The Bible’s Jihad Against Violence

Charles K. Bellinger

Houston Baptist University, Jan. 30, 2003


When I was in college, I was talking with a fellow student who was an atheist. He was saying that he didn’t like the word sin. He thought we should stop using it because it was old-fashioned and repressive. I asked him how he would describe what Hitler did, if he wouldn’t use the word sin. He reflected for a moment, and then said: "I would describe that as an example of unfortunate behavior."

My subject today will be unfortunate behavior, which I prefer to call sin, even if it is old-fashioned. More specifically, I will focus on the sin of unjustified violence, which is so prominent in our world, and has been throughout the past century. The thesis I will develop is that the Bible understands violence better than we do, just as Copernicus understood the shape of the earth more accurately than those who believed that it was flat.

So what are the basic elements of the Bible’s understanding of violence? One could say "the Bible understands violence to be a result of human sinfulness" and leave it at that. That is certainly correct, but it is too simplistic. There is what we could call a theory of violence in the Bible, the elements of which need to be patiently discerned, laid out, and worked together into a picture of how human behavior works when human beings are alienated from God.

The first element of the Bible’s understanding of human beings is found at the beginning of Genesis. God speaks the universe into existence; God declares all that he has created good; and human beings are the crown of creation, made in God’s image. When we turn to the next moment in the drama, the Fall of Adam and Eve, we need to remember that it is a fall away from this original goodness that came from the hand of God.

What is it that the serpent said to Eve? He told her that there was something she lacked. This is the beginning point of sin in human beings, to believe the lie that makes us insecure, so that we feel we have to do something to make up for what we lack. We feel we must grasp and strain and strive, pushing aside all constraints, including God if necessary, in order to advance our interests, once we believe that we are lacking something, and it is up to us to get it through our own efforts. And what is the result of this lie told by the serpent, when it is believed not just by our first parents, but by the whole human race which consists of millions of people?

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the starting point for human psychology is a feeling of lack in relation to others. We assume that others have more success, more power, a greater fullness of being. We develop a mentality of comparison in which we are constantly allowing others to define for us what a good life is. We conclude that in order to have the same fullness of being that others have, we must imitate them by possessing what they possess. If we think that others are in a more favorable situation, then we become enraged. This can be seen very clearly in the behavior of small children. What would happen if you were to put two three year olds in a room full of dozens of toys? Initially, they might start playing with different toys, but almost inevitably, one of them will begin to think that the other child’s toy is better. The child who feels slighted will drop their toy and try to take the other child’s toy. A pushing and shoving and shouting match will erupt. Rivalry for the possession of one thing has developed not because of scarcity, but because of the psychology of imitative desire. When human beings begin with a feeling of lack, they end up in rivalry and violence. This is precisely what the Bible teaches in the story of Cain and Abel, which closely follows the Fall of Adam and Eve. Cain became angry and violent because of the rivalry he created in his own mind with his brother.

When imitative desire and its consequent rivalry are the basis for human social existence, there is the potential for wide-scale panic and social breakdown. If the individual sees him or herself as in competition with all others for possessions and status, then society may become a war of all against all. How is this prevented? A general breakdown into uncontrolled violence is averted through the subtle and largely unconscious decision to focus a society’s fear and rage onto a single victim or a minority group; in other words, a scapegoat. Channeling a society’s violence onto a scapegoat has a cathartic and unifying effect.

It was a favorite saying of Reinhold Niebuhr that original sin is the one empirically provable Christian doctrine. If he had lived longer, Niebuhr probably would have pointed to the 1994 massacres in Rwanda as a prime example of what he means. What clearer, and more horrifying, example could we find of the story of Cain and Abel magnified hundreds of thousands of times? In that situation, neighbors killed neighbors, students killed teachers and vice versa, clergy killed parishioners, husbands killed wives and even their own children, all because they belonged to the wrong ethnic group. This was an example of paranoia, sprung from the psychology of rivalry, taken to a bizarre psychotic extreme.

One of the central themes of the Bible is the revelation, the unveiling, of the scapegoating impulse in human culture. The scapegoating mechanism, as it functions normally, needs to identify and attack a victim who has been labeled as guilty, as deserving to die. This is the lie that society tells to itself to justify its violence. In the Middle Ages, for example, Jews were massacred during the era of the Plague, after being branded as murderers who had poisoned the water supply. Beginning with the story of Cain and Abel, we find a counter-cultural story being told in the Bible, which sees the situation clearly when the victim is innocent and does not deserve to die. This biblical theme, developed in the Prophets, the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, and the book of Job, grows to a crescendo in the story of the crucifixion of Christ. There the sacrifical logic of scapegoating is revealed as clearly as possible in Caiaphas’ phrase: "It is expedient that one die for the sake of the people"(John 18:14). Jesus is falsely accused of blasphemy by the Jewish leaders, and is seen by the Romans as an insurrectionary who must be gotten rid of. But the story is not told from the perspective of the persecutors, those who see themselves as doing the right thing by killing Jesus. The story is told from God’s perspective—through the eyes, as it were, of the One who is not blinded by human culture’s idolatries and paranoid violence. Even though the Gospels have human authors, they are not a product of the human imagination, but of God’s activity in disclosing the nature of reality to us. This is what I mean when I say that the Bible understands violence better than we do, as long as we remain alienated from God in the realm of sin.

