Vengeance and genocide: sanctified violence in the Scriptures and slasher film theology, part 1

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August 25, 2013 by jmar198013

slasherfilmtheology

This post begins a three-part series on how Christians might be able to appropriate biblical texts of violence and genocide redemptively. In posts to come, I will be reading the Canaanite genocide narratives through the lenses of three early films from Wes Craven: “Last House on the Left” (1972); “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977); and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984); and suggesting that the stories these movies tell about “righteous” communities who undertake total warfare against a threat can teach us something about how to understand the Canaanite genocide stories. Then I will discuss how God’s Word embodied in Jesus sits in judgment of those stories, and how that judgment allows us to own and use them well.

Whoever sheds human blood,
        by a human his blood will be shed. (God to Noah, just after the Flood, Genesis 9.6 CEB)

Put the sword back into its place. All those who use the sword will die by the sword. (Jesus to a disciple who has used violence to defend him, Matthew 26.52 CEB)

Early in the history of the world, while the planet was still quite young, humanity–indeed, the whole earth–was held in a vise grip of violence. In Genesis 6.6, we are told that, The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken. What was it that caused this great regret in God? He confides in one human, Noah: it was because they have filled the earth with violence (Gen. 6.13).  God’s response to humans killing each other off was to preemptively kill most of them off himself, along with most other living things. I will wipe off of the land the human race that I’ve created, says God. From human beings to livestock to the crawling things to the birds in the skies, because I regret I ever made them (Gen. 6.7). God’s solution was to send a great deluge, a violent baptism, to purge the earth not only of sin, but sinners. Only Noah, his household, and the animals they brought aboard a floating breadbox were spared the LORD’s rage. A rage that can only be borne of lonely heartache. From just expectations continually unmet. From happy dreams deferred for generations, and replaced with hellish nightmares.

From a very early age, I found God’s response troubling and terrifying. God was understandably infuriated and aggrieved by the violence that threatens to destroy his world. But it also seemed to me problematic that God’s “solution” entailed unleashing a torrent of divine super-violence. Engaging in genocide to put an end to violence has always made about as much sense to me as throwing an orgy to wipe the out clap.

On the other hand, as much as I might be tempted to judge God, I must admit that I am not so sure I could have come up with anything better. Was the Flood all that much different than my deleting a paragraph with which I am unsatisfied; jotting down the points I liked; and starting it over again? I do this all the time.

But we do know this: God learned something from the experience. I have a good friend with whom I have engaged in a series of near-disastrous misadventures. And whenever we emerge from such an event, one of us will always say to the other: “Let’s not do this again.” This is essentially what God says to Noah and the generations to come after the Flood: I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters, God says. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth (Gen. 9.11). In other words, Let’s not do this again. And yet, God wants humans to know that he will not tolerate us killing each other. This is the grossest violation, an utter dereliction of the duties we were created to perform. Whoever sheds human blood, by a human his blood will be shed; for in the divine image God made human beings (Gen. 9.6).

So after the Flood, God tells Noah (and those who will come after him) that, Whoever sheds human blood, by a human his blood will be shed. What is interesting here is that thousands of years later, when God’s Son lived among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son told one of his disciples something that sounds eerily similar: All those who use the sword will die by the sword (Matt. 26.52). Say the two sayings one right after the other. Jesus is saying the same thing to his disciple (some Gospels report that it was resident redneck disciple, Peter) that God said to Noah. Now the really crucial thing to recall is that if there ever was a time when drawing a sword to shed human blood would seem justified, it would have been at that moment. Peter was trying to defend the Son of God against a crowd of military thugs dispatched by imperial bureaucrats who had been tipped off the Jesus’ whereabouts by a snitch named Judas. Always known more for his spunk than his precision, Peter was probably trying to behead some infidel, but only succeeded in slicing off the ear of a hapless chaplain’s assistant. Jesus told Peter to cut it out. All those who use the sword will die by the sword, he said.

