From Our Archives
For Sunday November 12, 2023
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
Joshua 24:1–3a, 14–25 or Wisdom of Solomon 6:12–16 or Amos 5:18–24
Psalm 78:1–7 or Wisdom of Solomon 6:17–20 or Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
This Week's Essay
A few years ago I watched a documentary about the Aztec empire that described in gruesome detail their practice of human sacrifice. In 1487, for example, the Aztecs sacrificed thousands of people to their several gods at the consecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). It was so disturbing that I turned off the television.
The religious legitimation of human sacrifice makes it very hard to say that all religions are equally valid paths to God, or that they all teach the same thing. Genocide, widow burning, caste systems, female genital mutilation, witch hunts, ritual abuse, ethnic cleansing, suicide bombers, crusades, and apartheid — all these evils and more have claimed religious sanction. They suggest that there are true and false gods, good and evil religious practices, angels of light and demons of darkness, and that we must choose between the two.
No one should feel morally smug. Religious violence plays no favorites, either with the perpetrators or the victims. In his book Terror in the Mind of God, Mark Juergensmeyer includes separate chapters on violence by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Charles Kimball covers similar ground in his book When Religion Becomes Evil. And let's be clear — the atheistic "religions" deserve special mention; the Soviet and Maoist "liberations" slaughtered 100 million people.
Although religion bears a heavy burden of responsibility for advocating violence, and the Israeli-Palestinian war demonstrates the atrocities of non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah, only the modern state can unleash industrial scale violence like Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, Syria, or Darfur. State-sponsored nationalism is our most violent god.
In his 650-page study of mass murder called Worse Than War, Daniel Goldhagen estimates that in the last century alone between 127–175 million people have been "eliminated." They came from all regions of the world, and from all social, economic and political groups. The vast majority of these victims were killed in their own countries, by their fellow citizens, by willing and non-coerced murderers, and almost never with any substantial dissent.
The myths, lies, denials, excuses, rationalizations, "self-exculpations," "prettified self-images," and "linguistic camouflage" of both active perpetrators and passive bystanders are legion. Although religion can play an important role, and states alone have the power to eliminate a group, Goldhagen locates the ultimate problem of systematic violence in human agency. Eliminationism is not inevitable, accidental, a spontaneous eruption, or the work of "abstract forces or structures." Violence doesn't happen by chance; it's a choice. "We must adopt the language of moral responsibility," says Goldhagen.
And that's the message in the reading from Joshua for this week: "choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve" (24:15). Put away the false gods of your ancestors. Forsake the pagan gods of the surrounding peoples. Worship the true and living God. Why? Because he's no petty chieftain of a local tribe. Rather, he alone is "Lord of all the earth." He is God of "all peoples of the earth" (3:11, 13 and 4:24).
The bloody book of Joshua, parts of which epitomize "texts of terror," begins with the death of Moses and the ascension of Joshua, his aide-de-camp. The first half of the book is a triumphalistic history of military conquests. The second half of the book details the division of the conquered lands among the twelve tribes of Israel. The book ends with Joshua's death and a plea for political sanity: "Fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness… Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve… As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:14,15).
That plea fell on deaf ears. The people made enthusiastic pledges of fidelity, but Joshua was dubious. Moses had led Israel in exodus out of Egyptian bondage, whereas under Joshua the oppressed became the new oppressors. His genocidal campaigns "left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed" (Joshua 10:40). Cities were burned, vanquished kings were publicly hanged, wealth was plundered, and peoples were enslaved. "Extermination without mercy" (11:20) was the stated goal. Divine approval was the ostensible rationale.
This religious legitimation of violence came at a steep price. Instead of political sanity, the reign of Joshua was followed by madness and mayhem — the period of the judges. In a single generation after the death of Joshua, Israel descended into 400 years of anarchy where, in the terrifying words of the very last sentence of the book, "every person did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25, 17:6). Israel's violence had unleashed the dark forces of self-destruction.
In its religious life, “the word of the Lord was rare” (1 Samuel 3:1). Idolatry was rampant. Debauchery characterized civic morality. Judges 19, for example, records the murder of a nameless woman who was gang raped all night and then dismembered, a crime so heinous that it subsequently provoked civil war. "Think about it!" exclaims the exasperated narrator, "Consider it! Tell us what to do!" (Judges 19:30). On the economic front there were famines. It would be many long centuries before King David united the country.
Then, long after David, the eighth-century prophets rose up and "flipped" the relationship between violence and religion. The supplementary reading from Amos 5:18–24 this week is only one example. Instead of legitimizing evil in the name of God, true religion protests against any and every form of dehumanization. Religious ritual without human justice, says Amos, is a recipe for divine judgment: "I hate, I despise your religious feasts. Away with the noise of your songs! But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-ending stream."
In searching for a glimmer of hope amidst the Israeli-Palestinian atrocities, I remembered a documentary film called Pray the Devil Back to Hell (still available on Amazon). It tells the story of Muslim and Christian women who joined together in a peace movement to end fourteen years of civil war in Liberia. From 1989–2003 Liberians endured starvation, systematic rape, torture, mutilation and Charles Taylor's cocaine-crazed child soldiers. A third of the country was displaced; up to ten percent perished.
But instead of leaving history to chance, some very brave women made a choice: no more war. No more legitimations of violence in the name of god, country, political liberation, or economic reform. Under the remarkable leadership of Leymah Roberta Gbowee, who with two other colleagues won a Nobel Peace Prize, the women rose up and organized. They prayed and sang by the thousands in the fish market every day in their trade mark white tee shirts, in the sweltering sun and torrential rains. They announced "sex strikes" to all the men until the violence ceased. They picketed the American Embassy.
Their persistence forced Taylor to acknowledge them in a public ceremony. As the president fidgeted in his chair on stage, Gbowee spoke for the nation: "We are tired of war! Tired of running! Tired of begging for wheat! Tired of our daughters being raped!" They forced Taylor and the rebel factions to the peace table in Ghana.
When talks stalled after six weeks, they staged a sit in and blocked the delegates from leaving the hall until they signed an agreement. After the peace accords in 2003, they led the nation in disarmament, then in voter registration and campaigning, all of which led to the election of the Harvard-educated Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president of Liberia and the first African woman head of state in January 2006.
Religious and political violence are far too common, but they don't have to happen. Violence isn't inevitable. We have a choice. We need to insist upon the importance of free choice and human agency. We can choose peace, and demand that our leaders do the same, because we're sick and tired of war.
For Further Reflection
Leymah Gbowee, with Carol Mithers, Mighty Be Our Powers, A Memoir: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War (New York: Beast Books, 2011), 246pp.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, This Child Will Be Great (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 353pp.
A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org