The “God language” of violence

I noted in an earlier post in my continuing series on ethics that I believe we often see religious language backwards in this pursuit. My view is that the various religious “God languages” of humankind, as well as the many philosophical and popular cultural languages, are the “means of expression” for more basic human needs and goals. And “God languages” mostly emerged first, so they have a culture-embedding advantage when it comes to our most longstanding moral dilemmas.

I recognize that this is a controversial viewpoint and may disturb especially some people inclined to religious fundamentalism, but this perspective comes back around to my attention whenever I see religion and religious language tied to acts of violence. While the American popular culture sees Islam and the Koran as advocating violence, my personal experience with Muslims is that it is the most violent part of that culture that extracts and re-interprets the most violent language in their sacred books to justify their narrow cultural hatred. They use this language because that is the shared language at hand. Other Muslims do the same with the language of peace, hospitality and mystical worship.

Christians and Jews have similar violent language in their sacred writings. Psalm 137, as but one example, starts with one of the saddest passages in the Bible, a song of people longing for home that has been immortalized in a well-known reggae song:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.

But just a few verses later the mood changes to the worst kind of revenge:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

The first part communicates through the ages to the displaced believers, trying to express their pain. The second is mostly ignored these days if we are lucky.

Even the New Testament has its violent imagery, for instance in the book of Revelation, that has fueled “Last Days” Christian radicals for thousands of years right up to today’s American apocalyptic believers. Today these words fuel both violent “sovereign citizens” as well as those who have long pushed for the establishment of a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem precisely because they believe it is part of the timeline for a violent Armageddon. [1]

The popular “Left Behind” series of books was based on a few anecdotal scriptural phrases later called “The Rapture.” In addition to being bad theology, they are filled with fictional visitations of malevolent revenge on “sinners,” often using themes from the more exotic-language Old Testament books like Daniel. This is Judeo-Christian “God language” adapted into a modern revenge-fantasy script. And like Muslims who are inadvertently sucked into the influence of the more extreme voices of their culture, millions of purported Christians have likewise been “converted” into this angry, fear-filled world, leaving the Christ of peace and justice behind.

People identifying as Christians have also long used their scriptural tradition to justify child abuse and human slavery. My point here is that you need to look past the religious labels we bear and look at the individual person, the community in which they were raised, and the larger culture of which they are a part. I have known professed Christians who have braved their lives to protect the lives of innocent non-Christian children in dangerous places far from home. I have also known professed Christians who beat their spouses and children on a regular basis. Both can often quote Bible verses central to their life’s philosophies.

Especially on issues of war vs. peace, or of wealth vs. poverty, or of men vs. women, I confess that, even though I grew up steeped in Christian culture (mostly the best kind) I have a very hard time wearing that religious label these days because of the way the most vocal American Christians present themselves to the rest of the world. The “brand” has been especially tarnished of late.

Horoscope writers long ago learned how to write in such a way that the gullible will always “see themselves” in their “predictions from the stars.” A lot of the Bible and the Koran appears to have been written in the same way, and perhaps for the same purpose.


  1. A biblical interpretation that, it must be noted, most Israelis do not share, although they accept the support as “means to an end.”


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