I say all that to say this: one of the things it means to be anywhere in the vicinity of orthodox Christianity is to believe that Jesus is God’s first and final Word. That’s the gist of classic Christological go-to passages like John 1.1-14 and Hebrews 1.1-3. This means that whatever we say about God is mediated and interpreted through the words and the life and the cross and resurrection of Jesus.[1] It also means that Jesus is about a bazillion times more qualified to interpret anything his Father ever said than are we. All that being said, Gen. 9.6 reads pretty darned prescriptive: if someone kills someone, you go kill them. But that’s not how Jesus interpreted it. Jesus took it less like a prescription and more like . . . well, something that’s somewhere between a proverb and a prophecy. If you use violence to solve your problems, you become an occasion for violence. If you try to secure your life by means of violence, your life will end violently.

Jesus has elevated the word, Whoever sheds human blood, by a human his blood will be shed, from a matter of case law to a statement about the way the universe works.

Okay, that’s 1,000+ words, and it’s only prologue. So far we have God regretting that he ever made humans because they had grown so violent, and then committing an act of uber-genocide, the Flood, to purge the earth of violence. But the Flood doesn’t make God feel any better, so God swears never to do that again. Yet he does say that,  Whoever sheds human blood, by a human his blood will be shed. When Jesus shows up, he says something similar, but he seems to be speaking descriptively (this is what does, in fact, happen) rather than prescriptively (this is what ought to happen).

There’s a lot of tension in that account, isn’t there? And faithfulness demands that we own that tension, that we make ourselves at home in it. For one of the things it means to be a Christian is to inhabit the tensions that obtain in God’s revealing of himself to us. And that’s mostly what I want to talk about. That a people who are called to be aliens and strangers in the world might also find themselves in strange and uncomfortable places in the text that tells them who they are. And that we ought to learn to work with it.

One of the tensions that obtains for Christians is the peaceful witness of Jesus against the bloody backdrop of the Hebrew scriptures. In particularly sharp relief is Jesus–whose cross demonstrates a God who is willing to die rather than kill everyone else–set against the Canaanite genocide. These two accounts of what God is like seem to butt heads with each other, leaving the spiritually sensitive with a concussion. No wonder Christian history contains contradictory figures like the ancient heretic Marcion and the recent theonomist, Greg Bahnsen. Marcion taught that the God Jesus proclaimed as Father just couldn’t be this bloodthirsty monster of the Old Testament. By contrast, the late Greg Bahnsen–and the theonomy or “Christian Reconstruction” movement he popularized–urged Christians ditch the modern liberal democratic state in favor [2] of a government modeled after the commands of the Torah. The overwhelming majority of Christians rightly reject the claims of both Marcion and Bahnsen, but our attempts to resolve the tension between the God behind the Canaanite genocide and the God who speaks from the cross tend to lean toward one of them or the other.

The reason that texts like the account of the Canaanite genocide rightfully make Christians uneasy is that they challenge our assumptions about who God is. “The only good Canaanite is a dead Canaanite” as God’s posture towards a people in toto simply sounds discordant with the New Testament presentation of a God who loves his enemies enough to die for them (Rom. 5.6-11). At this point, some will want to step in and apologize for God. They might cite Deut. 9.4-5 as justification for the Canaanite slaughter:

It is . . .  because of these nations’ wickedness that the Lord is removing them before you. You aren’t entering and taking possession of their land because you are righteous or because your heart is especially virtuous; rather, it is because these nations are wicked—that’s why the Lord your God is removing them before you, and because he wishes to establish the promise he made to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Those who want to soft-sell God at this point will highlight the particular wickedness of the Canaanites. They were just prodigiously wicked. Like a cancer that needed to be removed. They were incorrigibly rotten, down to a man, down to the women and children (even infants), and one would suppose even their pack animals. Because Moses commands the Israelites, you must not spare any living thing (Deut. 20.16). Those who are quick to justify the wholesale slaughter of entire tribes often even speak in terms of virtue; for instance, they propose that killing the Canaanite infants actually constitutes a form of mercy killing. Yet many of us strongly suspect that our brothers and friends who so blithely justify the slaughter even of Canaanite infants by framing it as a morally praiseworthy act are really just trying to let God off the hook. Furthermore, it is disingenuous to speak of the bludgeoning and hacking of Canaanite babies as a “mercy killing,” especially since the text says, You will destroy all the peoples that the Lord your God is handing over to you. Show them no pity (Deut. 7.16).

