Guest Post #1 Violence and Christian Holy Writ: Did God Command Genocide?
Below is the first guest post in Per Caritatem’s new series, “Violence and Christian Holy Writ.” Each post will remain live for approximately one week in order to create a space for fruitful dialogue to occur. Many thanks to Kyle for his contribution to this series.
Kyle R. Cupp is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has an MA in Philosophy and a BA in English, both of which he received from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He writes at Journeys in Alterity and the group Catholic blog Vox Nova.
My thanks to Cynthia R. Nielsen for the opportunity to contribute to this series. I intend here to consider the narrative meaning of a God who ordered genocide and its significance for the Christian story and for the narratives of those who seek to justify violence today. I have in mind the apparently divine order delivered by Samuel to Saul regarding the Amel’ekites: “utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them; but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling” (1 Samuel 15). My hope is to show that the idea of a genocide-commanding God does not cohere with the conception of God proclaimed by traditional Christianity, that the narratives that arise from each are incompatible.
According to one reading of this Old Testament depiction of divinely-commanded genocide, God needed to order mass death for the preservation of his chosen people (Deuteronomy 20:18), who could not survive the foreign influences of others, so that the way would be made for the coming of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom. The eternal salvation of everyone in every time and every place depended on the Israelites maintaining their purity as the chosen people. God’s response to those who threatened to pervert and corrupt his chosen people was to order their annihilation: God commanded the killing of men and women, infants, newborns, and livestock. To speak in postmodern terms, the other had to be obliterated to preserve the same. It was a horrid but necessary order, one that is, according to a further reading, no longer necessary, but rather obsolete. Christ made the world anew, and so God has no need to give such orders again.
What significance does this conception of God have for the Christian story? It elevates the role of violence in the grand narrative. Salvation is now not merely dependent on God’s suffering of violence, violence freely and sinfully chosen by human beings, but on humankind’s obedience to the role of annihilator, a role that purifies the way for Mary’s “Yes” and the Incarnation, Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It grants the infliction of violence a salvific role—a necessary divinely-intended part to play in salvation history. Purifying violence becomes a prerequisite for redemptive suffering.
The consequences of this elevation of violence extend beyond the specific boundaries of the Christian myth: it is not only violence within the narrative leading to the Christ-event that takes on a salvific role. The idea of violence itself has become united with the idea of salvation: salvific violence is a legitimate kind of violence, even if the particular violence amounts to genocide. Conceiving God as one who commands genocide gives rise to new thought about violence and salvation. We have before us an instance of genocide being morally legitimate, countering all condemnations of genocide as intrinsically evil. Indeed, the morality of genocide in this instance isn’t a question of right and wrong, but of power and necessity. God, the all-powerful, orders genocide because it is necessary. Genocide has been and therefore can be morally licit.
The idea that Christ made the world anew may be used to close the door on the acceptability of genocide today, but the line of thought outlined above creeps through the cracks. The idea of genocidal violence has become united with the idea of salvation. This union gives rise to new thinking. Indeed, we hear today the infliction of mass death proposed as a necessary means of salvation. We uphold military might as a solution to the problem of evil. Presidential candidates promise to seek out and defeat evil in the world by destroying those said to be evil. We fight wars to bring “an end to evil” and justify the killing of infants and newborns when such mass killing is necessary. Those today calling for the annihilation of evildoers may or may not believe that God once ordered genocide, but the idea that God once did so gives a theological backing for their call and enhances the appeal of salvific genocidal violence to the ears of Christians. The argument that Christ made the world anew, thus making mass violence an obsolete means toward salvation, might appeal on an abstract, theoretical level if one assumes a particular understanding of “made anew,” but on the practical level of concrete action and justification, it has little force.