Sunday, May 01, 2011

displaced disgust

I read one of those troublesome parts of the bible last week. You know, one of those parts where God (through Moses) commands the nation of Israel to attack a foreign city and kill the people. Sometimes, like in Deuteronomy 20:13-14, the Israelites could take the women, children, and livestock as plunder. Other times, like in Deuteronomy 20:16-18, they had to kill every living creature in the city when they attacked it. Brutal.

I had someone ask me about these stories the other week, and I answered that the point is not the killing of another nation, but loyalty to God. She listened politely, but said that these parts of the bible still bothered her. I had to admit that my answer did sound a bit weak and pat, though I believe it was true.

A few days ago, I saw something in the bible that I had not noticed before. Nay, four things! Taking into account that we are reading a story from another time and place when tribal warfare was common and life was much more brutal, there are a few things that stand out in stark contrast to this primitive setting. First, in this particular story in Deuteronomy 20, before any attack was made on a city, they were to attempt a peaceful settlement with their enemies (v. 10). War was a last resort, not the only mode of operation. Secondly, they were to take care with how they used the natural resources: not chopping down trees at will, but preserving those that were necessary for food (v.19,20). Thirdly, those soldiers who had a new home, new crops, a new wife, or were afraid and disheartened were excused from battle (v.5-9). In the midst of this brutality, we find several indications of the desire for peace, a responsible use of resources, and some hints at kindness and gentleness that should not be dismissed.

However, the main thing that stood out to me as I read this chapter was verse 18: If you allow them [the inhabitants of these other cities] to live, they will persuade you to worship their disgusting gods, and you will be unfaithful to the LORD. I believe that part of our problem (yes, let's take ownership of our lack of understanding) in coming to terms with these brutal biblical war stories is that in our 21st century worldview we have a heightened responsibility for humanity and our earth and a very low sense of responsibility towards God. When push comes to shove, we believe it is more important to save the earth and be tolerant to our fellow human beings than to be faithful to God. It is called humanism.


It is interesting that we are easily offended by stories of mass killing (and I am in no way negating this horror), but are not much moved by how offensive our unfaithfulness (infidelity or dare I call it adultery?) is to God. We are just like the tribal people of Deuteronomy, easily swayed by the values of the society around us and too often guilty of disproportionate disgust. The strong language in these stories reveals that God knew all too well what fickle people he was dealing with and what kind of destructive unfaithfulness humanity was (and still is) capable of. Ask yourself honestly: are we capable of living in a society that operates with a value system that largely disregards God and not be affected by it? Very difficult, indeed.



Perhaps the fact that these war stories bother us reveals more about how little we value fidelity to God than about how advanced we have become in our attitudes. God have mercy on us.



This is a photo of a building in downtown Montreal. I love this city, but I love God more.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow Matte. I really thought you were beyond this kind of thinking. I strongly object to the views you are articulating in this post. It is so confused it reads as if written by a dispensationalist.

Faith in the Old Testament is completely different than faith during the time of Jesus or Paul, and is very different than faith today. It is very difficult to reconcile the God of the Old Testament with Jesus, with God manifest today. So difficult, that religious leaders would do well to let these portrayals of faith be what they are, instead of fitting the faith of yesteryear into the the procrustean bed of today (as you are doing).

As you know, there is little evidence that the faith of the Hebrews bears any resemblance to what our faith has become. This faith was more concerned with social order and cultural identity than that of Christianity, which is highly individualistic. In other words most of the stories of faith in the Old Testament are about preserving the culture of the Jewish minority. Christ represents, in a very real sense, a destructive force upon that culture.

"We are just like the tribal people of Deuteronomy, easily swayed by the values of the society around us and too often guilty of disproportionate disgust."

We are nothing like the tribal people of Deuteronomy and God's message to us through Jesus is completely different. We are to be in the world, not of it. Our relationship with God is individual and transcultural. We are free to eat the meat sacrificed to idols. Our duty, as portrayed by the very being of Jesus Christ whom we follow, is to humanity.

"When push comes to shove, we believe it is more important to save the earth and be tolerant to our fellow human beings than to be faithful to God. It is called humanism."

