Preaching, Genocide and Sodom

Thoughtful non-Christians object to a god who seems to commend genocide. Sodom and Gomorrah represents one such account in the Bible. God appears to differ little from a religious terrorist in the eyes of some who read this account. How do we preach such a passage with such objections in mind, particularly for people who have little familiarity with the Bible? A place to start is with a question. We must ask ourselves, “how would this text sound to someone who only knows about the Bible, Jesus and Christianity through the scraps of caricature they have seen in sitcoms, the sad representations they’ve seen on the news, or the partial misinformation they have gleaned from movies or documentaries?”

In this text, at least three challenges surface for Western hearers.  (1) The idea that God is unjust and lustful for destruction and would destroy an entire city and kill its inhabitants. Our hearers live in a world in which people kill in God’s name. This is their cultural grammar. God will seem no different than a religious terrorist and cultural backtalk will result. (2) the cruel choice of Lot regarding his daughters in Genesis 19:8 sounds little different from the physical abuse of women that humane and Jesus movements have tried to end and (3) the supernatural presence of angels in itself along with what will seem to a Harry Potter generation as the magic powers of fictional characters Genesis 19:11. I’m coming to believe that if we act as if these cultural voices do not exist, our thoughtful non-Christian hearers will render us clueless as to their questions, Christian hearers will never learn how to address such questions with their neighbors, and I myself, not as a preacher, but as a man will have forgotten what it is like to encounter these jarring statements in the Bible and follow Abraham’s lead in asking God my questions about it. For example, I have a daughter. I have no category as a man for understanding Lot’s actions with his. If I am dishonest about this, my hearers will rightly think me unfeeling, disingenuous, or trite. Jesus is none of these things. And, I desire that they experience something of what He is like when they come and hear His message proclaimed.

So, I’m asking myself, what would it look like for us to take just one of these points and for three to five minutes in the sermon to thoughtfully say, “you have heard it said, but Jesus says to you . . .” (Just as Jesus does throughout the Sermon on the Mount) What do you think? How do we grow in communicating such things? Here is my attempt at what it might sound like to take a moment in the sermon to address the first challenge.

[you have heard it said]

Now, I realize that for some of us, this text only affirms what many are saying today. Many are saying that “religion is the cause of violence in the world. The worship of God leads to anger, division, hatred, and violence toward our neighbors.” I think there is some truth in this statement. It is true that people have done horrible things in the names of their gods. People have even done horrible things to one another in the name of Jesus. How we, who have been called by Jesus to love our neighbors, including our enemies, can justify such things, warrants challenge. People have done horrible things in the name of God.

[but I say to you]

But, that being said, there are two things that I ask you to consider and then a point I’d like to make.

1. I’d like to ask you to consider that violence toward our neighbor is also perpetrated by those who are atheist or agnostic as the history of Russia for example will quickly reveal. Most bullies on the playground, most of the crime in saint louis tonight, most arguments between husbands and wives tonight, most bench-clearing fights on the baseball field or football field tonight will have nothing to do with one’s belief in God. I ask you to consider that violence rises in the human heart quite apart from religion. There is something in us that is bent toward disregarding our neighbor whether we are religious or irreligious.

2. I’d like to ask you to consider this biblical text itself. First, the issue is that an “outcry” from victims has come to God’s attention (18:20, 19:13). The issue therefore is not innocent people going to work in two tall towers in Manhattan or eating at an outdoor cafe in London. God is not targeting innocent civilians. Second, God is not in a heated rage smashing bottles and punching walls uncontrollably. He is measured, taking time to verify and reveal what is true (18:21, 19:1ff) Thirdly, our question is asked by Abraham. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous and the wicked?” Abraham asks and then charges that such an action would make God unjust. The Bible doesn’t avoid our question but raises it for us. God makes it clear that if there was a righteous one he would spare the city. Finally, we are told that what God finds out is this: “both young and old” are bent on raping and viciously mistreating the neighbors who come in to visit their town (19:4-5).  This text does not reveal God judging innocent righteous persons with random and cruel death. It is the opposite! God is seeking to respond to the outcry of victims who have experienced the gang and mob violence of those who inhabit Sodom. The situation resembles the horrific news story from USA Today just yesterday. The headline reads: 200 Women Gang Raped Near Congo base-U.N. says. The story includes the sexual mistreatment of a gang on four baby boys. Read this story dear friend and then ask yourself how you feel and what response is appropriate to hear the outcry of the victims, to defend them from further harm, and to justly deal with the mob of 400 persons going about perpetrating such harm?

