Some rambling thoughts in an attempt to explain my anger and the incredible danger I see in this dehumanizing theology. Maybe it’s not logical enough for ya, but my conscience sure feels fine.
As a recovering ex-Christian, it has grown increasingly clear to me that for Christianity to move toward a moral future, it must boldly reject the morality of the Old Testament, especially the claimed actions of Yahweh. Otherwise, it makes the Christian claims of morality seem pretty odd to those of us who like to unequivocally condemn things like redemptive violence, reciprocal justice, collective and generational guilt, xenophobia, bigotry and genocide, rather than excuse or rationalize them as you do. It does not seem strange that people in the ANE would do and believe such things. What seems strange is the modern Christians who read those stories and the actions directly commanded by their Yahweh, and then make excuses as to how that entity can be both “all good” and genocidal.
It seems like many Christians have a strange, authoritarian view of morality that often goes by the technical name “Divine Command Theory.” Instead of basing our definition of right and wrong on something like the harm of our actions, the suggestion is is that morality is based only on God’s command or character. I fear this is a terrible mistake that is causing widespread harm in the world right now. Essentially, many Christians seem to mistake obedience to authority for morality. Instead of encouraging independent moral judgments based on harm or help to humans, this system teaches us to obey and trust in our authority without question, even when our conscience and empathy disagree. This, of course, allows people to cause harm to others and believe themselves to be justified. I think this basic moral mistake is the reason that many Christians harm women, LGBTQ folks and many others.
I think we can do much better. We MUST do better. What if we simply agreed that right and wrong should be based on our observations of how our actions help human well-being or reduce suffering? If, instead, we believe that right and wrong is decided by a God, who can sometimes command and desire at least apparently evil things (genocides, child sacrifice, punishment of innocents for the sins of others, etc.), then… how do we know when our harm to others is justified and when it is not? In our attempts to obey God’s commands, couldn’t we end up causing great harm to others while claiming religious justification for our actions?
I talk to Christians on an almost daily basis who appear to hold exactly this moral view. They appear to endorse actions or policies that cause measurable harm to other humans, but they justify their position by saying that it’s “Biblical” or “what God wants.” Basically, I think this twisted sort of authoritarian morality reduces to a kind of obedience that can’t, even in principal, be justified.
On a broader level, we can see this basic moral mistake when it comes to important ethical issues throughout the church. It changes the framing of every moral judgment to one of decoding the correct instructions from an authority, rather than evaluating the harm our actions may cause. For instance, consider the current debate about the place of women in the church of my youth, Seventh-day Adventists. Some in the debate seem to be asking the question “what does God want?” Some say he wants one thing, others say the opposite. Both claim the authority of the Bible and the Holy Spirit for their views. Other folks appear to be asking “are these policies or doctrines harmful to people?” Those are very different questions! If we ask the first, then harm to humans is not a part of the moral equation. It does not matter, only obedience to God, no matter the harm or apparent cost.
The most difficult issue here is that, in my opinion, many of the authors of the Hebrew Bible had an obedience-centered view of morality, rather than one based around harm. In other words, this is an easy doctrine to extract from the text. It’s not a crazy exegesis. For example, Abraham is given an explicit test of his obedience to God’s command, over and against his empathy for his son, the instinct of his conscience and the evident harm of the commanded child sacrifice. This kind of absolute obedience or faithfulness to God is a theme of scripture. I believe it is a deeply immoral theme of scripture that is actively causing Christians to harm others in our society.
My moral issues with Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible hit hard when I acted in a church drama as a kid. I was Isaac and my Dad played Abraham as we slowly walked up the “mountain” and acted out the ceremonial scene in front of the congregation. My dad cried, and so did I. After, I asked him what he would do if God really told him to do that. He said he didn’t know what he’d do, but that if he was faithful he’d at least try to obey. My father, a truly loving and kind man, hoped to be willing to kill me if his God instructed him to do so. I never forgot that.
While in a Christian ethics class in college many years later, I suddenly realized that this doctrine of obedience to authority over and above our conscience and the evidence of our senses was right through the Bible. People like my dad didn’t have some strange minority view. It was actually a theme of scripture. I’ve found many people in the last few months who have openly admitted the same thing to me. That they would at least hope to be faithful enough to murder their child at God’s command. Over the years, it’s become more and more obvious how this very basic moral mistake has caused harm throughout Christianity and the world.
