surprising that other nations are often less than sympathetic when they have lost a greater proportion of their population to terrorist acts.

The temptation is to justify any amount of violent action based on the notion that I have the means and I must protect the weak. But very often more violence is not the best way to protect the weak. Violence is always a terrible temptation; once you allow yourself to use it, you can often justify it where it does not belong. As Christians, we need to be very careful to be willing to accept the blow on the other cheek when that is what we are called upon to do. We would be amazed, I believe, with what could be accomplished with a little more application of love to our enemies. While I believe that there is a time for violence, I also believe that we in America have generally tended to lean the other way and justify violence when the situation called for grace.

There are those who would prefer to deny violence because that prevents the temptation to use violence improperly. But I believe we are called upon to make the hard decisions, and to use the tools available to us as and when they are appropriate, facing the danger and the consequences of wrong decisions.

My own views on the balance of these principles have led me to support the war in Afghanistan (though I think we have failed to follow through), but to oppose the war in Iraq. That should give folks enough grounds on which to attack my specific applications. I’ll enjoy hearing from you.

How NOT to Express Your Views

How NOT to Express Your Views

I suppose it was inevitable, with all of the hype about the terrible evils supposedly caused by a belief in evolution, but it looks like some crackpots decided to express their views with threats.

From the Denver Post:

The first threat was e-mailed to the labs – part of CU’s ecology and evolutionary biology department housed in the Ramaley Biology building – on Friday. Wiesley said Monday that morning staff members found envelopes with the threatening documents slipped under the lab doors.

I hope these just come from a prankster without serious intent. We’ve seen too many times recently how someone who is truly demented can nonetheless get hold of weapons and cause considerable damage.

HT: The Panda’s Thumb. Further details will be posted there, though I will link to them from here as I notice them.

Salman Rushdie Knighted / Violent Reaction in Muslim World

Salman Rushdie Knighted / Violent Reaction in Muslim World

Update: Or really, just a better reference. I think this story from MSNBC covers the ground better in a single article.

I believe very strongly that we need to distinguish between radicals who want to kill us, and the very large number of Muslims who are peaceful people. But with the reaction to the knighting of Salman Rushdie, it is again important to point out that we need to be on our guard for violent people, and there are lots of them.

I am very aware that there has been calls for violence by Christians, or at least those who call themselves Christians. I live near where Paul Hill, a defrocked Presbyterian minister, took a shotgun and killed two people. I’m glad to say that he was a defrocked minister, as in not a minister any more, but nonetheless he did violence in the name of Jesus, and I condemn his actions. I will continue to challenge and condemn all violence and calls for violence from my own or from other religions.

But right now, in terms of numbers, the calls of violence seem to be coming most commonly from the Muslim world. I have been told that I don’t understand Islam, but my question is just who do I listen to in order to understand. Is Islam a religion of peace and of choice, or is it one that punishes apostasy by death? In many countries at least, it appears to be the latter. Is it a religion that is willing to become part of a pluralistic society, to win converts peacefully through persuasion, and to uphold the freedoms of other religions no matter how high a percentage of the population become adherents? It doesn’t seem so, if one considers those nations that are already majority Muslim.

Now I know from personal experience that there are Muslims who are peaceful people, good citizens, good neighbors. I believe that these are likely the majority, though I really can’t prove that. But events like this tend to make it hard to keep people’s attention on the moderates:

Salman Rushdie, who went into hiding under threat of death after an Iranian fatwa, has been knighted by the Queen.

His book The Satanic Verses offended Muslims worldwide and a bounty was placed on his head in 1989.

But since the Indian-born author returned to public life in 1999, he has not shied away from controversy.

A devout secularist, he backed Commons Leader Jack Straw over comments on Muslim women and veils and has warned against Islamic “totalitarianism”.

And the reaction? Were Muslims the world over willing to allow a man who opposed their religion to be honored? Well, years ago they had called for his death. What would happen now?

From Pakistan (source: here):

Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, Pakistan’s religious affairs minister, said giving the title to the author was an insult to Islam and ‘at the root of terrorism’.

Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses caused worldwide protests in 1989 and led to Iran issuing a fatwa ordering his execution.

Speaking about the writer at the National Assembly, Mr ul-Haq reportedly said: ‘If someone commits suicide bombing to protect the honour of the Prophet Muhammad, his act is justified.’

But after the comments were reported on local news networks yesterday, the minister claimed he did not mean to condone or incite terrorism, merely to warn that such insults against Islam could lead to attacks.

Or the words of the one Muslim British peer: (from ABC Australia):

Muslim Labour peer Lord Ahmed describes the decision as provocative and damaging to Britain’s relations with Muslims.

“Actually I was appalled to hear that Salman Rushdie had been given knighthood, particularly when this man has been very divisive,” he said.

“This man – as you can see – not only provoked violence around the world because of his writings, but there were many people that were killed around the world and honouring the man who has blood on his hands, sort of because of what he did, honouring him I think is going a bit too far.”

