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"Where is your brother Abel?" (Gen 4,9)

On the Biblical Culture of Non-violence

German Version


From: Geist und Leben, 2005/5, S.321-331
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


There is rumoured in our post-modern society that it were the monotheistic religions which brought violence into the world. From their origin they were unable to tolerance. You can scarcely make a more devastating accusation today. Since September 11th it is burning in our contemporary awareness in quite a different way. That act of terror, blind with rage, in New York shows to what people are able who appeal improperly to the name of the one true God. Is such decadence installed in monotheism itself? To divert from Jews and Christians, it would be too cheap to point at Muslims. So important the Christian-Jewish discourse with Islam is, today it is for us about Jews and Christians. In the present monotheism argument they are put together in the pillory and have to explain themselves.


1. The Suspicion of Violence

The Egyptologist Jan Assmann speaks of the "Mosaic distinction between true and false". The question about the true God existed only in monotheism. It had not been asked before. Generally speaking, just this question originated intolerance and with it violence. In various speeches and essays Assmann demands therefore, "If you want to save the monotheistic idea, then you are to divest it of its inherent violence." {2} Well, in his book The Mosaic Distinction Asmann withdrew some theses, and differentiated others at the cost of a clear position {3}, but his basic assertion remained: With monotheism there came into existence the "Mosaic distinction". It has brought to the world violence, fanaticism and intolerance.

Peter Sloterdijk sounds the charge against universalism and "hyper moral" of the Jewish-Christian tradition. Contrary to the "Old Man", who was shaped by Christianity and humanism, the future belongs to the technical "New Man" who is its own experiment {4}. The poison of the Gospel divides people and does not allow them to lead a life without guilt. The idea to be the 'chosen people' will always end in terrorism. Europe needs new myths and new memories that are anti-universalistic and anti-monotheistic. Hence polytheism has to defuse monotheism with its explosive charges.

In the post-modern era polytheism wins some plausibility. In this context Martin Walser's attack in his peace prize speech in St Paul's Church/Frankfurt against the public conscience is revealing. It cannot conceal a deep sitting affect against biblical monotheism. Simultaneously with that speech Walser published an essay in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. {5} According to it the worst thing of biblical monotheism is its universal claim to power. In accordance with God's universal claim to power Christianity wants to convert by missionary work and to discipline the whole world. The whole mischief arises from there. Instead of the biblical God Walser recommends the pure nature in which nothing is universal and where many gods exist. And he conjures up Europe's heathen past: "Hardly anything but the names of our rivers remind still of our Pre-Christian predecessors. There was in each tree, in each well, and in each brook a different god then. Unimaginable that under the shield of a variety of gods, spread over meadows and woods, the planet could ever been threatened by any danger."


2. The Universalistic Heritage

Whether those legendary times without violence ever existed? It will not lead to any good, if we skip the realities of our world. To remain in Walser's picture, in meadows and woods, brooks and wells dwell not only gods and nymphs but also imps, demons, and voracious idols. Only people who know to distinguish them can survive in this world, and will thereby remain humanly. Only so they can withstand the destructive powers. The classical antiquity and the old orient were full of violence. Religions were dominated by bloody sacrificial rites, which were to lead off the urge to slaughter human scapegoats in order to get peace again. {6} The banners of polytheistic gods took the lead of those armies which devastated whole countries. In the towns which - according to biblical statements - had been captured by Joshua, the archaeologists found no mass graves, if they could discover any corresponding layers of destruction. But doubtlessly they did find at the town wall of the Jewish stronghold Lachisch a mass grave with thousands of skeletons of violently killed people. The Assyrian king Sanherib had besieged Lachisch and had taken it. The Assyrians were polytheists, the killed people monotheistic Jews. So you should better give up the dreams of a polytheistic peace paradise. People of polytheistic and Cosmo-theistic religions became only too often addicted to violence.

The peaceful living together of people of different cultures and religions emerges not automatically. Simple-minded multi-culti-dreams burst asunder by the rough reality. Universalism and tolerance sit not in our flesh and blood. There sits some totally different thing, as socio-biologists and behavioural research teach. By our phylogenetic heritage we are adjusted to meet other people and above all strangers with mistrust or even with hostility. We gain our individual and collective identity first of all by demarcation and exclusion. The universalism of a worldwide principle of equality - so the biologist and anthropologist Christian Vogel - is not inborn to us but means a cultural achievement of highest degree. It has to be wrested from the always reluctant human nature.

