VIOLENCE WEEK: Q & R about Joshua, kind Christians with cruel interpretations

Here’s the Q:

I am currently in a Bible study where we are reading through the Bible. I have been immensely grateful that I read ‘A New Kind of Christianity’ before reading the first 5 books of the Bible. Your writing gave me so much freedom and the framework to see these books as ‘timely truths’, keeping in mind the spiritual development of that time. I have also tried to not approach the Old Testament as a ‘pharisee’- getting caught up in the details, and missing the beautiful theme that God is creating love and relationship with His people.
We are now reading Joshua, and I feel derailed. I feel as if I’ve been kicked in the gut reading about the violence, the genocide, and I can barely rally the will to keep reading. What I find most unsettling, frightening, abhorrent is Joshua seems to imply God’s approval, even initiating these actions. Many parts of Joshua record miracles from God so the Israelites could better obliterate other peoples (eg. making the sun shine hours longer to finish a battle). I couldn’t describe my thoughts to my Bible study group any better than just saying ‘I really don’t think this is God.’ I received answers, from truly kind Christians, about how the wrath of God is as real as the love of God, that God had to fulfill His promise to give His people this land, and how the surrounding people were truly godless. I felt alone, different, and misunderstood. I also feel concerned that we are accepting ideas like this about God, although I don’t have answers either.
I am eager to read ‘Naked Spirituality’ next, as I just finished ‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell. It made me want to dance and cry in a rain of tears ‘He really loves us…. He really LOVES us!!!’ I want to shed ideas about God’s wrath as an old wineskin, and partake in something new.
I know you must be busy with your new book, but if you have any insight into Joshua I would appreciate it.

Here’s the R:

First, thanks for expressing your frustration and concern. A lot of Christians I know (including me, frankly, until about twelve or fifteen years ago) have hardly felt even a pang of concern about this issue. Many believers in one God (including Christians, Muslims, and Jews) accept the idea that God decrees mass slaughter (including of civilians, including women and children and the elderly). In fact, we not only find this divinely-sanctioned violence in the past, but we also find it book-ended by eternal violence in the future, rendering us more comfortable with violence in the present. So we defend the idea of a violent God with catch phrases like, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” In so doing, we maintain our complicity in ongoing violence done in the name of God by people of our religion or tradition.
Others of us are forced, by this issue of violence and by other issues as well, to abandon this simple but naive approach to the Bible in favor of a more complex but also more satisfying view. If you were to search on the word “violence” here on my site, you’ll find a lot of places (especially this week) where I grapple with this issue.
The Joshua texts are especially problematic. The responses given by your friends are not only unsatisfying, but (to me at any rate) dangerous. They ultimately reinforce the idea that there are no human rights before God, since “original sin” qualifies everyone for eternal conscious torment by the justice of God. Torture, land theft, marginalization, exploitation and extermination in this life are simply warm-ups for what awaits the condemned masses after this life. People should be grateful, these kinds of answers imply, that it’s only physical torture or death they’re experiencing, since eternal spiritual torment await them.
Equally concerning, this approach marks “us” as the elect, or the elite, or the favorites of God. History shows where this kind of thinking leads.
That’s why people like Rob Bell and I have stuck our necks out to question this whole narrative. It’s why we see God’s greatest gift in Jesus and his gospel – a call to reconciliation, not extermination … to service, not domination … to solidarity with all, not selection for elite privileges withheld from others. In this regard, I think you’d find a chapter in Everything Must Change of special help now, as you read Joshua. I retell the story of Jesus and the Syrophonecian (or Canaanite) woman as a reversal of the violent commands of Deuteronomy 7 (the commands which set up the whole book of Joshua). This is a reading of the text I was introduced to by Brian Walsh, who was introduced to it by Grant LeMarquand. You can find a summary and all necessary links here.
Rene Girard has been a pioneer of these nonviolent readings of the biblical text, and although many people find him difficult to read (in English translation – I’ve heard in French his writing style is excellent), nearly all of us find him highly helpful. I just finished reading “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” which is a good introduction to his thought.
One other thing: I would make a distinction between God’s wrath and God’s violence or cruelty. I think we can speak of the wrath of God … but not of the violence or cruelty of God. God’s wrath isn’t the counterbalance to God’s love. (One of my mentors called God’s wrath God’s “dark side.” I disagreed with him on this: I don’t think God has a dark side nor do I think God is plagued by internal conflicts through which God can’t be as loving as God wants because God’s wrath requires otherwise.) Whatever God’s wrath is, I believe it is an expression of God’s love and kindness- both for the victims and for the victimizers. God’s wrath (God’s moral abhorrence of evil and violence) never compromises or limits God’s love, but always perfectly expresses it. It is violence and cruelty that elicit God’s (nonviolent) wrath. Much more could and should be made of this.
All this is important, but you still face the challenge of participating in your Bible study group. My suggestion would be to accept people where they are, acknowledge that their interpretations have a lot of history behind them, and share your discomfort with both the interpretations and the potential role of those interpretations in some of the darker sides of our history. I’d also keep my expectations low – it’s highly unlikely you will convince everyone that their interpretations are wrong. But I think you can help everyone to accept that someone they love and respect finds those interpretations troubling, and that might start them considering the issues in a way they haven’t before. That’s a step in the right direction.