In light of the recent violence against children at Sandy Hook and other places, it is worthwhile to ask ourselves a touchy question: Is there anything in the way we teach the Bible to children that aggravates and encourages violence toward them or by them?
According to Eric A. Siebert, associate professor of Old Testament at Messiah College, there definitely is. In his book “The Violence of Scripture, Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy” (Fortress Press, 2012), Siebert objectively examines passages that advocate hatred, murder, assassination and dehumanization (see my Feb. 18 column, “Violence in America — and the Old Testament”). Asking how to teach children biblical stories which describe and advocate violence, Siebert suggests that adults must learn how to reinterpret the Bible for themselves before they can effectively instruct young students. The church must honestly identify the pervasive endorsement of “virtuous violence” in Scripture, and develop ways to transcend it through Christian love.
In particular, Siebert wisely counsels teachers to avoid some Bible stories that used to be regularly included in church school curriculum and children’s sermons. A case in point: what virtue can we find in the narrative about David’s killing of Goliath (1 Samuel 17) that enables children to become open-minded peacemakers? Rather than extolling young David for being brave, obedient to God and accurate with his trusty slingshot, we should be telling our young people that killing is against God’s command of love and that violence is always wrong. Instead of calling those who kill others the heroes of the Bible, we should be focusing on the heroic efforts of those who saved lives, not those who destroyed them.
How we teach children about the many violent passages in the Scriptures needs to be grounded in our knowledge of educational theory and psychological development, the age of the children in the group, the details of the particular story involved, and the context in which the texts are being discussed. Obviously the story of David and Goliath and many other narratives can be critically examined with high school students in light of the situations they witness in their own communities and around the world, but there is little merit in trying to sanitize them for 5- or 6-year olds.
Siebert suggests that, if we think we must approach these texts with children, we should at least tell them in modified ways. Parts that specifically advocate violence and attribute them to God’s commands, as well as David’s assertion that God would help him overcome all danger (1 Samuel 17:37, 45-47), can simply be left out. Avoiding simplistic moralizing that seems to extol virtuous violence, teachers could approach the
texts with a new set of questions like “What do you think about the way Goliath treated David, or what David did to Goliath? How do you think God felt about what finally happened to both of them? Are there are other ways to work out differences between enemies? What would Jesus teach us to do in situations like that?”
Assessing the way we teach the Bible is critical for us today as Presbyterians as we try to determine whether or not we are a peace church and as Americans struggle with questions about gun control and protection of schools. As Siebert puts it, “To explain the text without evaluating its values, assumptions, and perspectives is to leave our job unfinished and to fail to do a significant part of our work. It is not enough to help people understand what a text may mean; we must also help them understand how a text should be read: ethically, responsibly, and nonviolently.”
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor and an adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.