Violence

I have a book to recommend, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World’ by James Carroll

The title suggests a particular focus. However, the opening section of the book, at least, is jam-packed with unusual and provocative insights into the troubling relationship between religion and violence.

Carroll opines that the Bible is the record of an epic and ongoing struggle to make sense of violence.

I have not heard the Bible referred to in this way.

A more common take on this topic is that the Old Testament is full of violence while the New Testament is not. While this assertion is potentially anti-Semitic, albeit unwittingly, it is also untrue.

The Book of Revelation is probably the most violent book in the entire Bible. In Revelation 14:20 we read, ‘and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle for about 1600 stadia’ (approximately 200 miles). There were rivers of blood…

Even more troubling is the way parts of the New Testament make sense of the crucifixion of Jesus as a blood sacrifice for the sins of the world. This doctrine requires of God that He orchestrates the murder of his own son, Jesus.

If violence exists in the heart and intimate relationships of God, then the world is in trouble.

Carroll’s perspective is more hopeful. He maintains that far from describing essential attributes of God, the various doctrines of the atonement are human attempts to interpret, make sense of, and even limit the destructive force of violence.

While I continue to find these doctrines abhorrent, putting them in a framework of human consciousness and meaning-making implies that new insights will eventually emerge.

Let me return to the notion that attributing violence to God, and Jesus his victim, may represent an attempt to limit violence.

Carroll notes a tendency in many cultures to find and blame scapegoats. A scapegoat is an animal or a person onto whom the sins and faults of others are poured, and then, the victim is either banished or ritually sacrificed.

According to anthropologists and sociologists, this disturbing action may function to cleanse those involved, even entire nations, and limits their potential for violence.

The worldview that justifies such actions is not rational. However, it touches powerfully on parts of the human unconscious. Furthermore, it maintains its potency to this day: we still employ versions of it to make sense of war, ‘They died for us, for our freedom.’

For a long time, I have been puzzled why assertions of this nature give comfort to so many people. They don’t work for me.

However, by placing them in this framework, Carroll enabled me, at least, to stand back and consider them in a new way.

One reason many reject Christianity is its propensity to authorise, even promote, violence. Carroll’s book suggests that violence is an innately human problem, and that while religions embrace and manipulate violence, they are not the source of it.

The source lies much deeper in the structure of human consciousness.

Whatever helps us uncover and understand this scandalous predilection is to be welcomed.