Terrible Love

Thomas Satterwhite Noble
The Modern Medea, 1867
Oil on canvas

Spoiler warning ahead. I am going to discuss central plot details of the Toni Morrison novel Beloved, including information that the reader is not made aware of until the end of the first major division of the story. To be fair, in my edition of Beloved, Morrison herself spoils the plot detail in her Foreword, and she gives no spoiler warning. But she is the master, and I am not.

In her masterpiece Beloved, Toni Morrison depicts for us the complex reality of motherhood amidst freed (and escaped) slaves in antebellum America. Time and again, for instance, Baby Suggs — the mother-in-law of the main character, Sethe — wonders if she truly had any children beside the one she herself raised. We are told that she birthed many children, of course, but in her mind only Halle (Sethe’s husband) really counts as her son. There’s something about the structure of chattel slavery that not only dehumanizes and destroys individuals but also dehumanizes and destroys family units, societies, and cultures. Drawing upon Morrison’s language (though expanding it using the work of Frantz Fanon and the like) Hortense Spillers, in her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” observes that chattel slavery did more than transform people into bodies, but, even further, it deformed bodies into flesh. Bodies could, perhaps, have familial relations with one another, but pieces of flesh, ripped at will, cannot.

The central scene of agony in Beloved, which lies in the background for the first part of the novel, is the one inspired by the tale of Margaret Garner (depicted in the painting, above), an escaped slavewoman who took the life of her own child in order to prevent her child from re-entering into slavery. In Beloved, Sethe kills her unnamed baby (“Beloved”) upon the arrival of the white schoolteacher, who aims to return her and her family to their life of slavery across the river in Kentucky. Better for the child to die as her child and as a free person, then for her to live as a slave under the schoolteacher. Paradoxically, this act of violence is also what sets Sethe and her daughter Denver free from the pursuit of the slave-catchers.

 

In my previous post, I lingered over the problem of violence and problematized a few interlocutors whose engagements with the problem of violence seemed, to me, unsatisfying. And now I have begun reading a theological monograph on violence by Pastor Gregory A. Boyd entitled The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, in which the author assures us that he has an answer for the age-old problem of violence in the Old Testament. I am currently nearly done with his first volume in this (far-too-)massive 1500+ page work, and I am even less convinced by Boyd than I was regarding Leithart and Hauerwas’s suggestions. (A full review of the text will be forthcoming on The Theologian’s Library, once I slog through the other 1000 pages.)

What suffices to bring Boyd into this post, however, is to note that he — amid others — finds the Old Testament violence so unsettling that he feels a need to make a thorough hermeneutical case for what a “proper” interpretation of it is in light of our modern moral sensibilities. The purposes for making such a case are, of course, reasonably apologetic. The OT is, after all, more than any other section of the Bible that which receives scorn from academics and intellectuals. And, as Boyd is quick to point out, it is the Church’s historical readings of the OT that have often been taken up to accomplish horrible deeds in the name of Christ.

Yet, I wonder if it really is necessary to, as Boyd suggests, do a thorough re-reading of the OT, or, as the heretic Marcion would suggest, reject the OT’s inspiration altogether? Or could there be another problem at the heart of our readings in the OT that displaces how we understand the narrative? Following Leithart’s suggestion from my previous post, I wonder if we often define what is and what is not Violence based on the norms of our present age. Boyd does this a lot in The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, especially in Chapter 7, in which he takes a scene from the OT and describes it as “horrific” or “barbaric.” Maybe the shoe fits some of these depictions, but the unilateral application of such descriptions betrays not an honesty with the text (as Boyd proclaims fervently) but, instead, an imputing of Boyd’s own modern moral framework upon an ancient Near East document.

Boyd rejects, out-of-hand, Augustine’s claim that sometimes divine love must manifest itself in difficult, at times incomprehensible, ways. He sees this as a tragic misunderstanding of the word “love.” The problem, again, as it so often does, lies on who gets to define the term Love? Does Boyd get to define it? (He appears throughout his work willing to take up the power of naming words.) What Boyd misses in Augustine isn’t his willingness to advance a Just War rhetoric — which is complicated in Augustine — but, instead, a willingness to let God define how His Love ought to be understood. If “God is love” and the OT depicts God doing things that we would describe as oppositional to love, then the problem is surely not God’s words or deeds but the ways we moderns describe and understand Love. Slavoj Žižek actually takes up the Christian notion of Love this very way in The Fragile Absolute, in which he points out Christ’s declaration that he who follows Him must hate his mother, his father, his siblings, and the like, a stunning reversal of typically-understood familial relations! In quick summation, we cannot allow a human definition of love to get in the way of our biblical interpretation.

 

It is this very kind of paradoxical Love that is the central claim of BelovedTime and again, Sethe rejects the notion that she even murdered her child. The child is dead, but it was the right thing, she asserts. “Your love is too thick,” Paul D says to her at one juncture. Morrison forces the reader over and over to see how this tragic occurrence — whose consequences follow Sethe where she goes, and whose blood still, nevertheless, must be atoned for — is some incomprehensible manifestation of true motherly Love. It is an offensive idea, which is why Sethe is abandoned by the rest of the black community and why Paul D leaves her when he discovers the truth. Yet even within that community, and even within Paul D, it is still described as a “thick” Love.

There are complicated moral-ethical discussions, of course, to be had regarding both Beloved and the OT. Still, I would wager that what Boyd misses the most in his (modern) re-reading of the OT is the concept of something like a “thick Love.” Can we understand the Canaanite genocide as “thick Love”? Can we see the Flood as “thick Love”? Can we see the siege of Jerusalem as “thick Love”? Could it be possible that the God of the OT is not violent at all, but, rather, Loves in a way so terrible, so horrific, that we have no conception of how it ought to fit within a moral framework?

I don’t have an easy answer to the problem of Violence, but Sethe points us toward something that perhaps beckons us into a terrifying, yet gracious, revelation. Maybe God’s Love is “too thick” for us. Maybe God’s ways are so much higher than ours that from our vantage point His Love looks “terrible.” Boyd would probably say that I am one of those who wish to whitewash the OT. No, rather I will say that the OT might be more like a woman who murdered her child (in one sense) in order to save her child (in another sense). And, maybe too, that is another, different, “cruciform hermeneutic.”

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