In his book Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did, Derek Flood claims that OT texts which represent God as encouraging, or even commanding, genocide ‘have been used repeatedly by Christians to justify genocides, beginning with the crusades and continuing up to present times.’
Flood mentions the Crusades, the killing by Oliver Cromwell of large numbers of Irish Catholics, the slaughter of many native Americans, and the killing of nearly a million Tutsies in the Rwandan genocide. Flood’s point is that in each case, appeal was made to the biblical genocide accounts.
By his repeated(!) use of the word ‘repeatedly’, Flood gives the impression that it is almost inevitable that those who read these OT texts as inspired Scripture will tend to perpetrate violence and abuse, and will do so in God’s name.
So: to what extent has the OT led to a ‘legacy of violence?’ There are two ways of approaching this: by examining the biblical texts themselves, and by looking more closely at the record of history. I’ll stick with the latter approach for the moment.
Let me take just one example: that of the killing of native Americans by Christians. According to Flood:-
Unfortunately, Johnson’s article is not readily available, so I have not been able to see for myself what evidence is cited for this rather sweeping indictment.
I have no interest in offering simplistic explanations of the OT texts in question. Nor will I deny that some terrible deeds have been perpetrated in the name of the Christian God, and with the alleged support of the Christian Scriptures (the Pequot Massacre of 1637 is a case in point).
But I question the scale of the accusation, and the supposed logic of cause-and-effect here (that because native Americans were frequently cast in the role of “Canaanites” and “Amalekites”, this resulted in the vast majority being ‘wiped out’).
I turn to an article written for the Harvard University’s Pluralism Project. This article is in no way an apology for the beliefs and behaviour of the North American colonists. But it does paint a rather different picture of the Christian colonists and their attitudes towards the native Americans:-
Letters from missionaries who lived among the Indians give us a sense of the concerns many held for the welfare of tribal peoples. A letter by Franciscan friar Juan de Escalona criticizes the “outrages against the Indians” committed by a Spanish governor of what is now New Mexico. The governor’s cruelty toward the people, de Escalona wrote, made preaching the Gospel impossible, for the Indians rightly despised any message of hope from those who would plunder their corn, steal their blankets, and leave them to starve…
The early history of the colonies reveals a complex story of relations with the Native peoples. Some colonial settlers, like those on Plymouth Plantation, had positive relations with Native peoples. In Puritan Massachusetts, John Eliot mastered Algonkian and then translated the Bible into that language in 1663. His “The Indian Covenanting Confession” was printed in 1669 in both Algonkian and English. He intended to place missionary efforts in the hands of the Indians themselves…
From today’s perspective one might argue that even under the best of circumstances, colonial attitudes toward their indigenous neighbours were colored by paternalism, ignorance of tribal cultures, and desire for profit. Underneath even the most positive assessments lay a romanticism about the “noble savage.” It should be remembered, however, that even in the early years of settlement, European colonists often criticized one another for dealing too harshly or too greedily with their Native neighbors.