Script Out Passages: The Genocidal Texts of the Bible.
Hespeler, 27 September, 2015 © Scott McAndless
1 Samuel 15:1-21, Psalm 137, Colossians 1:15-20
I have been talking about what I call Script Out® passages for a few weeks
now – passages from the Bible
that we like to ignore or pretend like they aren’t there at all. It is
something that we often do because a passage makes us feel uncomfortable. And I’ve
been thinking this week, that there is a certain power in discomfort.
I mean, consider the really extraordinary things that have happened this month because of discomfort. At the beginning of September, the world had been in the throes of a full blown humanitarian disaster for quite some time. As a result of a revolt in the region of Syria and Iraq, driven by an organization called ISIS, and made worse by the anti-insurgency tactics of the Syrian government, there was this huge movement of people who were on the move trying to save their lives, their families and some sense of hope.
Many reports were filed on this disaster. All kinds of information was freely available. But most of the world barely even noticed until there was a picture. And you all know which picture I mean because I know that you’ve all seen it – a picture of three year old Aylan Kurdi lying face down in the water on the beach of a Turkish resort town.
The human-caused tragedy unfolding in Syria is not a new thing. It has happened again and again throughout human history and it has usually, like this time, been driven by the hatred or fear of those who are different in one way or another. In particular, racial, tribal and religious differences have played a huge role in the atrocities that have been committed down through the ages. And if we’re going to be people of faith we can’t ignore that, as much as we might like to.
Now, to say that religion has played a role in such terrible stories is not the same thing as saying that religion is the cause of these things. I am not a person who would blame all of the terrible atrocities that happen in this world on religion. But it would be extremely foolish for us to ignore the role played by religion because, when we ignore it, we practically guarantee that it will just keep happening.
And, to be painfully clear, as much as we might like to think so, it is not just something that belongs to other religious traditions. It is an intimate part of our own. There are several passages in the Bible where atrocities such as genocide, cultural genocide and mass deportation are not just tolerated but actively endorsed. All of these passages are what I call Script Out® passages – passages that we like to pretend aren’t there. We don’t read them, don’t talk about them, they might as well not exist at all so why not just take a bottle of my trademarked liquid and literally remove them.
A perfect example of that kind of passage is the story about Saul, the first king of Israel and the Prophet Samuel. The land is threatened by foreign invaders – the Amalekites. But Samuel, speaking for God, doesn’t just tell Saul to fight in defense of the nation. He goes a lot further than that and “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” He is specifically (and in the name of God) ordering Saul to commit what we would call genocide today. It is one thing to kill the combatants in a conflict, it is quite another to target those not fighting including, in that case, women, children, infants! and even the domesticated animals.
And not only does God order, through Samuel, this slaughter, but when Saul fails to follow the orders to the letter, he gets chewed out for it and essentially fired from his job as king. (And it is not even as if Saul hesitated to kill the children and infants, he was apparently fine with that. His sin, according to Samuel, is that he doesn’t quite slaughter all of the cattle.)
So we seem to have a whole-hearted endorsement of the practice of genocide right here in the Bible. And passages like this one have definitely been used to justify terrible acts down through Christian history. Although Nazism in Germany did eventually go far from Christianity in its pursuit of what it called pure Aryan Religion, it also appealed to the cultural genocide described in the biblical Book of Ezra as justification of its policy of racial purity. White South Africans used the Book of Joshua and its account of the genocidal conquest of the Promised Land as justification of its policy of Apartheid. If you had been on the ground during the Bosnian genocide, you would have heard both Orthodox and Catholic Christians (who were killing each other as well as Muslims) appealing to the Bible for what they did.
For these and many other reasons, I’m sure that many of you would agree that this is a definite Script Outâ passage – that we’d all feel much more comfortable if I just took out my bottle of Script Outâ and removed it completely from my Bible. But I’m not going to do that. And the reason why I’m not going to do that is the same reason why I don’t think we should shy away from the picture of Aylan Kurdi, because there is a real power in those things that make us feel very uncomfortable even about the Bible.
I’ll tell you what I think happened in that story of Samuel, Saul and the Amalekites. I don’t have any real trouble seeing that Samuel was speaking for God in much that he said. In fact, I think it went something like this:
Saul, the king, said to Samuel, “Samuel, our land is being overrun by these Amalekites. The people are in danger and are desperate for some help. What should I do, Samuel?”
