I need to confess to being a bit of a cultural snob. Or at least that is the label that has sometimes been given to my expressed preference for artworks that indicate that their creators possess at least the semblance of cognitive functioning, and to my insistence that when those same artists communicate with me they make the assumption that I do too. So it is with some embarrassment that I need to own up to watching The Reaping recently.
I blame it on hope. I tend to watch films or read books all the way through, out of the sometimes misguided expectation that if I only listen to everything the artist has to say, I will find some nugget of wisdom to make enduring the rest of it worthwhile. Here is a helpful tip for any of you who think the same way: more often than not you will fail to find any diamonds in the pigswill. Sometimes a film is simply total pigswill.
The Reaping is precisely such a film. The script is abysmal and the plot contrived, but perhaps the saddest thing about the film – aside from Idris Elba’s (hopefully unsuccessful) attempt at career suicide (why he agreed to get involved is beyond me) – is that the horrendous theology in the film accurately reflects what a vast number of Christians actually believe.
At the centre of the film is a young girl, who turns out to be an angel sent by God to break the power of a satanic cult that includes pretty much the entire population of a small town. This village – Haven (I am sure the scriptwriter felt quite proud of having devised so ironic a name, because if the rest of the script is anything to go by it could quite possibly be a significant academic achievement) – has been experiencing a series of supernatural events that precisely mirror the plagues visited on Pharaoh’s Egypt in the time of the Exodus. At the end of the film the cult members are unrepentant and are consumed in a meteoric blaze of fire from the heavens. I won’t give away the final plot twist just in case you develop a sudden hankering for a bit of ideological flatulence and decide to watch it (don’t say I didn’t warn you), but let’s just say that it rivals the selection of the town’s name as the film’s most intellectual achievement.
Now I am not Richard Dawkins’ number one fan. While he is certainly a brilliant man, I think that there are frequently validity issues with the way he constructs and supports his arguments against Christianity, but in this particular quote from The God Delusion, I think he hits the nail right on the head in terms of what is wrong with the God depicted in The Reaping, and as framed in much of contemporary Christian thinking: “The God of the Old Testament [this, by the way, is one of the places where I disagree with Dawkins: what we are dealing with here is not God, but theology – one of the many representations of God in the Old Testament] is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” This is a fair description of the God that rains fire on the unrepentant satanists in The Reaping.
The response I frequently receive when I question the morality of “God’s” actions in numerous Old Testament passages, where “God” sanctions the slaughter of various groups of people who happen to occupy the same piece of land that the Israelites lay claim to, is that these divinely ordained massacres constitute a form of God’s justice. These people, after all, had unspeakably depraved customs, including child sacrifice. God’s solution might seem unpleasant, I am told, but is a world where such atrocities go unpunished not a far more unpleasant proposition?
There are several problems with that line of argument, though. First, the Israelites themselves had the very same unspeakably depraved customs. Accounts of a willingness to sacrifice children to God in the Bible are not as infrequent as you would like to think. There is the famous aborted sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham in Genesis 22, there is Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter in fulfilment of a vow in Judges 11 and 12, there is Jeremiah’s condemnation of what seems to be a widespread practice of child sacrifice among the Israelites in Jeremiah 7:30-31. In fact, Exodus 34: 19-20 seems to suggest that the offering of a firstborn sheep as a sacrifice stands in the place of the sacrifice of a child. The Israelites are no more righteous than the people around them, yet we are expected to believe that the various Canaanite tribes deserved God’s justice but Israel did not? “God” constantly begs and pleads with the Israelites to repent and avoid this “justice”, but the assorted –ites are certainly not extended the same courtesy. And justice that plays favourites is no justice at all.
I do believe that is God is just (not in the retributive sense that we understand justice, though), but I do not believe that most humans are. And these texts in the Old Testament carry a suspiciously human stink. They might carry God’s name, but they certainly do not convey God’s character as revealed in Jesus. I do not believe that the accounts in the Bible of these Reaping-like smitings of the wicked are, in fact, about justice at all: they are about collective violence against an arbitrarily chosen scapegoat to diffuse the tension in the community arising from adverse circumstances. Consider the following incident in Numbers 31: 3-18:
So Moses said to the people, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites so that they may carry out the Lord’s vengeance on them. 4 Send into battle a thousand men from each of the tribes of Israel.” 5 So twelve thousand men armed for battle, a thousand from each tribe, were supplied from the clans of Israel. 6 Moses sent them into battle, a thousand from each tribe, along with Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, who took with him articles from the sanctuary and the trumpets for signaling.
