Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A transcript of Hess' response to Avalos

Richard Hess responds to Hector Avalos on his lecture in the Religion and Violence Series: "Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence." Hess' response starts around the 1:07:00 mark.
I've made a transcript of Hess' response to Avalos (below). I didn't bother to double check it or anything so I could have made some mistakes. It should serve well enough as a rough transcript at least.
I started transcribing around the 1:11:00 mark. Prior to this point, Hess spoke broadly about the scarcity of resources, and I just took notes on this bit. In other words, I basically transcribed most of Hess' response except for the first maybe two or three minutes where he talks about scarcity in more general terms.
I should say I agree with Hess' response overall. The main disagreement I'd have with Hess' response is his apparent pacifistic inclinations.

[1:07:00.] Just introductory remarks, thanking everyone, etc.
[1:09:00.] Although Hess believes scarcity of resources does exist, he believes it's difficult to measure or predict. For example, Hess notes Paul Ehrlich was wrong about his predictions about overpopulation (c. 1960). Hess thinks it's better to evaluate each on a case by case basis. "Theories and models should not replace reality."
[1:10:00.] Hess thinks this is all the more so when we move from "material commodoties" to the "sociological phenomenon" of scarcity. Hess is responding to Avalos' point about the firstborn being "privileged" (not sure what Avalos said exactly as I didn't listen to Avalos' lecture, but maybe it was something about the firstborn being "privileged" in terms of receiving most of a family's scarce resources?). But Hess notes this is not true in the Bible (e.g. Isaac was chosen over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph is the focus of blessings while Reuben is shamed - all these are just examples from Genesis). So scarcity in terms of sociology is even more difficult to define, according to Hess.
[Here is where I start transcribing.]
[1:11.00.] As far as some of the specific texts that Prof. Avalos considered.
Consider the text of the prophet of God in Deut 18. Deut 18:20 commands that a prophet that speaks in the name of another deity or one who speaks falsely in the true God's name must be put to death. Prof. Avalos argues that this is an example of violence because divine communication is a scarce resource. However, nowhere does the text say that God could not speak through many prophets. In other words, what constitutes scarce resource?
In Numbers 11, God speaks through 70 prophets, and then overflows his Spirit into additional Israelities who prophesy.
In Joel 2:28 God promises to pour out his Spirit on all the people so that 'your sons and daughters will prophesy.' Is this a scarce resource? To the contrary, the punishment for false prophecy seems designed to encourage the best use of what could be called an abundant resource.
It seems the point of these texts is that there may be much to prophesy in God's name.
As for the command to be put to death for false prophesy, this is a standard form of capital punishment. It is intended to describe the maximum punishment. In this case, well, only the false prophet would suffer, but not his or her family.
And there is no example of the implementation of this maximum punishment in or out of the Bible.
Perhaps this resembles the other famous ancient legal collection - the laws of Hammurabi. There as well capital punishment is frequently commanded. However, despite hundreds of legal records at the time of Hammurabi and later, not one appeals to his law code. It is intended, rather, as an idealistic and exemplary [sic]. And clearly, as later Judaism demonstrates, the laws of Deuteronomy also provide an exemplary corpus of what loyalty to God meant."
As far as Deut 18:22 and the claim of Prof. Avalos that this suggests that a prophet of Baal - [speaking to Avalos as an aside] well, you didn't get into this - who predicted a rainstorm that actually occurred, we need to be acknowledged as a true prophet - [Hess turns to Avalos again] that comes from your book, I think - this contradicts what precedes it in verse 20 and Deut 13:1-2. As I prefer to assume that ancient and modern writers do not contradict themselves within a few sentences, I take it to mean this is understood, along with Richard Nelson and other commentators, as a habitual activity rather than a one-off prediction.
Okay, what I think is going on here to some extent, is there needs to be a distinction between a sort of idealistic or exemplary approach which the laws contain and what I would call "where the rubber meets the road on the ground" approach of what actually happens. And when you actually look at what happens and how it is worked out in the OT at least, there's a different picture that emerges. And I think this is true for a variety of the scarcity that is addressed here.
Holy land. Their religious beliefs made that place special. Well, to some extent, it did certainly later. But I think what actually made the place special originally was its role as a land bridge between three continents, and that the geopolitical reality of that, beginning with the earliest historical civilizations we know of, fought over that land long before Israel came on the scene.
As far as group privileging, I think that there again it's a matter of looking at what the texts are saying in some respects idealistically as opposed to what actually happens on the ground.
1 Sam 15 and the command to destroy Amalek is not there narrated out in terms of how that occurred. But it is commanded. What is commanded follows upon the reality of Amalek, who is alluded to there, who came after Israel as soon as it left Egypt, according to the biblical text, and who consistenly ran down and destroyed stragglers, those who were the weakest, those who were the poorest, those who were in the most difficulty, those are the ones they took advantage of and destroyed. Now, is that justification for destroying children or infants? No, I don't think it is. But I think there are other issues involved in terms of reading these texts, in terms of the phraseology and expressions, where in some cases you're talking about "everyone" as in whether they're there or not, and the actual text in Joshua and elsewhere actually talks about fighting battles against armies, not against non-combatants and civilians. But again that's a matter of a text by text examination, which I don't have any more time to look at at this point, but I'd be happy to entertain in the questions.
Jesus as the most hateful person. The command to hate your family and life itself. It's an interesting command. As a Hebrew Bible person, I read this from the standpoint of the covenant and treaty connections where the terms "hate" and "love" are regularly used between kings and their vassals to describe loyalty or disloyalty. I believe the understanding of that, reflected in the rich covenantal tradition of Judaism and Israel's own heritage, is a question of where your ultimate loyalty should reside. And that's what it's trying to say.
