A self-identified Christian responded to one of my blog posts by saying, “I worry when progressive Christians say that God is always good.” His point initially puzzled me. Whether we are conservative or progressive, Christians trust in God’s goodness. At least, that’s what I’ve assumed.
My critic suggested that God is good only to those who are on God’s side. Those who neglect, reject, or oppose God can receive savage, brutal treatment.
To make his point, he cited a series of stories about apparently God-sanctioned violence found in the Hebrew Scriptures.
What gradually dawned on me was that this commenter had found what he thought was scriptural justification for extreme military responses to enemies of the United States. He was reasoning that, just like the Israelites, we are on God’s side. So whatever we do to God’s enemies is justified. Conveniently, our agenda becomes God’s agenda.
By this misguided logic, we are free not only to kill Islamic terrorists. We can guiltlessly kill their families and friends.
My persistent emphasis on forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and loving our enemy had apparently struck my critic as a liberal political agenda. He either did not recognize or did not acknowledge that I was echoing Jesus’ own core teaching.
What concerns me here is not that an isolated individual harbors a perverse understanding of Christian doctrine. Instead, I worry that a distorted version of Christianity might be used to justify questionable military actions that we as Americans carry out on the world stage.
Ironically, the concept of the divine subscribed to by some resembles the view of the gods held widely in the ancient world. These gods lashed out in anger when humans failed to acknowledge them properly. But if you provided adequate sacrifices, they would back your agenda.
This is precisely the concept of the divine that the Bible seeks to displace.
Since my critic used stories from the Hebrew Scriptures to support his view that God can be cruel, I’ll draw on a story of chilling violence from those texts that is intended to demonstrate the tragic consequences of such a view of the divine. People sometimes call it the story of Jephthah’s daughter. (Judges 10-12)
We’ll start with some context.
Jephthah is a character found in the Book of Judges. That book records an in-between time in the history of Israel.
Under the charismatic leadership of Moses, a rabble of former Egyptian slaves had forged an ethnic identity during forty years of desert wandering. Under the monarchy, kings would draw territorial boundaries and achieve a national cohesiveness.
In the meantime, Israel existed in the form of loosely connected, self-governing tribes or clans.
When we first meet Jephthah, he is a cross between a warlord and a gangster. A rival tribe called the Ammonites has attacked Jephthah’s tribe to resolve a long-standing territorial dispute. The tribal elders turned to Jephthah as an obvious choice to lead a military response.
The text gives no hint that Jephthah was an especially pious character. On the contrary, he is habitually violent and predatory. The tribal leaders selected him for his credentials as a warrior without a thought to the depth or maturity of his relationship with the divine.
Jephthah more closely resembles an Ammonite leader than he does Moses. It stands to reason that his view of the divine is more Ammonite than Mosaic. This point is driven home by the deal that Jephthah strikes with God.
Jephthah says, “‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.” (Judges 11:30b-31)
God did not initiate this conversation. God does not respond to Jephthah. And any Israelite hearing this story would immediately remember the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. The point of that earlier story is that the tribe of Israel is vastly different from surrounding tribes. Their God forbids human sacrifice. So clearly Jephthah’s proposal is a bargain that God would reject.
Victorious, Jephthah returns home. The first person rushing to meet him was his only child. The young daughter that he cherished. She asked for two months “to bewail my virginity.” (11:37) At the end of the two months, Jephthah executed her.
The point here is not that God is cruel. The point is that when we co-opt God into our own violent agenda, our own cruelty can reach soul-crushing depths. We will consume not only our enemies but also ourselves and those we love with violence.
When I hear some people insist that America is a Christian nation, I now worry that they may mean that God is on our side. I hear echoes of Jephthah.
But if Jesus teaches us anything it’s that God is on everybody’s side. In fact, we humans are the ones who divide ourselves up into sides. God’s aim is to overcome these divisions. That’s what Christ is about.
My dream is that we might be a Christ-like nation. A nation known for waging peace.