Laying Down the Sword by Philip Jenkins (Review)
August 9, 2013 2 Comments
I checked out Laying Down the Sword from the library because it looked like it was about Christianity and violence and I was getting ready to read Preston Sprinkle’s new book on a similar theme. Philip Jenkins writes from a secular academic perspective that sees Christianity and Islam as religions with equally violent texts that are equally capable of more peaceful interpretations.
Needless to say I disagreed with Jenkins on much of his characterizations of Christianity and the Old Testament passages he repeatedly scathes. It is true that the “utter destruction” of the Canaanites in the book of Joshua seems extremely violent and evil, and that this and other similar passages are often difficult to accept. However, I think Jenkins’ lack of understanding regarding the doctrines of both sin and redemption inhibited his reaction to some of the traditional explanations of such passages. Perhaps it was because Jenkins was focused on the human element involved in carrying out these Biblical killings, but I found it interesting that he completely ignored the story of Noah’s Flood; if we can accept God’s treatment of the sins of an entire planet, surely the sins of a few villages are not difficult in comparison. Nor do I see God’s wrath and love as incompatible qualities, and I find it amusingly arrogant when he talks about man applying his limited reason to try to “improve” on such things.
I must concede that Christians throughout history have misused these Old Testament passages to justify violence on other races; the quotes and examples of the flexible interpretation of “Amalekites” over the centuries are quite damning – even heartbreaking – and it is hard to argue that they behaved any better than today’s radical Muslims. Still, at least from my bias, Jenkins tried too hard to equivocate the two religions to fit his hypothesis; he bends over backwards to explain creative “escape routes” for some of the violent Qur’an passages while almost flippantly using Jesus’ words about jots or tittles “passing away” to restrict similar treatment of the Old Testament – as if the very text of the Bible doesn’t wrestle with the post-resurrectional meanings of the old Law (see: Acts 15, or the entire book of Hebrews). He also didn’t cover the treatment of women; the allegedly patriarchal Bible verses about submission surely pale in comparison to the Qur’an’s explicit approval of wife-beating. But I digress.
I agree with Jenkins’ conclusion that “the fact that a minority of activists derive harsh and violent ideas from the scriptures of Judaism, or any other faith, has no implications whatever for evaluating that religion, or the texts on which it is based.” Yet I disagree with his belief that these passages still illustrate a problem that need to be allegorized away (a method that Jenkins curiously seems to deride some Christians for using before seeming to arrive at the same conclusion himself).
I like Sprinkle’s position (I haven’t read his book yet, but I heard his talk on it at AudioFeed) that the Bible’s violent passages were no worse and probably even less violent than the cultures of the day, and furthermore that the Bible continually trends toward peace, culminating in the “love your enemies” message of Jesus Christ. Jenkins acknowledges but rejects this view, saying the forward-looking peaceful prophets were written at the same time period as the recording of the violent historical Joshua passages. But of course that’s only a problem if you believe the “higher criticisms”; even if they were later recordings of much earlier events, in my view the trend towards peace remains.
Jenkins also claims that the genocidal quality of Joshua’s destruction was unprecedented even for its time; I don’t know history well enough to say whether or not he’s cherry-picking. I do know he ignored any of the myriad references to God limiting Israel’s military strength – from the general ban on chariots to the reduction of Gideon’s forces to Jehoshaphat’s army that was told not to fight (2 Chronicles 20). This doesn’t make the armies’ violent actions less violent, but it does shed more light on the emphasis throughout.
I also was surprised that Jenkins saw the conquest of Canaan as genocidal in nature; I had always interpreted it as more about stamping out other religions than other races - the evidence being the numerous “exceptions” made to those of other races who honored Yahweh, from the story of Rahab to the verses in the Torah about good treatment of the “aliens” among them.
So I found a lot to disagree with, but it was also good to read things from another perspective, and especially to learn about many of the genocidal tragedies that have been carried out in God’s name over the ages. I agree that more Christians should read and become familiar with these sorts of passages, to wrestle with them and to greater appreciate the overall arching Biblical themes of sin, justice, redemption, and – yes – peace.