© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

When good people say (really, really) bad things

The angel informs Abraham that Jehovah was only kidding.

Without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things — that takes religion.
Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg

Weinberg’s quote misses the mark only slightly. Religion is one thing that causes good people to do evil things (see Abraham’s robotic “MUST…KILL…BOY” expression above if you doubt), but there are others. Patriotism can also achieve that, as well as fear. Sept. 11 combined all three quite nicely, and we reacted by doing evil. No surprise there.


Thomas Midgley

I have a bit of a soft spot for well-meaning people who unwittingly do great harm. Just a bit. Their patron saint is surely Thomas Midgley. The Ohio inventor was a problem-solver. By keeping just one issue at a time in view, Midgley seemed able to find a solution to just about any problem. While working for GM in 1921, he discovered a way to get engines to stop knocking: add tetra-ethyl lead to the fuel. The side-effects of lead ingestion (things like insanity and rapid death) were recognized within the year, which presented GM with a serious problem: how to cover that up. Some problem-solver went to work on that one as well, and leaded gasoline remained in major production for another sixty-five years — time enough to embed toxic levels of lead in three generations of children, including me and most of you. Leaded gas is still the most common fuel on three continents.Midgley went on to apply himself to the problem of finding a nontoxic refrigerant. In 1930, that pesky problem bit the dust as well when he discovered chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.

It’s been suggested that these two contributions qualify Thomas Midgley as the single most unfortunate organism ever to have lived on the planet.

But—and here’s the point—he meant well.


Tony Kummer

Meet Tony Kummer. Now I don’t know Tony, but I sure feel like I do. He reminds me (superficially) of one of my wife’s cousins by marriage—let’s call him Bill—a wonderful, loving guy who, like Tony, is in Baptist ministry and is a father of three in the Central Time Zone. I’ll bet Tony is just as fun-loving and well-meaning and good to the bone as Bill. He certainly seems devoted to changing the world for the better. You know, like Thomas Midgley was.

I try to keep up with parenting issues from all angles as they relate to religion, and last week, my Google Alert for the phrase “Christian parenting” brought me to Tony’s blog at “Gospel Driven Children’s Ministry.” Tony had gone through the Bible and pulled out “Bible Verses About Parents, Children, Mothers & Fathers.”

I scanned the column, unsurprised to find God (a.k.a. “male Bronze Age goatherds”) primarily interested in obedience—children exhibiting it, and parents enforcing it. But one especially caught my eye:

Exodus 21:15-17—Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.

I don’t wish to give the impression that this was my first encounter with the OT, nor even with the Goatherds’ taste for killing naughty children. I’m far more scripturally literate than I sometimes wish. But I was taken aback by the fact that Tony, this smiling dad of three, simply pasted a clear instruction to kill children into a parenting column. That’s where Tony and cousin Bill decisively part company.

Why include this passage? Because, Tony later explained, “It is in the Bible and it is about children.” This and other insights were revealed in a fascinating exchange Tony had with a commenter on that blog—a mother representing the many thoughtful non-literalist Christians out there. She began like this:

Thank you for the excellent parenting tips! My daughter does hit me on occasion, so becoming aware of Exodus 21:15 was a great blessing. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Zing! Tony, to his great credit, recognized irony:

Rachel – Good point. We need to be careful about context and application. Thanks for your sense of humor.

Rachel, to her credit, did not accept that completely meaningless answer:

I know that’s the standard response, Tony, but I have no idea what “we need to be careful about context and application” means in this case. This isn’t intercropping or instructions on cleaning pots; Exodus 21:15 calls for the murder of children. There is no context in which child murder is or has ever been a moral act.

Despite my use of humor, a serious question underlies my comment: What is the purpose of including a clear exhortation to kill our children in a parenting column? Yet if you choose to remove it, what are the implications for a Bible-based morality?

