Violence in the Name of Religion

My cyberfriend Brian and I have been having a great conversation over at his blog around the topic of violence perpetrated in the name of religion.

I thought that I would expand the dialog here asking if you agree with these statements:
  • Violence perpetrated against people for breaking a religious (not a moral) rule is not a good thing.

  • Legitimate expressions of religion promote love for other people and false religious expressions advocate animosity towards others.
I am interested in hearing your thoughts about the role of religious rules in a government and what you think about countries that have (or even once had) theocratic rule. Should religion be used to justify violent behavior in punishing the violation of a religious (not a moral) rule?


  1. Bob,

    The thing I struggle with in your question is it seems to imply violence in punishing the violation of a moral rule is OK and violence in punishing a religious rule is not. How do we differentiate- particularly in your scenario where we're talking about theocratic societies?

    Our country puts criminals to death. That's about a violent as it gets. Of course, it's for the violation of both a religious and a moral rule.

    When I read your questions, I see two things. One regarding religion and one regarding societal punishment of criminals. In our society where there is a clear delineation between church and state it's really easy to say the church should never violently punish someone for violating a rule of the church. But, we do allow the state to punish people violently for violating a civil rule. When, the church is the state I think it's pretty difficult for us to judge how they handle their criminal/religious code.

    In our society, we no longer punish people criminally for adultery. However, there was a time when we did. And, it is still technically a crime in many states. Notoriously, we hear about Islam' code for punishment of adultery. But, what we aren't told is that the proof of adultery is practically impossible according to the Koran. The law is rarely enforced. The accuser has to produce four (4) eyewitnesses to the act of sexual intercourse.

  2. I am not an advocate of capital punishment Brian so I can agree with you about executing a murderer. I can also agree with you about laws concerning religious prohibitions in our country (ie: adultery).

    I feel like you want me to defend our country's history and our laws because you are hesitant to condemn another country's use of violence.. maybe my perception is wrong though. So maybe a few questions would help me understand where you are coming from:

    1) Do you feel that our country legally does other violent acts (besides capital punishment) towards people who break the law?

    2) Do you feel that other countries legally do violent acts towards people who break the law? If so do these violent acts include punishments for breaking laws like renouncing their religion or simply not covering their heads.

    Feel free to answer or not.. I am not trying to pin you down.. just trying to understand where you are coming from.

  3. Bob,

    I feel that you are condemning Islam for the perception you have of it brutally and/or violently punishing its people. Perhaps I am wrong. I am not trying to get you to defend our country's actions at all. I point them out because I think we often judge other countries too harshly.

    1.) No. We don't do too many violent acts of punishment. Capital punishment is the only violent one I can think of. OTOH, we do put an awful lot of people in prison, some fairly, some not so fairly. But, maybe we should leave that alone for now.

    2.) I think other countries violently persecuting people for things as simple as not covering their heads is fairly rare and is based more on a totalitarian regime than it is on the religion it purports to observe. Just because these nuts acts in the name of Islam doesn't mean Islam condones their actions. Saudi Arabia (Wahabis) and Iran (Shiites) are the countries that come to mind and these are a small fragment of all Muslims.

    BTW, did you catch my link on Facebook this morning. Saudi Arabia just announced a university where women can study right alongside men and the women will not be forced to wear veils. Progress!

  4. Admittedly my perception of Islamic regimes is based in part by reports from my son who lived amongst religious Muslims in Iraq and by news reports about violent actions by theocratic countries. I appreciate the push back and hope to read more positive reports like the one you mentioned from Saudi Arabia.

  5. Hmmm. The comments clue me in to the context, but my answer does not change.

    The thing that makes a religion true is whether there is God behind it. The Israelite obedience to Jesus required extreme violence and the Christian obedience to Yahweh requires extreme love. Violence is a side issue. Jesus said to be non-violent, so non-violence is the law kenow.

  6. Thx for the comment Kevin. I think my take on OT violence is less literal than yours. My thinking is that God’s purposes have always been loving even if man perverted and nationalized His message. IMO God has always loved the world even when people believed that He hated people in non-Israeli countries.

  7. "legitimate" expressions can change over time. There was a time that heretics and adulterers were stoned or worse not necessarily because of their sin but because of their ability to lead others into sin. It was sort of a social "self-defense."