Frankly, I would suggest that those who are so quick to defend the Canaanite genocide are being intellectually dishonest. I don’t mean that they are intentionally lying, per se, but I do believe that they are not adequately wrestling with the ethical and social consequences that arise from being so quick to justify the wholesale slaughter of noncombatants. They do not seem to appreciate the soul-killing effect that such activity would have on those who actually undertook it. They should need to look no further than the damaged soldiers that have returned to the U.S. from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan over the past 40 years, suffering from PTSD and other severe mental and emotional conditions. Many of those who can so easily reconcile themselves to the Canaanite ban have also been vocally supportive of these military activities. I would suspect that there is more than a hint of correlation.

Now, aside from excusing the Canaanite ban on the grounds of “they were just following orders,” another popular tack has been to remind readers that the land conquest narratives originate not from bloodthirsty conquistadors, but from history’s perpetual losers. In other words, Israel actually had a very difficult time establishing themselves in the land, and they told these stories about the “good old days” to make themselves feel better. Richard Nelson typifies such an approach, writing:

The communities who wrote and read Joshua were constantly threatened by the loss of their land or dispossessed exiles hoping for its return. Attack from outside and foreign oppression repeatedly endangered Israel’s possession of the land . . . In other words, it was usually Israel who played the role of an indigenous people menaced by politically and technically superior foes. It was Israel whose culture and religion were endangered by hostile outsiders and alien groups with whom Israel shared the land . . . Retelling the stories of past heroes was one way of conceptualizing and strengthening Israel’s title to its homeland. (The Historical Books, Interpreting Biblical Texts [Nashville: Abingdon, 1992], 82)

But does this apology actually solve any of the tension? It is worth noting that very often, such stories of heroes of old, told to foster tribal solidarity, will also have the effect of cultivating a violent tribalism. The end result is very often what we like to refer to as “terrorism,” though I will be the first to admit that when those of us who live comfortably in the First World rail against terrorism emanating from developing nations, we are but whistling in the dark concerning the security of our privileged status. So I don’t wish to play a simple language game of equating terrorism “from below” with terrorism “from above.”

What I am searching for is a way to work with the whole Bible, to allow the church to own all of the Bible–even the unpleasant parts which are in deep tension with God’s revelation in Christ. The Canaanite ban is probably the most notorious nasty part. To figure out how to accept that account as a gift, we will need to find “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12.31 NRSV) to receive this text than a) using it to underwrite the idea that it is morally praiseworthy to annihilate those with whom we are in contention through some form of total warfare; or b) excusing it on the grounds that it was produced as self-affirmation for an oppressed people. I would suggest that however “respectful” of the text is the first option, and “sympathetic” to the context is the second, both fall far short of helping to form a people gathered by, around, and in the Prince of Peace.

What I wish to suggest in the posts that will follow is that texts like the Canaanite conquest narratives invite us to participate in “critical traditioning.” That is, a way of appropriating the biblical texts which, in the words of Ellen F. Davis, “preserves (in some form) our mistakes and atrocities as well as our insights and moral victories.” According to Davis, this way of receiving the tradition “preserves side by side the disagreements that are still unresolved in the present.” (“Critical Traditioning,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, 169 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003]). Indeed, the ways in which I shall develop my thoughts concerning Christian use of the Canaanite ban stories are deeply indebted to Davis’ essay. One way in which this should already be apparent is the suggestion that biblical narratives like the Canaanite genocide might preserve “our mistakes and atrocities as well as our insights and moral victories.” For the stories about the Canaanite ban are not just stories about an ancient tradition of which we are not a part; rather, they are part of a tradition that we Christians inherit. Those stories are part of our story, whether we wish them to be or not. We already own them; it is up to us to use them well. I want to suggest that the art of critical traditioning is what allows us to function as scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven, able to bring from our canonical storehouse treasures new and old (Matt. 15.32)