At this task the Jewish-Christian tradition has been effective in a pioneering way. The biblical monotheism unites uniformity and variety, as the book Genesis shows just on the first pages of the Bible. It did not drop quite finished from the sky. Israel needed centuries - up to the time of its exile - before it arrived at a decided monotheism. The old world of the gods of polytheism faded only in course of time before the one God, who embraces the whole. And at the same time it lives on in angels, powers, and authorities who - in our Jewish and Christian divine services - stand invisible around the heavenly throne. Hence an excluding either-or, yes or no is for the present out of the question. The distinction between God and idols remained through the entire church history up to this day a challenge.

The basic statement of Biblical monotheism reads: one God - one mankind. It does not say: one god - one kingdom - one emperor, and above all not: one god - one people - one leader. »God« is related to the whole mankind - otherwise he is no theme. Idols can be multiplied and regionalized, but not God. It is only »my« God, if it is »your« God too. It is only »our« God, if it is the God of all human beings too. The importance of the biblical monotheism lies not only in the statement that there is one God only and not many gods, "but in the definition of the human world: It is not to be divided by the antagonism of divine powers, and by the division in different dominions. It is not to be torn by an insurmountable dualism of light and darkness, of bad and good entities. It is not to be polarized finally by the antagonistic self-maintenance of peoples." {7}

In the first Creation tale the brotherliness of all peoples and human beings is connected with their being God's images. That is revolutionary. Neither animals nor statutes appear there as powerful representatives of God in Creation, nor any priests or kings. It is man, each human being, Adam and Eve, man and woman. Rightly this biblical basic statement is named the foundation of democratization of social and political relations. Its basic approach is more radical than the ancient Greek model of democracy: it concerned only the small circle of free and rich men. The Jewish-Christian tradition allows not any exception. It is against elitism. Each man and woman is a human being. Not: this one more - the other one less. Not: this one is valuable - the other one is worthless. That just the sick, the poor, the loser are sacrosanct in their dignity - this is Jewish-Christian heritage.

The biblical universalism made possible the overcoming of clan thinking, racialism, nationalism, and imperialistic ideology. It inspired the idea of human rights, long before they found their expression in laws and constitutions. Vigilance is needed that this gift of the Jewish-Christian tradition is not wasted to the lovely sounds of polytheism on the market place of post-modern caprices. True, compared with the colourful polytheistic idyll, Israel's jealous God that stands for the whole and holds it together seems terrible strange. It is also granted that monotheism is logically not compatible with a "variety of gods spread out over meadows and woods". For the sake of one God and one mankind the monotheistic belief is not afraid of any arguments that result from its claim to truth. If necessary, it will even provoke them. And in the case of violence it is needed. Let us look now at the texts of our common Bible. Christians call it the Old or First Testament, and in the Jewish belief it is called Tanak or Scripture or - in a broader sense - Torah. It is uniting us to such extend that it were inexcusable, if we would allow to be divided because of it.


3. The Damming of Violence by Law

The 'early history' in Book Genesis tells not the things that happened only in the beginning. Here is told, as generally in such tales of the beginnings, what always happens. Compared with early histories of other peoples, the Bible reveals from the start the human tendency to violence. It appears as the central problem. After the paradise tale unmasked the original sin as man's mistrust against God, it was subsequently at once duplicated as interpersonal catastrophe, as murder of the brother by the brother. The tale of Cain and Abel does not simply want to tell an act of violence against a fellow human being as archetype of sin. It only starts rightly when Abel lies in the field.

A dramatic dialogue between God and Cain deals with the consequences of this act of violence. God gives Abel a sign. By threatening revenge he protects him from the consequences of his atrocity. Well, this too is violent again, but in this context it is a step forwards. Before the punishment of murder was transferred to courts of justice, revenge had had its positive importance in social history. It is a pre-governmental institution of justice, an attempt of prevention. By threatening the violent criminal it wants to obviate chaotic outbreaks of arbitrary violence. The latently present violence is temporarily restrained by first attempts of right. Culture comes into existence in this context.