    And what is "violence?" Killing the sinner/criminal is violent, but is putting them in the public square with a sign around their neck? Seizing their cars? Yelling sternly at them? Putting them in jail? Violence is too vague. Violence perpetrated against people for breaking a encoded law seem like a bad thing. But killing a criminal to make him stop strangling a baby is defense of the innocent - is that "violent" in your definition?

  8. Therese Z, does "strangling a baby" refer to abortion?

    Violence is violence not matter the reason. When used in self-defence or to prevent a criminal act it is generally justified if not excessive. When violence is used for any other reason, it is probably criminal.

  9. Sorry to not get back, Bob.

    I'm not sure what a less literal take on OT violence would look like. On the surface, it sounds like pretty straightforward history to me.

  10. No problem with history Kevin.. just with the way that religious people paint God as violent in it.

  11. Inquiring minds want to know. :-)

    How would you paint the story of, say, Agag? 1 Sam 15. Saul utterly destroys all the Amalekites, and spares Agag. Samuel declares that God rejects Saul and rends the kingdom out of his hands for omitting this one last killing. My NLT carefully and explicitly reminds me that the word used in the Hebrew for "destroyed" means to consecrate a thing to the Lord, so the Lord calls for nations to be offered to Him as a kind of burnt offering.

    How do you see God interacting in a story like that?

  12. Great question Kevin. Is the image of God that you see in the story one where it was in God's heart to kill all Amalekites (including the young innocent ones) through the hands of Israelites? If you do then you might come to a conclusion that God instigates violence towards people through people. On the other hand perhaps God really does love all people and merely allowed the Israelites to do many things outside of His will because of the hardness of their hearts?

  13. The Israelites believed that they are God's chosen people and the prophets of their God guided them throughout the OT. They had to have hard hearts by today's standards but they believed they were directed by God.

    If you believe that God did not really want them to invade, enslave and destroy, then you must believe that some, if not all, of their prophets were not speaking for God as the Israelites believed.

  14. I've been focusing on the OT for the last year or so, and just loving it. It feels like things are clicking and connecting every day, as I see God expressing Himself very clearly and physically back then. God spoke more clearly about His purpose and heart through His incarnation, but He spoke most clearly about His ways and priorities through the prophets.

    As I look at the first few verses of 1 Sam 15, Samuel tells Saul what the Lord says (exactly as Joe points out.) The Lord brings to mind the evil Amalek did to Israel, and requires everything that breathes air be put to death. Amalek is to cease to be.

    Exd 17:14 And the LORD said unto Moses, Write this [for] a memorial in a book, and rehearse [it] in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.

    It's not like that's just the OT, either.

    Rev 19:15 & 16 And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And he hath on [his] vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.

    It's just a matter of timing. This is the time of grace. The Lord's pronouncement of judgment against Amalek was made by Moses and executed by Saul - 400+ years later. The King of Kings will execute judgment on this Earth, just as He commanded Israel to do before the incarnation: totally. He's merciful and allows the nations to continue for a time, but the OT shows He never forgets. He's not hasty to execute judgment and He's quick to forgive, but if the people continue to defy Him He keeps His promises. Amalek had 400 years to change their ways.

  15. I understand where you are coming from Kevin.. it was my POV for many years. I am not saying that you are wrong in the way that you view the OT.. you might be right.. but I think that these OT stories have different things to teach us.

    When Jesus came many expected Him to be a different kind of Messiah.. many expected Him to violently judge Rome.. He did not. IMO Jesus revealed the eternal heart of God.. He showed us a different perspective on violence.

    These days I try to interpret the scriptures through Jesus. I try to ask myself questions like - would Jesus (who is eternally the same) order genocide? I see nothing in the gospels to indicate that He would.

    If Jesus' life was the express revelation of God then why do we endorse the kind of violence that nailed him to a cross as God's will? I guess it could be said.. if you believed that God is the source of violence.. that because Isaiah 53 says "it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer" that the Jews and the Romans were simply carrying out God's violent will.

    Another way to see this (and many other events in history that involve genocide) is to acknowledge that many who claim to have heard God's voice command them to do violence against people did not really hear God's voice.

    I think that it possible to interpret the violence of things like genocide as something that comes from within creation and not from God. It is possibly to see God as providentially allowing violence yet not instigating violence.

    Realize that we may simply have to agree to disagree on this one Kevin but I would be happy to continue a dialog if you think it helpful.

  16. Wow. This conversation illustrates why I find the Bible to be a scary book. If G-d would command this type of atrocity once, why wouldn't G-d do it again? So, when Israel says they are going to commit genocide against every Palestinian man, woman and child because a "prophet" told them to, should we take on on faith that it's G-d's will?