The issue of deferred violence is an interesting one, because what is real about that is that it is a warning, what is real about that is that it has not taken place. There is no violence there. You can talk about, "Oh yes! I'm really gonna come after you." And if you want to call that hate or whatever you want to call it, it's an interesting expression. But whatever you want to call it, there is no violence there that actually takes place. And sometimes it's worthwhile making a distinction between the ideal, which is intended as a warning, or as an ideal, and what actually takes place.
Now I want to look, I want to move to what I call a foundational covenant. And there are a number of covenants in the Bible upon which much of Judeo-Christianity is based. The first covenant that's given according to its own definition of a covenant is that given to Noah after he gets off the ark, builds the altar, sacrifices, and in return God promises to never destroy the world again. But he also says - and this is the only law given in the Noahic covenant - he says, "Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed." In other words, it's a law prohibiting violence. And it's prohibiting on a level that says, so valuable is the human life, that taking it cannot be repaid by any amount of gold or silver, unlike the laws of Hammurabi and other laws, it can only be repaid by another human life. It is an attempt - whether you decide it's successful or not, there are many examples it may not be - but it is an attempt to mitigate and eliminate violence between people. That is the first and foundational covenant. That is the covenant that defines all other covenants, and it is never abrogated, be it Abraham, Sinai, NT, anybody else. Now, there are exceptions, discussions, all kinds of failures, and other issues. But that's it. And that's given to what is portrayed in the Bible as the ancestors of the entire human race. It's the only covenant so given. It's not just given to a select few. It's given to everyone. No violence. Instead, it says, "Be fruitful, and increase in number." "Multiply on the earth." Again, not so much scarcity.
Okay, now I want to move into including or talking about the pneumato centric / somato centric sort of differences. To me, this is a false dichotomy. I think the human being as envisioned in the Bible is both spirit and flesh, and the two do not separate. They are together. That is how they are to be understood. It is what is called in the Bible "sin" that results in the separation, i.e. death, that comes.
However, the real difference I think between someone like myself, who is obviously a theist, and someone, as I understand, like Prof. Avalos who is not, is not really over whether God exists or not, it's over who I am and who you are. The real difference has to do with, are we simply the compossible of a group of chemicals that happen to be put together in certain ways, that react in certain forms, and at certain times? Or are we more than that? Is that how you understand what you yourself experience as love, as grace, as joy, as self-sacrifice? Is it simply the result of a collection of chemicals floating together, meeting here and there, producing certain kinds of sparks and what not? Or is there something more? Is there a transcendence? Is there something greater? That I think is the real difference, or the difference, that I see fundamentally.
And so I take another way. I take a way that looks at the ideal of Christianity, despite however we might discuss and debate about the individual and specific issues, as one which I got from a book that I held up and waved around at the beginning [i.e. War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-first Century; it appears a version of Hess' chapter is currently available for free here], which I co-edited with Elmer Martens, a Mennonite Biblical scholar, who talks about absorbing the violence. This is the ultimate example of Christ. That he absorbed the violence in terms of Christianity. He took upon himself the suffering and death.
And it didn't end there. Let me share some examples. Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish scholar who in the 1930s - he was a Catholic Franciscan friar - was at the cutting edge of training [?] technology, and produced and generated much material defending his faith and talking about and explaining. During the Second World War though, he provided shelter to refugees from Greater Poland including 2,000 Jews whom he hid from Nazi persecution in his friary. On Feb 17, 1941, he was arrested by the German Gestapo and imprisoned. He was transferred on May 28th to Auschwitz. At the end of July 1941, three prisoners escaped from that camp. To make an example, the deputy camp commander ordered that 10 prisoners be chosen and taken and put in a bunker and starved to death. Ten were chosen as they all were there. One of them when he was so designated cried out, "My wife, my family!" And Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward from the crowd of those who were not chosen, and said, "I will take your place." He went into the bunker in place of this man. And as apparently had been the case when people went into that bunker to basically starve to death as some sort of punishment or another, there would be fighting. There would be violence. But there wasn't this time. Instead, he led the prisoners. He celebrated Mass each day. He sang hymns. He led the condemned men in song and prayer. And each time the guards checked, he would be calmly present there, praying, or standing, or kneeling. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied, and so they ordered someone to go in and give him a lethal injection. He raised his arm and received that injection. I don't know what was scarce there, but there was an abundance of love and self-sacrifice.
I'll give one more example, and then I'll conclude. On Oct 2nd, 2006, in my home county [Hess seems choked up and struggling with tears], there was a primary school of Amish children at Nickel Mines. Charles Carl Roberts drove his pickup truck up to the door and opened the door, ran in with guns, ordered the boys in that school to get the weapons and ammo and take it in, put them out, and then barred the doors with only him and the girls inside. In the end, he shot ten girls, killing five and himself. Two sisters, Marian and Barbie Fisher, ages 13 and 11, requested that they be shot first, that the others might survive. Marian died, Barbie was wounded. The story's enough there. What amazed the rest of the media was the forgiveness, the love, the compassion that was shown in the days and weeks that followed. A Roberts family spokesmen said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family - this was the family of the killer - hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts' widow, parents, and parents-in-law. One Amish man held Roberts' sobbing father in his arms, reported for as long as an hour, to comfort him. The Amish have also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts' funeral. The funeral of the shooter. And Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.
This is the alternative to religion and violence - absorbing the violence.
[After this, Hess sits down, and Avalos takes the podium presumably to respond. I didn't watch beyond this point though. So I don't know if there was a subsequent Q&A with Hess or not.]

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