Review: Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?

bloody, brutal and barbaric

Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?, William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: Using an incremental, redemptive ethic approach, and careful textual study, the authors argue for assessing the Old Testament warfare and war rape narratives against the Ancient Near East cultural context, the constraints on warfare for Israel, and evidence in the arc of biblical narrative that God both grieves warfare and redemptively works for the end of it.

Since 9/11, there has been an increasing focus on religiously-motivated violence including renewed attention not only to the sometimes violent history of the church, but also to the violence in the Old Testament, commanded or allowed by God. The authors of this work recognize the very real difficulties in these texts, particularly in light of our Geneva Convention ethics.

They begin by arguing that the argument of divine commands rooted in divine holiness and the evil of the Canaanites is a round peg into the square hole of modern ethics. The authors advocate instead that war be understood in terms of the biblical storyline in the Ancient Near East (ANE) context. Key is understanding God’s intention to restore the sacred space where God relates with his people lost in Eden, foreshadowed in Israel, decisively inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Jesus, looking forward to the peaceable kingdom of the new heaven and new earth, where evil is vanquished not by violence but by the word of the lamb.

The authors also develop the idea and show evidence that much of the “total kill” rhetoric of scripture reflects hyperbole, and that actually, death was most focused on military, and the kings who led them, where the general population may have been driven out of their homes. Often passages talk about “total” victories, only for subsequent passages to report continuing Canaanite presence.

Additionally, they contend that God accommodates the existing ethical practices of Israel. Perhaps the most significant argument for this “weeping God” portrayal is that unlike other victorious kings who often built temples, God banned David the warrior king from doing so, deferring the temple construction to Solomon (“shalom), the peaceful son.

It’s also striking that by ANE standards, Israel’s warfare practices are constrained. One chapter describes graphically an extensive list of atrocities common among the nations that were prohibited, as was battlefield rape. While warriors were permitted to take virgins who were attractives, they could not rape them on the battlefield. They were to be allowed 30 days to grieve during which they shaved their hair, and exchanged their clothing before the men could take them as wives (not slaves), who, if not pleasing, were not to be kept but released. None of this would be wholly acceptable by modern ethics (though often actual warfare still is accompanied by these atrocities) but these represented incremental improvements on a redemptive trajectory.

Ultimately, in Christ, God’s kingdom comes, not by the exercise of violence, but by the incarnate Son taking violence upon himself, standing with the victims of violence through history. In the end, the Lion who is the Lamb who was slain comes to set things right, not through indiscriminate slaughter, no ethnic genocide, no real battle but conquest by the Lamb’s word.

The writers admit the warfare accounts in scripture will always be troubling. We should be troubled. What the authors propose is a God who was troubled with a fallen world, who rather than remaining aloof, accommodated to the human conditions of war, but also instituted a redemptive process that will ultimately end all war atrocities and injustices in his peaceable kingdom.

I suspect we want a God who would wave a magic wand and make it all go away, pacifying warriors into peace-loving automatons. That’s not what’s on offer here, but rather a God who mixes it up with our sorry mess, and works slowly through history and sacrificially through his Son to set things to rights.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Scars Across Humanity

scars across humanity

Scars Across HumanityElaine Storkey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A description of the global crisis of violence against women, possible explanations, and the measures being taken to address different forms of violence.

Selective abortion and infanticide. Female genital mutilation. Early, forced marriage. Honor killings. Domestic violence. Sex trafficking and prostitution. Rape. Sexual violence in war. From the Congo, Egypt, Pakistan, southeast Asia, to the metropolitan centers and suburbs of Europe and North America, there is a pandemic of violence in various forms against women–most of it perpetrated by men.

One of the signal contributions of this work, written by Elaine Storkey, an advocate for women, is to rigorously document this pandemic, describing specific instances as well as the overall prevalence of the forms of violence against women listed above. Some of the descriptions are graphic and heart-breaking of women facing debilitating physical injuries and psychic scars of the violence done against them. Nine of the thirteen chapters in this work delineate the extent and nature of this violence. Her comments on the effectiveness of gender-based violence as a tactic of war that “inevitably hits the target” is chilling.  Along the way, Storkey reports on efforts being taken in advocacy, law, and support to address the violence, much of it after the fact. Much remains to be done. For example, Storkey notes that “603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is still not a crime.”

All of this begs the question of why is this so universally a part of the human experience (a “scar across humanity”) and particularly why is violence against women so pervasively a male behavior? Three chapters explore evolutionary, patriarchal, and religious explanations. Each, to some extent, offer some explanation for this behavior but none are completely satisfying, and none can be used as a warrant to ever justify violence. A problem that I saw with the chapter on religion is that it focused exclusively on Islam. I felt a broader treatment would have been more even-handed and would avoid feeding anti-Muslim stereotypes (although she does describe movements defending the rights of women within Islam).