My major point here is that while we must be careful to blame those who are actually guilty, we must also not allow a desire to be fair to keep us from recognizing evil when we see it. The reaction to the Danish cartoons was evil, and so is this. We in the west should not be intimidated by threats of violence. The insult is not the cause of the violence. People suffer insults without violence every day. The violence stems from the evil in the hearts of the people who preach it and carry it out.

HT: Dispatches from the Culture Wars (and commenters there). That article is worth reading.

Embarrassed Again

Embarrassed Again

I knew when the news of the tragedy at Virginia Tech came out that there would be religious responses that would be obnoxious, and even some that would be downright despicable. It seems that with every tragedy there are uninvolved people available to place blame and to pontificate. I personally have no words that are worth saying to those who have lost a loved one in this tragedy, or for that matter to the Virginia Tech community. They’re going through something I have never experienced.

I have, however, experienced tragedy, and I know how people use it for their own agendas. When our son died of cancer at age 17, and throughout the five year battle that preceded that event there were people who needed to question us. We were either grieving too much, in which case our faith was weak, or we weren’t grieving enough, and were thus in denial. We weren’t using the right treatment plan, out of the many dozens of non-traditional treatments suggested. Some thought that he would be healed if we just took him to the right church and had the right group pray for him. They couldn’t understand why we didn’t jump up and go where they suggested immediately.

Then there were those who just looked at us pityingly. My wife and I have taught–and still teach–weekend seminars on prayer. How could we be teaching about prayer, and yet our own son was not healed. For some reason these folks didn’t check what we actually teach, or they would have found that we do not and have never made the claim that prayer should replace medical care, or that there is some certainty of healing through prayer. In fact, we behaved precisely as we teach. We sought the best medical care available, and we maintained a strong prayer life.

Now the vast majority of our friends and neighbors were wonderful. I’m talking about a tiny minority who were nonetheless quite vocal. I learned how to ignore people. The point here is not what we or anyone else believe. The point is that everyone thinks they have the right to stick their philosophy and opinions into someone else’s decisions and grieving.

With that in mind, I’m going to comment on a couple of “Christian” responses to the Virginia Tech tragedy. Now if the bereaved want to sound off in any way they wish, I’m not going to jump in, but these are responses from people outside. They make me embarrassed to be a Christian. I’m never embarrassed to be a follower of Jesus; just sometimes the name “Christian” gets so horribly besmirched by this type of comment.

The first is a comment by Dinesh D’Souza:

To no one’s surprise, Dawkins has not been invited to speak to the grieving Virginia Tech community. What this tells me is that if it’s difficult to know where God is when bad things happen, it is even more difficult for atheism to deal with the problem of evil. The reason is that in a purely materialist universe, immaterial things like good and evil and souls simply do not exist. For scientific atheists like Dawkins, Cho’s shooting of all those people can be understood in this way–molecules acting upon molecules.

Now that paragraph is wrong in so many ways. I’ve recently responded to Dawkins’ book The God Delusion (see category “The God Delusion” on the sidebar), and while I have many disagreements with Dawkins, something that should surprise no one, I don’t see D’souza’s characterization as at all accurate. On the surface, yes. Dawkins is a materialist. But simply explaining everything as molecules acting on molecules, well, not so much. In addition, however much some Christians might like it to be so, Dawkins is not the sole atheist on the planet. Atheists work and hope, live and learn, love their families, make moral decisions, in short, they do the things that everyone else does. And there’s no evidence to suggest that they make worse neighbors.

But it’s not the wrongness of all this that embarrasses me. It’s the insertion of this religious (or philosophical) goal. I haven’t read any such, but if an atheist writer used the tragedy to announce gleefully that this proved there is no God, I would find that offensive as well. Let the tragedy be what it is. Especially let’s not use it to demonize any group of people. I’d also like to call attention to this very moving response (HT: Dispatches from the Culture Wars).

Then there’s Dr. Grady McMurtry, president of Creation Worldview Ministries, who believes that teaching evolution was the cause:

. . . people should not be surprised when mass shootings occur, such as the one on the Blacksburg university campus on Monday. “And at Virginia Tech, what do we have?” he asks rhetorically. “We have a person who, unfortunately, thought that humans had no more value than cats and dogs — and unfortunately, I think, probably felt the same way about themselves.” (source HT: Pandagon)

Probably felt that way about themselves? Does he think it’s appropriate to be gratuitously insulting at this point? I’ve discussed this issue before and am not going to revisit it now. All I’m interested in at the moment is the way the tragedy is being used to push agendas, and not in a kind way.

The agenda we should be pushing–and yes, I have an agenda as does everyone–is simple love and respect. I’m a long ways away and there’s remarkably little I can do, but I can speak with respect of the people involved, no matter what their religion or lack thereof. I can see them as human beings seeking a way to deal with the tragedy that has struck their lives. I can refrain from pretending I possess a one stop answer to their problems.

I think that’s what Jesus would do in these circumstances.