Thursday, August 27, 2009

Towards a theology of violence, I (Genesis 1-3)

I'm beginning a series that I hope will become a biblical-theological reflection on the theme of violence, moving through the scriptures, and ending in reflection on the contemporary world.

In this post I treat Genesis 1-3.

Note first how the Garden is absent even the violence of meat-consumption, and is depicted in idyllic terms. Within the grand sweep of the Bible, Eden represents a real paradise, where humanity dwells at peace with itself and with God. The prohibition of Gen 2:17 introduces a note of discord, only explicable from a post-Fall perspective: how can Adam understand 'death' in a world at peace?

Death, indeed, is the alternative in Genesis 3, as the serpent pits a kind of theopoeisis against death as the result of eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and of evil. According to the serpent, to disobey God will in fact make one like God. This is over and against Gen 1:26-27 that humanity already is made in God's image, and that the eating of this fruit will lead to death.

God's response to the Fall is instructive, in that it is judgement (Gen 3:14-24). Death is rightly understood as judgement, and so our understanding of it must be similarly informed. Death is not natural, it is not merely a transition to the next world, it is not part of the circle of life. It is the judgement of God on rebellion. It is exile from paradise, of peace under God's reign in God's presence.

Looking forward, we diminish the significance of Christ's victory over death when we rate death too lightly. The death spoken of in Gen 1-3 should not merely be read as the temporary slumber of the physical body, but a holistic end of life. Its gravity cannot be under-stressed.

How does this relate to the theme of violence? I think it goes to the heart of what violence is: acts of harm that have a telos in death. We might speak about restrained violence, but the pulling of punches is still holding back a force aimed at death. The one who has embraced the practice of violence has already determined that the death of the other is preferable to the death of the self, or even some far lesser advantage. But peace, not violence, is the original state. Thus, Gen 1-3 should put paid to those theories of masculinity that seek to embed primal concepts of 'warrior' or 'hunter' into the nature of men. Human beings, and men in particular, were not created for violence, it is not an essentialist part of our existence, it is absent in the Garden.

I will have some more to say on death as judgement in posts to come.

3 comments:

Mark said...

I think it goes to the heart of what violence is: acts of harm that have a telos in death. ... Human beings, and men in particular, were not created for violence, it is not an essentialist part of our existence, it is absent in the Garden.

Valuable point Seumas. Looking forward already to the rest of this series.

Mark said...

Thus, Gen 1-3 should put paid to those theories of masculinity that seek to embed primal concepts of 'warrior' or 'hunter' into the nature of men.

[Playing the devil's advocate here:] But could it be argued that these 'primal concepts' are a part of God's nature? I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about the passages that describe Yahweh as a divine warrior (e.g. Exodus 15:3; Isaiah 42:13; Zephaniah 3:17; Psalm 24:8) and if these have any bearing reflectively on human nature.

Seumas Macdonald said...

Thanks Mark, I will be speaking to the theme of YHWH as divine warrior, in fact I think this is very important in understanding the God-Israel relation in the Old Testament, and brings a lot to bear on the theology I'm seeking to develop and outline.