A Northern Irish Christian Fundamentalist preacher- Pastor James McConnell has acquired the support of the National Secular Society. Pastor McConnell is being prosecuted for under the 2003 Communications act for allegedly posting a grossly offensive message, a recording of a sermon where he claimed that Islam was Satanic, “A doctrine spawned in hell.” The National Secular Society regard his prosecution as an infringement of his fundamental right to free speech, arguing that there was no incitement to violence in what he said.
In Northern Ireland we have a history of firebrand demagogues stirring up anger, and then taking no responsibility for subsequent violence. We also have a recent history of attacks on immigrants; so I am not as certain as the NSS that his message was inherently peaceable.
The NSS would have been considerably less vocal in support of Pastor McConnell’s rights, if he had wished to pray during a council meeting. There being “inappropriate, divisive and unnecessary”, even when it isn’t likely to incite violence, seems to be regarded as sufficient reason, for denying free speech.
Pastor McConnell is not the first Christian to argue that the God worshipped by those of a different Abrahamic tradition, is evil. Marcion, of Sinope, who was expelled from the Church in Rome in 144 AD, made similar claims about the Jewish God, the God of the Old Testament. He argued that, the stories of the Old Testament should be taken literally, and that they clearly portrayed a wrathful vengeful God, who was not the God whom Jesus called Father.
It is undoubtedly true that in places the Old Testament presents a God who not only endorses but insists on genocide, the killing of the innocent, and the abandonment of wives and children. Pastor McConnell and other Christian fundamentalists claim like Marcion, that the Old Testament should be treated as literally true.
Unlike Marcion, they believe that this is the God, that Jesus worshipped, and the First Person of the Trinity. They are able to hold this belief, while being most of the time mostly harmless themselves.
Given what he believes about God the Father, it is perhaps no wonder that when Pastor McConnell wished to distinguish his belief system, from what he alleged was Satan worship, that he was very emphatic that his God was Jesus.
While there are passages in the Old Testament, that show God in a very bad light, there are others that show a very different God, a God who is just and merciful. A God who doesn’t require very special pleading to be called good.
And then there is Leviticus 24:10 -23.
Steve Wells at Dwindling in Unbelief, had fun with this passage comparing the events to the stoning of the blasphemer, Matthias, Son of Deuteronomy of Gath, in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. A comparison that is more accurate than he realizes.
And the son of an Israelitish woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel: and this son of the Israelitish woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp;
And the Israelitish woman’s son blasphemed the name of the Lord, and cursed. And they brought him unto Moses: (and his mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan:)
And they put him in ward, that the mind of the Lord might be shewed them.
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him.
And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, Whosoever curseth his God shall bear his sin.
And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.
And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.
And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast.
And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him;
Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.
And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.
Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the Lord your God.
And Moses spake to the children of Israel, that they should bring forth him that had cursed out of the camp, and stone him with stones. And the children of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses.
Elbe Spurling, the creator of the Brick Testament and Steve Wells creator of The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, have this in common with the theologians of Christendom, they interpret the phrase, “And the children of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses,” as synonymous with, the children of Israel stoned Shelomith’s son to death.(1,2)
This is to ignore, what is metaphorically speaking, the small print. God commanded quite a lot of things in this passage. He commanded, that the hearers of the blasphemy identify themselves before the entire congregation, including presumably the relatives of the accused. Relatives who were likely to be very upset and have easy access to stones.
If anyone was still willing to identify themselves as a witness to this alleged blasphemy, by standing close enough to the accused to touch him, then other laws come into play. God is entirely clear about the consequences of damaging or killing another human being.
Some thousands of years before Shakespeare wrote the Merchant of Venice, we have the Jewish God, making an equivalent demand to that made to Shylock; take your pound of flesh without drawing blood.
There is only one of the commands given that could have been obeyed without contradiction, or danger to the life of the obedient.
And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast.
An explanation of what the fight was about?
It is likely within the context of the story, that it is the mixed race man who had had his livestock killed. I have no doubt that the sweethearts who would have seen him stoned, would have been quick to seek legal redress if it had been their cattle.