"Cain and his offspring build the first town, organize stock-farming, invent music, and start metal-working. (...) The entire culture is developed by man in connection with an original element of justice: the threat of sanction for murder. Everything contributes to the control of violence. (...) Nothing of the human development comes to us in innocence, neither the differentiation of the human society into the functional variety of a town, nor cattle-breeding, art or industry." {8}

Everything has to tame the impulse of violence (cf. Gen 4,17-22). But everything can also lead again to eruptions of new violence. Threat, instituted to restrain violence, can escalate as well. Already in the sixth generation Lamech boasted that he would take revenge seven times seventy, if one would kill him (4,23f.).

In this context the Tale of the Flood is of importance. Such tales are otherwise found in Israel's neighbourhood too. But only the Bible explains the relapse of Creation into chaos as caused by violence. It does not only undermine the social life, but endangers the entire creation. After the Flood God gives new directions to man (Gen 9,2-6). The blood of those who shed human blood will be shed by man. For each human being is created according to God's image; its life is sacrosanct.

Here the Tale of the Flood meets with the Tale of Cain. Violence shall be prevented by sanctions which are put into order by law. Even when in the future violence occurs limitedly, creation will no longer sink back into chaos. For this the rainbow stands as sign of an eternal covenant. By a sworn self-obligation God guarantees to all living beings that he lets not perish the universe again (9,8-17).

The Jewish tradition deduced from that text as most important command for man to establish an orderly administration of justice. It pays to consider at least shortly the so-called Command's of Noah {9}. For Jews and Christians are united here in a characteristic way - without just knowing it. Noah's commands are a very old subject of Jewish tradition. Well, as different as the lists of those commands are in Judaism, they correspond with regard to the protection of life. The covenant with Noah is God's covenant with mankind, and not only with the chosen people.

- In the early morning of Christianity the question was burning whether all non-Jews - by becoming Christians - had to observe the entire Jewish law. Then the Apostle Council in Jerusalem decided that the faithful from pagan peoples had actually to observe Noah's commands only. Pagans who become Christians will get a share in Abraham's blessing, and in Israel's promises. They are not be incorporated into the Jewish people but stand under Noah's commands.

The command to create in each society the rule of law and a system of law courts takes up above all the Tale of the Flood. It stands out also by the fact that it is founded already in the Bible to a certain extent on »natural law«.

On »natural law« means that moral and legal demands are not deduced from positive statements of God's will but from the nature of the case. "The blood of those who shed human blood will be shed by man. For he made man as God's image" (Gen 9,6). This dignity of man - to be "God's image" within the creation - is the reason why it must not be killed, and that its murder has to be punished in an orderly way. Humankind is obliged by God to fashion its social life out of the nature of things, and according to the rule of reason, which will orientate itself by nature.

From this starting point not only Judaism deduced the right and the duty to apply always anew - with the help of enlightened reason - the Sinai commands to the actual circumstances. Christianity too has developed from there the doctrine of »natural law« which at the morning of modern times essentially contributed to the doctrine of human rights, and to the conception of modern western democracy. Herman Cohen has shown how Hugo Grotius and others conveyed the rabbinic concept of Noah's commands into a system of natural law. {10}

Even if today the term »natural law« has to a large extent a peculiar smack and is rejected - the matter in question is indispensable. We are touching here something that up to this day unites Christianity with Judaism. Both have the basic conviction that it is possible - on the strength of our reason and of our common human nature - to come also with groups that do not belong our community to a God-given basis of living together set by Creation. Even if this leads only to social systems that are formed as just as possible and in which violence has in the end to be punished by legitimate authorities yet. But this is already very much, even if those systems will always remain quite labile, and can scarcely hinder all the atrocities which make daily our TV news.


4. On the Way to Freedom of Violence

God starts with Abraham a movement that meets violence no longer by force only but in a different way. It does not disapprove of it or haughtily ignore it, but transcends it. This new starting point will become a blessing for mankind.

Israel had to go through a long and sorrowful process of change leading to a new relation to violence. First of all it had to learn to which extent the world is interwoven with violence. The Bible destroys the disguising of violence. Here one does not look away but look at it. There is no longer any need to repress it, or to project it on other people. This is possible because God lets not fall any human being - in spite of its guilt. He stands by it. So man is enabled to become aware of the abysses of its violence.

This obsession by violence is by no means uncovered only on other peoples but on Israel itself. It is not glossed over but called by its name. In the Old Testament no other human topic, neither love, labour and family nor nature and education appear so often and are so drastically portrayed. Hence the Bible can appear as a book marked by violence and dripping with blood. One is tempted to devote oneself to other religious books which sound lovelier - at the cost to avoid the discussion about the topic 'violence'. This context is studiously kept secret in the present denunciation of monotheism.

