We had just visited the site of the Hasmonean village and Palace here in Jerusalem, then after I felt so uncomfortable, especially about my belief. But every time we come back from such archaeological visits, I ‘m thrilled by the great achievement of the ancient people of this Holy Land. To the contrary, after this visit the experience was severely different. What exactly was my fear?
In Biblical History and Archaeology Course, we are doing the history of New Testament, which we started considering a way back to 134 BC of the Hasmonean period.
We had lectures about Alexander Janneus who crucified 800 rebellious Jews and commanded that their wives and children be slaughtered in the sight of these men hanging on the crosses. While that was happening, Janneus threw a big banquet with his concubines, enjoying the finest of wines.
Janneus was notorious for cruelty. If the Queen of Sheba travelled miles to come and listen to the Wisdom of Solomon, people would come to Janneus to learn the art of brutality. Who was he?
He was Hasmonean, a descendant of the Maccabees who had revolted against Hellenism and desecration of the Temple in 166 BC in order to preserve the purity of their religion. Janneus was king of Judah.
Were not his contemporary kings as cruel to their enemies? Possibly true! But Janneus was not only king; he was High Priest of Yahweh too. This is what punched me in the stomach. I reflected on how much evil, violence is done in the name of belief, in its widest sense. A Psalm immediately came to mind.
Psalm 135, a song of praise, captures and conveys this problem of a believer that I fear. The Psalmist sings God’s love that endures forever; love that is without end especially for his greatness and wisdom in creation, then, for using his might in favour of the people he loves.
He struck down the first born sons of the Egyptians, he drowned Egyptians army; he slaughtered Sihon king of the Amorites, Og king of Bashan; he dispossessed Canaanites of their land to give it to his chosen people as birthright –for all that because God’s love endures forever.
Unfortunately, God’s love and presence among his people would go on to be interpreted in many similar ways in the history of Israel.
Elijah would be presented to have killed the prophets of Baal (cf I Kings 18:20-40).Who would ever talk of murder for such a zealous action done in the name God? In fact, it is an episode with full sense of victory and assurance of God accreditation. Scenes of the kind are innumerable in the Old Testament.
This same zeal for God would blaze in the young Pharisee, Saul. Not only would he be content to approve the death of Stephen, murdered barbarically; he would also take the trouble to go hunting for Christian beyond Jerusalem; arresting and killing them in the name of God. Only the striking light would knock him off such mistaken belief and mission. But such self-styled manner of serving God would still continue.
Centuries later, soldiers would be dispatched well armoured with God’s benediction. Theirs would not be an ordinary war but holy war. I only wonder if the killing also would be holy.
Unjust! Judging history with today’s measure? We have to understand things in their context! True. But that does not change evil into good.
Then, we have the Jihad. Possibly here is a practice rooted in a positive spiritual sense that is now manipulated, not so much by fanatics of religion, but by those who use religion for personal agenda. Consequently, violence is written off as heroic service for God.
Isn’t this then a problem exclusively for those who go to the synagogue, church or mosque –to mention but just some religions?
The problem here goes beyond an atheist or theist. In fact, we all believe in something; in some cause to which we relate like religion. This does not only supply an understanding of belief in this discussion but also exposes the common danger that we share. History has great deal to testify. The holocaust, the apartheid in South Africa, colonialism; what else was beneath them if not a belief in some god? We are the superior race! We are the best nation! We have the power! We alone are human! We have the truth!
Others still may have a great sense of mission at the service of some ideology, as apostles of democracy, for instance. For that, they will go wild to thrust themselves onto others with blunt arrogance even when less than common sense is sufficient to caution stop! Something is gravely wrong here. They would not stop.
This is just human. We are bound to be mistaken. This calls for a good discernment and never take anything for granted.
Only now do I appreciate the remark of our professor of Moral theology. After defining conscience as man’s most secret core where God’s voice echoes in the depths of his heart, “Be careful” he cautioned us, “you risk passing your yens for the voice of God. The consequences can be tragic”.
Exactly this I fear, and it makes me tremble; the danger of believing in the bloodthirsty god of my whims whom I forge and manipulate to give legitimacy to my project. In his name, I go on doing violence both to others and myself with a clear conscience.
This is why I need, perhaps others too, to be knocked off the route of my own Damascus so that I believe in God as He is. The one who doesn’t have to destroy others to do me favour; curse others to bless me; cast others in sombre darkness to illumine me. Yes, I want to believe in the God whose eternal love showers upon me yet overflows to others as well.
Some people would attribute the breakdown in moral values to atheism. Well, theism misinterpreted might even be worse. Perhaps, it’s not enough to believe but also to believe correctly.
© Evans K. Chama 2007
A Missionary of Africa studying theology in Jerusalem