Saturday, January 30, 2010

Did God command genocide?


When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you—and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. (Dt 7:1-3).

In his blog on the Archdiocese of Washington web site on January 20th, Monsignor Charles Pope asked the difficult question, “Did God command genocide?” And if you read the book like a certain Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps kind of Christian—or as a completely hostile, hysterical atheist like Richard Dawkins (see his most recent rant in the Washington Post)—your answer will be a definite “yes”. If you’re any other kind of Christian, you’re going to wince, hem and haw, and possibly find some justification for declaring the text inauthentic.

Msgr. Pope himself concluded, in part:

In the end, it would all we can say about these passages is that they exist and put a kind of a tall fence around them. I personally think God did in fact order the Ban …. Of all the approaches above I suppose the argument from authority carries most weight with me. But the command was only for a brief time in a very particular circumstance for a very particular reason. Sometimes the best we can do with Scripture is to accept the history it records. Scripture is a collection of books that ultimately build upon each other and progress toward a better goal. In an early and brutal time God commanded tough solutions. Once his Law established deeper roots in a brutal world God could insist that indiscriminate killing was no longer to be permitted. Later books and surely the New Testament would never support such a “solution” as the Ban.

Msgr. Pope finishes by cautioning that we can’t use this rationale to chuck out Old Testament teachings wholesale, as there is much there that remains applicable to where we are in our faith-lives or which gives an insight into God’s desires for us. (That of course assumes one truly wants to understand Judeo-Christian morality and isn’t simply looking for another shoe to beat theists with.)

But I emphasize the first sentence because, as a would-be apologist for the Faith, it’s clearly my obligation to settle the question in my own mind and make a persuasive argument that doesn’t offend the gospel message. And, while I consider blessed those whose faith and lives need never face this issue, the rest of us should not back away from this question when it presents itself, or else it may become a stumbling block.

First, I set as an operating definition Claude Tresmontant’s explanation of the meaning of pistis, the Greek word used in both the Old and New Testaments which we translate as “faith”: “objective certitude regarding the truth” (The Hebrew Christ, p. 151). To say that God’s infinite goodness is an article of faith is to assert it as an objective fact of the universe as much as Newton’s Laws of Motion; we hold it to be self-evident, along with the equality of mankind and the possession of certain unalienable rights.

Second, I take it that, in Scripture, the Word of God is filtered through the minds of men. While holding that it reveals what truths God wanted to reveal of Himself (CCC 106-7), “[in] order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current” (CCC 110). Put differently, each book must be put into both literary and cultural context, not just read uncritically or as a modern textbook of classical history. Moreover, Tradition interprets Scripture, not the other way around.

Now, Msgr. Pope gives four possible reasons for the passage: 1) God didn’t really say that; 2) They weren’t innocent; 3) God’s wisdom is beyond our comprehension; and 4) There was a reason for God’s order; it wasn’t a whim.

I believe the correct explanation is a combination of all four answers.

Humans form communities because communities foster individual survival. This, in turn, gives the community a right to survive that takes precedence over that of the individual. Granted, this fact has been exploited for political purposes; Caiaphas and Hitler jump immediately into mind. But they were only able to exploit it because it’s such a necessary principle. Abusus non usum tollit.[*]

The occasional need to make war, as well as the common use of capital punishment, is rooted in the primacy of the community’s right to survive. There are times when the only way a community, society or nation can survive as a whole is by putting the lives of some (even many) at risk of sacrifice; this is the only justification a government can rightfully use for drafting soldiers and committing them to battle. Again, we try to protect the individual’s right to life as much as possible. But while a society that won’t protect the rights of individuals may not deserve to live, the community that won’t put those rights at risk in order to defend itself against an enemy nation will not survive. Period.

Here is an ugly fact of war: Innocents and non-combatants die.

The urge to protect these people is a product of civilization—particularly, though not exclusively, of the Western Judeo-Christian moral tradition. But even our current technological wizardry can’t completely eliminate what’s neutrally called “collateral damage”. That is an inherent risk of war, and one big reason why it should be decided upon reluctantly. But even at our current state of moral development, we can still be brought by threatening actions to a place where we can cry, “Kill them all, and let God sort them out!” and not be aware of any evil in it.