Effectively, there is nothing in the work of humanism which opposes its self to the message of Christ. Humanism, in forms such as the civil rights movement, is the teaching of Jesus made flesh. It is the realization of the principles of the gospel and love. If we do not concern ourselves with the state of the world, with our fellow human beings, with humanism, we are salt that has lost its flavour and are totally useless.

Most of what we are called to do as individual believers is obvious, in plain sight through the person of Christ. So obvious, in fact, that this calling is also obvious to humanity.

In order to serve Christ and be a light on the hill, Christians would do well to place less emphasis on intercessory prayer (not emphasized by Jesus) and do the work that is clearly before them, which in many cases is the work of secular humanism.

We, today's Christians, do engage in adultery. We claim to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, but we do not love our neighbour as we love ourself. Solipsistic "spiritual" practice portrayed in the false form of faithfulness is rendering us un-salty. In short, we delude ourselves into feeling that we are building God's Kingdom, while what God (today) plainly wants stands in opposition to our inaction.

Anonymous said...

In re-reading my above comment, it seems that it too could be read as dispensationalist. I do not mean to convey an understanding of the old testament as the "dispensation of law".

"When push comes to shove, we believe it is more important to save the earth and be tolerant to our fellow human beings than to be faithful to God. It is called humanism."

"When push comes to shove, we believe it is more important to save the earth and be tolerant to our fellow human beings than to be faithful to God. It is called humanism."

I don't think you are reacting, here, to humanism (the turning towards humanity) but rather to the system of ethics (secular or religious - the systematization of what is right/wrong).

I believe you to be a radical humanist.

Matte Downey said...

Interesting comments. Sorry it took me so long to respond. While I appreciate your point of view, I will say that there are several points that seem incongruent to me. Yes, your first post sounds pretty dispensational,so I am glad mentioned it. The faith of someone like Abraham is completely different than faith during the time of Jesus? Really?

That kind of sweeping statement is quite troublesome to me because I love the stories in the Old Testament, challenging as they can be to engage with. I believe they say much about God's interaction with humanity, and in the grand scheme of the continuous self-revelation of this God, they should not to be tossed aside after Jesus comes on the scene.

I am saddened by a trend that is common in some scholars: a 21st century arrogance that belittles the wisdom of another time and culture by citing how different we are from humans in another era and place. We all share humanity. We all struggle with pride and fear and power. How are we so different?

Also, I do not believe that there is little evidence for the continuity of faith between the Hebrews and the Christians, and have never come across anything convincing along that line of thinking from any of my professors nor in any of my research and reading.

As to "humanism," I appreciate your broader interpretaton and find it a thoughtful way of reclaiming its positive aspects. However, in this post (and I suppose I should have clarified my meaning), I am using it to identify the locus of control, authority, and attention. In humanism, the primary concern is the well-being of humanity, not the glory or praise of God.

While loving interaction with our fellow humans must have an undisputable priority, even Jesus made the clear distinction that honouring God holds first place. I am not trying to separate loving God from loving people or pit the two ideas/practises against each other, but simply pointing out that we tend to neglect the less politically popular of these two imperatives.

Thanks for the thoughtful interaction on this topic.

Anonymous said...

"Also, I do not believe that there is little evidence for the continuity of faith between the Hebrews and the Christians, and have never come across anything convincing along that line of thinking from any of my professors nor in any of my research and reading."

From what I can see many of the messages from God in the Old Testament are directed towards the people of Isreal, they are concerned with the behaviour of the group and are extremely cultural and political. The passage in Deuteronomy that you quote is a good example.

But the message of Jesus is for humanity, the world. It is transcultural and concerned with the behaviour and thought of the individual.

This is what I mean by a discontinuity of faith. The Kingdom of God of The Son of Man is not the Kingdom of Isreal.

I have tried to understand some theologies that attempt to reconcile these differences, but remain unconvinced that a unified theology or understanding is important. I have rejected many of these systems of thought because they appear to result in behaviour that is distinctly not Christian. Maybe Ladd is OK. I don't know yet.

At the same time, I get that the message of Jesus did not come from a vacuum.