The final chapter on Christianity and gender acknowledges the sad history of patriarchy and a turning of a blind eye to domestic violence in the church but also notes how scripture gives warrant for the dignity, equality, and full partnership of women in marriage and the church, and no warrant for any form of violence. She notes the “texts of terror,” but argues these are descriptive rather than ever prescriptive. Finally, Storkey traces the root cause of gender based violence to human rebellion against God–sin. She writes:

“At a far deeper level than either ‘biology’ or ‘culture,’ then, ‘sin’ helps us explain the ubiquity of violence against women. We are responsible. Patriarchal structures are a product of human choices and attitudes; oppression and brutality are rooted in the power sin exercises in human communities. A Christian theology of sin places accountability for attitudes, culture and actions firmly on human shoulders; we have to own what we create” (p. 223).

This is good a far as it goes, and I would agree with everything here, but I found her brief treatment less than satisfying in explaining why violence against women is a preferred male expression of our fallen sinfulness, particularly in light of her extensive treatment of evolutionary and patriarchal explanations. For this, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s Gender and Grace goes into far greater depth.

Storkey’s book is an important one for men to read. This cannot remain a women’s conversation. As men, we need to own what we have created and face our collective “heart of darkness” and the tragic mayhem we have wrought across the globe, from date rape to femicide. We need to own that we are the reason that no girl or woman from eight (or earlier) to eighty can live without fear in our presence. This book faces us with the ugly consequences of the abuse of our masculinity and challenges us to join our mothers, sisters, and daughters as advocates and allies rather than aggressors. It challenges us to live redemptively, joining with Jesus, who elevated the status of women throughout his ministry.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: No Place for Abuse

No Place for Abuse

No Place for Abuse (2nd ed.), Catherine Clark Kroeger & Nancy Nason-Clark. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

Summary: Written for Christian communities, this work chronicles the extent of domestic violence and abuse, the presence and factors that contribute to domestic violence in households in our churches, relevant biblical texts that address domestic violence, and steps church leaders can take to address domestic violence in their midst.

Perhaps the most sobering portion of this book is the twenty plus pages that document the extent and prevalence of domestic violence, much of it against women, throughout the world. More sobering yet is that the authors show how domestic violence also occurs in churches, sometimes aided by a cloak of silence and cover-ups rather than constructive pastoral care and congregational leadership that brings this issue to light and makes utterly clear the unacceptability of any form of abuse against men or women among those claiming to be disciples of Jesus.

The authors show how much time pastors engaged in pastoral counseling spend addressing issues of abuse. They also delineate in an early chapter both unhelpful attitudes that allow violence to continue, and steps pastors and leaders can take to become aware, to provide support and shelter, and to educate their congregations including their youth (who need to understand the dangers of abuse in dating).

The authors move beyond description to discuss the biblical texts that make clear that violence against marital partners is unacceptable. They also discuss passages around marriage and divorce that sometimes make it more difficult than it already is for victims of domestic violence to seek help and safety. Often the idolization and idealization of marriage and family pressures victims to remain in dangerous situations, sometimes at the tragic cost of their lives.

There is also frank material about both repentance and forgiveness, the possibility of behavioral change by abusers, and yet a realistic acknowledgement that many abusers continue to abuse. What is most important, it seems to me in this work, is that it doesn’t “heal wounds lightly” and yet addresses how forgiveness (while acknowledging the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation) may be healing for victims. It acknowledges that abusers may need to live with the consequences of broken relationships and submit themselves to accountability in the Christian community.

The concluding chapters summarize the important steps churches can take to address domestic violence and the authors commend the RAVE Project (Religion and Violence E-learning) website ( as a resource both for victims and for churches. The final chapter includes a tour of the site (which still seems to basically be set up on the lines described in the book, although not very mobile-friendly).

In addition to the book serving as a primer for churches who want to counteract domestic violence, the book seeks to bridge the gap between social work and theology on this issue, beginning with the authors, one a seminary professor and the other a sociologist. They argue eloquently that the silence in many churches around these issues needs to be broken:

“Many voices declare that the church has caused men to be violent toward their wives or at least provided fertile soil for men’s mistreatment of power within their families. They argue that since the church is part of the problem, it cannot be part of the solution. Thus when violence against women is being discussed, God’s people are seldom consulted. Since we speak out so infrequently about violence, our collective voice is hardly ever heard on this issue. Generally speaking, leaders in religious organizations and those involved in community pastoral care are rarely invited to participate at the secular consultation table. The silence of our churches and our leaders is often interpreted in the public square as complicity with violent acts.” (p. 19)

It is troubling to me to observe in the time since this book was published that much of the discussion in the church has been around gender roles, and gender and sexual identity while the scourge of violence, mostly against women, continues, accompanied by our silence. It is troubling to me that our loudest and most consistent voices against this evil are not from within but outside the church, because this represents the abandonment of a distinctive mark of Christian communities from the very earliest days of Christianity, where the victims of violence and abandonment were protected, sheltered, cared and advocated for. In calling attention to this book, I hope some church leaders, both in this country and elsewhere, will pick up the book, visit the RAVE Project website, and consider how their congregations might become “no places for abuse.”


