The Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence (CSBV) celebrates just over two years of activity with a conference called “From the Rising to the Setting Sun: Global Perspectives on the Bible and Violence.” CSBV has been very active, even during the global pandemic lockdown, providing an outlet for academics and encouraging stimulating conversations about difficult topics that explore how the Bible portrays and is used to defend or encourage violence. You can read about topics covered in previous conferences here and here. Below is a description of the opening session papers. More to come throughout the week.
CSBV has not shied away from creatively restructuring the conference model to accommodate and adapt to everyone’s changing situation in the post-COVID world. They have moved away from the 2-3 day conference that crams a ton of presentations into a small window of time, and instead has spread out the presentations to take place across a week at a time. This allows more people to be involved. One thoughtful feature of the CSBV conferences is a view screen devoted to a visual reminder that while we meet to discuss violence in theory and religious practice, there are many people in the world presently experiencing violence and victims of systemic problems in social order. This is represented by a candle that is lit in a moment of silence at the beginning of each meeting. Dr. Helen Paynter, Director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence, opens each conference with this remembrance and advocates for the corporate remembrance of victims of violence, a salient reflection for those of us who meet to discuss theoretical ideas about violence. Today’s conference flipped another traditions by inviting the Keynote address as an opening presentation that set the tone for the remaining papers and following discussion.
Matthew Feldman, Director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, opened the conference with a Keynote address entitled “From Christian witness to Christianism: Thomas Merton, ideology and religious violence.” Feldman’s presentation brought forward attention to the present violence raised by religious leaders, with a particular focus on American Christian Nationalism. He points out problems inherent in Christian Nationalism, not limited to discrimination and prejudice that actively works against the message of the Gospel. Historically, Christianity has partnered with nationalist views to massage the teachings of Christ in ways that justify genocide, terrorism, and violent acts against people outside the ethnic center of the message. Feldman refers to a similar modern movement as Christianism, “an ideological appropriation of Christianity, based upon a secular vision of redemption through political violence against perceived enemies.” One of the ways this mentality spreads is in part by actions of Christian churches to bless weaponry and condone militant acts as a part of the Christian faith. To read more about how CSBV is engaging with modern American Christian political movements, check out their blog “What Now for American Christians?”.
Aaron Woods, Ph.D. Candidate, Asbury Theological Seminary, gave his paper entitled “Jeremiah and Israel’s (New?) Promise land: Reading Jeremiah 29 as a challenge to Christian Zionism”. Woods reviews modern Zionism as a movement that seeks political action promoted by Christians to promote Israel’s jurisdiction in the Middle East over Palestine. When reading the Old Testament, Zionism focuses very narrowly on ownership of the land, which distorts the vision of fulness of blessing, that extends to well-being and also restoration and blessing for others. Jeremiah 29, which refers to people to settle, build, and marry, and contains specific allusions to an earlier text (Deut. 20) that prohibits any settled person from engaging in or participating in warfare. In this way, Jeremiah is encouraging the Israelites to settle in their new land of Babylon and so enjoy a peaceful life. Read in its fullness, the Hebrew Bible does not seem to promote militant efforts to hold land. The speaker advocated for Christians to reconsider the Gospel in terms of support for all inhabitants of the Middle East, especially, but not limited to, Palestinian Christians.
Following this, Louis W. Ndekha, Theology and Religious Studies, University of Malawi, delivered a paper called “‘Loving the Enemy’ and Christian Response to Violence: A Contextual Reading of Luke 6:27-29 in Malawian Context”. Ndekha raised a matter surrounding the command by Jesus, “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you.” The study he presented dealt with the effects of mob-violence in an African context. He found that even Christians felt justified in taking part in mob violence, even when acted against people they know. An emphasis on the need to drive evil out of their community has motivated mob violence to be viewed as mob justice in Malawi. Violent acts are then justified as acts of justice that seek to force injustice out. Even when violence inadvertently results in the death of the victim, the mob violence is justified, sometimes referencing where Jesus violently overturned the tables in the Temple (Matt. 21:12-13).
Maria Power, Senior Research Fellow in Human Dignity, University of Oxford, concluded the first day of #CSBVcon21 with her study entitled, “Overcoming conflict-generating interpretations of the Bible: some lessons from Northern Ireland.” Power presented observations about certain Ireland-based communities that engaged readily in conflict with others. She demonstrated that some enclaves of Christian community became proud in their isolation, which resulted in looking down upon others. These attitudes were reinforced by boundaries that resist relationship-forming activities in wider society. Her conclusions advocated for active peace-making that extends beyond prayer and seeks interaction for the sake of relationship in all social sectors.
This first session of the CSBV conference 2021 covered a wide variety of topics, all touching on how Christianity has been appropriated to justify violence in several different national settings, including America, Africa, Europe, and the Mediterranean. While several presenters called for a response to assisting in change, Maria Power posed a way of thinking about this in some practical terms, asking whether change can begin by working with people in the margins of these matters or should change begin in the center. This is a great question. While central authority may hold a stronger position in justifying violence, likely, people in the periphery may more easily engage in conversation about change. Even though Power brought this up in terms of an independent study about religious enclaves in Northern Ireland, it makes for a good endcap to issues raised by Feldman in the opening Keynote address. Matters of violence and justified violence in social-political systems are often complicated and intertwined with deep-rooted cultural values. And, any social anthropologist will tell you, culture change is not easy.