Search SBL
 









SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Holy Terror

When our nation was rent by the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, "Both sides read the same Bible, both pray to the same God and each invokes his aid against the other." In Osama Bin Laden's view, "the world is split into two camps: the camp of believers and the camp of infidels." His rhetoric is filled with God: "God attacked America at its heart and filled the American people with fear." Here, he invokes an all-too-familiar idol: the God of vengeance, a God who destroys the enemies of his people and rejoices at their defeat. This kind of God—this idol—was also invoked during the Crusades to destroy Muslims, during the conquest of the New World to destroy Natives, during England's Civil War on both sides, during the Spanish Inquisition to expel the Jews, and in Bosnia during ethnic cleansing. How can the divine be invoked for such horrific purposes?

Surprisingly, in "The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and Legitimation of Violence," John Collins reduces my work on this question to "an intrinsic link between violence and monotheism or monolatry" (Collins, 3). I found it surprising because an astute reader like the theologian and Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, makes no such mistake, and even more surprising in light of Collins own debt to The Curse of Cain. If this oversimplified link between violence and monotheism—one usually made by propagandists for some preconceived idea of monotheism but not by attentive thinkers like Collins—is wrong, then what does monotheism have to do with violence? This is a difficult question, but let me begin simply by noting that a book subtitled The Violent Legacy of Monotheism frequently and carefully describes another legacy of monotheism: the legacy of plenitude. So it is difficult, in the first place, to "implicitly link monotheism to violence" without also linking monotheism to plenitude, that is, to the image of the divine generosity that rains manna from heaven in the Hebrew Bible or that multiplies loaves and fishes in the New Testament—enough to feed everyone. However, "link" is a dangerously vague term. The question demands more rigor: how do biblical narratives and biblical readers interpret the concept of the One?

In the vast spectrum of depictions and interpretations of monotheism, two poles emerge: at one end, monotheism is imagined as endlessly proliferating, with God extending blessings to all, tending his entire creation, as in the book of Jonah, where divine care extends to the enemies of Israel. At the other end of the spectrum, monotheism is imagined as excluding, creating insiders and outsiders, and guarding those exclusionary borders with violence. It helps to think of a circle that is infinite in extension vs. one that is finite, leaving some out. The problem of the One takes us to the fraught philosophical question of universalism and particularism (One among Many, or One as Many), and to the dangers of mistaking one for the other, of claiming that any particular identity must be universal (imperialism) or claiming that the universal can exclude some outside its scope (totalitarianism).

I regard this vision of exclusive monotheism as idolatrous. Because it describes divine favor and blessings as scarce, inspiring competition and deadly rivalries like the first fratricide, the story of Cain and Abel, it can justify violence. While centuries of Christian theology have focused on the "original sin," in The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, I turned my attention to the next narrative in Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel, for in it, the first brothers commit the first murder, and I see us as the heirs of Cain because we continue to murder our brothers. I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if the story had depicted God as accepting both of their sacrifices, thereby promoting cooperation between the sower and the shepherd instead of violent competition. And then I noticed that this deeply troubling depiction of divinity is not unique to that story: God is depicted as playing favorites repeatedly, giving blessings at someone else's expense.

When Esau heard his father's words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, "Bless me—me too, my father!" But he said, "Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing."...Haven't you reserved any blessing for me?" Isaac answered Esau, "I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?" (Gen. 27:34).

Esau's profound question resonates throughout the history of religious strife: "Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!"

Not a monotheism of plenitude, but an idolatry of scarcity impels Esau's pain. What if there had been two blessings? What if the authors had imagined the Edomites and Israelites enjoying equally blessed futures? Would the cultural legacy of the Bible have been a less violent one? Would it have been more difficult to use the Bible as a weapon to degrade those who have strayed from the one jealous God, peoples who have been classified as infidels, pagans and idolaters? Surely, we would still have had the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Christian Identity movement, but would the perpetrators have had to look elsewhere in their cultural legacy, other than representations of the will of God as recorded in his authorized text, to authorize their hate-crimes?

To be perfectly clear, I want to underscore that, for me, these narratives reflect human preoccupations, offering more of a window onto our social realm than the divine one; they are necessarily imperfect renderings of God. Needless to say, scarcity is a tragic condition of our world, but what is disturbing about this human notion of God—this idol—is that it transfers this material scarcity to transcendence: no longer is scarcity only a condition experienced by human beings; it also is imagined as a limitation in the spiritual sphere. And then, in a circular and deadly way, this transcendent principle of scarcity is used to justify real-world exclusions, blessings p some and not for others, haves and have-nots.