After these two considerations, my point now is this: Sodom and Gomorrah expresses how God actively upholds neighbor-love. To do so, God hears the outcry of the victim. God judges the violent offender. Perhaps you feel that God should judge gang rapists with milder means. But at least, you and I can dismiss the caricature of this story, the caricature of a god who lustfully rages about and kills innocent persons. This story is not that one. In this story God who created Eden and instituted neighbor love must continually deal with and disrupt an ongoing neighbor-hatred since Adam and since Noah and now at the time of Abraham. We are meant to learn from it that no amount of just judgment is sufficient to heal the bent heart of humanity and turn it toward neighbor-love. Your heart and mine, no matter how many times we’ve gotten in trouble justly when we were kids and now as adults, we still find disregard for neighbor more natural to us than any of us want to admit. This is why God will finally put judgment upon Himself, and send His own Son to purchase the neighbor-love that we ourselves cannot find . . .”

Why do people resist how the Flood portrays God?

Why do some of our neighbors doubt the God of the Bible and what responsibility do we have toward them in this doubt? In response to a thoughtful inquiry regarding my post on how we think about the violence of God, I tried to answer this question. How would you answer?

Here is the inquiry: I had said that the violence of God in Genesis 6 challenged me. “It challenged me because I know that two dear friends of mine reject the God of the Bible because of this very passage and others like it.”

The good question then came:
Do you think that they reject the God of the Bible because of passages like this or is it because God is holy? Perhaps it has more to do with the fact that had they lived in this time, they would have been judged too.

Here is my response, what do you think?

Thank you for your good question. I would offer “both” as an answer and then take that answer to Jesus for further consideration. Here is what I mean.

First, these friends and others who feel similarly do actually reject these passages and the god they see in them, exactly because, as they see it, this god isn’t holy at all. They intellectually assert and morally feel that if God is God then He would be the most moral and holy. So, when they see the text present god in this violent manner and they also doubt the credibility of the historical accuracy of the text to begin with, they make the following conclusion: Why follow a mythical text and the violent, cruel, tantrum-like god it presents? They then turn away from this “god” and from the bible and search for another answer to the longing they deeply feel for what is true, noble and good. (a longing that we would say comes from having been made in God’s image). Therefore, the first side of answering your question is, “yes” they do reject what they interpret as the “god” of the Bible because of how they understand these passages. On this side of it, we Jesus-followers have only added to this misconception about God by our own lack of handling these passages well and by our own willingness to appear giddy or lustful with the thought of damnation in the way we relate to our neighbors. Our commitment to reducing a trite approach to such texts and to increasing our capacity to love even our enemies as Jesus taught us and purchased for us, will go along way to remove this kind of objection. We need Jesus’ grace for this.

Secondly, that being said, ultimately, we do believe that within each of us is a bent-desire to resist the knowledge of God and to exchange serving Him with “gods” of our own making (Romans 1:18-23). This deeper hardness will reveal itself when true answers are given, misconceptions are cleared away, and God as He truly is is set before them. Sometimes we do not believe because we do not know. Sometimes we know and yet still do not believe. That is, sometimes knowledge of truth, rather than softening us toward it, exposes how we want to harden against it. When this second reality emerges, then we are seeing the true rebellion of our hearts and the arrogance within us that assumes that we are more moral than God and that even if He is who He is truly, we still resist surrender to Him. It is like Pilate who asked Jesus what appeared to be a genuine question about who Jesus was. Then when Jesus answered credibly about himself and what is true, Pilate dodged the answer and his original question. “What is truth?” he asked. He responded to truth not by softening toward it but by shifting to a different philosophical question, content to leave both unanswered. For this reason, the second side of your question warrants a “yes”.

