In this book, the author carries out a close reading of three texts from Deuteronomy (13:6-11, 21:18-21, 22:13-21). Reeder explores the deeply troubling question of the role of ‘legitimized’ or ‘constructive’ violence–judgment, punishment and even execution–against fellow believers within a particular religious community. The core of the book focuses on this question within Judaism, drawing on canonical Scripture as well as non-canonical texts and other writings (e.g., by Philo) from the 2nd century BC to 3rd century AD.The second-to-last chapter reflects on the same question within the context of early Christianity, turning to texts largely from Matthew, Mark and 1 Corinthians. This is clearly a provocative topic, and Reeder prudently works through it methodically.
Reeder identifies herself as a faithful and critical reader (p. 3) who uses both a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ and a ‘hermeneutic of trust’ (pp. 9-13) to read these selected Scriptural texts of Judaism and of Christianity.
One of the key themes the author identifies in the passages from Deuteronomy is this idea of ‘constructive violence,’ a phrase borrowed from Robert Beck, to describe violence deemed useful in protecting the identity of a community (pp. 8-9).
Reeder does not shy away from the morally disconcerting, even revolting, questions raised by hearing or reading these texts: execution of those committing adultery, direct parental involvement in stoning a disobedient son or daughter, use of strong physical force as a method of disciplining a child. The author emphatically rejects the horrors of domestic violence; she is rather trying to show the tension-filled context in which such ‘constructive violence’ was called for in these Deuteronomic texts, i.e., as a last ditch measure to restore covenant unity and community among sinful people struggling to obey the Lord God. The book also indicates texts in the Old Testament when the required punishments were apparently not even carried out, perhaps indicating the tensions such laws raised in the hearts of the Jewish people.
Another key theme in Reeder’s book is the necessity for a faith community (in this case, Jewish or Christian) to come to terms with certain inherent tensions. How does the faith community balance preservation of their identity with honoring the love of husband for wife or parents for children? How does a minority community survive within a larger world that rejects its way of life?
Why was ‘constructive violence’ within the family even a question for Israel? The author points out the Scriptural link between family and covenant community: the family is where children learn about covenant community, and thus is a key structure through which the covenant community is handed on. Indeed, the covenant community itself is a family, God’s family, and thus those who sin came to be seen as enemy to the community, as no longer part of the family, and thus as deserving of punishment, banishment and even at times death.
Turning to the early Church, Reeder sees this Deuteronomic pattern of constructive violence as a background to the New Testament texts which describe how Jesus and the early Christians were received by Israel, i.e., as false teachers who were misleading faithful Jews, threatening the identity of the Jewish covenant community, and consequently as ‘enemies within’ the family of Israel (p. 147).
The author also points out that the New Testament shows that the early Church, while deeply concerned with preserving their own identity as a new community of disciples, did not wholly take over this tradition of ‘constructive violence’ when it came to internal unity. Rather, the focus of the early Christians was on clarifying orthodox teaching and on commanding false teachers to stop. Physical punishment or execution was not condoned. Internal processes of dialogue were called for (e.g., Matthew 18) in the spirit of forgiveness. Even excommunication was only to be carried out in the hope that the errant brother or sister would repent and return to the community.
A lower-level point: Though this book includes an extensive bibliography and list of ‘ancient sources,’ there is no topic index, which would make using the book in some academic contexts a little more difficult.
Overall, Reeder’s book raises topics which would clearly be demanding for college students while providing a useful analysis in taking up these ongoing fundamental questions around the nature and preservation of identity within a minority or at least distinct faith community.