If the God the OT describes truly exists, then I would actively oppose his leadership, just as I would have done (I’d like to think) during other instances of apparent evil. I’m sure you know that there have been people that have, repulsively, suggested that the holocaust might have had a greater moral purpose for the world that we don’t know or understand. Yikes! It is always possible to attempt to justify apparent evil with appeals to unknowable future goods. That is, precisely, the problem here. When believers have an obedience centered view of morality it becomes possible to do great harm and believe you’re acting on God’s behalf. I think that’s what happened on 9/11, I think that’s what is happening when Christians persecute LGBTQ folks, and I think that’s why women continue to be harmed by patriarchal believers. Apparent harm doesn’t matter under this view. Only obedience. Obedience to our own subjective view of God’s wishes…
Sometimes Yahweh’s reported commands are hard to imagine because they are so distant. What if you were an Israelite soldier commanded to go through the remaining Amalekites, running the infants through with a sword because Yahweh told you to do so. This was YOUR promised land after all. And, besides, everyone knows that the Amalekites waylaid your grandparents several generations back. Can’t have that again! That’s why Yahweh tells you to finish off these women and children so you won’t have to deal with them in the future! Yeah. I’m not going to worship that god… if you choose to accept those stories as the actions of men, that’s different. But many Christians insist that those commands were from Yahweh. Well. Ok. No thanks then!
Reading the Hebrew prophets with an eye toward their views of morality and suffering was a big part of why I now believe Christians must reject the Old Testament if they are to move toward a moral future. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible all seem to hold a view of the world that attributes all suffering or blessing directly to God as punishment or reward for behavior. This is of course a common ancient attitude. We see it in the gospels in the way that disabled people were excluded from society and worship. They were thought to be sinful, and their disability was direct punishment from God. All of the prophets express the same view of God. They believe that he directly punished people with suffering for their disobedience.
This is a very different view of God from what most modern Christians hold. Sure, some will say that cancer is a punishment from God… but most of us recognize how problematic that kind of view can be. It makes God directly responsible for pain and suffering, including “natural” evils like storms and famines. Instead of misfortune and suffering being either from “Satan” or a result of our own free actions like many theologians will say, the prophets were mouthpieces of Yahweh’s violent judgment on humans.
This kind of violence, even arbitrary violence against innocents, is absolutely all through the Hebrew Bible. It’s been amazing to read through it carefully without the moral blinders of my youth. Do you recall the story of David’s rape/adultery of Bathsheba and then murder of Uriah? I’m sure you do. Do you remember who Yahweh ultimately killed as the price for David’s sin? Not David, he was a man after God’s own heart, after all. No, Yahweh, in his all-good wisdom, evidently thought letting David’s infant son suffer and die would be a good idea. Maybe we can get the pro-lifers to make some signs about that.
Or, since we’re discussing David, perhaps you remember the time when David decided to take a census of his fighting men. Yahweh didn’t appreciate it, and most theologians seem to suggest that the reason was a failure of trust and obedience on David’s part. His fighting force wasn’t responsible for his military victories, Yahweh was, and damn it if Yahweh wasn’t going to remind David of his place. Again, David gets off the hook here (man after God’s own heart indeed!) and to teach him a lesson Yahweh instead lets him choose his punishment from a big wheel 'O mass death. David picks plague and… poof, Yahweh kills 70,000 Israelites in a day!
Scripture often seems to teach believers to obey authorities or rules over and above our conscience and the observable consequences of our actions. God is mysterious, we are to obey. If that means causing harm, whether it is flying planes into towers or making it illegal for two men to marry… well it’s “God’s Word.” Better follow it.
It seems to me that many Christians become used to the taste of this kind of “morality” because it’s all we were taught. We’ve never had the real thing! At least, that was the case for me. Once I realized that I could simply adjust my moral framework to be centered on harm rather than obedience to authority, everything began to fall into place. Suddenly, I no longer had to feel trapped between apparently harmful commands I didn’t really understand and the instincts of my own conscience. I could look at religiously motivated lies and call them lies, I could look at stories about child sacrifice and call them horrific, I could look at actions recommended by Christians and clearly call them wrong, I could look at genocide and call it genocide!
Ultimately, I think this moral mistake leads to many forms of harm in the church. I’ve mentioned a number, but one more that deserves specific attention is the way this protection of authorities tends to extend to humans all the way down the religious hierarchy. I think this makes it much more likely for people, even good people, to defend unjust authorities. Even against the instinct of their own consciences. For example, when an authority is using their power to abuse someone, and those around the situation give deference to the authority while blaming the victim.
It was hard to spit out that crap, I was conditioned to the taste! I already had rationalizations as long as my arm to try to explain how these stories could be the inerrant word of a morally perfect deity. Eventually the emotional and psychological strain was just too much for me to sustain. And then, once I honestly opened up my eyes I began to see how these same moral mistakes are at the root of so much Christian harm in the world right now… I wish I could help more people understand these issues. I think it’s important.