The Scandal of Domestic Violence


By Concha Garcia Hernandez [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I have long been aware of the global prevalence of violence against women but have had my eyes opened to this afresh by No Place for Abuse by Catherine Clark Kroeger and Nancy Nason-Clark. The stark truth is that globally 1 in 3 women will face physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, or sexual violence from someone who is not their partner (Source: World Health Organization). The statistics are not much better in the U.S., where 1 in 4 women will experience severe violence at the hands of a partner in their lives. A woman is beaten every 9 seconds. (Source: Huffington Post, 30 Shocking Domestic Violence Statistics that Remind us It’s An Epidemic).

The authors of the book are writing particularly for church contexts, where the incidence of domestic violence may be nearly as high, and in some contexts may actually be exacerbated by theological teaching. Since a number of you who follow this blog attend churches fairly regularly, consider the possibility that roughly 25 percent of those present have experienced domestic violence at some time, and that it is likely that someone may be suffering this, possibly in silence, at present. I do consider this a scandal, one where real lives are endangered, where trauma is going unhealed, where oppression is allowed to go unchecked, where wrongdoing is concealed, and because of all this, the church is robbed of spiritual power.

A statement by the authors of this book caught my eye:

“Interviews and focus groups with large numbers of men who have acted abusively, women who have been abused and those friends and clergy who have walked alongside them reveal that when clergy preach a message condemning family violence, discuss abuse in their premarital counseling, offer support, give referral suggestions, provide ongoing encouragement and hold those who act abusively accountable for their actions, the impact is profound.”

This is significant in light of a study by Sojourners cited in a Christianity Today article, that 65 percent of pastors have spoken one or fewer times about domestic and sexual violence and ten percent have never spoken about it. And sometimes church teaching can exacerbate the problem. While there is a divide between egalitarians and complementarians, thoughtful people in both camps would agree categorically in condemning spousal violence. However, teaching that emphasizes the need for husbands to assert their authority and their need to make their wives submit (the latter for which there is no basis in scripture) may encourage forceful means and be used to justify violence (most complementarians would not teach this). Likewise, the way divorce may be taught about in some contexts may lead women to stay in dangerous situations.

It seems that there are some important steps pastors and church leaders can take:

  • One is to educate oneself on the incidence of domestic violence, how lay caregivers can offer support (often other women in a church community can offer significant support), the resources available to refer both the abused and abusers for help, and how to implement plans to make these available to those suffering abuse.
  • The silence around domestic violence must be broken, and done so regularly, communicating the unacceptability of perpetrating violence, that one who is treated violently never deserves that treatment, and communicating avenues for both the abused and abuser to acknowledge what is happening and find help.
  • Offer training for all church staff and Sunday School teachers.
  • Include information and discussion about domestic violence in all pre-marital counselling.
  • Include training in youth programs on dating violence.

As a man, it seems to me that we could do more to talk about the fruit of the Spirit (the virtues that result from the presence of God’s Spirit in the lives of all Christ followers) as virtues equally applicable to men, whatever our cultural ideals of “masculinity.” Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) are qualities commended by a man (Paul) for men and women. Among the requirements the Apostle sets for church leaders is that they are “self controlled…not violent but gentle” (1 Timothy 3:2, 3). Do we uphold people of both gender, and in particular, men who exemplify these qualities, as models for others? Are these the defining qualities of biblical manhood, indeed, biblical personhood?

It saddens me that the reality is that few women apart from very young children anywhere in the world live without the lingering fear and wariness of the possibility of sexual or physical violence against them. It disturbs me that simply because of my gender, I represent a possible threat. It says something of how broken is our fallen world and it staggers me. I honestly don’t know how to change the world in this instance. But I do want to work with others who share my faith commitments to change the church, so that, in the words of the title of the book I’m reading, it is “no place for abuse.” It would be no small thing for the global church to address itself to these matters, and if so, this would surely have ripple effects more widely. And who knows what power of God might be unleashed when our sisters know we are committed to their physical and emotional safety, and to fully respect their humanity and giftedness among us. May it be so!