Now let’s consider this two-sided coin in Jesus and see what we learn. Both, yesses, reveal a tension that Jesus guides us through. Some say that all we need is to show credible clarity and our neighbors will believe. Others say that because people will not naturally believe there is no point in showing credible love and truth to our neighbors. Jesus’ way seems to confound both assumptions. No one communicated more clearly or truthfully than Jesus, yet some of those with full clarity and knowledge only hardened all the more and crucified Him. This fact, however, did not stop our Lord from calling us into a radical love for our neighbors and a thorough proclamation of His grace for them. Therefore, our direction here seems clear.

Finally, I used to believe when I watched a war movie (because I am not a veteran of war) that I would have been like the character who survived. Likewise, I can identify myself with Noah in the passage and assume that I would not have been outside of the boat. Truth be told, I am no soldier. If I was in war the reality that veterans tell us about would apply equally to me and I too would unlikely survive. Similarly, I now know that had I been there at the time of Noah, there was only one Noah. Likely, I would have been judged along with everyone else. Thanks be to God, that in Jesus I have been shown mercy and the judgment I would otherwise warrant has been paid for and removed. This is my prayer for my friends too. I pray that they too receive what I myself have not and could never have earned. Thanks again for writing!

Preaching, Noah and the Violence of God

How do we credibly preach about a God who willingly kills men, women and children? This question challenged me this past week as I preached from Genesis 6 and the story of Noah. It challenged me because I know that two dear friends of mine reject the God of the Bible because of this very passage and others like it. It also challenges me because I wonder the same thing about God. Over the years I’ve grown fatigued with callous doctrinal academics or simplistic Christian cliches. I want a reasonable answer that takes into account our genuine condition as human beings. Here is a snippet of what I offered regarding this question. What do you think? Am I missing the mark? How would you approach this?

1. The entire tone of Genesis 6 is lament. Repeatedly, we are told that God is sorrowful. The situation “grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 6:6) Likewise, what made God sorrowful was the sexual and physical misuse that neighbors were making of one another. At minimum, Christians and thoughtful non-Christians can agree that this passage does not provide a picture of a deity lustful with vengeance who “gets off” on making innocent people suffer.
2. God is not presented as throwing a tantrum. Typically a tantrum arises from a spoiled heart that does not get what it wants. A toddler who wanted ice cream and was told to wait until after dinner; a man who was fired from his job, buys a gun and then kills his co-workers before turning the gun on himself; or King Triton in the Little Mermaid who in a fit of rage destroys Ariel’s room only to say to himself later, “what have I done?” this is the stuff of tantrums. But the text reveals God as patient, measured, expressing his mind on a matter that is of trouble to Him, and having a plan that must be adopted because to Him there is no other way. This scene reveals one doing something that one does not want to do but feels there is no other way forward. Those who tantrum avoid the hard road of difficult thought and measured feeling. Tantrums are easy. Entering the mess of our condition with heartfelt and reasonable conclusions is not.
3. God is not presented as a dictator hungry with exerting his power. When Hitler flew his Blitzkrieg over London or Stalin created the man-made famine for his own people in Ukraine, men, women and children were killed solely at the whim of the dictator who intends to demonstrate his power. Disregard and happy cruelty are the means a dictator uses to exalt himself. But this picture does not seem to fit Genesis 6 either. God personally created these people who are dear to him. His issue is the harm they are doing to one another. His intent is to stop wide-spread violence and defend neighbor-love. Dictators share no such concern.
4. Genesis 6 presents a picture closer to that of a lamenting judge. We know something of this in our own lives. We teach our boys and girls to go get help when facing a bully. But we also teach them that if everything else fails and there is no help to be found, here is how you use pepper spray, or here is how you throw a punch. We do this recognizing the truth of what Genesis 6:5 says. A part of living in this world sadly requires us to learn what to do with a bully who will not stop when our milder means invite him to. When the police come into a gang or murderer in our house, they will say, “drop your gun.” If the gang or murderer raises the gun to shoot, the police will fire their weapons–it is a last resort and done with lament. Therapy is often required after the fact for the policeman or woman who had to fire their weapon. And we will join the therapist in trying to assure the person that they had no other choice given the situation. At our most noble, war raises this question–when nations fight other nations is the matter just? But even the war that most clearly seems just will still cause lament and sorrow. When children take up arms, soldiers need therapy for what it meant to shoot an enemy that includes children gone violent. Regardless of whether we agree with the dropping of the atomic bomb, those who made the decision believed that other attempts to stop bloodshed were not working and would not work. I do not know what to make of all of this, but what I’m trying to suggest is that a fair reading of Genesis six puts us in a situation more like what a lamenting but good judge must face and choose rather than a childish tantrum or a dictator’s lusts.
5. We all instinctively long for judgement. If God is a lamenting but good judge, this is good news for us. Think about it. Those of us victimized in our families long for the family secret to end. We wish someone in the family would stand up and say, “this is how it really was.” Those of us victimized by crime profoundly desire someone to declare what was right and what was wrong and for consequences to occur accordingly. We are rendered mentally troubled when someone tells us we deserved the beating we got, when we didn’t deserve it, and that the perpetrator should be excused, when in fact the perpetrator was wrong. We will not long watch our favorite police drama on weeknights if it regularly resembles No Country for Old Men. Something inside us wants the bad guy to get caught and the good guy to be defended even if the good guy dies in the end such as in Gladiator.

