Rick Warren’s Biblical Blowback

An astonishing exchange was aired on the Fox News Channel’s Hannity and Colmes show on December 3, during an interview with the Reverend Rick Warren, founder of the Saddleback Church in California. Though it may have begun as a publicity tour for Warren’s new book on Christmas, it ended as a surreal biblical sojourn into fictional foreign policy.

Watch it here, courtesy of Think Progress:

And here’s a transcript of the crucial moment in question (my emphases in bold):

HANNITY: Can you talk to rogue dictators? Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, wants to wipe Israel off the map, is seeking nuclear weapons.

WARREN: Yes.

HANNITY: I think we need to take him out.

WARREN: Yes.

HANNITY: Am I advocating something dark, evil, or something righteous?

WARREN: Well, actually, the Bible says that evil cannot be negotiated with. It has to just be stopped. And I believe…

HANNITY: By force?

WARREN: Well, if necessary. In fact, that is the legitimate role of government. The Bible says that God puts government on earth to punish evildoers. Not good-doers. Evildoers.

HANNITY: I’m just gotten, thanks to my wife, who you know, you know, been reading the Old Testament. Because as a good Catholic growing up, I studied more the New Testament.

WARREN: Just ignored that part.

HANNITY: I ignored the Old Testament. But what about King David? What about the—all the battles, all the conflict, you know, going back—you know, Abraham—Adam and Eve and their children, going forward?

WARREN: The point is, there are some things worth dying for. There’s no doubt about that. And I would die for my family. I would die for my freedom. I would die for this country.

HANNITY: If somebody broke into your house, you would be justified to kill them?

WARREN: I would be justified to protect my family. Absolutely.

HANNITY: And if it took killing them?

WARREN: Absolutely.

HANNITY: But it’s not murder at that point?

WARREN: No. Murder is not self-defense.

Oh my. Where to begin? Let me express my worries in reverse, moving through the interview from the strange conclusion to its even stranger beginning.

Note in the final exchanges how swiftly Warren’s passionate conviction that there are some things worth dying for morphs into what is really at issue: some things being worth killing for. Like someone breaking into your home. Or “evil.” I’ll come back to that word.

Next, notice the curious confusion about the relationship between the two Christian “testaments” or, more accurately, the two “covenants.” As a Catholic, Hannity says that he wasn’t very well versed in the Hebrew Bible, and the Protestant pastor gently chides him for “just ignor[ing] that part.”

This is significant because in the last 24-hour news cycle, much of the discussion has hinged on which part of the Bible Warren had in mind when he invoked “the [central] role of government” as “the punishment of evildoers” (again, I’ll come back to that pesky but powerful word). There has been a general consensus, one that Warren’s PR office seems to have confirmed, that the Reverend had Paul’s famous comment in Romans 13 in mind, the one where the Apostle to the Gentiles counsels Christians to “submit” to secular authorities in their policing and judicial functions. But that is not at all what Warren’s most astonishing claim (in bold above) actually calls to mind.

Rather, it is utterly and thoroughly of the Old Testament; and it reads those scriptures completely backward. Let me explain why.

One of the great mysteries for any careful reader of the Bible is the book of Joshua, with its staggering depiction of what appears to be a God-ordained genocide of Canaanites, including even their livestock and their architecture. The first half of the book of Joshua depicts this awful conduct of holy war (the Hebrew word is cherem, and it is described in disturbing detail in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 20).

But the real mystery in the book of Joshua is not ultimately why God would order such a thing, but rather why, in the second half of the book, the children of Israel seem unable to complete the task. The first half of the book depicts the forces of Israel as unstoppable, steamrolling over the land of promise. This is when the simple trumpeting of rams’ horns brings down the storied walls of Jericho. The massacres inevitably follow.

But in the second half of the book of Joshua (the change comes quite suddenly, in chapter 13), we discover that the twelve tribes were unable to complete the conquest, and were unable to eliminate the indigenous peoples from the land. Some places, like Jerusalem itself, were not taken until much later, during the first unified campaigns under King David, who renamed the city after he took it, as “David’s City.” Why, then, were the children of Israel incapable of completing a God-ordained genocide?

Not for moral reasons, oddly enough. No, the real reason is revealed in the next book, the book of Judges. The book of Judges tells a harrowing tale of what happens after the children of Israel are successfully established in the land. They turn, almost immediately, to fighting with one another and ignoring God’s sacred covenant. They “go after” the gods of the indigenous peoples, the Baals and Ashtaroth mostly, and each time they do, the relentlessly punitive logic of the book of Deuteronomy kicks immediately into action.

If you keep the covenant, you will prosper. If you break the covenant, God will punish the entire nation. And for that, God requires those other tribes that were never completely eliminated from the land of Canaan (Joshua 2: 21-23). These tribes were not vanquished entirely, precisely so that they might later serve as instruments of God’s vengeance.

Vengeance against whom? Against Israel. Not once do we hear that Israel was “put on earth” by God to provide the shock troops of divine justice. Just the opposite, in fact. Prophets like Isaiah knew this all too well. There is no cause for bragging, nor even for joy, in being “chosen” by God, he warns. All this means is that God has God’s eye on the people of Israel. In short, God uses other nations, like the Assyrians and Babylonians, to chastise Israel; God does not use Israel to chastise other nations with whom God is not in covenantal relation, at least not yet (the book of Jonah explores this issue in elegant detail).

Warren’s idea that “God put government on earth to punish evildoers” has strong biblical support—in the early historical chronicles of the Hebrew Bible. But notice what the selectively-reading Reverend fails to say. If the United States of America is imagined to be the new city on a hill, then it presumably occupies the same scriptural position once occupied by the children of Israel. Their job, as it were, is to stand continually under divine judgment, not to serve as the rod of that judgment. So, do governments serve a function in expressing and exacting God’s judgment? In the early portions of the Hebrew Bible, they clearly do. (In Jesus’ day, this was far less clear—the Kingdom of Israel was no more, and the Romans were “the government God had put on earth,” by then, and the government Paul told his followers to obey).

Consistently in the Hebrew Bible, the judgment is directed against Israel, not against the Canaanites and Philistines and Perizzites and Hivites and Jebusites (Joshua 3: 5-6). And by troubling implication, the judgment is now to be directed against the United States, not against the Iranians.

The bizarre implication of the way Warren reads his scriptures places the United States in the surreal position of being like the Amorites, the Amalekites, or worset—which is precisely what the so-called Enemies of Freedom are claiming that we have become.

Behind all of these scriptural and theological confusions lies a still deeper issue, I’m afraid, and that is the way the language of “evil” has been deployed by a certain kind of conservative, whether religious or political, over the past thirty years.

More on that confusion in another article.

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