God and Violence

Patricia McDonald: Herald Press, 2004

By Alun Morinan

The author, Dr. Patricia McDonald, is a New Testament lecturer at Ushaw College, a Catholic seminary just outside Durham. In this well-written and fascinating book, subtitled: Biblical resources for living in a small world, McDonald shows us that contrary to popular belief, the Bible does not endorse violent behaviour. What she describes as ‘resetting the default’ changes our behaviour from a reflexive violence – ‘sending in the troops’ – to exploring more peaceful ways of resolving actual or potential conflict at the personal, national and international levels. A violent response is generally seen as straightforward, quick and heroic, while a non-violent approach is considered complex, slow and unglamorous and most significantly, unworkable. To counter what she describes as ‘long-term evolutionary inheritance’ (p.15) or ‘thousands of years of genetic inheritance’ (p.243) require a radical counter-cultural way of living.

In the preface McDonald writes: “If the Bible is being used to help us reimagine and recontextualise our experience, the fact it contains some violent imagery may actually make it of more use to us than it would be if it were more sanitized.” (pp.17-8). The acts of violence, many of them approved of and seemingly encouraged, particularly in the Old Testament, outweigh the number of passages depicting peacemaking or condemning violence. Most shamefully the genocidal conquest of Canaan described in Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua, has been used as a justification for numerous acts of inter- and intra-faith violence and ethnic cleansing of native peoples by the armies of Christendom.

McDonald, however, asks if it is fair to claim that the Bible depicts violence as an attractive option and sets out to demonstrate that the answer will be a resounding “no”. She emphasises the importance of studying complete books and canonical sequences rather than looking at isolated texts. Through using this more holistic approach, the reader gains an appreciation of the complexity of the ‘big picture’ or meta-narrative rather than relying on ‘snapshots’ or ‘sound-bites’. McDonald sees ‘trading texts’ as a futile and meaningless exercise because isolated proof texts can be used to justify any position. She also finds it unhelpful to talk of a discontinuity between the ‘Warrior God’ of the Old Testament as epitomised in Exodus 15 and the ‘God of Love’ in Jesus.

In the introduction, she acknowledges that the best approach to the problem of Biblical violence would be to review the whole of Scripture but knows that this cannot be done within a single volume. Instead in the 11 main chapters of the book she selects a number of narratives in the Old Testament together with readings in Mark (“a narrative example of the claims and attitudes that lie at the heart of Christianity…present[ed] in a particularly stark form” p.21) and Revelation (“Often regarded as a complete betrayal of what Jesus did and taught” p.21). McDonald notes at the outset that in spite of all the violence contained within its pages, our Bible is book-ended by the peace of the first creation of Genesis 1-2 and of the re-creation of Revelation 21-22.

Violence enters the world with Cain’s act of fratricide (Genesis 4) and from here McDonald follows this thread over her next six chapters up to the end of the book of Judges where there is an almost total breakdown of society and violent anarchy. It is interesting to note that after this she then turns to First Isaiah that in her opinion has a close canonical connection with Judges. The violence of Judges is attributed to a lack of kingly leadership while Isaiah shows that having a king is not the solution to the problem.

Her final chapter on the Old Testament looks at three examples of non-violence and engagement in active peacemaking. These are the accounts of Abigail, David and Nabal (1 Samuel 25), David and Shimei (2 Samuel 16: 5-14; 19: 16-23) and four good Samaritans in the reign of King Pekah of Israel (2 Chronicles 28: 8-15). In contrast, Mark’s Gospel provides a much more radical solution as Jesus shows that we need to set aside our instincts for self-preservation and to put our trust in God and not ‘the military’. For John of Revelation, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God has defeated evil although the kingdoms of the world will continue for a while to wage war and bring suffering and death. The title of the final chapter is in the form of a question as to whether the overall message of the Bible is peaceable. After reading this highly recommended book I think most people, like me, would answer “yes”.