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Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses Hardcover – October 25, 2011
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“A provocative and timely comparison of the legacies of violence in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. With verve and sweeping insight, Jenkins challenges all of our stereotypical assumptions about religion, bloodshed, and terror.” (Thomas S. Kidd, author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution)
“This book is a wonderful example of the kind of rigorous work Christians must do if they are to retain intellectual credibility.” (Patrick Allitt, The American Conservative)
“Jenkins has outdone himself. This is by far the best piece of work he has ever done, dealing with one of the most controversial issues Christians struggle with day-in and day-out.” (Tony Campolo)
From the Back Cover
Commands to kill, to commit ethnic cleansing, to institutionalize segregation, to hate and fear other races and religions—all are in the Bible, and all occur with a far greater frequency than in the Qur’an. But fanaticism is no more hard-wired in Christianity than it is in Islam. In Laying Down the Sword, “one of America’s best scholars of religion” (The Economist) explores how religions grow past their bloody origins, and delivers a fearless examination of the most violent verses of the Bible and an urgent call to read them anew in pursuit of a richer, more genuine faith.
Christians cannot engage with neighbors and critics of other traditions—nor enjoy the deepest, most mature embodiment of their own faith—until they confront the texts of terror in their heritage. Philip Jenkins identifies the “holy amnesia” that, while allowing scriptural religions to grow and adapt, has demanded a nearly wholesale suppression of the Bible’s most aggressive passages, leaving them dangerously dormant for extremists to revive in times of conflict. Jenkins lays bare the whole Bible, without compromise or apology, and equips us with tools for reading even the most unsettling texts, from the slaughter of the Canaanites to the alarming rhetoric of the book of Revelation.
Laying Down the Sword presents a vital framework for understanding both the Bible and the Qur’an, gives Westerners a credible basis for interaction and dialogue with Islam, and delivers a powerful model for how a faith can grow from terror to mercy.
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But it's Jenkins' thesis that Christians need to understand their religious text in a historical sense that really hits home with me. Research has proven that madrasas (Islamic schools) actually prevent Muslims from becoming terrorists, and I believe that's because of the emphasis of WHY violent verses were revealed. Without the context of what was going on in Mecca/Medina, one is left with a narrative that can be twisted in order to fuel any hate-filled agenda.
And, indeed, the same issues exist in both Christianity and Judaism because this historical context is lacking. Jenkins is not asking for anyone to abandon Christianity or Judaism, nor is he suggesting that either religion is backwards. He is merely stating a simple yet eloquent observation, that without studying and understanding the context behind these verses which seem so foreign to the modern world, regular Christians have no way of stopping extremist Christians. There's no way of explaining to the next McVeigh or Breivik that their understanding of Biblical texts is skewed when the texts are no longer studied.
This book is for anyone who wants to go beyond understanding what extremists believe and wants to stop the cycle before more innocent people (of any faith, race, ethnicity, or nationality) are killed again.
I highly recommend the book and hope it finds a wide readership.
Which holy book did this verse come from? "Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us -- he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." The answer is Psalm 137:8-9.
Try one more. Which text is genuine?
a. "Allah is a God of war: Allah is his name."
b. "The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name."
The answer is b, which is found in Exodus 15:3.
Ever since 9/11, it has become an article of faith on the political right that Islam is a violent religion. Conservatives cite violent texts from the Qur'an as proof. Christian evangelist Franklin Graham claims that the Qur'an "preaches violence." Conservatives contend that "Islam is, quite simply, a religion of war". Violent texts from the Quir'an were spotlighted during the 2010 debate over building an Islamic Center near New York's Ground Zero.
Unfortunately, it's easy for Christians to spot the speck in someone else's eye while missing the board in our own. The fact is the Bible has its own bloody and violent passages. Professor Philip Jenkins compares the violent passages in the Old Testament to those in the Qur'an. He concludes that one book clearly has more divine approval of violence, including the most extreme violence of extermination, than the other.
Here are some highlights:
* Samson's death killed thousands of Philistines, in what could be considered a suicide attack.
* The books of Joshua and Judges describe the God-ordered enslavement, race war and genocide in Canaan.
* When Joshua conquers the city of Ai, he follows orders and exterminates all 12,000 residents in a biblical holy war without mercy.
* When Joshua defeats and captures five kings, he murders his prisoners of war.
* King Saul is brought down because he fails to kill one prisoner, the Amalekite king Agag, whom Samuel slaughters.