This is the point when you start to feel sorry for the guy. An advocate of “Biblical sufficiency” (a Southern Baptist phrase meaning “the Bible is inerrant, and is necessary and sufficient to lead us into all truth”) has no recourse here. If Tony were a bad man, I would laugh him to scorn. But I strongly suspect he’s a good man saying bad things, which makes me squirm, and seems to makes Steven Weinberg’s point.

Here’s Tony at the zoo with his daughter (who, judging by her unsupported upright position, has not yet been disobedient):

Now how can you be mad at a guy like that? I’m not, really. I’m mad at the nonsensical system of thought that traps this most likely decent man into saying unintelligent and immoral things.

Tony does his damndest to find his way to open air:

Rachel – I think you’re right about the context. And it is also a problem passage for people like me (who thinks God loves kids).

So why did I include it? It is in the Bible and it is about children. Honestly, I don’t have a good explanation for it. Maybe that is why I included it.

[Oh for crap’s sake, Tony! “Maybe I included it because I don’t have a good explanation for it”?? Sorry, sorry, mad at the system.]

He continues:

That chapter has more than one problem for the contemporary Christians. Like verse one about slavery and the whole eye for an eye thing.

It seems like there are at least two issues with this verse.

1. Does God have the right to make this kind of command?
2. What principle, if any, applies to Christian parents?

So he has progressed to the stage of shrugging his shoulders and tossing off empty rhetorical questions. Rachel—possibly feeling my same unease at Tony’s predicament—refuses to go in for the kill:

Thank you for that very honest answer. I struggle with these things very much and have never been the least bit satisfied with the explanations.

Tony replies with the “God-only-knows” curtsey:

Rachel – Thanks for raising the questions. A lot of times I just get used to not knowing the answers, so I stop thinking about it. I definitely welcome your questions and this conversation has helped me. At the end of the day we can only trust that God knew what he was doing when he inspired those verses.

Let me know if you make any progress on all this.

God knew what he was doing. So, then, you’re saying—go ahead and kill them? Am I getting this right? If not, what could you even possibly mean when you say God knew what he was doing when he told us to kill our children?

Tony is saying, in essence, I gave instructions to kill because I was ordered to do so by an authority that I held to be unquestionable. Biblical literalism has this good and intelligent young man muttering the Nuremberg Defense!

I’m confident that Tony Kummer and Adolf Eichmann have little else in common. But in this one disturbing instance, they are following the same corrupt line of reasoning. The only difference is that Eichmann’s orders were carried out. If millions of Christians suddenly began following Tony’s/God’s instructions, the two of them would also do well to head for Argentina. But Tony’s/God’s orders, one can only hope, have been ignored. I’ll bet Tony hopes so, too.

But WHY have they been ignored? If you say, in nearly the same breath, that everything in the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and that the Bible says to kill the disobedient child, and that Jesus himself said not to ignore “one jot nor one tittle” of Old Testament law—surely I’m not alone in finding Biblical literacy a genuine moral outrage.

Ah, but I needn’t have worried. Another commenter chimed in and cleared everything up:

I understand your confusion, Rachel, but think about where that path leads! If we can pick and choose among the Scriptures, our morality has no firm foundation.

What God has given us in Exodus and Deuteronomy is not a license to kill, but a tool for capturing the attention of our children. My children are wonderfully obedient to my husband and myself in part because I have shared these scriptures with them. They know that I was Gods instrument for bringing them into life and that he can also choose me as the instrument to send them back to him.

Children who know, with the certainty of faith, that God grants their parents the power to take their lives will never NEED to have their lives taken. That is the beauty of these commands.

What can I possibly add to that?

I know that only a tiny fraction of Christians believe we should really follow the Bible’s frequent orders to kill disobedient children, slanderers, astrologers, atheists, gays, gossips, family members with other religions, Sunday workers, drunks, gluttons, blasphemers, non-virginal brides, breakers of any commandment, and so on.1 That is my point. I am fully confident that Tony Kummer goes weeks at a time without killing anyone at all. But if he is like other literalists, he shares plenty of other scripturally-supported opinions that do genuine harm in the name of the Goatherds’ supposed authority. Tony Kummer’s body absorbed these ideas as a child, and now he’s working hard to see these toxic ideas embedded, like Midgley’s lead, in yet another generation of kids.

