Interview with Philip Jenkins on ‘Laying Down the Sword’

Chances are you’ve heard about one of Philip Jenkins’ two dozen books. His research spans a vast range of contemporary history and culture—from the nature of white supremacy and global terrorism to the diversity of Native American culture. He even wrote a fascinating book called Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America, exploring how our ’60s attitudes took some strange twists and turns in subsequent decades. Clearly, though, Jenkins’ best-known books are about Christianity and conflict. He has discussed that portion of his work on National Public Radio, more than once. In pastors’ offices nationwide, Jenkins’ books are likely to be found on the shelves with bookmarks noting where to find passages cited in sermons or newsletter columns. His books also show up on thousands of educators’ bookshelves. Jenkins’ books are lively choices for small-group studies, too.
ReadTheSpirit also recommends his earlier book Lost Christianity (an eye-popping history about “lost” branches of Christianity in Africa, Asia and the Middle East) and his more recent book Jesus Wars (another startling look at an era of Christian history completely unknown to most American churchgoers).

While Jenkins’ subjects may seem deeply troubling—his goal is quite the opposite. The inspiring theme that runs through all of Jenkins’ two dozen books is his belief that the world’s greatest tragedies—from horrific crime to lethal religious and cultural conflict—need to be carefully studied and accurately understood. Once we investigate these largely misunderstood chapters in global conflict, steps can be taken toward preventing further tragedies and, in many cases, some form of healing is possible.

The title of his newest book Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses may sound like an attack on Christianity—but, again, the opposite is true. The book leads readers toward pragmatic steps congregations can take to come to terms with this legacy of violence. If we engage in this process, Jenkins argues, we are much more likely to form healthy bonds with neighbors who practice other faiths. And, as a nation, we are less likely to demonize other world cultures.

CLICK ON titles of books (or the cover above) to learn more or to order from Amazon.
ALSO: Read an excerpt we have selected from Laying Down the Sword.
And now, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Philip Jenkins …


DAVID: Let’s start with a question from your Wikipedia page, which I know you didn’t write or edit yourself. The Wikipedia page currently has a summary of your latest research for Laying Down the Sword that boils down to this short passage: “Jenkins believes the Islamic scriptures in the Quran were actually far less bloody and less violent than those in the Bible, citing explicit instructions in the Old Testament calling for genocide while the Quran calls for primarily defensive war.” Now, having read your book, I would say that comes close to summing up one point you make, but it’s likely to confuse people if they visit your Wikipedia page and think that’s the main message. How would you respond?

PHILIP: The Wikipedia comments makes me sound like more of an apologist for the Quran than I am. Both the Quran and the Bible have problematic texts. Overall, what you’re reading from Wikipedia isn’t a bad summary of one point I’m making. But I would want to go on and emphasize that all of the world’s major religions have problems with people who believe the scriptures literally apply to their lives, because they will find texts that they read as encouraging violence. And, in what you just read to me, that’s actually not entirely correct about Islam and defensive violence. A reader can find the notion of holy war for the expansion of the faith in the Quran. The main difference between the Bible and the Quran is that the biblical passages are far more absolute in the forms of destruction they visit on people described as our enemies.

DAVID: For those who want to split hairs and determine which book has the most troubling passages encouraging violence, we should point out to Christian readers that the Bible is a lot longer than the Quran. The Common English Bible, the new mainline ecumenical version of the Bible, is somewhere around 1,500 pages. Most English translations of the Quran’s text are about 500 pages. Beyond the big difference in size and scope, however, you’re saying the Bible’s passages partciularly in Deuteronomy and Joshua are markedly more disturbing in the ruthless nature of the violence, right?

PHILIP: Absolutely. If you open a Quran randomly and look through the pages, you’re more likely to come across a passage about war or conduct in war, compared with opening the Bible in a similar way. But you won’t find anything in the Quran that is as extreme as the Bible passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua that say things like: Show them no mercy. Kill them all. Kill the women and children. And so on. Read literally today, these are extremely violent passages and they are actively genocidal.