And so Samuel went to God with this question: “God, what should the king do about this Amalekite problem?”
And so God said to Samuel, “The king must call up the tribes. The people must come together and fight. Sometimes, that’s just what you have to do.”
Samuel didn’t have any problem with those instructions so he just passed them on to Saul who organized his armies. But then, Saul noticed something about the enemy and he came back to the prophet for further instructions.
“Samuel, I have noticed that these Amalekites have a lot of non-combatants with them. They have women and children and even infants. They also have a lot of cattle and other animals. If God gives us the victory... I mean when God gives us victory, what do we do with the non-combatants?”
Samuel took the issue to God, and God’s answer must have been something along the lines of this: “Non-combatants? What, are you crazy? You can’t kill them. That would be wrong. Let them escape across the Nile River.”
And Samuel got that answer, but how clearly did he get it? There may have been something that interfered with his reception, some static on the line as it were. The thing that might have interfered was Samuel’s own prejudice against and hatred of these Amalekites. The message may have been, “Let them escape across the Nile,” but the message Samuel passed on to Saul was, “You should annihilate them!”
I believe that has often happened throughout history. God’s message of justice, his hatred of violence and oppression, his love of mercy has always been there. The message hasn’t changed but it has sometimes been corrupted by the people receiving and passing on that message – corrupted most often by the messengers’ own fears and prejudices and hatreds.
And that is reflected even in the pages of Scripture. Yes, we believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God. But that does not mean that they were dictated by God. Inspiration works like this: people experienced God in various ways and the accounts of what they experienced and what they learned came to be written down in the Bible. But that truth about God was always limited by their own human knowledge and understanding.
That is why, though the Scriptures are absolutely essential to us as Christians, they are not and cannot be our ultimate authority. God knew that no matter how well-inspired the Bible was, it would always be limited by the humans who transmitted it. So, we believe, God chose to reveal himself in a way that could not be corrupted by human transmission. God revealed himself in a person: in Jesus the Christ. For Christians, the real reason why the Bible (both the Old and the New Testament) has authority is because it bears witness to the one who is our ultimate authority: our Lord Jesus.
So, while those passages that endorse things like genocide are still there in the Bible, we cannot and must not let them be our guide. If God most fully revealed Godself in the person of Jesus Christ, then the God that we know through Jesus would never approve of such things.
And yet, the passages are still there in our Bible. They have not disappeared from our Bibles and, as much as we might like to, I say we cannot use our bottles of Script Out® to remove them. So what possible purpose could they have in our Christian lives? I would say that they are there to make us feel uncomfortable. They are there, right in your Bibles, as a permanent reminder that it is always possible for our hatred and fear and suspicion of a people who are different from us to interfere with the clear message of love and mercy and acceptance that God has given to us in Jesus Christ. These passages remind us that we can do it too. And that might be hard for us to see – as hard as seeing a picture of a three year old boy lying in the surf – but I hope it may at least prompt us to action as that picture has.
I can think of one key application of this. This spring, Canada completed something truly exceptional: a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that looked at the entire Indian Residential School system and the terrible abuse that occurred in and around it. Beverley McLachlin, Chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada stated, on seeing the reports, that there was really no question that Canada had clearly set out to commit cultural genocide with the active support of various churches including our own.
Now that is kind of harsh. No one wants to be associated with such things, but the evidence was fully examined and quite clear. It is not an issue of personal guilt or blame, mind you. It was nothing that you or I did, and it is not as if we have to feel personally responsible, but we are part of a community (both as Canadians and as Christians) who carry that burden for what was done.
But it really does seem to me that most Canadians and most Christians haven’t come to terms with that. We just don’t see ourselves as belonging to a community that does such things. Perhaps we need something – maybe a picture or a passage of Scripture – that makes us feel uncomfortable enough to realize that even people like us are capable of doing terrible things if we let our fear or mistrust or hatred of people who are different from us interfere with the message of God that has been given to us in Christ Jesus.
For me, Bible passages like the story of King Saul and the Amalekite genocide can serve to make us that uncomfortable and that is why I am not going to use my bottle of Script Out® to disappear this passage either. I hope you keep it in your Bible too.