Do you agree or disagree with the following statement?
“It is wrong to kill people based on the belief that your ethnicity is superior and preferred by God.”
Most of us, I hope, would agree without hesitation. Racism and genocide are frowned upon for good reason.
There’s no such thing as “good genocide”. It’s a flaw in human reasoning to think another group of people deserves to die because of their culture, genetics, nationality, or religious traditions.
The example that typically comes to mind is the Holocaust of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Maybe some will think of the Tutsis in Rwanda or the more recent Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.
I don’t know any religious people who think modern genocides are justified.
And yet, the holy books of the Abrahamic religions include many passages describing how the Israelites massacred over a million people because they believed they were God’s chosen people. This destruction of opposing nations is recorded in boastful detail.
According to the scripture, God was pleased with this, and directly killed millions himself. He often commanded his people to wipe out entire tribes and to leave no one alive:
…you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:16–18)
Sometimes God’s instruction was to leave nothing alive. Other times, the men were allowed to kidnap and rape the virgin women:
When … the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. (Deuteronomy 21:10–13)
Around 2.8 million murders are recorded in the Bible, and that only counts the killings with specific numbers attributed to them. This number also ignores the flood that allegedly drowned everyone on Earth except for one family.
David, the “man after God’s own heart”, is recorded as being responsible for 81,050 deaths — 81,049 of which God was pleased with.
I’m not familiar with how these stories are handled within modern Judaism; I have no idea what percentage of Jews believe these stories literally happened and were justified. I have even less of a concept of how Muslims think about these stories.
However, I’ve heard roughly a thousand evangelical Christian sermons, and I’ve never heard a pastor say these deaths were tragedies or they shouldn’t have happened. I don’t recall a single message implying the Hebrews were wrong to purge other peoples from the “promised land”, or that the killing was anything but sanctioned. On the contrary, I was raised to believe it was holy.
Many fundamentalists might say: “of course genocide is wrong today. But in the case of the Old Testament stories, the situation was different.”
This Christian article identifies what the Israelites did as genocide, recognizes that God condoned wiping out entire people groups, and admits it’s horrendous and hard to justify. In the end, though, they justify it by saying those other tribes were really bad and God is really good and really hates sin. Those people had it coming — but what’s more, we’re all evil in God’s eyes, and it would be right for him to kill us all.
Wait, wasn’t “you shall not kill” one of the Ten Commandments? If it’s a sin, why would God order anyone to kill, or kill people himself? Isn’t morality objective, and God never-changing? Wouldn’t he rather have led these “sinful” peoples to redemption rather than harden their hearts so they had to be killed?
The typical Christian’s answer boils down to “might makes right.” God doesn’t have to follow his own laws; he is the law. If he tells you to do something, even if it seems to contradict a previous command, you better do it. Toss out your own logical frameworks and ethical systems — God works in mysterious ways and it’s your job to simply obey. If he doesn’t make sense, that’s always your error in judgment.
The next question waiting to be asked is: even if you’re committed to obedience, how do you know for sure if God is telling you to do something?
Is it when your religious leaders and theologians say so?
Is it when your thoughts feel intuitively right during prayer and worship?
Is it when your holy book supports the thing you want to do?
Is it when all the believers around you unite behind an idea?
In my experience, these are the main ways Christians describe being led by God.
The problem is: many religions take these exact same paths to arrive at an understanding of what God wants them to do.
A Christian would never view an Islamist terrorist attack as justified, even if the attacker sincerely believes Allah required it. We all know it’s possible for someone to be convinced they know God’s will and also be wrong about it — the families of the victims know this especially well.
Any religion’s “holy conquest” is clearly understood as self-justified violence from an outside perspective
Let me ask you this: when you zoom out to look at the whole world, and consider the timeline of human history as countless nations have waged war against each other, often with the sincere belief that the gods were on their side; how likely does it seem that exactly one of those nations was truly doing God’s work by killing the others, while all the others times it was done in self-interest?
The “leading of God” on a nation-wide scale is a profoundly powerful piece of political propaganda.
By agreeing that other types of people are inherently offensive to God, you can start to see them as less than human and justify that they would be better off dead. As the victors, you get to write history, and you can explain that you were actually doing the world a favor. You can say “we tried to offer peace but God preferred war.”