  17. IMO the bible is not scary Brian.. it the interpretations and applications of those interpretations that are scary.

  18. Yes, Bob. But, it's really a manner of speaking, isn't it? What I find scary is the view that the Bible is the inerrant, literal Word of G-d and the thought that follows from that. That being if the Bible (Torah) claims that G-d commanded the Israelites to do a certain behavior it must be so.

    I agree, that Torah, properly interpreted is not scary.

  19. I think that the bible can be literal and inerrant but not in the way that many apply those terms Brian. One form of literalism says that God commanded violence.. another form of literalism says that people committed violence because they believed that God commanded violence.. there is a difference.

    But I do get your point.. the first form of literalism is the scarier of the two.. especially when it is used to promote violence in the name of God.

  20. I agree with Brian. We can't have it both ways. The Bible is the inerrant word of God when it conforms to our image of God (God is Love) and a misinterpretation or false prophecy when it does not conform (God is violence).

    Many Christians believe God is continually using His power to both save and destroy men. Many believe that Katrina was God's means to destroy sinners in New Orleans like a modern day Sodom. I believe that neither is true.

    Beyond the creation of the universe, I don't believe that any events, good or bad, are the acts of God. I believe that every event in the universe is a natural result of interactions that are governed by the fixed physical laws. When a child is killed in an accident or murdered, I never think that God had a purpose for it that we do not understand.

    I have no need to believe that the Bible is the Word of God rather than man's attempt to explain God; an explanation that has evolved with man not God.

  21. I'm struggling to understand Bob's definition of literal and inerrant when it comes to the Bible. If the text claims that God said something and you take the text to both literal and inerrant, I do not understand how you can then say that God did not say it and call that literal and inerrant. I'm starting to think Bob and I view the Bible more similarly than our terminology would make me think.

    I think the Bible is man's attempt to explain God. It's not the Word of G-d. But, in a sense you could say it's a word from God because I believe that God does indwell His creation. But, similarly, I think the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada are revelations of G-d.

    In what I think the common use of the terms literal and inerrant are, the Bible becomes a dangerous book. When the Bible says "God said" and one takes that to mean that God "literally" said that and that whoever wrote it made no "error", the Bible can become quite dangerous indeed. Again, Bob and I seem to agree on that.

    Bob, am I understanding you correctly?

  22. I see where you are coming from Brian.. you feel that the only way to be literal is for the implications of the bible to be true.. if it says that God told someone something then God actually did tell them that.. and maybe that is the ultra-literal way to read the bible.

    My take is that I can accept that the events literally happened (i.e. they are not Jewish myths) without having to say that I agree with the commentary contained within the text.. it is a softer form of literalism.. I probably need to call it something else.

    For me.. I no longer find that an ultra-literal approach to the scriptures useful because it leads me to knowing a bunch of details but not really knowing the message contained in the details. I also would not find it useful to read the scriptures thinking that they were simply fairy tales or myths.

    All that said, I have to say that I find God all over the bible.. the bible uplifts me and gives me strength.. the faithfulness of Joseph inspires me.. the loyalty of Ruth and the courage of Esther challenges me.. the Proverbs have given me wisdom.. the Psalms comfort me when I am down.. the words of Jesus are matchless.. the sermon on the mount is breathtaking.. the teaching of the gospels are revolutionary.. the endurance of Paul teaches me to trust God in hard times.. I could go on. To dismiss the bible as something ordinary is simply incredulous.

    I guess my thoughts about the scriptures are similar to the ones here.. following is an excerpt:

    If God is omnipotent, present, and interested in revealing things about himself, we can expect His revelation to have certain basic characteristics. Things like:

    1) Inspiration – God was involved in the production of the texts.

    2) Infallibility – the texts do not err in their purposes.

    3) Historicity – the texts were written at a place and time in history, by people situated in history, and as such, they are products of their historical/cultural perspective.

    4) Textuality – text as text: the normal tools for interpreting meaning in any text are the appropriate tools for interpreting meaning in biblical texts.

    As usual I am learning as I go.. don't know that I have ever verbalized my thinkings about this to this extent.. it is where I lean today anyway.

  23. Hmmmm. Well, I've probably led this discussion down a very unintended path. I hope it's been a profitable one for everyone.

    Some thoughts on literality.

    If I understand Bob's take, it's something like this:
    2Ki 2:23 & 24 ¶ And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.