I do not understand everything here. But the Bible presents God as opposing violence and therefore resisting those who would willingly create an environment of harm. We cannot go on in our violent preferences and believe that God will take a blind eye toward us. The Bible also in this passage presents God as choosing to judge violence and vindicate righteous love between neighbors. We can in our victim-age from violent offenders learn that God will oppose those who harmed us and vindicate us. He is not passive about upholding the innocent and exposing the violent. The Bible also presents God as judging the violent with lament which renders vigilante justice in his name erroneous. We cannot simply take up violence into our own hands nor think of such horrific things gleefully.

6. Finally, God begins to un-violent us through Jesus. Gradually as the old testament unfolds, God makes the battles of his people silly. He takes their weapons, teaches them that the battle belongs to him, and has them sing, march about, blow trumpets, hold up Moses’ arm, smash jars or use slingshots. Then he makes all of this make sense in sending His son Jesus. Jesus teaches that violence comes from the heart. He then surrenders as an innocent man to the full violence and cruelty of humanity with the cross. From there He seeks God to forgive the violators of neighbor-love. He dies at the hands of murderers, rises from the grave and then his followers teach what he lived. Our weapons are not material. Our battle is spiritual. Grace is our hope . . .

Adam, Eve, Fiction and People who aren’t Christians

How do we preach to a thoughtful person who believes that Adam and Eve are no different than Sponge Bob Squarepants? How do we preach to this kind of person giving them the room to thoughtfully step toward the Bible and do this without the long-term Jesus follower thinking that we’ve “gone liberal” because we are not “hard enough” on this point in the sermon?

I don’t know exactly. But I’m trying. On Sunday, I preached the account of Adam and Eve from the early chapters of Genesis. For many among my regular listeners, the Bible is an unfamiliar place. Adam and Eve are strangers. To meet them requires an awkwardness little different from what it is like when two couples meet for the first time around our dinner table at home. Knowing each other will invite us into a few pauses in conversation that unsettle us. But also among my regular hearers are thoughtful non-followers of Jesus. My goal with these dear folks is not to convince them in one swoop of the Bible’s integrity. My goal is first to see if they can move from dismissing the bible wholesale and begin to admit that the Bible has something true to say about some things. For once a person admits that the Bible has something to say to them, then they have to wrestle with the question of what that means about the Bible. With that realization the next step toward greater value of the Bible is more likely. Without that realization, a person remains uninterested and we seem clueless about their concerns as we preach. I am saying that a person who believes there is no value to the Bible will generally require a multitude of conversations and sermons to walk toward it and they will need to know that I understand that, in order for them to set aside their opinions long enough to listen to me. So, this is what I prayerfully tried this past Sunday. I asked folks to consider that it is reasonable for them to believe that the Bible has something to say to them, in light of their own beliefs. My hope was that making this case would enable such folks to stay with me and hear the exposition of the Scripture. What do you think? Did I go too far? Or not far enough.

