Seeking fuel for criticism of religion, there is no better place to look than the old testament. When presented the contrast between the simple message of forgiveness in the New Testament and the corporal punishments of Leviticus, the best I have been offered is the tortured logic that “Christ’s sacrifice satisfied the desire of God for perfect justice.”
The contradictions in this message drove me from Christianity. Perfect justice? Dear God, who created us, with all of our flaws and weakness? What right has our maker to pass judgment on us?
To the atheist, these debates lack any merit. The books of the Bible are clearly an amalgamation of myths and histories from different cultures and eras. What kind of consistency would we expect to find?
But to the fundamentalist, these are central issues. If murder is justifiable in the eyes of the Lord, then there are principles that justify state-sanctioned execution, and even warfare. More moderately, social repression of “deviant” behaviors has a holy sanction, regardless of the psychological and political consequences to the oppressed class.
As I implied, resolving this contradiction was critical to the acceptability of Christianity in my mind. Given the obvious justification of the atheist’s position, I was ultimately astonished that there should be any coherence in scripture as I sought through it for answers to the problem. That coherence I found is evidence that the work of Divine Love on human nature involves transfers of focus from one culture to another as the opportunity best presents itself to heal our separation from the Almighty.
Let us trace the history of justice since that separation was first recognized. It begins with fratricide, a crime certainly more horrific than adultery, for which Leviticus demands death. What was the response of the Divine to that act? Not murder, but banishment. Not rejection, but protection.
What is the purpose of this program? As God had counseled Cain earlier “Evil crouches at your door. But you can master it.” Cain lost that struggle with evil. His jealousy overcame him, and he murdered his brother. So God sends him away with his personal devil, knowing that the display of mercy and concern will give Cain strength as he struggles for the rest of his life to civilize the spirit that bound itself to him through his brother’s murder.
This is the work of an engineer, using humanity as a tool to heal brokenness in the realm of spirit.
Then we come to Noah and the flood. Here we see God, in an act of desperation, attempting to purge the world of human evil. Several historical events have been proposed as the precursor of this story: an asteroid impact, the release of flood waters from glaciers on the Asian steppes, and rising sea levels fed by Ice Age melt that eventually flooded continental shelves. There seems to be no lack of material mechanisms to explain the myth, but this doesn’t let God of the hook: why didn’t He intervene to remove His creatures from the path of destruction?
The simple answer is that nobody was listening. But God still regrets the consequences, and this is central to the thread of the history of justice in the Bible. He announces that no longer will He intervene to dispense justice over men – the cost to the rest of reality is too great. From this point forward, men will maintain their own courts of justice.
In this context, the words of Jesus take on a different weight. Asked to identify the commandments, he replies “Love thy God with all thy heart and mind and soul. And love thy neighbor as thyself. All the rest of the law is derived from these.” But derived by who? Clearly, in the post-flood context, by men. Elsewhere, Jesus asserts “I came not to overthrow the law, but to restore it.” Reading his proclamations and efforts to the reclamation of sinners, clearly Jesus is referring to the law of unconditional love that granted mercy to Cain.
The Law of the Torah is a human construct, serving human ends, motivated by divine principle, but expedient where human patience reaches its end. Jesus did not die to satisfy a Divine need for Perfect Justice. He died and rose again to demonstrate the imperfection and ineffectuality of human justice, and give us the courage to struggle against the tyranny of misguided enforcement.
In the end, then, there are no just wars, because wars perpetuate and strengthen the spirit of violence. There is no just persecution, because persecution always separates us from those that we are intended to heal. Any pronouncements to the contrary contradict the teachings and acts of Jesus. They are not the teachings of Christianity.