By Miguel De La Torre
Since converting to Christianity in my early 20s, I have found the biblical text to be a crucial part of my spiritual formation. I look to the Scriptures for truths and wisdom upon which to base my life.
In times of trouble, I have found comfort and guidance in the pages of my worn-out Bible. But to say that the Bible is crucial to my intellectual development does not become an excuse to stop thinking — to blindly accept what others tell me the Bible says.
If we are, according to Jesus, to love the Lord our God with all of our mind, then I am to use my mind to better grasp the divine mystery. For those of us who take our faith seriously, we must leave behind the ignorant bliss of claiming to be among the people of the Book yet bother not to actually read its pages.
Those who call themselves Christians but neither study nor know the biblical text, except for some Sunday school stories they vaguely remember when they were children, usually fall prey to religious demagogues who do the textual interpretation for them in such a way that it advances the self-proclaimed religious leader’s power and privilege.
And here is the danger of allowing others to dictate to you what the Bible says.
According to Jesus, on the Day of Judgment, many will come to him: “Lord, Lord, did we not cast out demons in your name, did we not establish multi-million dollar radio empires in your name? Did we not organize colossal stadium-filled televangelical spectacles in your name?”
And truly Jesus will look at them and say “Get away from me you wicked people, for I never knew you!”
Not to love the Lord our God with all of our mind is to endanger our very salvation as we allow the religious self-proclaimed leaders to fuse and confuse a neoconservative or liberal political agenda with the Word of God. We are called to honestly struggle with the biblical text to prevent taking the wide and easy road that leads to perdition.
But a word of warning for those who choose to wrestle with the text, you may end up, like Jacob, walking away with a limp. At times, to read the Bible creates more questions, more doubts, and more frustrations. But I believe that this type of biblical wrestling is what leads to the steep and narrow road upon which few traverse.
Much within the biblical text causes me to have restless nights. Allow me to share just one of the terrifying texts, which I can neither explain nor comprehend.
When Joshua led God’s chosen people into the land of Canaan, he found other people living there. How do you claim a land when it is already occupied?
According to the text, after conquering the first town (Jericho) they followed God’s direction and put everything to death — men and women; young and old; ox, sheep, and donkey. Everything was put to death without mercy.
Let’s dwell on this for a moment. God has you invade another people’s land and kill everything — not just the soldier-combatants, but the civilians.
The spears of God’s people are thrust through babies. The swords of God’s people lop off the heads of children. Pregnant women are killed. Families are decimated before each other’s eyes. A gory bloodbath takes place that has more in common with some diabolical scene from the depths of Hell than the glories of Heaven.
Think of the Nazi concentration camps. Today we would call “God’s command” ethnic cleansing, war crime, genocide and crimes against humanity.
Is the God of love, peace and redemption truly the author of ethnic cleansing? Did God actually command total annihilation? Is the God of life for some the God of death for others?
This call to a bloodbath is not restricted to the Book of Joshua. It is interesting to read the sermons of preachers in North America when the land was being colonized by the Europeans. The indigenous people were usually referred to as the Canaanites, thus prophesying their own genocide so that the invaders could steal their land under some biblical justification.
If I am honest with myself, the Book of Joshua depicts a non-biblical God.
But the Canaanites worshipped false gods and did despicable things before the eyes of God, some may reply in defense of God — as if God needs defending. Such unexamined retorts undermine the very purpose of the biblical text, which is to force us to think and ponder that which makes us spiritually uncomfortable.
But, for argument sake, let’s say that this is true. What then are the biblical implications? Do we have a right to kill everything that does not recognize the true God, the true God being how a Christian defines God?
Should we then invade and decimate all non-believers who in our eyes do despicable things? Obviously some have answered “yes” to these questions. Think of the Crusades. Think of the centuries of religious laws.
So, should we today set up concentration camps to kill, in God’s name, Muslim, Jews, Hindu, Buddhists, indigenous-faith practitioners, etc.?
After all, if God’s way never changes, if his command to massacre people who never heard of him and thus worship differently was ethically acceptable in the time of Joshua, why shouldn’t it be acceptable today?
Here is the crux of the dilemma — either I repudiate God’s command concerning the genocide of the Canaanites, or I conclude that there exist circumstances when ethnic cleansing is acceptable.
There’s another alternative. I might begin to question the biblical text itself. Maybe God did not order the massacre of civilians. Maybe Joshua projected his desires upon God to provide religious justification for taking another person’s house and land.
This, of course raises complex questions. Are there parts of Scriptures that are not from God but projected onto God? A disturbing question indeed; Jesus seems to have thought so, telling his disciples, “You have heard it said …, but I say unto you….”
Hence I return to my original premise: To attempt to look into God’s face usually means an encounter where the wrestling might leave you wounded.
Forgive me while I limp away and store up my energy, so that on another day I can again attempt to look into God’s eyes to ascertain God’s character.