1) To enter Adam and Eve’s story, we have to first determine what kind of story we are reading.
Some say it is fiction, no different than Tom Sawyer, The Curious Life of Benjamin Button, or Sponge Bob Square Pants. Others say it is historical fiction. The names and places are sometimes rooted in the real landscape of the times, but the story itself is made-up out of somone’s imagination. Still others say, it is not fiction or historical fiction, but the story of adam and eve is history—an accurate account of what happened. It is like journalistic reporting—a narrative that states the way it was.
Maybe you are here today, and the only way you can conceive of Adam and Eve’s story is as a fictional tale. Then to you, I ask you to continue listening. For your time will not be wasted. Stephen King, said that fiction is the truth within the lie. Emerson said that fiction reveals the truth that reality obscures. The best fiction in other words, is counted as such because of what it reveals truly about the human condition and the way things are. There is truth to be found here. As for me, in the interest of authentic disclosure with you, I believe Adam and Eve’s story is properly shelved in the non-fiction section of Borders or Barnes and Noble. I take it to belong in the history section. Even more, I take it to be among the stories of history that God wants to tell us. I believe the truth and accuracy and credibility of the bible in general and of this story in particular.
But though we may differ, you and I, about whether this is a fictional story or an historical account, I trust we both have this one thing in common—we believe that there is truth to be found in both fiction and history, and this morning we can stand on this common ground in search of what is true. Therefore, for you to listen, assuming that the story contains the best elements of what you would consider fiction, seems reasonable and can have value for you. Can you agree?

2) The second thing we have to determine then, whether we believe this story is fiction or history, is how we feel about the role of unexplainable or supernatural things in the stories we read. For, to read the story of Adam and Eve is immediately to read a story about God. Included in this story are animals that do not run from humans and humans that walk side by side with animals. And there are non-human beings called angels whose title reveal their work—they are messengers from God. And then there is a fallen non-human being with his own story out to dethrone God, including Adam and Eve. He is the devil, once an angel but now an active terrorist planting road-side bombs in Eden. He is more than a magician. His is no mere slight of hand. He is able to throw his voice, to speak through a snake to Adam and Eve. If you cannot believe that such supernatural beings and things exist in the real world, and you again only consider this a fictional tale, then at least you can recall that some of our best truth-revealing-stories assume what is supernatural and non-human in them, right? Consider the Lord of the Rings or for some of you, Harry Potter or Twighlight. You enter these stories, though they are fiction and though they contain fantastical elements, and yet you believe that you find there some true resonance with what you experience in the world. To read the story is no waste of time to you. As for me, I assume that God and what is natural to Him exists in the real world and in non-fiction. I believe in the supernatural as a follower of Jesus. But again, either way, we have common ground in this one thing don’t we? We both long for truth to be revealed regarding ourselves and the way things are. For both of us, such truth can be found in such a story. Can we agree on that? If you can come no farther with me, can you come this far?

3) Finally by way of introduction, many cannot read the story of Adam and Eve without thinking about evolution and our various questions, debates and quandaries about Darwin and his proponents. Some of you believe Darwin and disbelieve Adam and Eve. Others of you believe Darwin and believe Adam and Eve. Still others of us doubt Darwin and believe this story of Adam and Eve. Wherever you are on that score this morning, with your questions of was their a common ancestor as the Scientific American continues to discuss, and whether or not and when Adam and Eve had a soul as the Biologos forum continues to discuss, I ask you for a moment to set such things aside for another time and a different discussion. For the writer of Adam and Eve’s story, did not write in order to explore Darwin’s theories. The author wrote to tell us about God and people and the world quite apart from and long before Darwin. For the moment, let us take the story on its own and within its own purpose. Not because it has nothing to say about these other questions of our science and our faith, but because in the first place, answering these questions do not form is its primary purpose. At least for this morning, so that we do not miss the first intention of the story.
Here we are then, determining what kind of story you think this is, with how you intend to handle the fantastical elements within the story and content to discuss our questions of evolution at another time. What then does this text reveal to us about what is true? Let’s take a look . . .