On Biblical Violence

What Would it Take?

Deanna Laney was the mother of three children: an 8-year-old, a 6-year-old, and a 15-month-old.  She murdered both of the oldest and permanently impaired the youngest by beating them over the head repeatedly with a rock because she “believed that God had told her the world was going to end and ‘she had to get her house in order’, which included killing her children”.  Regarding the two that were murdered, the last thing they “ever saw on this earth was their mama holding a rock over her head…and the last thing they felt was that rock crashing down on them”.  Her belief that she had received the word of God and “that the word of God was infallible” was clearly what motivated her actions in whatever state of mind she was in [1].  But this begs an interesting question – what would it take for you to abandon your most basic moral intuitions?  Would you be willing to kill children if you sincerely believed that God was telling you to?

If you deny this possibility due to our location in history, simply move the hypothetical back.  You are living in the Ancient Near East with no written revelation, and you hear a voice claiming to be a perfectly good God that instructs you to offer a family member as a blood sacrifice or to kill children.  Would you be able to believe it?  Would you not consider the possibility that you are delusional?  I think most of us can’t even conceive of being able to carry out such actions ourselves, but in spite of this some are quick to rationalize such things as long as they are tucked neatly away in a depiction of the past and involve actors other than ourselves.  Yes, I’m talking about biblical violence – specifically violence against children.  Consider the following argument against such rationalizations that uses the horror of rape to connect the dots.  If we can have any access to objective moral truth at all, the following argument seems obviously correct.

  1. Raping a person could never be morally praiseworthy because of its inherent depravity
  2. The inherent depravity involved in raping a person is not greater than the inherent depravity involved in putting an infant to the sword
  3. Therefore, if raping a person could never be morally praiseworthy, then putting an infant to the sword could never be morally praiseworthy [2]

Defining Terms and Intentions

To clear up any confusion, let’s discuss definitions.  By rape I mean “the compelling of a person through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse” [3].  If an action is praiseworthy, it is an action that deserves admiration and approval [4].  Finally, when I use the phrase inherent depravity I am referring to a moral wickedness that exists “in something as a permanent, essential, or characteristic attribute” [5].  This is just another way of saying that if an action is inherently depraved, it retains that depravity regardless of the circumstances because the very nature of the action just is wicked.  *This is important*.  Failing to grasp what I mean by inherent depravity could lead an objector to either fundamentally misunderstand the argument or to heap objections on a straw man.  Another pertinent question might be – why bring the issue of rape into this? 

The reason it is helpful to think in these terms is because people are so used to rationalizing one particular kind of horrific thing that pairing it with another might be just what is needed to shake them out of their moral schizophrenia [6].  Finally, notice that I said that the premises seem obviously correct if we can have any access to objective moral truth at all.  This is also important.  I’m not arguing that morality is objective in this post, I don’t have time to do that.  I am however making a conditional claim – if real moral knowledge is possible, then we can be extremely confident that premises 1 and 2 are true through moral perception [7].  After all, one doesn’t need to know *how* they know something in order to know *that* they know it [8].  If a Christian tries to deny this, many of their own commitments will unravel.  

Defending the Argument

Let’s start with the first statement: Raping a person could never be morally praiseworthy because of its inherent depravity.  Surely this premise is as close to a self-evident truth as one can get.  How could something like rape ever be morally praiseworthy?  Even if one sought to imagine an extreme and convoluted situation where rape was somehow the lesser of two evils, such an action could still never be admirable.  Imagine that you were in a situation where you had to shoot one innocent person to save twenty, and you knew that the safety of the twenty was guaranteed if you followed through.  Your desire to save the twenty is a noble desire, but that does not make the act of shooting the innocent person a praiseworthy act, no matter your intentions.  Put another way, the results of your action do not erase the intrinsic badness of that action – it is still an atrocity to kill an innocent person no matter what outcome such a thing produces.

The same would hold for any ridiculous scenario that an objector might imagine where rape was the lesser of two evils.  The very nature of the action just is evil, and thus could never be morally praiseworthy.  The next claim is that the inherent depravity of raping a person is not greater than the inherent depravity of putting an infant to the sword.  This is important, because if the reason that rape could never be praiseworthy is because of its inherent depravity, then it follows that any action with an equal or greater inherent depravity could also never be praiseworthy.  How could this be denied?  If one freely admits that rape could never be admirable, then how could stabbing a baby to death?

A Way Out?

If one admits that rape could never be morally praiseworthy because of its inherent depravity, and also admits that this action is not less inherently depraved than putting an infant to the sword, it follows logically that it could never be morally praiseworthy to put an infant to the sword.  What are the options for those who seek to get out of the conclusion of this argument?  They will either have to pick one of the two very uncomfortable horns of this dilemma:  The first option is to suggest that rape is inherently more depraved than killing children. But how could that be?  Surely even a generous estimate is that they are equally wicked, and many people wouldn’t even concede to that because they think killing children is worse [9].  The second option is to claim that rape could be morally praiseworthy.  Either way, neither option seems plausible.

Concluding Thoughts

The most important question to ask yourself if you reject this argument is: which premise do you deny and why?  Hopefully this dilemma has illustrated the tension of holding to a biblicist epistemology and what that would mean for ethics.  After all, if rape was depicted as a command of Yahweh in the bible, a biblicist would be required to defend it as not inherently immoral in the same way they defend slaughtering children [10].  If this isn’t moral relativism, I don’t know what is.  But hey, if you want to bite the bullet and admit that a depiction of Yahweh commanding rape in the bible would turn you into a rape apologist, more power to you.  In fact, shout it from the rooftops!  At the end of the day the biblicist position requires that if there are moral truths, we can’t know things like “rape is always wrong” a priori-only a posteriori.  Only *after* checking to see if Yahweh is depicted as commanding an action that offends our deepest moral intuitions can we truly know that action is wrong [11].  This is exactly what occurs with violence against children in the bible – people sacrifice their a priori moral knowledge on the alter of a posteriori reasoning.  This just seems silly on its face.  As Christian theologian Randal Rauser has said:

To conclude that one’s most basic moral knowledge (i.e. the inherent immorality of executing infants or perpetuation genocide) is errant in favor of a contentious reading and appropriation of an ancient text is a case of misbegotten priorities [12].

So if you are a Christian, will you really let your commitment to a pet theory of inspiration be enough to overturn your most basic moral knowledge?  Wouldn’t it be more consistent to trust the direct moral revelation to your conscience than to trust an *interpretation* of what it would mean for a text to be “inspired” [13]?  I hope you will consider it.  If not, let’s hope that if Christianity turns out to be true God isn’t disappointed in you for believing stupid things about him.

 

References

  1. CNN, Attorney: Woman Thought God Told Her to Kill Sons
  2. Randal Rauser, The Bible Depicts God Commanding Moral Atrocities. Should We Believe It?  This argument is based heavily on Rauser’s formulation
  3. Randal Rauser, Rape, Moral Perception, and Biblicism
  4. Definition take from lexico.com
  5. Ibid, though this phrase involves a combination of definitions
  6. Randal Rauser, Is Rape Worse Than Sacrifice?
  7. Randal Rauser, The Bible Depicts God Commanding Moral Atrocities. Should We Believe It?
  8. Randal Rauser, Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide
  9. Randal Rauser, Is Rape Worse Than Sacrifice?
  10. Randal Rauser, Rape, Moral Perception, and Biblicism
  11. Ibid
  12. IMG_0323
  13. Randal Rauser, Christian Moral Schizophrenia and Psycopathy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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