    I don't know anyone who says Elisha did a good thing here, but the author of the story does not pass any judgment on it whatsoever. It reasonably safe to assume Elisha acted on an arrogant whim and used the power of God for evil, and many strong evangelicals believe exactly that. I'm an ultra-literalist by the definitions in this thread, and even I'm not sure what to think of this passage. So far as I know, there's no other passage of scripture that offers useful commentary on this verse, so I hold it in suspense. I don't know any good way to look at Elisha's acts.

    I figure Bob is saying he holds vastly more OT stories in suspense than I do.

    On the Agag story, I think it's the subject of a lot of commentary in other parts of the scripture. I feel quite assured (rightly or not only God knows) that Samuel heard God correctly and was commended for hewing Agag assunder while Saul was rejected for showing kindness that God did not require.

    I can understand why Brian would find that God frightening. He's unashamed of things that would make a mere sinner blush. I really have grappled with those very doubts myself. I reached the conclusion that God is both a willing and just executor of judgment on Agag. My logic was this:

    Jesus said He'd rise from the dead and He did. That gives Him full credibility in my book. Jesus also quoted from the old testament as the Jews had it in His day. We know we have substantially the same old testament they had. There may have been text amendments between the time of its authorship and the time of Jesus, but we have substantially the same old testament Jesus had. Jesus was content to quote and defend the scriptures that say God is very scary. I'm not the one to argue with Him.

    Simple and simplistic, but then I do best when I don't get too complex.

    If Jesus didn't rise from the dead, then I've wasted my life. If He did, then He's returning to do everything else He said He'd do. I know that sounds pretty scary, but I'd point out one thing about Christian as opposed to Jewish prophecy. Jewish prophecy made Israel the executor of God's will. Not so in the church age. You'll read the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ for a long time before you find the first reference to anyone executing righteous judgment on this Earth other than Christ Himself. Jesus has reserved all judgment to Himself, now that He's been revealed. Any violence that's ever been waged in the name of Jesus has been in direct contradiction to Christian prophecy.

    I should probably leave the "God created in man's image" perspective for another day, but I'm sure I'd just be rehashing old discussions anyway.

  24. Thanks, Bob. Now I get it. I understand the form of literalism you are talking about. I don't think I have heard of it before. I think the stories of the battles and maybe even most of Torah is historical, if I can put it that way. But, some of the stories I would highly doubt actually happened. For example, the book of Job. If G-d and Satan were up roaming around heaven having a conversation, who would have been there to write it down? I think Job works just as well as a myth, as a historical book and it's much easier to accept as a myth without getting all caught up with the theological implications that would come if it were literally true. Same with the creation story.

    I've usually heard the term inerrant used rather than infalliable. Defining infalliable as not erring in its purposes really opens up the definition of infallible. There are some things in Torah that, to me, are clearly morally wrong. Things that G-d supposedly commanded. It's much easier and straight forward for me to say that G-d did not command them and the text is wrong when it says He did than to say the text is "infallible" because its purpose was something else. I think we can take a greater truth away from some of those things. But, I don't think that was necessarily the original intention. I believe some of the verses were intended to justify genocide and if we're going to call them infallible, that's way too close to justifying genocide again today to be comfortable for me (just one example).

    Again, always good to talk to you though, Bob. We are closer than it might otherwise appear.

  25. Kevin,

    Thanks for your explanation. It is comforting to know that your POV does include the belief that Jesus is to be the executor of G-d's wrath and takes that out of the hands of man.


  26. Enjoying the conversation.. thanks all for hanging in there. A few thoughts:

    Elisha and inflicting violence on children via a curse: Some believe in this kind of cursing today.. preachers are calling it imprecatory prayer.. I liken it to things primitive witch doctors do. I am sure the recorder of that event in Elisha's life connected the dots between the curse and the bear.. I am not sure that means that we also are required to connect the dots. Again it depends on how much you embrace the idea that God cooperates with violence.

    "Jesus also quoted from the old testament": In the sermon on the mount Jesus said things like - "you have heard it said" (referring to the OT) ... "but I say to you". IMO Jesus trumps the OT.. He gives clarity to it.. He speaks to stiff-necked religious people and tells them that some things in the OT were allowed because the Israelites had hard hearts.. when He does that He clues us in on why God allowed things to be done in His name in the OT.