As Jews and Christians we should know the rating of the topic violence in our religion. Hence we can only be thankful when our attention is drawn to places where we abandon the overcoming of violence as the central topic of our vocation, or even act against it. But that someone imputes to us that we - from the starting point of our belief in God - want just the opposite, can only be rejected as ignorance or wilful allegation. The Bible stands for it that violence is not repressed but unmasked, denounced and condemned. It calls up to renounce violence (cf. the prophets). Right and justice, compassion, solidarity with the poor and peace are prominent.

It is not possible to unfold here the biblical protest against violence in a broader way - it is the topic of the whole Bible. Besides, one has to remember that the Holy Scriptures give not complete theses. They testify a process by which even Israel has been - quite slowly only - lead from a world determined by violence to behaviour free of violence. That has to be said - openly and honestly. Unfortunately this topic enables people to get always anew - from the many stations of that long way - proofs for the wanted thesis that truth had been enforced by massacres. But if one abandons such dubious interpretations and looks at the whole and at the characteristic reference points, there will open way to peace that is not violence-armed, but wins room without violence.

We remind of two prophetic texts that stand as deputies for many others. The peace vision of the Bible is expressed especially vividly in that prophet word which became the motto of the Peace Movement in the years past. "He administers justice in the quarrel of many peoples. He reprimands mighty nations up to the distance. Then they will forge ploughshares out of their swords and pruning knives out of their lances. They do no longer draw the sword, people against people, and does no longer practise war. Everyone sits under his vine and under his fig tree, and nobody makes him jump." (Mi 4:3f.; cf. Jes 2:2-4). This vision came from a situation that let await anything else but "peace without weapons". Of course, also not any peace that could have been enforced by arms. Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed, its inhabitants killed, subjugated or taken away to Babylon by the victors. David's and Salomon's dream of Israel as great power had come to its end, but not the vision of a lasting and world-wide peace.

Just in exile it appears as counter-picture against a world that knows only violence and counter-violence, victors and losers, rulers and ruled people. Out of this experience of a disastrous defeat, of the failure of all tactical subterfuges of a seesaw policy oriented towards power, of extermination and expulsion Israel's prophetic theology did not draw depressive-resigned or cynical-nihilistic consequences. It remodels its view on God and life. Everything is turned upside down. Military power becomes weakness, and weakness insurmountable, invincible strength: the strength to renounce violence.

No utopian enthusiasm or empty promises for the future. Nothing would be more remote from the spirit of the Bible which is quite close to nature. Its hope is related to this world, not to a "back-world", as Nietzsche mocked. And since it is about this world only - a world dominated by violence -, to renounce violence can only mean the strength to resist violence by one's protesting imagination, yes, even by one's readiness to suffer violence and, if necessary, to die by violence. This change will not happen by actions undertaken by Jerusalem, but by the fascination that comes from the City of Peace, the "mountain with the House of the Lord" (Mi 4,1).

Only in the Babylonian captivity Israel got the decisive insight during this learning process up to peace: It is better to be the victim than the violent victor. This peace, which surpasses the violence-armed and always endangered peace of our world, will rather grow from the side of the victims than from the victors' side. God stands on the side of the victims.

One of the most amazing texts of the Holy Scriptures is the so-called Fourth Song of God's Servant (Jes 52:13-53,12). It is the culmination of Israel's peace theology - and appears like an erratic block within the Hebraic Bible. The peoples of the world banded together against the Servant of God, beat and tortured him, and killed him in the end. But like those who complain in the 'Lamentations', he took refuge in God. He beat not back. He faced the violence raging against him, and did not evade it. The way of non-violence leads - through the seeming victory of foreign violence - to the aim.

The Fourth Song of God's Servant contains an astonishing confession of the other peoples and kings of the world. They realize what happened by their own co-operation. This killed man has become the scapegoat of the world. But God saved him, and let come - by his suffering and death - true peace into the world. God's plan for history will succeed through him. Also other peoples of the world can choose this way of non-violent justice gone by the 'Servant-of-God-Israel'.

On the one hand the text is open for an individual saviour, on the other hand for the whole people Israel. Presumably it is ambiguous: both can be seen in it as possible meaning. When we Christians see in this song Jesus of Nazareth's figure and fate pre-projected, we presume thereby that he, as it were, personifies Israel.


