Torture, the Bible, and America's Faith in Violence | Sojourners

Torture, the Bible, and America's Faith in Violence

Blood over the image of a cross. Image courtesy Markus Plank/
Blood over the image of a cross. Image courtesy Markus Plank/

Does the Bible describe a God of love or a God of genocide? How are we to reconcile that the apparent answer to this question is that it describes both? As people of faith, we need to face the sobering fact that some parts of our Bible command us to love our enemies, while other parts command mercilessly slaughtering them. If the Bible is God's Word, how can it present such starkly contrasting visions of who God is, and what faithfulness to God entails?

The typical response among conservative Christians is to seek to justify violence as good in an attempt to defend the Bible. This tendency to defend violence becomes especially relevant in the wake of the Senate report on the CIA's use of torture. While the report was met with shock and outrage in some quarters, it was also defended by a good number of conservative Evangelical Christians. In fact, a 2009 Pew Research poll found that 6-in-10 white Evangelicals support the government's use of torture.

Politicians defend torture in the name of "justice" and "defense," while conservative Christians speak in the more religious language of "God's will," citing biblical texts for support. In the end, however, the same point is being made. Whether it is described in the vocabulary of religion or more "secular" terms, violence — and in the case of torture, shockingly inhumane violence — is described as a necessary means for bringing about the good. This logic is at the heart of all religious violence, and it is a view that is alive and well today.

On the other hand, the typical liberal Christian response to the violence in the Bible is to act as if it were not there. One speaks of Christianity as a "religion of love," and points to the many parts of the Bible that speak of caring for the poor and the stranger.

There are indeed many wonderful passages in the Hebrew Scripture (what Christians call the Old Testament) that focus on caring for the poor, compassion, and social justice. But the Bible equally contains parts that advocate the polar opposite — commanding genocide, slavery, child abuse, and even rape. The reality is that the Bible is a collection of books from multiple authors who articulate a multitude of widely opposing perspectives.

It is often said that one cannot "pick and choose" when reading the Bible. However, for people of faith who regard the Bible as being normative for our lives — who seek to read Scripture as Scripture — the multitude of conflicting perspectives leaves us no other option but to choose what we will embrace, and what we will reject in our multi-vocal Bibles. The question is therefore not whether we will choose, but how to make the right choices as we read.

As Christians, our model for this is found in the example of how Jesus — and many Hebrew prophets before him — interpreted and applied Scripture in the midst of the fundamentalism and religious extremism of his day, then learning how to adopt that same approach ourselves in the context of our time. I work this out in detail in my recent book Disarming Scripture, in which I take an in-depth look at the surprising approach both Jesus and Paul took to Scripture, as well as explore what it would mean for us to adopt this approach today. In broad strokes, this involves a way of reading Scripture that allows for questioning in the name of compassion, and which is characterized by Jesus' message of enemy-love.

This begins by honestly facing the violent parts of the Bible head-on. When these texts are ignored by us liberal Christians — as if they were not there — the result is that we are simply unprepared for the claims of those who continue to use the Bible to justify policies of violence today, and who can marshal a host of biblical texts to support their views.

Violence in the world is a reality that we need to face. All too often we are presented with only two options: defend ourselves with violence, or we do nothing. Some Christians therefore advocate for the use of violence as a necessary means for bringing about the good. This is echoed by our politicians, and in our television shows and movies where we continually see violence portrayed as the means of fighting evil.

As a society we trust in violence. We think it keeps us safe — we think it makes us strong. It is therefore not enough to simply note the harm that comes from violence, or our moral repulsion to it. What is needed is for us to articulate how the way of Jesus and enemy-love could be realistically applied to real conflicts today, so as to work towards peace, safety, and restoration. We will need to demonstrate that there are viable nonviolent means of dealing with societal problems — ways that are not only effective, but in fact more effective than violence at resolving conflict and keeping us safe as a society.

Derek Flood is the author of Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did. He is a featured blogger for the Huffington PostRed Letter Christians, and writes regularly at his website A longtime voice in the post-conservative evangelical movement, Derek’s focus is on wrestling with questions of faith and doubt, violence in the Bible, relational theology, and understanding the cross from the perspective of grace and restorative justice. 

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