Laying Down the Sword

Philip Jenkins, Harper-Collins, 2011, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        The Judaeo-Christian bible has wonderful material: G-d as caring shepherd, erotic love poems. But it also has blessing for those who would seize Babylonian children and smash their skulls against the rocks (Psalm 137).

        The Qur'an, sacred scripture of Islam, urges believers to kill non-believers, but also commands that enemies should be shown mercy if they surrender. In contrast, some portions of the bible order the total extermination of enemies—of men, women and children and even the livestock, with no survivors. Or lauds a suicide attack by Samson (Judges 26).

        The problem of G-d and the presence of suffering asks, ‘how could G-d let such terrible things take place eg the holocaust. But the virtuous listing of ethnic cleansing demanded by G-d is not an example of ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ but rather ‘why does G-d drive his people to do worse and worse things to selected groups?’ (p 8)

        Jenkins makes no attempt to see whether across the centuries more aggression and destruction have been undertaken in the name of Islam than of Christianity. But in terms of the violent focus of the fundamental scriptures, differences between the faiths are minimal (p 12). Those who see the bible as the authoritative book to follow omit major sections in an attempt to deal with unpalatable texts (the practise of ‘holy amnesia’).

        We need to be aware of the biblical tales of mandated atrocities, and to appreciate the different strategies Christians have used to deal with these stories. The more honestly believers comprehend their faith, including its most unsettling components, the better we can engage constructively with other religions, especially Islam and the Koran.

        A good book encouraging a careful look even at unsavoury sections in the bible and other faith depositories.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.