Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Temptation of Violence

I've come to realize that what concerns me most -- and inevitably hovers over my dissertation and all other academic scholarship -- are theological questions. Like most people, I want answers. But unlike many people, I've grown more content with the knowledge that often the "answer" is merely one more explosion of unanswerable questions and unsolvable conundrums. And yet, driven by an intellectual era dominated by postsecular concerns, I still work, study, read, and write in a "find the answer" mode. Perhaps this is one reason I am so drawn to Judaism (perhaps instead I should say Jewish thought, or even Jewish ethical monotheism) -- the insistence that the experience of working toward or looking for "answers" is more significant than what we actually hope to find as a result of our inquisitive endeavors. It is a dynamic ethical system, capable of continually and subtly evolving past what others conceive of as an outdated, monolithic set of rules and guidelines.

Tonight in particular I was thinking about the ways that some people use biblical principles and scriptures to indirectly insult, and essentially assault, others. The bible has become a weapon of sorts -- a sword brandished high above the heads of those who fear that their own theological foundations are too shaky to allow for the inclusion of those who don't believe exactly as they do. Ironically, however, when I was young I remember sitting in Sunday school (I was raised in a very conservative Christian home and community), and being told that I should put on the full armor of God, and that the bible was my sword (this metaphorical rendering comes from Paul's letter to the Ephesians). We even engaged in little contests that were called Sword Drills, in which we would race to see who could look up a scripture verse first. Is it any wonder that so many people are conditioned to utilize the bible and its contents and interpretations as if it is indeed a deadly weapon? But despite the seeming rhetoric of violence, the New Testament writers (one in particular) admonish people to live peaceably with one another.

I am not in any way saying that there are not truths to be found in the Christian New Testament --- quite the contrary. The world would be a wonderful place if all Christians were Christ-like. I just find the violent imagery and metaphors fascinating, especially in the wake of such a hideous historical misuse of the bible.

One of my younger brothers was especially shrewd when it came to strategically using the bible as a "weapon." When he was in fifth or sixth grade, he perused the New Testament for any verses that could be construed to be anti-women or mysogynist (there are quite a few, to be sure, particularly in the Pauline epistles), and then he wrote them all down on tiny scraps of paper, which he kept in the pockets of his Levi's jeans. There was another little girl from our church who apparently annoyed him, and so when she pushed him too far, he would whip out the scraps of paper and unleash a slew of biblically charged insults. A hilarious family anecdote, to be sure, but it's somewhat disturbing.

Likewise, it was not uncommon among people in the Christian college community in which I lived during my undergraduate years to hurl scriptures at people in disagreements as a way to hurt or somehow incriminate the other person. These were also more often than not the most vicious and hypocritical people.

And now, tonight, I'm again looking at Emmanuel Levinas's "The Temptation of Temptation," in which he recalls the Talmudic story (Tractate Shabbath) of a Sadducee who came upon Raba, who was so buried in Torah study, that as he sat absentmindedly rubbing his heel, blood began to spurt from it. This story is the starting point for my dissertation, and I never cease to be fascinated by its implications, primarily that Torah study (or bible or any other text, I would argue) is always accompanied by a necessary violence -- that the violence is necessary in order to wrest from the text the meaning that is concealed. I also can't help but think of Rene Girard's Violence and the Sacred here.

There's no way out of violence, it seems, and this imperative becomes even more profound in the context of spiritual and theological inquiry.


nedric said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michelle said...

Okay, here it is… my simple thoughts:

I think the tie between violence and scripture is or should be directed at the enemy of our souls not to each other. The scriptures constantly refers to the war between good and evil. The Word is said to be a sword, but I don’t think we were ever intended to use it as a weapon to cut people down, but to fight off satin and his demons. Unfortunately, as you have pointed out far too often, we direct our fight towards each other. I believe in spiritual warfare, which usually takes place on the battlefield of our mind. I think as each person struggles to answer the “truth” question… information gathered from every possible direction influences how we get to the truth and even what we perceive truth to be. As I think about my own growth, some core beliefs have not changed while other have. Therefore, I see the need to be open to hearing about other beliefs, however not sharing my own belief would to me be contradictory to who I am. In sort, denying my belief. Anyhow, I do know that the bible can be used to tare down. but I think when this is done, it obviously is a direct contradiction to the second commandment.