5. Among Brothers

As Christians we cannot pass by all the things we did to Jews in two thousand years Christianity and talk about biblical culture of non-violence, let alone interpret the two scripture texts just cited, as if nothing had happened. We blush when we look into the mirror of their message. Here is a stumbling block with which many people - in and outside the church - are unable to cope. How was it possible that the church - in spite of God's saving love given to her - became violent to that extent? The church became unfaithful to its own origin, not least after its 'marriage' with the state (Constantine). With his name we are to mark the long history of violence which lies behind us, beginning by the first synagogue burnt down by Christians in the year 288 in Kallinikon at the Euphrates, over the many pogroms in the Middle Ages and in the modern time, up to the dreadful crimes of the last century, which have been done in many cases by Christians, and to which the churches have been silent to a large extent.

What is more, the historic preconditions of violence have definitely also Christian roots. The Christian Anti-Judaism with its abysmal consequences remains a shame. It weighs all the more as it developed among brothers in Abraham's house. God's question "Where is your brother Abel?" catches up with us. We cannot talk our way out, "I do not know it. Am I the guardian of my brother?" (4,9). We are it, we should have been it - sixty, seventy years ago. Too few people stood by their Jewish sisters and brothers. The whole church has to carry this heavy burden. It cannot be that the church shines at the sunny side of the Christian history of tolerance, and the deep shadows hang fall on individual Christians only.

What am I, what are parishes to learn from the younger history in a church 'examination of conscience'? At any rate, the beginnings have to be checked as soon as 'concepts of the enemy' emerge. Any hostile utterance and act against Jews must to meet our decisive public veto and our protest. How can we learn more about each other and to do more together? We can only be grateful that Jews meet Christians in societies for Christian-Jewish co-operation, and show how it looks when we have the courage to live from our common roots.

The message of the texts considered by us will not leave us alone. It sends us - Jews as well as Christians - into history. This history aims not at convincing everybody that there is one God only. Rather it is to serve the aim of the One Creator God - PEACE. Violence is an obstacle to this aim, even if we, for the time being, cannot do without the violence-armed law, since violence has to be limited. In all these things Jews and Christians stand together, as far as they stand to their basic traditions. What then does distinguishes these two religions? It is their reply to the question where we meanwhile arrived in the course of God's history with humankind. Jews are, in obedience to their Tora, further on the way to that aim. Christians - they too 'People of the Way' - are convinced that with Jesus of Nazareth the hour did already begin in which the peoples' pilgrimage to Zion started.

As important as this distinction is - it must by no means narrow the broad ground of common interest. Points in common are: the conviction that violence is a central problem of mankind; that violence has to be subdued by violence-armed law; but above all the common hope that God creates within history a people spreading peace not by violence but by the fascination of non-violence. We cannot do a better service to the world than to remain faithful to our traditions. Not the trend to a 'soft' religion brings us ahead in this critical world hour, but the faith in the one God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. T h i s   is the way on which Jerusalem can become at last the City of Peace.



{1} Address held at the opening of the »Week of Brotherliness«, on 13 March 2005 in Wiesbaden.

{2} J. Assmann, Monotheismus und Ikonoklasmus als politische Theologie, in: E. Otto (editor), Mose, Ägypten und das Alte Testament. Stuttgart 2000, 139.

{3} Cf. the same, Die mosaische Unterscheidung. Oder der Preis des Monotheismus. München 2003.

{4} Cf. P. Sloterdijk, Das Menschentreibhaus. Stichworte zur historischen und prophetischen Anthropologie. Weimar 2001

{5} Cf. Neue Zürcher Zeitung from 10 September 1998.

{6} Cf. the findings of R. Girard, La violence et le sacré. Paris 1972 (Title of the German translation: Das Heilige und die Gewalt. Zürich 1987).

{7} H. Zirker, Monotheism and Intolerance, in: K. Hilpert/J. Werbick (publ.), To live with ohters. Ways to Tolerance. Düsseldorf 1995, 95f.

{8} The just peace. Publ. by the secretaries' office of the German Bishops' Conference. Bonn 2000 (Die deutschen Bischöfe; 66), n. 15; about the Tale of the Flood s. n. 17 - 21.

{9} I own the here stated insight to N. Lohfink.

{10} Cf. H. Cohen, The Religion of Reason from the Authorities of Judaism. Leipzig 1919, 143f.


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