Let me explain how I got into this research. Since 9/11, there have been a lot of discussions in this country about Islam being a singularly violent religion and the Quran being a uniquely violent book. I am certainly willing to talk about violence in Islam. But I know enough about the Bible to know that these claims about the Quran being uniquely violent are overblown. I used to teach a university course on terrorism and I know a lot about this problem. I’ve studied these issues for a very long time. And, it’s not accurate for people to claim that the Quran is somehow more extreme and violent than the Bible.

One of the difficulties is that most people are not even aware of these portions of the Bible. When I started working on this subject and began writing about it, the general reaction I got was that people wanted to deny that these biblical texts even existed. Then, among people who are aware of these troubling sections of the Bible, there’s also a widespread notion that what’s in the Old Testament somehow shouldn’t be considered a part of the Bible today. They dismiss these passages as not a relevant part of the Bible.

DAVID: But, as you point out in your book, these troubling passages can, indeed, come back to bite the people in vicious ways, right?

PHILIP: Yes. In one example, we’re talking about a very controversial passage in 1 Samuel 15 where God orders genocide against King Agag the Amalekites and King Saul fails to carry out the destruction completely. Saul’s disobedience leads God to remove the kingship from Saul and move it to David. But if you go to church, it’s unlikely that you will ever hear that story read or referenced in a sermon. All you might hear about Saul is that God was displeased with him and moved the kingship to David. Even if you’re a very pious church attender, and attend Bible study as well—as long as your church follows the Common Lectionary—you will never come across those extreme readings.

The problem with this passage is that, down through history, when Christians want to conduct a violent holy war, they say they’re fighting Amalekites. We find these references in the Crusades era and again in the Reformation era, when Catholics were killing Protestants and Protestants were killing Catholics. The practice continues to this day. In 1994, during the Rwandan genocide, one pastor urged his people to take part in the massacres referencing this passage from the Bible.

DAVID: It’s on pages 140-141 in your new book and it says this Rwandan pastor “compared the Tutsis to the Amalekites, and said Saul was rejected by God because he failed to exterminate all of the Amalekites. He said, ‘If you don’t exterminate the Tutsis, you’ll be rejected. If you don’t want to be rejected by God, then finish the job of killing the people God has rejected. No child, no wife, no old man should be left alive.’ And the people said: ‘Amen.’”

This isn’t merely an academic exercise. We’re talking about toxic texts that can fuel genocide today.

PHILIP: That’s right and that’s why, at the end of my book, I offer principles congregations can use to read and study and understand these parts of the Bible that most people have never read.

DAVID: In our excerpt of Laying Down the Sword, we will highlight that recommendation you make toward the end of your book. But, before we close this interview, I’m sure our readers will be curious about where you’re heading after this book. You’ve written about so many fascinating topics. What’s next?

PHILIP: I think this next book follows quite logically with others I have written. I’m writing about the Four Horsemen—about the first World War as a global religious revolution, in terms of transforming religion worldwide. One of the points I am arguing in this new book is that, by any reasonable standard, the first World War really is a holy war. It was seen, at the time, as a cosmic war among overwhelmingly Christian powers. It was a global holy war that wound up killing 10 million people and it happened not in the ancient past—but just one century ago.

DAVID: Well, when you complete that book, we’ll talk again. Our readers will stay tuned, I’m sure.

Care to read more on meeting violence with peace?

Nationally known peace activist (and World Sabbath co-founder) Rod Reinhart writes about his own pilgrimage from a life of faith and action on behalf of peace—to working arm in arm with returned U.S. military veterans. This is especially important as winter arrives across our hemisphere.

Want to find peace in your reading—and group discussions—this winter?
Consider learning about Daniel Buttry’s Blessed Are the Peacemakers.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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