But in what I have said thus far, I have only been getting warmed up. There is actually a deeper level in the Bible’s understanding of the roots of violence, deeper than the level that focuses on imitative desire, rivalry, and scapegoating. These are elements of the horizontal relationships between human beings. But if we begin again with the creation story, we realize that human beings are in a relationship with God in that we are created by God in God’s image. Even after the fall into sin, human beings are still in a relationship with God, even though it is a negative relationship because of our rebellion. The central theme of the Bible is that God is always maintaining his side of the relationship, reaching out to us with grace and mercy, even when we are expending all of our energy in trying to flee from him. We want it to be the case that we are free from God, having become gods in our own eyes, knowing good and evil; but God is our eternal pursuer. God speaks us into being, and we continually seek to deafen ourselves to that voice that creates us. God offers us the fullness of life, and we turn away from it, insisting on grasping after the definition of fullness that we have learned from our equally small-minded fellow human beings.

From this perspective, we can see that at the very deepest level of our souls, the impulse to be violent comes from our rejection of God’s continuing call to move forward into the life that he wants for us, and makes possible for us in his grace. When we act violently toward our fellow human beings, we are trying to fend off the call of God. Our rage is directed toward God because he will not leave us alone in our choice of mediocrity and idolatry. We don’t want to become the self that God is calling us to become because we want to avoid the pain of spiritual death and rebirth. Because we don’t want to die to ourselves and be reborn as new people, as new selves, we find it necessary to attack others. By attacking and killing other human beings, the self is seeking to prevent the possibility that it could become an other to itself by dying and being reborn as a more mature person.

In the Gospels, this idea is very clearly expressed by the demoniacs who encounter Jesus. They say to him "Why have you come to destroy us?" In other words, they realize that Jesus is the incarnation of God’s grace, reaching out to them with the offer of redemption and new life. This possibility can only be interpreted by them as being destroyed. When human beings have separated themselves from God by listening to the serpent’s call to establish oneself in defiance of God, then the self views its autonomy as true life and submission to God as death and annihilation. This is the exact opposite of reality, because human life is most free and fulfilled in relationship with God the Creator, not in defiance of him.

The demoniacs are blatant symbols of what all human beings do in more subtle ways. In other words, the Jewish leaders and the Romans who sought to end Christ’s life did so because they sensed the Spirit of God reaching out to them through Christ, and this they could not tolerate. The word of God, the word of creation, was being spoken to them through Christ, and they covered their ears and rushed upon Christ violently to silence his voice.

When we human beings start down this path of deafening ourselves to the voice of God, we quickly develop a psychological inertia. Our commitment to avoiding the pain of growth is so strong that we organize our character and our societies around that commitment. When we cut ourselves off from the fullness of what the future could hold for us, we inevitably become stunted and misshapen as persons. What we are seeking to evade above all else is the possibility that we could actually become ourselves before God. Instead of moving in faith into the fullness of life that God calls us to, we choose to follow the pathway that has been called "the sickness unto death."

In other words, violence is not "senseless"; it has a purpose. It seeks to fend off the possibility that always lies before us—the possibility that we could become the mature, loving human beings that God wants us to be. If this theme was not expressed in the Gospels clearly enough for our thick heads to comprehend, then all we have to do is to keep reading into the book of Acts and the writings of Paul. When Stephen was stoned to death by an angry mob afraid of the transforming power of God’s grace, Saul of Tarsus was urging them on. How did Saul of Tarsus become Paul the Apostle? This miracle happened because God’s voice reached Saul, enabling him to see for the first time that his zeal was attacking God, not defending God. The true driving force behind Saul’s persecution of the Christians was revealed, unveiled, as resistance to the transforming message spoken by Christ. The message of the Bible from beginning to end is that violence is driven by the human attempt to flee from God into the psychological protection provided by humanly devised structures of scapegoating; this insight is expressed very clearly here, in the story of Paul, the Apostle of the Crucified One who speaks to us as the Resurrected One.