7 They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. 8 Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba—the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. 9 The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. 10 They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. 11 They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, 12 and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.
13 Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.
15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.
Some nebulous “plague” has befallen the Israelite people, but we are God’s chosen people, so why would God do this to us? What have we done to deserve this? Somebody must have sinned. Who do we blame? Somebody from whom there will be no threat of reciprocal violence – the women. And just to ensure that there is no retaliation, kill the boys too, in case they grow up as threats to us, in their pursuit of their own “justice”. And I am sure God – being the ultimate sort of über-man – would want us to take the virgins for ourselves. Please! The mechanism at work is not God’s justice: the mechanism at work is what sociologist René Girard calls mimetic rivalry, resolved through scapegoating and disguising itself as divinely ordained.
The real issue is the maintenance of group identity and thus the preservation of social cohesion. Human sociological principles are behind these slaughters, not a divine mandate. Look at this passage from Deuteronomy 20: 16-18:
However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.
The assumption is that as long as we remain separate, we can remain pure. Evil is attributed to an external influence not to internal desires and ways of relating, and so can be kept at bay by exterminating the source. This has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with zealous nationalism. Our willingness to construct a morally righteous “us” and to externalize evil onto a satanic “Other”, as in The Reaping, is precisely the sin we see depicted in the story of Adam and Eve, and which is instrumental in preserving the “Fallen” nature of the world we live in.
But the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture prevents us from seeing what ought to be obvious: that not everything in the Bible that claims divine sanction is actually from God. The ancient Israelites are no different from us: sometimes we invoke the name of a higher power – God, democracy, justice, the list is endless – to lend legitimacy to behavior we know might not otherwise be deemed acceptable. And often we do not commit atrocities out of malice. We convince ourselves of the sanctity of our causes because these scapegoating mechanisms tend to veil their true natures in culture-affirming myth. I am sure the Israelites believed they were only obeying God, and were completely blind to the complex sociological forces at play. Just as we are. And I would argue that so long as we cling to a doctrine of infallible Scripture, we will be trapped in a theological framework that legitimises divine violence – and by extension violence acts performed in the name of God.
But what Dawkins does not see, and what I think causes many Christians a great deal of anxiety as they try to reconcile the message of “God’s” violence with the message of God’s peace, is that there are other competing theologies in the Old Testament too. Over and over again, various voices urge their readers to accept that God does not desire sacrifice, that God is a God of mercy and forgiveness. But just as such voices are received today, these voices were often rejected by a people enculturated into violence. We prefer a God who responds as we would, who rains fire from the sky, who brooks no opposition.
Which leads me to my second objection to the God of The Reaping. How can anybody claim that God is just when God’s only interference in earthly affairs is to oppose the power of a satanic cult? There are far greater evils rampant in the world – poverty, hunger, disease, death – and on these matters God is resoundingly silent, at least in terms of direct involvement. It is like those people who, after the Notre Dame burned, were awed by the fact that the golden cross remained intact, and saw in that a sign of God’s greatness, or those who see a divine hand when somehow a Bible is preserved while all other objects in a house are razed to the ground. Do we not see that if God’s idea of justice is simply the preservation of His own name (and I use the masculine pronoun because these problematic God constructs, as projections that legitimate human power relations, are always male),to the point of allowing lives to be lost while preserving some depiction of Himself, then God is callous and egocentric? No, I cannot have faith in a God who prioritises the eradication of satanic cults over bringing justice to the lived experiences of the people He claims to love. I cannot worship a deity who rains fire on those who oppose Him, or who ordains the committing of atrocities against those who threaten the group identity of a favoured few.
But I can worship a God who looks like Jesus. A God who, in Jesus’ own words, sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike, completely undermining our human tendencies to number ourselves among the pure and to consider those who think or behave differently from us as the wicked; a God who never condemns, but forgives unconditionally and through that forgiveness, enables the transformation of formerly violent and exploitative and broken people into peace-makers (whom Jesus labels “children of God”), who seek to address the real evils and make the world more just through self-giving love. I can worship a God like Jesus, who does not use power to smite, but to serve, who seeks the sick and the lonely and the poor (the real victims of true evil) and teaches us how to bring justice to these situations through living lives of love. My heart can soften to a God who looks like Jesus, who cuts through the scapegoating violence that underpins human culture, as it manifests in our religious and political systems, so evident in the farce that was his trial, exposing through his death our ideas of “justice” for what they are, and yet who can still pronounce “Shalom”. I can trust a God who looks like Jesus.