Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Defending genocide


Every Christian must confront the issue of genocide in the Bible, from Noah's flood, to the destruction of the Canaanites by Israel, to the impending Apocalypse. Virtually every Christian with whom I have discussed the issue has echoed the same conclusion: God willed the genocide, therefore, it was justified. 

This is precisely the stance taken by William Lane Craig. I previously reported on Craig's debate with Sam Harris. Few people want to debate Craig. He is a professional philosopher and debater and has a gift for masking his logical fallacies with rhetoric. 

Last year, Craig openly challenged Richard Dawkins to a debate, but Dawkins demurred. Some criticized Dawkins for this, so he wrote a letter to the Guardian explaining his reasons for not debating Craig. Among those reasons is Craig's impassioned defense of genocide. 

I agree with Dawkins. At some point, one has to say: "I can't argue with crazy." The Christian belief that genocide is justified or even good whenever some prophet or group of people believe it is the will of God is both ludicrous and dangerous.  I love Dawkins' closing paragraph on the best way to debate with Craig and his ilk. 

Rather than paraphrase Dawkins, I thought I would include his part of his letter, which quotes some of the more idiotic statements by Craig in defense of genocide in the name of Yahweh. 


But Craig is not just a figure of fun. He has a dark side, and that is putting it kindly. Most churchmen these days wisely disown the horrific genocides ordered by the God of the Old Testament. Anyone who criticises the divine bloodlust is loudly accused of unfairly ignoring the historical context, and of naive literalism towards what was never more than metaphor or myth. You would search far to find a modern preacher willing to defend God's commandment, in Deuteronomy 20: 13-15, to kill all the men in a conquered city and to seize the women, children and livestock as plunder. And verses 16 and 17 are even worse:
"But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them"
You might say that such a call to genocide could never have come from a good and loving God. Any decent bishop, priest, vicar or rabbi would agree. But listen to Craig. He begins by arguing that the Canaanites were debauched and sinful and therefore deserved to be slaughtered. He then notices the plight of the Canaanite children.
"But why take the lives of innocent children? The terrible totality of the destruction was undoubtedly related to the prohibition of assimilation to pagan nations on Israel's part. In commanding complete destruction of the Canaanites, the Lord says, 'You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons, or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods' (Deut 7.3-4). […] God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. […] Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God's grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven's incomparable joy.  Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives."
Do not plead that I have taken these revolting words out of context. What context could possibly justify them?
"So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgment. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli [sic] soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalising effect on these Israeli [sic] soldiers is disturbing."
Oh, the poor soldiers. Let's hope they received counselling after their traumatic experience. A later post by Craig is – if possible – even more shocking. Referring to his earlier article (above) he says:
"I have come to appreciate as a result of a closer reading of the biblical text that God's command to Israel was not primarily to exterminate the Canaanites but to drive them out of the land.[…] Canaan was being given over to Israel, whom God had now brought out of Egypt. If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all. There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples.
It is therefore completely misleading to characterise God's command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated. No one had to die in this whole affair."
So, apparently it was the Canaanites' own fault for not running away. Right.
Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn't, and I won't. Even if I were not engaged to be in London on the day in question, I would be proud to leave that chair in Oxford eloquently empty.
And if any of my colleagues find themselves browbeaten or inveigled into a debate with this deplorable apologist for genocide, my advice to them would be to stand up, read aloud Craig's words as quoted above, then walk out and leave him talking not just to an empty chair but, one would hope, to a rapidly emptying hall as well.

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