The alien sojourner was not an enemy army. He was a guest, as well as subject to the laws of the nation in which he traveled. So long as he respected those laws, he was treated with generous hospitality. However, if he violated the law, he suffered penalties like anyone else.

The belief in the innocence of children has existed for most of our history side-by-side with the belief in “bad seed”, in children who would grow up to be evil not by their circumstances but by their very nature. The “nature vs. nurture” argument was mostly settled in nurture’s favor only a short time ago … less than sixty years. Even now, gay-rights advocates try to explain their behavior in terms of genetics. Throughout history, whenever enemy cities were put to the sword, children died because the protection of the victors demanded that the enemy culture be destroyed both root and branch; they would not nurture the vengeance of the vanquished at their own breast. In this sense, the children of the enemy were not considered innocent.

We must recognize that much of our moral philosophy was only able to develop because we are “civilized”: We live in settled communities, with economic structures that not only allow us time and leisure to ponder moral truths but even to support a class of people whose job is to develop theories of morality. Hunter-gatherer communities, or pastoral nomads like the Hebrews of old, don’t have that luxury. Nor do they have the resources to support very extensive processes of separating innocents from malefactors, or to support prisoners of war except as slaves.

There is a difference between the notional concept of racial impurity and the real effects of moral impurity. The social-science evidence that’s rolling in establishes beyond reasonable doubt that sins destabilize the larger community, even the sexual sins we now not only tolerate but even celebrate. Our society can compensate to a degree by its size and economic wealth, though the flexibility is not as much as social liberals imagine. The Hebrews, I stress again, didn’t have that advantage.

Because God’s relationship is recorded by a third party, with the probable remoteness of centuries, we can’t be sure that God actually gave His command to Moses in the fashion recorded. He may simply have revealed the threat of the seven communities to Moses, who interpreted it in the way that made the most sense to him. If so, we can understand: Because of the relative weakness of the Israelites, their enemies could destroy them culturally by absorbing them in their religion and lifestyles. To survive, they had to go “all in”, which meant wiping out the cultures that threatened them. Kill them all; God knows His own.

But if God did command it in those words ….

All attempts to judge God’s actions in history effectively anthropomorphize Him; that is, they make Him little more than an outsized, super-powered Us. God’s goodness is unlimited, but so is His wisdom. Children often don’t understand the rationale of their parents’ punishment decisions even after they’re explained because they simply don’t have the knowledge or experience to put the explanations in context. (This often forces human parents into the non-explanations “Because I said so” and “Just wait ‘til you have kids of your own; then you’ll understand.”)

The problem with attacks against God based on the “better way” argument is that they presume an intimate knowledge of God’s final cause. That is, we know just as well as God does the end to which He works, and how each of His actions direct us to that end. But contrary to the atheists’ assertion, even the Church does not claim a thorough knowledge of God’s Plan. For us, the revelation is still unfolding, still growing as the mustard seed in Jesus’ parable (Mt 13:31). Only God knows the full ramifications and consequences of His decisions; therefore, only He is in a position to judge their necessity.

This is not to argue that “the end justifies the means”. Rather, this is to argue that sometimes the end excludes less drastic solutions in the name of higher morality—consider Neville Chamberlain’s willingness to treaty Britain’s way out of war with Nazi Germany (I hope this isn’t an example of the argumentum ad Hitlerum!). Or, to use a more topical example, we can see with the benefit of hindsight that the changing demands of our economy eventually would have pushed women into the workforce and even into positions of power without the unnecessary evils of contraception and abortion. But we can’t say that such is true about the elimination of the Jebusites, because we have neither God’s intelligence nor God’s wisdom … nor even full details about the historical and cultural context of the time.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor 13:12). Physicists hope one day to have a Unified Field Theory that integrates the Einsteinian universe of general relativity with the mini-universe of the particle as described in quantum mechanics. We Christians hope one day to have a theodicy, a theory of good and evil, that integrates the objective facts of God’s goodness, intelligence and power with the objective existence of evil without losing any key point. For now, though, we must never lose sight of the knowledge that God’s goodness, intelligence and power are objective facts.

What we do with those facts is up to us … and to the grace given us by God.



[*] “The abuse does not take away [i.e., invalidate] the proper use.”