The Significance of Saying that God Commanded Genocide
Violence is no stranger to the Christian story, but we find it on the side the antagonist rather than the protagonist. Unlike heroes in most mythical tales of good versus evil, Christ does not conquer evil by inflicting violence. He triumphs over sin and death by suffering violence, by sacrifice, by paying the price for our sins in order to achieve our redemption. His response to evil is the sacred sacrifice of divine love and the giving of undeserved sanctifying grace.
A recent post here witnessed a debate about whether or not God as depicted in the Old Testament truly commanded the Israelites to commit genocide. Rather than continue that specific debate, I would like to consider the narrative meaning of a God who ordered genocide and its significance for the Christian story and for the narratives of those who seek to justify violence today.
According to one reading of the Old Testament, God needed to order genocide for the preservation of his chosen people, who could not survive the influences of certain others, so that the way would be made for the coming of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Kingdom. The eternal salvation of everyone in every time and every place depended on the Israelites maintaining their purity as the chosen people. God’s response to those who threatened to pervert and corrupt his chosen people was annihilation: God commanded the killing of men and women, infants, newborns, and livestock. The other had to be obliterated to preserve the same. It was a horrid but necessary order, one that is, according to this reading, no longer necessary. Obsolete, one might say. Christ made the world anew, and so God has no need to give such orders again.
What significance does this conception of God have for the Christian story? It elevates the role of violence in the grand narrative. Salvation is now not merely dependent on God’s suffering of violence, but on humankind’s obedience to the role of annihilator, a role that purifies the way for Mary’s “Yes” and the Incarnation, Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It grants the infliction of violence a salvific role—a necessary part to play in salvation history. Purifying violence becomes a prerequisite for redemptive suffering.
The consequences of this elevation of violence extend beyond the specific boundaries of the Christian myth: it is not only violence within the narrative leading to the Christ-event that takes on a salvific role. The idea of violence itself has become united with the idea of salvation: salvific violence is one kind of violence, a legitimate kind, even if the particular violence amounts to genocide. Conceiving God as one who commands genocide gives rise to thought about violence and salvation. We have before us an instance of genocide being morally legitimate, countering all condemnations of genocide as intrinsically evil. Indeed, the morality of genocide in this instance isn’t a question of right and wrong, but of power and necessity. God, the all-powerful, orders genocide because it is necessary. Genocide has been and therefore can be morally licit. What is needed to make it licit again? Necessity.
The idea that Christ made the world anew may be used to close the door on the acceptability of genocide today, but the line of thought outlined above creeps through the cracks. The idea of genocidal violence has become united with the idea of salvation. This union gives rise to new thinking. Indeed, we hear today the administration of mass death thought of as a necessary means of salvation. We uphold military might as a solution to the problem of evil. Presidential candidates promise to seek out and defeat evil in the world by destroying those said to be evil. We fight wars to bring “an end to evil” and justify the killing of infants and newborns when such mass killing is necessary. Those today calling for the annihilation of evildoers may or may not believe that God once ordered genocide, but the idea that God once did so gives a theological backing for their call. Genocide was once necessary, so it may be again. The argument that Christ made the world anew, thus making mass violence an obsolete means toward salvation, might appeal on an abstract, theoretical level if one assumes a particular understanding of “made anew,” but on the practical level of concrete action and justification, it has little force. The violent will use what justifications they can to legitimize their violence; the conception of God commanding genocide serves their purpose.