I think that many people who model their life after Christ, use scriptures in debates to explore truth (since we consider scripture to be the foundation of our truth). There are many times when we would discuss scriptures to define what it means to be Christ-like and sometimes that was offensive. Most of the time that I felt offended, I would later realize it was because I was not being Christ-like. I do think that there are those who are much less tolerable of others then myself and I often think, “how sad”. Since we are called to love one another… I don’t think shoving the Bible down people’s throats and telling them how bad they are is the way to lead them closer to Christ, but I think that is where a lot of people who call themselves Christians get all puffed up. Who am I to condemn others when Christ did not come to condemn but to save?

Monica said...

Thanks, Nedric! Yes, it's definitely a fascinating topic -- hopefully I can generate something equally fascinating on the topic. I'm surprised that graduate students (in a public university's religious studies dept) would be surprised by the connection between religion and violence. I've never thought that the question was whether the two were connected/related, but why and how.

Monica said...


Thanks again for your offering your perspective on some of my ramblings! I will say, though, that I'm just a bit troubled by your assumption that it's about good vs evil. Why does it have to be split into two polarities? I think it's easier for us to think of it in those terms, but I wonder if it might be more an issue of good vs a deficiency of good, if you know what I mean. That is, evil is really only a deficiency of good. Such heavy dichotomization I think ultimately pits people against each other. And, really, at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity (as well as some other religions) is the importance of the Other. In other words, if "Love thy neighbor" is supposed to be the end-goal of Christianity/Judaism/Other-religions, it just seems that the good vs evil concept problematizes that, and makes it difficult.

nedric said...

"Why" and "how" are right.

I was thinking some more, of course, about Raba and his heel today... I realized how you weren't simply noting the correlation of religion and violence, or even spiritual growth and violence, but specified the necessity of violence in theological inquiry. Why would we do that to ourselves?

Michelle said...

I need more... talk more about "deficiency of good." And how is that different from evil? What’s the problem with simple?

I don't think that the end goal of Christianity is "love thy neighbor." I think that loving thy neighbor should be a natural response to being Christ-like.

How does the idea of good vs. evil make it difficult to loving thy neighbor?

I'm sorry if I'm not getting it, but I really want to understand what you mean.

Monica said...

Yes, Nedric, I guess I'm enamored with the idea that violence is a necessary (why?) aspect of religion as well as textual inquiry. I like the idea of struggling with the text, and tearing meaning from it.

Michelle, you and I may need to chat via phone about this! The (or, one) problem with the good vs evil thing is that it allows us to view some people as evil (granted, Hitler was evil in every sense of the word), and when we start viewing people, or groups, or religions, or countries as "evil," it engenders hatred and all sorts of other ugly behaviors. There is A LOT more I should say about this, but it would take up pages of blog space. I'm not saying I'm completely sold on this idea, either -- it's just something I'm tossing out there. A different way to think about things, I guess.

And, I actually do believe that for both Christianity and Judaism, the most important thing is to love one's neighbor -- ethical responsibility is the ultimate goal. And, in the context of Christianity, it does seem that Jesus's words and actions stress this idea more than any other.

I don't know how much this helps, but I'm glad you're asking questions, because it forces me to keep thinking about things, and also find ways to re-frame them so that people outside of literature/philosophy/religious studies can understand them.

Casey said...

Mon--just a thought: is there a difference between "symbolic violence" (what might be understood as violence to the spirit) and "actual" violence? As a Sunday-schooler, I was always troubled by Jesus' announcement: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." But I think now of his life, and recognize that he was not violent; the statement must refer to some kind of other-worldly violence...

Is it possible that people typically confuse/conflate these two kinds of violence? I don't really know -- very interesting stuff, though.

Monica said...

Yes, Casey, I do think there's a difference. One of the things I think we need to remember when analyzing Jesus's words is that he said he always spoke in parables. If we are to take him at his word (couldn't resist the awful pun), then we need to literally read everything as parable, even metaphorical. Seeing that violence seems to be the only thing that makes sense to us, I'm not surprised that even Jesus relied on violent imagery and metaphors to get his point of peace across. On another interesting note, my dissertation advisor (who says Jesus was the first Levinasian!) once told me to insert "Torah" (or Hebrew bible) in place of "I" in all of Jesus's words (again, if he's always speaking in metaphor or parable, when he says "I" does he really mean himself?) It's fascinating to see, once again, the connections between the text and violence.

Anonymous said...

you deleted my comment!~