In the posts that follow, this critical traditioning will be pursued in two parts. First, I will employ as a sort of hermeneutical lens three early films of horror movie director Wes Craven: “The Last House on the Left” (1972); “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977); and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984). These films are variations on the same plot line: a “righteous” family or community finds themselves threatened by some incorrigible evil. In order to conquer that evil, they must engage in total warfare against it. But even defeating the evil, the “righteous” community always comes out damaged by the experience. They are left to wonder what they have had to become to supplant the wickedness that threatened them, and there are long-term consequences for them. That tension, I believe, is encoded in the biblical texts themselves as they relate to issues raised by the Canaanite genocide. In the final post, I will suggest ways in which Jesus, as God’s final word, speaks in judgment of all of human history, even the Canaanite conquest stories that have formed his people. The judgement of God’s word in the person of Jesus allows the church to own these stories about ourselves in a different way than we would have been otherwise able.

_______________________________________________________

[1] I feel the need to so spell out what it means to say Jesus is the first and final word from God because of a point made by Morgan Guyton in a recent blog, Seven Obnoxious Jesus Jukes. The number 1 juke is, “Why do you make things so complicated? The answer is Jesus.” Guyton explains this juke by noting that, “‘Jesus’ is often a code word for a specific set of beliefs about Jesus which have little to nothing to do with the personality of Jesus displayed in the gospel.” To say that Jesus is God’s first and final Word might easily be misconstrued as such a thought-terminating juke. You simply cannot divorce what Jesus does from who Jesus is.

[2] I also take serious issue with modern liberal secular democracy, but would advocate that Christians simply need to divest ourselves of pretensions to power and concern ourselves with the task of being the church. Bahnsen and the Reconstructionists want to dismantle the current authority to gain authority for themselves.

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4 thoughts on “Vengeance and genocide: sanctified violence in the Scriptures and slasher film theology, part 1

  1. Morgan Guyton says:

    Honored to be in your footnote. Your use of Jesus as the first and final word in this context is entirely appropriate and utterly unlike a Jesus juke.

  2. jmar198013 says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Morgan. One issue that I find is that people tend to assume they know what you mean if you say something about Jesus. But then you find that you have two totally different conceptualizations of his identity and his significance. I felt the need to include the Jesus Juke caveat just so people reading would get that I don’t mean Jesus in the abstract, or the Jesus mentioned by Mason Verger in “Hannibal,” who grants unqualified immunity on the basis of mental assent (“nothin’ beats the Riz”). I mean Jesus in his particularity, as a person who existed and said, did, and experienced particular circumstances. God’s first and final word is a man who loves savagely, is lynched by the powerful of this world, and is vindicated through resurrection. You know that, I know that, but a lot of people don’t. I thought your post on Jesus Jukes articulated the point quite well.

  3. […] This is part two of a three-part series on how Christians might be able to appropriate biblical texts of violence and genocide redemptively. In this post, I will be reading the Canaanite genocide narratives through the lenses of three early films from Wes Craven: “Last House on the Left” (1972); “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977); and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984); and suggesting that the stories these movies tell about “righteous” communities who undertake total warfare against a threat can teach us something about how to understand the Canaanite genocide stories. For my account of how stories of sanctified violence, particularly the Canaanite genocide, are problematic for Christians, see my previous post, Vengeance and genocide: sanctified violence in the Scriptures and slasher film theology, part 1. […]

  4. […] able to appropriate biblical texts of violence and genocide redemptively. For previous posts, see Vengeance and genocide: sanctified violence in the Scriptures and slasher film theology, part 1, and part 2. In previous posts, I read the Canaanite genocide narratives through the lenses of […]

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