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GOD AND VIOLENCE - Book Review

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  • Raji Johnson,Austin, Texas
    GOD AND VIOLENCE: BIBLICAL RESOURCES FOR LIVING IN A SMALL WORLD. By Patricia M. McDonald. In this book Patricia McDonald undertakes a detailed study of the
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 4, 2006
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      GOD AND VIOLENCE: BIBLICAL RESOURCES FOR LIVING IN A SMALL WORLD. By
      Patricia M. McDonald.

      In this book Patricia McDonald undertakes a detailed study of the
      most significant biblical texts dealing with violence and offers
      important insight into this thorny issue. On the one hand, she ably
      challenges those who are alienated by violence in the Bible to
      consider the pertinent texts within their literary and historical
      context, insisting that most often these passages do not actually
      endorse violence, or that, if they do, they must he kept within the
      wider perspective of the biblical canon as a whole. On the other
      hand, she skillfully cautions those who find in the Bible
      justification for violence that, while the Bible describes the
      prevalence of violence in its world, its best reading promotes
      compassionate service of others as a counterforce to violence. The
      author's principal goal is, as she words it, to change the "default"
      for reading these biblical texts, that is, to see them as actually
      countering violence or as tempered by the best understanding of all
      the other parts of the Bible. In this way, the Scriptures provide
      resources and motivation for constructing nonviolent responses to
      the conflict and hostility so prevalent in the world.
      Two good traits of this study are the detailed exegesis of specific
      texts and the interweaving of contemporary attitudes and experiences
      that fit with this exegesis. The endnotes are also quite detailed,
      providing not only substantial background but also mini-
      presentations in their own right. M's exposition is uniformly
      honest. She neither forces a single coherent explanation of all the
      biblical texts on violence nor avoids biblical texts that affirm war
      or divine violence. Rather than take on the unwieldy task of
      covering all the texts on violence, she concentrates heavily on the
      early stories from Genesis to Judges that set the pattern of the
      biblical perspective on violence and are the most troubling. She
      then counterpoises these with Isaiah, three "soundings" from Samuel
      and Chronicles, the Gospel of Mark, and Revelation as examples of
      nonviolent responses to violence. This move through the canon
      admirably achieves another of the author's concerns, to eliminate
      the misguided but prevalent popular idea that the Old Testament
      presents a God of wrath and the New Testament a God of love.
      The book's pattern is well captured in its creative analysis of the
      first stories of Genesis. Against the backdrop of a peaceable
      creation (in contrast to violent origins in Mesopotamian myth), Cain
      marks the quick entry of violence into the world because of his hurt
      pride over God's concern for his younger brother and his own self-
      centered refusal to see that his own happiness lies in showing the
      same concern for the other. Against the downward spiral into
      violence begun with Cain stand the patriarchs who try to avoid
      conflict where they can, and whose stories containing violence are
      not told to glorify it. The pattern is repeated in other chapters.
      For instance, the author makes a good case for reevaluating Joshua
      and Judges. These writings certainly assume violence as part of
      life, but it is surprising how minimal is the violence required for
      taking and holding the land, how much of it was self-defense, and
      how much it related historically not to the tribes at the time of
      Joshua but to postexilic tribes that were in a position to take the
      land militarily. The books do not glorify violence, though they run
      the risk of doing so; rather, they show that the downward spiral
      into violence results from self-serving opportunism. Space did not
      allow the author to pursue this story through the monarchy, but the
      pattern is clear and is completed by Isaiah's stance against
      violence through images of the peaceable kingdom and by examples of
      reconciliation even in some stories of David and his heirs.
      One other theme carefully developed is that of God as warrior, which
      Patricia relates to themes of God "conquering" evil or exercising
      power. Interpreters of these themes again run the risk of projecting
      onto God the violence that comes not from God but from frustration
      over impeded self-centered ambitions. Although the Bible has
      examples of these frustrations, Patricia warns against imposing our
      common understanding of warrior on God and shows clearly how such
      terms are usually used analogously in the Bible. Exodus, Mark, and
      Revelation all show that God's "fight" against evil-whether through
      wonders, through death to resurrection, or through a lion who rules
      as a sacrificial lamb-is nonviolent. One final gift of this book is
      a brief refutation of some of the ways René Girard, whose theory on
      the origins of human violence has become quite popular, interprets
      the biblical texts on violence.

      Raji Johnson
      Austin, Texas
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