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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Bible Made Me Do It: Text, Interpretation, and Violence

Note: The following is excerpted from a 4-volume set edited by J. Harold Ellens, titled The Destructive Power of Religion, forthcoming in Fall 2003 from Praeger Publishers.


By D. Andrew Kille

Following p flare-up of religiously oriented violence there is a flurry of debate regarding the role of sacred texts in fomenting, supporting, or guiding violence. Charges and counter-charges are thrown out, to be met by apologetic explanations on all sides. For every violent image or prescription in religious writings, one can easily find both a corresponding violent manifestation in another tradition and a mitigating text in one's own tradition.

This exchange of text and countertext is most pointed in relation to conflicts involving those religious communities that share the name of "People of the Book," Jews, Christians and Muslims. In each of these traditions, written scriptures hold a central position. Jews honor the Tanach: the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. Christians also esteem these scriptures as the "Old" Testament while adding to it their own scriptures, the "New" Testament. Muslims regard the Qur'an as the direct revelation given to Muhammad by Allah.

Critics highlight "toxic texts," scriptures that seem to codify violent and destructive behavior. The assumption is that a straight line can be drawn from the text to violent behavior. As a familiar bumpersticker succinctly phrases it: "God Said It. I Believe It. That Settles It." If a text contains violent imagery or commands, those who take the text as authoritative will simply act violently, will they not? The reality is, of course, far more complex. Alongside destructive images and models there are other texts that express a different and even opposed viewpoint within the same tradition. They stress mercy, reconciliation, and peace. How does one decide which is more determinative? In any given situation, which is more likely to shape behavior and attitudes?

Each of the three traditions of the "Book" has a slightly different approach to understanding its sacred scriptures as authority. Within each tradition exists a wide range of possible responses to the images, worldview and pronouncements within sacred texts. Although one "book" occupies a central and privileged status, it is found only in the context of a complex of interpretation which includes other texts, interpretative communities, and structures of teaching and organization that seek to guide individuals' understanding and application of the text. From the Talmud in Judaism with its layers of commentary to Christianity with its creeds, affirmations of faith, commentaries and liturgy, to Islam with the Hadith, sacred texts are never found in isolation.

To understand the role of sacred scriptures in shaping violent attitudes and behavior we must recognize that texts do not "do" anything in themselves. It is only in the dynamic encounter between the text and a specific reader, in a specific community, in a particular historical and cultural context that individuals engage, interpret, internalize and ultimately act on those texts.

Some observations and categories from psychological theory may help in our understanding of how sacred texts may come to be interpreted to condone violence.

On Object Relations

In order to develop a coherent ego or identity that is able to relate appropriately to the world, the developing individual engages in processes of integration and differentiation, identifying with desirable traits and rejecting undesirable ones. People and things in themselves are always ambiguous, displaying both positive and negative aspects, but the young child has not as yet developed the perspective or ego strength to deal with that ambiguity. Thus, in the early stages, the psyche employs a strategy of splitting, separating the "good" qualities from the "bad." These elements are integrated through processes of identification and introjection or rejected and projected onto others. (Hamilton, 1987).

Internalized objects and the process of their formation continue to affect individuals throughout their lifetimes. In healthy development, the individual gradually becomes able to deal with ambivalence and ambiguity in significant others. If, however, the normal course of development is disrupted, adults may continue or revert to immature strategies of splitting and projection.

On Idealization and Religion

How is it that religion is able to be at one and the same time the source of profound human transformation and maturity and a source of hostility and aggression? James W. Jones suggests that part of the answer can be found in the psychological dynamic of idealization (Jones, 2002). Idealization enables a child to defend against a perceived failure of the mother to provide adequately for his or her needs by splitting the good and bad aspects of the mother and internalizing the bad while projecting the good outward onto the mother. This psychic relationship between the needy and vulnerable self and a wholly good external object provides the psychic energy for later distinctions of sacred and profane in religious experience.

Every experience of the "sacred," be it sacred experience, sacred mountain, sacred image, or sacred text, is linked to and colored by this archaic experience of idealization. The difference between transformative encounters and destructive encounters lies in whether the individual can move beyond idealization to genuine encounter or whether he or she remains caught in the grip of idealization and projection.

In healthy development, the child eventually develops a positive enough self image to be able to deal with the inherent ambiguity of life. Without sufficient nurturing or opportunity to compensate in later development the individual will continue to react to the world through idealization and splitting as an adult.

The idealization of a sacred text can offer the opportunity for personal transformation. A new perspective or possibility may be offered through reading and responding to the text. One has the opportunity to step outside one's own perceptions and to be addressed through the text. If the idealization of the text does not move into a more complex and realistic understanding, it may lead to religious fanaticism instead. If one's own text is perfect and all-good, without regard for inconsistencies, varied interpretations, and contextual factors in its development and transmission, then all the weaknesses, negativity and inadequacy that might otherwise be discernable in the tradition are projected on others.

Given its deep roots in object relations and incomplete development, archaic idealization affects more than just the relationship with a sacred text. Although the text may be an important component of a religious tradition, it is only part of that tradition. An individual who idealizes the text is likely to bring the same dynamics to the whole life of the religious community; to its ideology, its leaders and its self-identifications.

