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Biblical Lessons on Violence

October 14, 2000|Curt Webster | Curt Webster is a student at the Southern California campus of San Francisco Theological Seminary in Claremont and the director of outreach for St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach. His screenplay, "Frame 313," took first place in the 1997 UCI Screenwriting Competition

Recent congressional hearings on marketing violence-besotted films simply confirm what many parents have long known: The slime-and-gore merchants who run Hollywood simply do not care how their films affect our children.

The continuing degeneration of American culture represented by the splattering of blood on the screens of your local multiplex is one issue that tends to unite conservatives, moderates and liberals in the religious community. There may be sharp disagreement over what to do, but little argument that something needs to be done.

Christians and Jews, however, join in this debate with some very inconvenient scriptural baggage. The uncomfortable truth is that the Bible ranks as one of history's bloodiest pieces of literature. Consider these two brief examples:

* A Levite wanders into Gibeah, a town in rival Benjamite territory, with his concubine. The men of Gibeah subject the concubine to a brutal sexual assault, which results in her death. All of the other tribes of Israel unite in a retaliatory attack on Benjamin during which something close to 100,000 Hebrews are killed. The story ends with the forcible abduction of several hundred virgins to serve as "wives" for the surviving Benjamites. Read about it in Chapters 19-21 of the Book of Judges.

* Psalm 137, titled "Lament Over the Destruction of Jerusalem," closes with a heartfelt call for the destruction of Babylon and all of its inhabitants, including infants. "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones."

Christians who seek to distance themselves from the more stomach-turning portions of the Hebrew Scripture must then contend with passages such as Matthew 10:34: "Think not that I am come to send peace on Earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword." We also have to face the reality that Jesus himself was not above a little violent behavior in pursuit of reform, such as the attack on the money-changers in the temple.

Pious denunciations of violent content in contemporary media from the Judeo-Christian community are rightly open to the charge of hypocrisy unless we acknowledge the carnage depicted in our own scriptural tradition. Indeed, the ways in which our faith absorbs and interprets these stories and sayings should guide our collective response to Hollywood's moral, social and cultural irresponsibility.

Everything that happens in the Bible and every word that is spoken takes place in the context of a larger spiritual and historical tradition. As a persecuted people who spent much of their history in and out of exile, the Israelites faced a world in which communal violence was the norm.

Extinction was a very real possibility for Jews during much of the historical period covered by the Hebrew Scriptures (and afterward as well). Jesus was born into that tradition, and it was inevitable that the Jewish historical experience would influence his ministry.

The greater truth toward which the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospel and the Epistles all point is that we are born as children of God and called to live lives of meaningful discipleship. Humankind's more violent natural impulses are part of the condition of sinfulness and corruption from which we were redeemed by the incarnation, passion and resurrection of Christ.

It is difficult to imagine a meaningful theology in which those impulses were ignored. There is thus a context to the violence portrayed in the Scriptures. And there was once a time when Hollywood generally made at least a passable effort to put celluloid violence into a constructive social context.

Note, for instance, the examination of the amorality of organized crime that so brilliantly informed "The Godfather." By contrast, there is no discernible moral content to much of Hollywood's current blood bath. Grisly death has become high entertainment for its own sake.

The Judeo-Christian call to Hollywood, therefore, should not be that filmmakers must ignore violent themes, but rather that they should deal more courageously with the moral and ethical questions raised when human beings harm one another.

And where, exactly, should Hollywood go for guidance on such a monumental task? Let's suggest the Bible as a good start--the parts that don't show up in Sunday school.

On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor William Lobdell.

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