Depicting God as intolerant of the traditions of other people, as slaughtering our enemies, strikes me as a deeply impoverished version of divinity, one that speaks more about human intolerance and violence than about God. If I have been suspicious about the adequacy of narratives about God, then, it is because such narratives tend to be projections of human life, human desire, human possession, human conflict, and human violence. This presents another layer of the vexed theological problem, the possibility of any description of God. To speak of representation as idolatry is not new: it is several thousand years old. But to speak of the idol, not as a visual representation, a statue, a painting, but a verbal one, a narrative, seems to still be (again, to my surprise) somewhat controversial.

What alternative is there to narrative idolatry? I have called the alternative by many names: plenitude, generosity, love, but I could simply call it "revelation." We could understand the revelation in Exodus as seeking to distinguish a true universal—the reign of justice—from a false one, the reign of terror, for the law is not revealed as universal procedure (contrary to anti-Semitic talk of legalism) but as justice, most radically realized in Jeremiah where the covenant is written on the heart. Levinas offers a radical corrective to the procedural justice embraced by so much political theory. "Justice cannot be reduced to the order it institutes or restores, nor to a system whose rationality commands, without difference, men and gods, revealing itself in human legislation like the structures of space in the theorems of geometricians..." Ethics is not simply the corollary of the religious but is, of itself, the element in which religious transcendence receives its original meaning." (Beyond the Verse, p. 113).

In Judaism, revelation includes not just the written Torah but, importantly, the oral one, the tradition of interpretation by the sages. So important is this interpretive tradition that it has the same authoritative weight that the written law has—indeed, it has been recorded as a dialogue among sages, and Talmudic study is regarded as part of the process of revelation. It is the noblest activity we can engage in, for it prepares the way for the Messiah. In the process of this interpretation, narratives that could be used to endorse violence are interpreted differently, to promote justice. "Love thy Neighbor" and "Thou shalt not kill" become the dominant ideologies—not destroy the infidel, and certainly not the impoverished understanding of divinity that imagines a God who destroys our enemies.

It is not difficult to discern many biblical strains challenging violent exclusiveness: one of the most eloquent is in Micah: "let every man walk, each in the name of his God; but I will walk in the name of Yahweh my God forever." If the book of Exodus depicts wrath against the Other, plagues against the first-born Egyptians, drowning of Pharaoh's army and all the while a hardening of his heart, the book of Jonah depicts such forgiveness of the Other that the prophet is furious with God for being so merciful. And if a God who curses with dearth and with death is depicted in Amos and Deuteronomy, in Genesis, we are offered a God who blesses the creation with fecundity, enjoining all created things to be fruitful and multiply and fill all the earth. Even the God of Cain and Abel, who accepts one sacrifice but rejects another, and the God of Jacob and Esau, who has only one blessing, is also challenged by the God of Exodus, who rains manna from heaven, enough for everyone. Furthermore, even the most violent depictions can be interpreted as a vast critique of the ideology of exclusion, of its inevitable failure and its attendant violence. If, then, I have alluded to the idolatry of exclusion and terror, the structure of thought that dwells on possession and reduces the other to an object to be owned, cast out, even destroyed, there is indeed another legacy of monotheism: "Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother; thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land." (Deut 23:8.)

Terrorism is not only supported by the current targets of the American response—paramilitary and political organizations of extremists and the states that harbor them—terrorism is also supported by a belief system, a view of the world that rationalizes actions that seem utterly lacking in reason. To attack one of the deepest roots of the problem of terrorism is to make this idolatry, this zealous vengeance against supposed infidels completely untenable. And before we point our fingers away from ourselves too hastily, we should admit that all of the religions of the book harbor some version of idolatry, creating a God in the image of the possession, hatred, and violence of man&mdsah; perversion of the imago dei, the creation of man in the image of divine generosity and creativity. But this idolatry offers not only a problem: it holds out the beginning of a solution: because its ugly face can lurk—however illegitimately—in our religious traditions, we can destroy this idol, not only through armed conflict, but also through the activity of interpretation, whether vested both in the religious leadership of the western religious traditions or in our own hermeneutic of charity. As the sages said, "I am a sojourner in life and can only receive the word of God," that is, interpret.

Regina M. Schwartz, is the author of The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (University of Chicago Press, 1997). She is Professor of English at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Citation: Regina M. Schwartz, " Holy Terror," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=161

 
JOIN SBL   |  DONATE TO SBL   |  CONTACT SBL   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY   |  REVIEW OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE   |  SBL TWITTER   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY TWITTER

© 2019, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.