Consistent across the big three Western monotheisms is a theme notable only for its inconsistency: God is love, except for when he’s a belligerent tyrant with an unquenchable bloodlust.
Ask most people in the big three if their God condones cruelty, and you’ll get a definitive “no!” But anyone can flip through the sacred texts and find line after line that illustrates exactly the opposite. Ask believers if theirs is a God of war and you’ll probably get another “no,” though passages aplenty make clear that the God(s) of Western religions are wholly committed to war as a means to get what they want, or what they want their chosen people to have.
What explains this disconnect? If you ask a Christian if his/her God condones sexual violence, and the response is a likely “no”—you might ask for an explanation of a passage like this one:
When you go out to war against your enemies and the LORD, your God, delivers them into your hand, so that you take captives, if you see a comely woman among the captives and become so enamored of her that you wish to have her as wife, you may take her home to your house. But before she may live there, she must shave her head and pare her nails and lay aside her captive’s garb. After she has mourned her father and mother for a full month, you may have relations with her, and you shall be her husband and she shall be your wife. However, if later on you lose your liking for her, you shall give her her freedom, if she wishes it; but you shall not sell her or enslave her, since she was married to you under compulsion. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)
Or you could allude to God’s cavalier attitude toward rape with a passage like this one:
If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
Or his general attitude toward women as mere spoils of war with a passage like this one:
They must be dividing the spoils they took: there must be a damsel or two for each man. (Judges 5:30)
My point here is less about exegesis of sacred texts, and more about why people choose to focus on that which supports their positions and ignore, or rationalize, that which doesn’t. We know this tendency by its psychological moniker: confirmation bias. And we also know this bias’ partner in crime that fuels the mental myopia: selective perception.
But I think there’s something else going on here as well. One of the chief tenets of Western religion is that God made humans in his image. If you read the sacred texts and take to heart the passages above and the many like them, then you’re left with an uncomfortable conclusion about who you are.
Try, for example, to imagine yourself as someone who would applaud this sort of unequivocal declaration of horrific violence against children (and more sexual violence as well):
Anyone who is captured will be run through with a sword. Their little children will be dashed to death right before their eyes. Their homes will be sacked and their wives raped by the attacking hordes. For I will stir up the Medes against Babylon, and no amount of silver or gold will buy them off. The attacking armies will shoot down the young people with arrows. They will have no mercy on helpless babies and will show no compassion for the children. (Isaiah 13:15-18)
Hard to do, isn’t it? And yet, if we’re created in God’s image, then are we not manifestations of this same cruel nature–of the “For I will” nature underlined above?
So to undermine that conclusion, we have to mentally shelve those illustrations—the ones that make any reasonable person cringe—and focus on those that don’t short circuit our brain’s need for comfort and stability. We don’t believe in God and participate in the social support network of any given church or temple because we want to become even more stressed and confused than we are in our day-to-day lives. Much the opposite. We’re there to reign in the blood cortisol levels that drive us to the brink at work, in traffic and all too often at home.
If all we did in church was talk about God’s penchant for violence, that wouldn’t make for a very psychologically reassuring atmosphere. If we are going to talk about it, then we need to clarify that all of that rage and sexual cruelty is directed against God’s enemies. That feels much better, because if we’re believers, then God’s enemies are also our enemies. Babies, whatever—they had it coming.
This balancing act, I’d argue, is what allows sane, intelligent people (note that I am not talking about unbalanced militants here) to focus on that which edifies and push from immediate view that which alarms. Around that which edifies, we build a public-facing persona of tolerance and love. We can then build into that persona all of the attributes we deeply value. The rest—those dark, awful corridors of our belief—we avoid, or venture into only when we need to show our enemies what the dark side of our God looks like, or remind ourselves what could happen to us if we wander.
Another way of saying this is that to fully embrace the notion that God created us in his image is actually a very frightening thing to do. But our brains are exceptionally clever and know how to work around discomfort to preserve stability. Gods of war and conquest, no matter how explicitly cruel, are simply no match for our powers of cognitive navigation.