But enough about how we differ. We do apparently share the moral fiber to let our children live — even if, on occasion, they act like children. In recognition of our shared ground, I propose that we all join hands and declare our assent to three simple propositions:

1. Killing children, even disobedient ones, is a bad idea. (All in favor? Show of hands.)

2. Saying “killing children is a good idea” is a bad idea.

3. Declaring any book that says “killing children is a good idea” to be infallible, inerrant, or otherwise uniformly good…is a bad idea.

I’m so glad we had this chat.

1Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Matthew, Romans, i.e. both testaments. Personal favorite: Numbers 35:30–“If anyone kills a person, he shall be put to death.”

Tony’s post is here.

See also the work of Hannah Arendt.

BONUS: An actual Abraham and Isaac coloring page! (“Mommy, what color do you think I should use for the Daddy’s knife?”)



This was written on Tuesday, 13. November 2007 at 09:28 and was filed under belief and believers, critical thinking, death, morality, Parenting, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. That is most clear explanation of Weinberg’s quote I have ever seen.
    Thank you and thank you for writing PBB, I really liked it.

    Comment: Belgian Atheist – 13. November 2007 @ 10:18 am

  2. I grew up in an evangelical southern baptist home where Biblical Sufficiency was force-fed from birth. So when I read blogs like Tony’s, I mainly roll my eyes. I’ve heard it all before. But that quote from the second commenter on his site gave me chills. It is despicable to think of a child living in constant fear for his life — fear that the people who are supposed to protect and love him may turn on him for the slightest infraction and end his life. (With impunity, no less, because it is their god-given duty to do so.) To me, that seems like a clear case of child abuse.

    Comment: Not the Mama – 13. November 2007 @ 11:02 am

  3. What floors me generally about bible literalists and specifically here is the complete breakdown of logic. In this case there are only really 2 logical approaches to this problem:

    a) Premise I: The bible is infallible.
    Premise II: The bible says we must kill disobedient kids (and astrologers, homosexuals, etc.)
    Conclusion: Disobedient children (etc.) must be killed by their parents

    b) Premise I: The bible says we must kill disobedient kids
    Premise II: Killing children is morally reprehensible
    Conclusion: The bible is not infallible (or secular morality trumps god-given morality)

    Any other approach is illogical. Or hypocritical. Or both.

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 14. November 2007 @ 2:25 pm

  4. I should have added that literalists begin with the premises of approach “a” above, but reach a different, therefore, illogical, conclusion

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 14. November 2007 @ 2:27 pm

  5. Yep. And the incredible clarity of that breakdown of simple logic is one of the things that used to drive me to genuine fits of anguish.

    Accepting that irrationality as fact was a big personal breakthrough for me. It allowed me to stop arguing with fundamentalists. We lack the most basic shared understanding of how discourse and inquiry should proceed. You might as well be talking to a dolphin. (Sorry, that was a gratuitous slam against a very bright species–one that does not advocate killing its young, I’ll bet.)

    Anyway, that acceptance of the limits of discourse allowed me to turn my attention to those who’ve found their way out already, and to combat the consequences of fundamentalism instead of the beliefs themselves.

    Comment: Dale – 14. November 2007 @ 2:41 pm

  6. A commenter to the essay under discussion wrote

    They [my children] know that I was Gods instrument for bringing them into life and that he can also choose me as the instrument to send them back to him.

    That is among the most frightening things I have had the misfortune to read.

    Comment: RBH – 15. November 2007 @ 9:30 pm

  7. Then I guess I’m not the only one missing “the beauty of these commands.”

    I do hold out just a smidgen of hope that, like Rachel’s first comment, she intended it as very dry satire. It is possible, and we can only hope.

    Comment: Dale – 15. November 2007 @ 9:35 pm

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