God has been used as a tidy excuse to explain why many millions of innocent people were killed violently.
When God is considered to be the source of all truth — when the definition of “good” is synonymous with “whatever God does” — there is no moral framework from which to question the various genocides carried out in God’s name.
In order to say “it is never right to kill people on God’s command”, you would have to be grounded in your own ethical system so you have something against which to compare God’s instructions. You would have to be strong enough in these personal ethics to say “no” to God when you think he’s asking you to hurt someone.
In other words, the only way to reject religiously-motivated violence is to acknowledge that God shouldn’t be thought of as primary, literal truth; one must accept that the idea of God might be inspiring, but his “voice” must take second priority to the welfare of your fellow humans.
This is an impossible pill for a fundamentalist to swallow. That’s why I think fundamentalism is a problem.
Some people might think I’m being dramatic. Maybe God was a little bit genocidal in the Old Testament, but Jesus changed things, and now we’re supposed to love our enemies. We don’t have to worry about God telling us to commit genocide because he would never do such a thing these days, right? Why do I care if some people believe old Bible stories about the promised land?
Here’s the thing. I lied earlier when I said I didn’t know any religious people who think modern genocides are justified.
“Manifest destiny”, the idea that Americans had a duty to occupy North America and subdue the native peoples, was rooted in the idea that God favored Americans’ values and wanted them to rule the land.
Christians often justified slavery in America with a number of theological explanations, including the idea that Africans were descendants of Ham, who were cursed to be slaves to the rest of humanity when Canaan humiliated Noah in his tent after the great flood (I’m not making this up).
The idea that America is a Christian nation warding off the threat of Islam has led many to support the endless “war on terror” which has killed over a million innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Beyond these large-scale physical violences there are also countless societal violences carried out in God’s name against ethnic and religious minorities, women, the poor, and anyone who is not cisgendered, straight, and monogamous.
I don’t have statistics to prove this, but my personal experience tells me fundamentalist Christians tend to be among the conservatives who are most likely to see imperialist America as God’s chosen nation with a holy mandate to kill for its own benefit; a new Israel of sorts. They’re the ones who take the most pride in white America, the confederacy, the military, the police, and are most opposed to social welfare programs and racial equity.
Because, well, sometimes God is simply on your side, and if millions of people have to suffer for you to receive his blessings… who are we to question that? This type of American Christianity is tied in with Eurocentrism, colonialism, and white supremacy. The belief that “might makes right” applies not only to God but is projected onto earthly power structures as well.
If you condemn the genocides against the Jews, the Native Americans, and the many other genocides that have taken place around the globe, you must also condemn the times the ancient Israelites killed innocent tribes of people to take their land and their resources (assuming the stories are true).
And that means you must also question if the God of the Bible is as good, or as real, as he’s purported to be.
Of course, a dedicated fundamentalist will never admit that anything God does is wrong; that anything in the Bible is fictional at all; or that our ethics should come from anything other than God’s commands.
If you are a Christian who can firmly state that genocide is always wrong, you probably already have a personal ethical system that overrides your religion, whether or not you’ve been aware of it. Maybe you already intuitively know the Bible is not the best example for how we should treat each other.
If you come to realize you’re more convinced by humanist ethics than by strict biblical literalism, that’s not something to be afraid of. It’s a good sign. It means you have compassion, empathy, and you can place yourself in the shoes of people who grew up in different demographics.
Part of growing up is developing a complex worldview. As a child, you learn universal, black-and-white rules (“lying is always wrong”, “the Bible is perfectly true”), but as you grow older you recognize that the world is much more complicated and full of nuance (“lying can be OK if it saves someone’s life”, “the Bible is actually a hodgepodge of historical and mythological stories”).
Religious stories can be useful in certain ways, but thinking of any set of writings as infallible truth is an immature worldview.
Religion should be used to enhance life. Fundamentalism turns it around and uses life as a means to further religion — and that’s dangerous.
I want to live among religious people who are willing to question their own religion’s teachings when those teachings are genocidal.
I want to rest assured that my neighbors will not murder me even if they think they hear God commanding it.
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