Sunday, November 11, 2012

When Massey Goes a-Simplifyin': A Response to Chris Massey on Divine Genocide

               Somewhat related to the moral argument is the issue of what’s come to be called the “slaughter of the Canaanites.” This is the issue of certain commands presumed to have been given by God to the Israelites as they were beginning their conquest of the land of Canaan. According to Old Testament accounts, God commanded the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child in the land, and even to kill the cattle; to leave nothing alive. It is a topic for another day whether the command was specifically to kill all those who were living in the land, or whether the command was to dispossess the inhabitants of the land and to kill any who did not flee. For the sake of today’s post, we can assume that God did command Israel to kill everything alive in Canaan, including women and children, and to have no mercy.

                The blogger at Cognitive Discopants, Chris Massey, takes issue with this account in his article, “When God Goes a-Slaughterin’.” Massey focuses on reformed Christian pastor John Piper, who defends the moral permissibility of God taking life without any cause, without any justification. According to Piper, God is both the giver and the taker of life and doesn’t owe us a longer life. But according to Massey, who apparently has some baggage about Piper (he snips about previous comments Piper has made, alleging that Piper called a devastating earthquake in Japan a “great gift” from God) God’s goodness would be nil if He acted this way. Massey says, “…even an omnipotent creator will be constrained by his own character. And that is precisely why the genocidal passages of the OT are problematic. They are incongruent with the dominant biblical portrayal of the character of God. God is not a pubescent boy frying ants with a magnifying glass in the driveway. The Bible (especially the OT) repeatedly describes God as a loving father or devoted husband.”

                While the point might be made that God’s loving parentage and husbandry is focused on Israel rather than the nations hostile to Israel, the underlying point I want to make is that Piper is essentially correct: God owes humans nothing. Not a second more of life. Massey sees this as missing the point, since he is not as much asserting that God does not have the right to take life, but that God is good, and that a good God would not engage in indiscriminate slaughter of the persons He creates. On this last sentence, Massey is both correct and incorrect depending upon how “indiscriminate slaughter” is fleshed out. If connotations of cruelty and moral unjustifiability are included, Massey is correct. If they are excluded, Massey is incorrect. If slaughter is taken to mean just “killing” and if indiscriminate is taken not to imply a not-well-reasoned action, there is no clear moral problem.

                At the heart of the issue lies Massey’s assertion that a good God would not issue such commands to the Israelites. But there is no explicit contradiction between the statements “God is good” and “God commanded the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child in Canaan.” So Massey is expected to make a substantive case; he has a burden of proof. Unfortunately, he spends the remainder of his article noting that Piper’s view of the sovereignty of God (Piper seems to believe that every good human action is the result of the grace of God, and therefore that every sin is a consequence of God’s withholding that grace, and consequently, moral culpability goes out the window) seems to entail that human persons are not truly free when they do good and bad, and so the evil of the Canaanite people which Piper alludes to is really something for which they are not morally responsible. I agree here with Massey’s assessment, although I think Piper’s view is more nuanced than Massey describes. Without a place for significant moral freedom, it seems hard to account for significant moral responsibility, and therefore punishment for sin.

                But nevertheless, Massey has asserted an incompatibility between God’s goodness and the commission of the slaughter of the Canaanites. A good being wouldn’t do this, he says. But he never seems to recognize that the burden of proof is on him since he is making the assertion. Where is the contradiction? Where is the incongruence? Is there really no circumstances that could obtain such that a morally perfect being could issue the commands in question?

                The assertion relies upon the assumption that it is unjust to kill someone if they are not morally guilty of something. But it is only unjust if a right of their’s is violated in some sense by it, or if the person doing the killing has an obligation not to do it. If Massey here says that God just is obligated toward His creatures, this implies that His killing them in unjust, and Massey’s position would therefore be circular. What we should be looking for from Massey is a bona fide reason to think that God is obligated not to take the life of one of his creatures. Since God is the sustainer at all time of all things, this is the same as saying that God is obligated to sustain the life of any person that he creates. Yet Massey’s own article seems to repudiate this view. He says, “It’s one thing for God to will that great grandma should die peacefully in her sleep at the ripe old age of 90. It’s another thing for God to will the torture and murder of children at the hands of Syrian authorities.” And So Massey implies that a good God is not, in fact, obligated to continually sustain the lives of the persons He creates. Massey seems to feel that by the age of 90, God’s obligation might be significantly diminished. But why think this? What is the difference between dying peacefully in one’s sleep and being killed by Syrian authorities? I suggest that pain, trauma, and age are the difference. Massey seems to be saying that the death of a young person which includes pain and trauma poses more problems for a good God than death which is “natural” (whatever that means, since willing to no longer sustain the life and body of a 90 year old grandmother is an act of agency and not of nature).

               Scripture makes it clear that God is sovereign over all of human history. God is aware when even a little sparrow dies. Job notes that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. So Massey’s argument must proceed on philosophical grounds. But Massey seems to fundamentally misunderstand some of the philosophical issues. Piper asserts that God doesn’t owe us anything. He is saying that God does not have obligations to us. And apart from Massey’s own opinion, what does Massey offer to show that the contradictory is true? He says, “One has to wonder what sort of relationship Piper envisions between God and his creations such that his treatment of them is explained by the maxim, “God doesn’t owe you anything.” God sounds an awful lot like a pre-teen boy who has just received his mail order Sea Monkey kit. He may enjoy his little creatures for a while. But when he gets tired of the little shrimp, he’ll flush them down the toilet. He might even pull a few legs off first. He brought them into this world and he can take them out. He doesn’t owe them anything.” One gets the clear sentiment from Massey that he thinks that Piper’s view of the God-human relationship is one in which humans, especially the torture of humans by God, serve as divine entertainment. In reality, however, God does have an over-arching plan He wants to bring to fruition. If God cared about anybody more than He cares about Himself, he would be an idolater, and totally irrational. For the supreme Being to treat something other than Himself as supremely important would be the height of confusion, and therefore self-contradictory, since a supreme being cannot be confused.

              Massey thinks that God’s obligation toward humans is really not the main issue; he thinks God’s goodness is. He thinks a good God would not do this. Unfortunately he leaves it largely unexplained why this is so. A good God wouldn’t do this because…that would be bad? Because that would be unjust? If either of these, then clearly God does have obligations  to us in some way, and thus we are really talking about God’s obligations after all, contra Massey. If God truly has no obligations toward us, then it is a morally neutral issue whether He prolongs our life or not. 

1 comment:

  1. Daniel, thanks for the feedback. I have responded to your post in the comment section of my blog post: