Saturday, June 26, 2010

Defending genocide in modern religion

Last week I was sitting through a Sunday school lesson about 1 Samuel 15, in which Saul is commanded to slaughter the Amalekites. Men, women, children, and livestock; none were to be left alive, but Saul screwed up. He brought back the king as a prisoner, and he also spared the best sheep and cattle to be sacrificed as burnt offerings. Because Saul failed to kill everyone and everything as he was commanded, the Lord was mightily pissed off.

Somehow the discussion did not center around the question of why our murderous deity would command genocide and then burn with anger when his servants fail to carry it out. Instead, the main thrust of the lesson seemed to be Samuel's words in verse 22:

But Samuel replied:
"Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD ?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams."

Ah yes, obedience. I was just thinking it had been at least seven days since I heard a lesson about that.

At some point, someone in the class did raise the question of why Saul had such a problem killing the best few cattle when he apparently had no problem killing every Amalekite man, woman, and child. And eventually, the instructor asked the class why it was necessary to obliterate every living creature in the rival civilization at all.

Various participants came up with a number of rationalizations. The Amalekites were evil and perverted. They worshiped false gods. They wanted to lead the Israelites away from their true religion or covenants or whatever. Someone said that it may have been the same reason God told Nephi to kill Laban in the Book of Mormon. I think someone said that God has his reasons, and that even if we don't understand the reasons, we just need to obey.

I'm sorry, but these ideas are crap. Not only are they pure speculation, but even if it were possible for every single person in a society to be irredeemably evil, that does not justify the murder of children. The Bible is not the only religious book that advocates slaughtering infidels in defense of the faith. We don't tend to think very highly of other religious folks that perpetrate large-scale violence in the name of their god. Why should we seek to justify genocide simply because the religious text is ours?

These kinds of stories are not what the world needs right now. This is a tale of Bronze Age warfare, not an Information Age life lesson. I hate sitting through discussions about how we can learn obedience from Old Testament war stories, and how we can try to apply it to our lives today. Can we just admit that some things in the Bible just do not apply? Can we admit that some things in the Bible are truly fucked up? Can we please admit that if this story is literally true, then God is a sadistic, twisted puppy? No, you can't say that out loud in Sunday school. So I'm saying it here.


C. L. Hanson said...

Isn't it possible to at least raise a few leading questions....?

Ann said...

I like your style, sir.

Saganist said...

C.L., that's a good point. It's certainly possible, and sometimes I actually do it. Last week, though, I was feeling a little too dejected by the direction of the conversation. The leading questions were leading toward "just obey, even if God tells you to wipe out an entire civilization"!

Saganist said...

Ann, thanks! :-)

Karen said...


I remember a Joseph Campbell lecture where he said something along the lines that our sacred narratives are dead narratives -- they're from an entirely different culture that is thousands of years old and not relevant to us.

At the time I was offended, but now I think he's right. The amount of twisting of interpretation that it takes to apply them to modern life in any way makes them worse than useless.

dbd said...

What does it say about the mental stability of those that are willing to kill in god's name?

If god wants someone dead let god do the dirty deed.

Christine said...

I had a hard time with this lesson as well. My thoughts were: how in the world can these people justify in their minds/vocally the murdering of children? Isn't it taught in the scriptures that children are innocent and that we should be more like children, submissive and meek in order to draw closer to God? And don't most of us shutter with anger or sorrow when we hear on the news of a child being savagely murdered? So it really blew my mind away that the majority of the class was okay with it just because it was presented in such a way of being obedient regardless of the act.

Christine said...

One last thing, how can anyone who agreed that obedience was the key here scorn or mock someone, today in modern times, who claims that God told them to murder someone? Hipocrisy drives me nuts!

Saganist said...

Karen, yes! I haven't been exposed to much Joseph Campbell, but I watched an hour-long special on Netflix and totally loved it. I need to read more from him.

dbd, it's true that god answers our prayers of death to our enemies, but one of the ways he answers them is through other people. :-)

Christine, thanks for saying that. Very often I feel like I must be the only person in the room who has any problems with what's being said. I'm glad to know I'm not alone! I probably should speak up more often, but I also hate being a troublemaker, y'know?

I agree that it's a tremendously valuable insight to recognize that our own stories of "obedient" people who kill in God's name are absolutely no different than those who kill in the name of any other god or religion or politics or whatever. How can we condemn one and justify the other?

Michael Carpenter said...

My Mr. Deity would never tell his people to commit genocide:

Another, more sober, take on the issue:

malkie said...

"... how we can learn obedience from Old Testament war stories, and how we can try to apply it to our lives today."

Could it be that we need to be prepared in case god tells us to slaughter an entire nation, so we'll do it properly, and not keep the best /cattle/sheep/whatever takes our fancy/ for ourselves?

Yeah, that seems about right - right?

Saganist said...

I love Mr. Deity. Malkie, I have my 72-hour kit and I'm ready for the call.