This is the story of a God, whose laws are harsh even by the standards of our judgemental, and fear filled nature, but which, like Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics, in practice collapse in on themselves. This is the story of a God of justice, grace and wit. One who understands His creation well.
Neither Elbe Spurling or Steve Wells see the logical consequence of the laws that God commands the Children of Israel to obey in this story. They do not however claim that ordering the cruel execution of a mixed race man, over a matter of unwise speech, is the act of a virtuous God.
One of those who failed to recognize in Leviticus 24, the outworking of the claim made in Deuteronomy 8:3, and again in Matthew 4:4, that “Man shall live by every word that comes out of the mouth of God,” was the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.
Shockingly, to me anyway, he justifies the barbaric desecration of this young man as an act of righteousness.
Lev. 24:23 Stone him with stones – This blasphemer was the first that died by the law of Moses. Stephen the first that died for the gospel, died by the abuse of the law. The martyr and the malefactor suffered the same death; but how vast the difference between them.
John Wesley Wesley’s Explanatory Notes 1755
This shocks me, because everything I know about John Wesley says that he was a good man: opposing slavery as against mercy, justice and truth; arguing for prison reform, and universal education – he fought the abuses of his own age.
Modern day Methodists recognise that blasphemy laws become a source of victimisation for minorities. Why didn’t Wesley recognise that this was being described in the text? Why was he willing to believe that God would condone such a thing? Why didn’t he look for another explanation?
I think that at least some of the explanation lies in the understanding of God that was formulated by Anselm, (c. 1033 – 21 April 1109) the first of the scholastic philosophers.
Prior to Anselm, the majority view of the medieval church was that Christ had given himself as a sacrifice to ransome us from Satan, that is the ransome theory of atonement.
Anselm, argued instead that the being that Christ was paying tribute to was in fact God. An argument he fleshed out in Cur Deus Homo, as a discussion between himself and someone called Boso.
Anselm. I think, therefore, that you will not say that God ought to endure a thing than which no greater injustice is suffered, viz., that the creature should not restore to God what he has taken away.
Boso. No; I think it should be wholly denied.
Anselm. Again, if there is nothing greater or better than God, there is nothing more just than supreme justice, which maintains God’s honor in the arrangement of things, and which is nothing else but God himself.
Boso. There is nothing clearer than this.
Anselm. Therefore God maintains nothing with more justice than the honor of his own dignity.
Anselm Cur Deus Homo Chapter 13 (Deane’s 1903 translation)
This is the image of God, that is central to traditional Western theology. For centuries Christians have acknowledged this self-obsessed and cruel God, as the foremost person of the Trinity. And have bowed down and called evil good.
It is this image of God, that enabled John Wesley to take Lev.24:10-23, at face value and accept the cruel execution of a young mixed race man as just?
It is this image that hides the other interpretation? The story of a God, who far from being obsessed with his own importance, took steps to not only save the life of a man, who may well have blasphemed his name, but also to ensure that those who had unjustly destroyed his livestock , replaced them?
A God who regards the deliberate killing or otherwise blemishing of those made in his image as the ultimate blasphemy.
Nearly one thousand years ago a clever pious man replaced a God deserving the honorific Father, with a monster who required torture and execution to appease him.
This is the God that John Wesley recognised in Leviticus. The God of Anselm’s imagination. The God that is not there.
24:14 Lay their hands upon his head – Whereby they gave public testimony that they heard this person speak such words, and did in their own and all the peoples names, demand justice to be executed upon him, that by this sacrifice God might be appeased, and his judgments turned away from the people, upon whom they would certainly fall if he were unpunished. Stone him – The same punishment which was before appointed for those who cursed their parents.
John Wesley Wesley’s Explanatory Notes 1755
Anselm was a very gifted man. So gifted was he, that he had the power to make the devil from hell appear, not merely as an angel of light, but the very God of heaven.
No matter how gifted Anselm was, he could not have succeeded in this, if we did not instinctively subscribe to the notion of pecking order justice; the instinct that might is right.
John Wesley though he paid lip service to the abomination, in life was Christ’s man. He proved the power of the cross, to save us from that shameful, forelock tugging human instinct. To recognise the greatness that lies in love not power.