On The 'Way of Action': Personality Theory

The Way of Action (corresponding to the Myers-Briggs Sensing-Thinking type) may be distorted in two characteristic ways that seem the most pertinent in relation to sacred writings: the tendency toward religious self-assertion and the tendency toward religious paranoia. These represent two inadequate responses to the disjunction between desired perfection and lived ambiguity. The Way of Action focuses on identifying and doing the righteous thing, and those inclined to this approach seek to live pure lives in the midst of a less than pure world. Religious self-assertion eliminates doubt and contradiction by asserting that my will and God's will are one and the same, my understanding is God's understanding and my interpretation of God's sacred text is the same as God's voice. God exists to fulfill my needs and desires. If I do what God wants, God is compelled to do what I want. In the Christian and Jewish Bibles, this attitude seems to be validated by the Deuteronomy code with its promise of direct reward for righteous conduct.

Religious paranoia, on the other hand, deals with the disjunction of desire and reality by the now familiar defense mechanisms of splitting and projection. In order to sustain a sense of purity in situations of real or perceived persecution in which an individual feels limited control over his or her circumstances, the individual idealizes himself and his community and devalues the Other. Those on the inside are viewed positively as bearers of truth and righteousness. Those on the outside become the enemy, the agents of the devil, the "Evil Empire" or "Axis of Evil." We have already noted the attraction of this apocalyptic thinking evidenced in The Revelation of St. John and other apocalyptic writings in Jewish and Christian traditions. Someone caught in the dynamics of religious paranoia tends toward rigid and unchallengeable attitudes and is seldom open to other points of view. "Those who are not with us are against us" is a clear expression of this attitude. Unfortunately, the most widely known manifestation of Christianity in the United States today, televangelism, is deeply influenced by this way of thinking.


There is no simple line to be drawn between sacred text and religious violence. As much as religious leaders might want to believe that people base their lives and actions directly on sacred texts, the reality is not that simple. While sacred writings may well be employed by religious (and political) leaders to bolster and defend a course of action or set of attitudes, they generally do not in themselves give rise to those attitudes or actions.

In When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball identifies five factors that may indicate a propensity for religiously-based violence: absolute truth claims, blind obedience, establishing the "ideal" time, the end justifying any means and declaring holy war (Kimball, 2002). None of these factors depends on whether violent images or expressions appear in the group's scriptures. Three of the factors, however, may hint at how sacred scriptures could enter the mix.

When a group makes absolute truth claims, it will often make them with reference to sacred writings. Yet it is important that truth is claimed not only for the writings themselves, but for how leaders and authoritative teachers interpret those writings. As we noted in reference to the cultic process, teachings considered authoritative may not only depart from other accepted interpretations, but the strength of the group's sense of identity may be reinforced precisely by that departure. We can easily recognize the dynamics of extreme idealization at work, an inability to deal with ambiguity and imperfection.

Establishing an "ideal" time and declaring "holy war" are often closely linked, and likewise have their roots in the tension between an idealized perfect world and the actual world. A group declares that it is their religious responsibility to realize on this earth the envisioned perfect city, state, or community. Such a task is likely to be appealing to individuals who approach the world with the qualities of the Way of Action. When frustrated by their inability to achieve perfection these people can potentially move toward religious paranoia and apocalyptic thinking. The "blueprint" for this envisioned world is usually derived from sacred texts that have been yanked from the illusionistic world of symbol and image into concrete distortion in the realistic world. Images and symbols of hope and completion are decontextualized, concretized, and remapped onto the present day.

Calls to "holy war" are likewise often buttressed by reference to sacred text, making use of scriptural images and their profound power to stir up deep, early emotions and a sense of group identity. These citations can often be entirely self-serving, used less as expressions of religious fervor than as tools to whip up group cohesion and hostility toward the "enemy." Whether or not this is the case, scriptures used in this way are not truly concerned with a rational process of reading, understanding and debate, but function as idealized objects, stirring up archaic psychological defense mechanisms. It is not about what the texts mean rationally and cognitively, but what they trigger unconsciously.

The recurring debate about what images in religious texts are violent, and whether someone who holds that text as sacred must hold certain attitudes or beliefs regarding religious violence misses the point. It can itself be manifestation of the idealization/ projection dynamic, especially when I can see no potential negativity in my own text, but am overly sensitive to such images in another's. In the situation following September 11, it is neither sufficient nor helpful to focus on sacred texts in isolation. It is vital that we be sensitized to the complex interactions of text, reader, community, and context. We must be attentive to where and how it is that religious communities are likely to head down a destructive road.

Is there hope? Is there a way to preserve the power and meaning investing religious texts without bringing with them the defenses and mechanisms that lead to religious violence? Paul Pruyser once commented that the psychological function of the god-image is to remind us that we are not god. Our survey has suggested some specific areas in which we need to be reminded of that fact. We need to preserve a sense of humility in our religious affirmations and heartfelt commitments. This means the willingness to see and acknowledge the limitations of our human formulations of the divine, the willingness to see and acknowledge the ambiguity of life, and the willingness to see and acknowledge the value and contributions of other ways.

The Rev. D. Andrew Kille, PhD is a consultant in psychology, spirituality, technology and organizations ( He is Co-Chair (with Dr. J. Harold Ellens) of the Psychology and Biblical Studies Section of the SBL and author of Psychological Biblical Criticism (Fortress Press, 2001).


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Citation: D. Andrew Kille, " The Bible Made Me Do It: Text, Interpretation, and Violence," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2006]. Online:


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