* * *

Aristotle said that "all action intends a good." In other words, whenever human beings act, they think that they are doing something good. The Nazis thought they were making the world a better place by killing off as many Jews as possible. Stalin thought he was advancing the cause of the People by killing off counterrevolutionaries. Timothy McVeigh thought he was striking a dramatic blow against a tyrannical federal government. In other words, human action is always either directly ethical in the eyes of the actors, or it is a kind of "teleological suspension of the ethical" which amounts to the same thing. McVeigh could admit that killing innocent people is not in itself a good thing, but in his mind the badness of the act is outweighed by the goodness of the prophetic statement. Similar thoughts run through the minds of Islamic terrorists. Everyone is innocent in their own eyes, because everyone is intending a good.

From the Bible we can learn that in the case of the most twisted psychologies the self is so filled with rage toward God and the ongoing process of creation that the person’s actions no longer make any sense in terms of this world. Think of how the Columbine High School shooters killed others and then committed suicide. They had already checked out of this world. Think of the way we search in vain to find any shred of rationality in the actions of the World Trade Center terrorists. They are the contemporary embodiments of the mindset of Saul of Tarsus. They think they are serving God through their violence. But when we look at this situation clearly, through the eyes of the biblical revelation, we can see that when terrorists cold-bloodedly board airplanes and suicidally guide them to a murderous apocalypse, their actions can aptly be described as expressing a "transcendental rage." The object of this rage is God. The human self has become so twisted and malformed that the only good it can aim at is the affirmation of the self in utter defiance of God and the goodness of creation. The self’s desire to avoid the pain of growth is so strong that it has declared war on God and God’s creatures, which includes the self itself. Thus we can understand the very close relationship between the suicidal mentality and the homicidal mentality. Ultimately, the most effective way for the self to prevent itself from growing psychologically is to end its own existence as a self.

If you listen to scholars of Islam talk about the concept of Jihad, they will say something like this. Osama bin Laden and his ilk think that they are serving Allah by engaging in a Jihad, or Holy War, against the West. But this is a corrupted understanding, which forgets that the true and original meaning of the word Jihad is internal. The inner Jihad is the self’s struggle to do good and turn away from evil; it is a pathway of spiritual growth and ethical development which leads the person to live in peace with others. That is how the scholars of Islam describe the true meaning of Jihad.

I am certainly not any sort of expert on Islam, but I do find a certain resonance here with my understanding of the central message of the Bible. I think that we could speak of the Bible’s Jihad against violence. As I have been arguing, the basic message of the Christian scriptures is that God is calling all people forward into spiritual maturity and love of the neighbor. Insofar as we alienate ourselves from God, we seek to fend off the call to genuine spiritual transformation. If we allow ourselves to be transformed by God, as the Apostle Paul did, then we will see that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers"(Eph. 6:12). In other words, we will realize that we are not serving God by attacking our fellow human beings. From the Bible we can learn that our Jihad needs to be the struggle against violence itself. Violence is the true enemy, the true Satan, that is leading the human race to destroy itself. Violence is ultimately a war against the idea that human beings are free. Violence is the self’s war against the possibility of the self’s development, which is to say it’s freedom from the past. Violence is inarticulate, but if it could speak accurately, it would say: "I’m going to kill this person I hate because I don’t want to go through the pain of self-development that would be required for me to become a person whose emotions are free from the past and from my tribe. I prefer to remain trapped in unfreedom and to impose this trappedness on others."

Of course, you can’t force people to be free. The very idea is a self-contradiction. But by explaining what is going on as clearly as possible, you can at least give freedom a fighting chance to become attractive to people. Becoming a mature person can never be forced; it is always a free response to an invitation. The call of freedom doesn’t even have a chance of being heard where the intellectual horizons are so narrow that the true dimensions of the problem of violence can’t even be seen.

This is how we should put our finger on the most basic difference between false and true Jihads. False Jihads think that their struggle is against flesh and blood, against particular people or nations that have been labeled as evil. But the true Jihad is one that sees violence itself as the enemy that must be overcome. The path of the true Jihad seeks a way that leads both oneself and others into a new way of living that has grown beyond violence. And that is precisely what we find at the heart of the biblical revelation, in the Bible’s vision of human spiritual and ethical development. St. Paul expressed it perfectly in his phrase: "do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good"(Rom. 12:21).



(The first part of this talk, focusing on rivalry and scapegoating, is a summary of René Girard; the second part, focusing on resistance to spiritual growth, is a summary of Kierkegaard. My book provides many references to particular passages in these authors.)

Bellinger, Charles K. The Genealogy of Violence: Reflections on Creation, Freedom, and Evil. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Girard, René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Trans. James Williams. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.

______. The Scapegoat. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

______. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.

______. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. Trans. Reidar Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Anderson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

______. The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

______. Søren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, I-VII. Ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, assisted by Gregor Malantschuk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967-1978.

______. Works of Love. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.