* God commands Moses to exterminate the Amalekites, and states "the Lord hath sworn that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation." (Exodus 17:14, 16)
* In the promised land all current residents are subject to the law of herem - i.e. extermination. In those cities, "thou shalt save alive nothing that breathes: But thou shalt utterly destroy them. (Deut. 20: 16)
Do Bible believers take these passages seriously? This reviewer has heard Biblical genocide defended in one of the nation's most influential evangelical megachurches. The premise for all evangelicals is the inerrancy of Scripture; consequently, they espouse a theology of massacre, readily justifying the mass slaughter of women and children by explaining why the victims purportedly deserved to be butchered.
The Qur'an also has texts calling for warfare and bloodshed. Those texts, Jenkins points out, contain more restrictions than their biblical counterparts. There are more opportunities for the defeated to make peace and survive, for example, than in Deutonomy and Joshua.
Unlike the Hebrew Bible, there are no passages in the Qur'an calling for genocide or multi-generational race war. Unlike the Hebrew Bible, the Qur'an contains no texts calling for direct violence against particular ethnic groups, or demanding their extermination. Islam has no equivalent to the Amalekites. No Qur'anic passage embraces herem warfare.
The Qur'an does contain some alarming texts, however, giving divine sanction to warfare, though it's a distortion to claim that violence permeates the book. Both the Bible and the Qur'an teach that people who claimed to be following God engaged in military conflict with enemies and persecutors. Most of the Qur'anic texts teach that warfare must be practiced according to established rules - rules that are far removed from those of Joshua. "Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors." - Qur'an 2:190
The fighting referred to by the Qur'an is on the battlefield, and opponents are given the opportunity to surrender and convert, rather than to be automatically butchered as in Jericho or Ai. There is also a reasonable question about whether calls to arms apply to the modern world or whether they were confined to the specific enemies of the early Muslim community. Likewise, there is debate about whether verses from Muhammad's Medina period trump earlier Meccan passages teaching tolerance of other faiths and urging no compulsion in religion.
Some Christians and Jews try to distinguish between the Old Testament and the Qur'an by claiming the former refers only to ancient history while the latter commands violence here and now. Defenders of biblical ethnic cleansing usually contend it -- unlike the rest of Scripture -- is a good work not to be emulated. Throughout history, however, Christians have defended the notion of just warfare by citing Joshua and company.
* When Pope Urban II launched the first Crusade, for example, he told Christian warriors, "It is our duty to pray, yours to fight against the Amalekites." .
* The emerging Protestant movement found its military models in the wars of Moses and Joshua.
* When Oliver Cromwell reconquered Ireland in 1649, he drew on the example of Amalek to justify the massacre of the entire population of defiant towns such as Wexford and Drogheda. One of Cromwell's commanders was warned by his chaplain of all "of the curses which befell Saul for sparing the Amalekites" unless he killed every single POW.
* In New England, John Winthrop, Cotton Mather and Increase Mather all invoked Saul and the Amalekites in their struggle against the Indians.
* Theodore Roosevelt likewise invoked the Canaanites to justify western expansion at the expense of the "red savages."
Down through the ages, rabbis have applied the Amalek designation to Jewish enemies. From the early days of the new state, Israeli leaders spoke of Arab enemies as Amalek. Militant Jewish settler groups justify violence by citing the Hebrew Bible and labeling Palestinians as Amalek. They cite Numbers 33 where God commands the expulsion of "all the inhabitants of the land." Their biblical hero is Phinehas who took the law into his own hands in murdering Zimri for intermarriage. (See Numbers 25:1-18.)
Jenkins explains how modern Christians deal with the violent verses in their own holy book. Some just ignore the genocidal history, effectively pretending it isn't there. Pastors rarely preach sermons extolling that part of the Bible. Churches rarely if ever dwell on the victims of biblical extermination. When they talk about the Golden Rule, the vast majority of Christians never apply it to the Canaanites, as if the rule says "do unto some others...".
History shows us that human beings have a remarkable capacity to justify evil when committed by "people like us" while condemning identical behaviors undertaken by others. The common prelude to all genocide is demonizing and dehumanizing the victims whom the perpetrators believe therefore deserve annihilation.
This well researched book leaves the reader to grapple with a question that's not easy to fairly dismiss: If violent parts of the Qur'an taint the whole religion, then why don't violent parts of the Old Testament taint Christianity and Judaism as well? Jesus tells us, after all, that "the standard you use in judging others is the standard by which you will be judged." ###