    Jesus, the resurrection and the second coming: IMO the resurrection is the heart of Christian message.. I accept and believe it.. it is the essential of the faith. Regarding eschatology and the second coming of Christ I am no so dogmatic about the specifics of it. I believe that Jesus will return in power but I do not see the passage in revelation as a literal one.

  27. The main problem with the Elisha and the bear story, IMO is when people use it as an example of acceptable behavior. If Elisha prayed for G-d to send the bear, it must be the right thing to do. After all, Elisha was a man of G-d. Steven Anderson (the preacher praying for Obama's death and damnation) uses the Psalms as his example as to why he should pray for Obama to leave his wife a widow, his children orphans and be damned to hell (I am not making up that language it's the language Pastor Anderson uses).

    Another problem with the story is that if you take it literally and historically it present a real theological dilemma, to me anyway. Either G-d has to do what is morally wrong because He is asked (rather commanded) to do it by certain people or what Elisha did what was morally right. The text says Elisha prayed and G-d sent the bear that destroyed the children. Bob says he doesn't have to connect those dots. But, I think the text does pretty clearly.

  28. "Bob says he doesn't have to connect those dots. But, I think the text does pretty clearly."

    What I said was the recorder of the event connected the dots.. by that I meant that the recorder had a predisposition to interpret the event the way that he did.. the recorder did not actually know that God sent the bear.. he believed that he did but he could not know that as a fact.

    It gets back to a ultra-literalistic view of scripture. A literal view accepts that the events happened.. an ultra-literal view also accepts the writer's interpretation of the event as fact.

  29. OK. I'll resist the temptation to push this particular story too far. I now think I understand the difference between a literal view and an ultra-literal view which is useful. The important thing, IMO is that neither Bob nor Kevin takes the view that if Elisha did it, then it must be a good thing. Or, if the nation of Israel killed a bunch of people in G-d's name that G-d might command us to do the same. We agree on what I think is important. Whether things happened historically or not is not the most important thing, IMO.


  30. After reading one of Bob's comments I went looking for more on the subject "infallible versus inerrant."

    R.C. Sproul is quoted on this subject at the following link:

  31. Wow. I tried reading that Joe. But, frankly it was way too verbose to hold my attention. In a few words, my opinion is the Bible (which is not a single work but a collection of works) is largely inspired, mostly inspired or maybe even totally inspired. But, it's not infallible, inerrant or whatever term one wants to use because, inspired or not, it was written by men.


  32. I agree with you Brian. I think the Bible is a combination of history of questionable accuracy, myths and parables. But, if I accept that the men who wrote the Bible were not always speaking for God, how do I know when, if ever, their words are only God's words?

  33. Joe asks "But, if I accept that the men who wrote the Bible were not always speaking for God, how do I know when, if ever, their words are only God's words?"

    Great question. And I've seen similar questions use to justify hyper-literalism and hyper-inerrancy. The point being that the only way we can have a perfect guideline is if the Bible is 100% correct and 100% literal because if there is any room left for interpretation of what's correct or what is literal then we have lost the "objective" guide some claim the Bible to be. First, of all, I think that is a false claim because even among hyperliteralists and hyper-infallibility believers there is disagreement. And, secondly, just because we wish a thing true doesn't make it so. The Bible was not penned by G-d, at least not literally. It was written by the hands of man. It was not carved on golden tablets and dropped from the sky.

    To answer your question, Joe. I think we ask the Holy Spirit to lead us, the same Holy Spirit that spoke to the Bible writers still speaks to us today. There is no reason to believe that G-d ever stopped speaking or that He can only speak to special people.

  34. I might add that much of what we call history is a "combination of history of questionable accuracy, myths and parables". Interesting to note however is that much of the bible's original manuscripts go back before Christ lived.. the Dead Sea scrolls are noteworthy in this area. Can't think of many historical documents of that era that we have the manuscripts.

    I might add this to Brian's great response about the Holy Spirit.. focus on the gospels and especially the teachings of Jesus. I try to filter everything through his teachings.

  35. Joe and Bob,

    I would agree that virtually all history we have (particularly before the advent of recording devices) is of somewhat questionable accuracy. History is written by the victors and through biased lenses that we all wear. But, I think we should keep in mint the Bible was never intended to be a historical textbook. And. pre-modern people writing texts like this were not as concerned with historical "accuracy" as they were concerned with getting the point across. The Bible is not a history book. And, the Bible is not a science book.

  36. "getting the point across"

    ..a novel idea for sure Brian.. not saying that the bible is a novel though :)

  37. Thank you for your comments. They are very helpful to me.


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