Cruelty Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Cruelty

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Cruelty refers to the actions of people who appear to lack all sense of empathy or mercy. Cruel persons may inflict terrible and relentless violence, or they may perform lesser acts that nonetheless cause harm or humiliation to others. In any scenario, cruelty is the result of an inability to cease violent action, hurtful speech, or degrading behavior on account of the cruel person's inability to feel remorse or empathy toward those who become the victims of cruel behaviors.

In Scripture

In Egypt "Say therefore to the Israelites, `I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.' Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery" (Ex. 6:6-9).

Fear your God "You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:14).

"Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel" (Ps. 71:4).

They are cruel and have no mercy "They grasp the bow and the javelin, they are cruel and have no mercy, their sound is like the roaring sea; they ride on horses, equipped like a warrior for battle, against you, O daughter Zion!" (Jer. 6:23).

Note: The actual words "cruel" or "cruelty" occur only a handful of times in the Old Testament and not at all in most English translations of the New Testament. The Hebrew word most often translated as "cruel" has the root akzar and is sometimes also rendered as "violence," "oppression," and "ruthless."

Points to Ponder

Evil Oppressors: Most of the time in the Bible when someone or some group is described as "cruel" or as inflicting "cruelty," the guilty party is a non-Israelite who oppresses God's people. The Egyptians are the premier example, as they enslaved the Hebrews and treated them as non-humans, working them to death, lashing them with whips, killing their newborn babies. But other groups, especially in the psalms, are similarly described if and when they relentlessly pursue a course of ruthless oppression without end and without (apparently) any consideration of the effect such actions have on fellow human beings. Although not elaborated on in the Bible, it is clear that cruelty is what happens once one group decides to deprive some other group of the status "human beings." As often happens during times of war, the enemy is caricatured as less-than-fully human: Germans become "krauts," Asians are called "gooks," Jews in World War II Germany were depicted as "rats," and so on Once we blind ourselves to our shared humanity, it becomes easier to kill, torture, and maim the enemy without remorse because our ability to empathize with, and feel the pain of, the other has been cut off at the root, thus allowing for relentless violence that cannot be deterred by understanding what it feels like to those on the receiving end of it all.

Petty Cruelties: Although not labeled specifically as examples of cruelty, there are biblical injunctions (such as Lev. 19:14) that warn God's people away from petty cruelties such as shouting insults at deaf people who cannot hear (and therefore cannot respond) or purposely tripping a blind person by putting an obstacle in such a person's path. To belittle, insult, poke fun of, or just generally be mean toward those whose station in life — due to disability or injury or any other reason — means they are vulnerable and unable to resist or respond is considered a particularly grave sin in that it reveals the sinful person's heart as calloused. Cruel people seem unable to perceive other people as fellow imagebearers of God and, for the Christian, as potential sisters or brothers in Christ. Similarly, although not sharing our common humanity, the Bible frequently warns against cruelty toward animals as well, because these are creatures of God's own making whom God, therefore, cherishes.

The New Testament: In most English Bibles, the words "cruel" and "cruelty" do not occur in the New Testament. But this need not mean the New Testament and Jesus himself have nothing to say that applies to the subject. If cruelty is fueled by an inability to empathize with the victims of ruthless violence and if that lack of empathy is fueled in large part by denying the true humanity of those who are so victimized, then a great deal of what Jesus taught applies after all. Jesus repeatedly asked that cycles of violence be snapped by going beyond the old practices of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Jesus said that no matter how cruel a persecutor may be, love and forgiveness — not vengeance and more violence — need to be extended to even these enemies of the faithful. The nerve of cruelty is cut when we can look into the eyes of every person in the world and see a cherished fellow human being. Even in the Old Testament, a key reason the Israelites were told not to oppress widows, orphans, and aliens was precisely so that they would not behave toward others the same way the Egyptians behaved toward Israel when Egypt regarded Israel as a sub-human group.

A Vignette: In Steven Spielberg's searing film Schindler's List, we are introduced to the loathsome Nazi concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth (played to chilling precision by Ralph Fiennes). Goeth has been raised to view all Jews as sub-human rats, so killing them means no more to him than dispatching a troublesome rodent. In the film he casually sits on the balcony of his home and randomly picks off Jews with his rifle as a kind of target practice. He is relentlessly and lethally cruel to Jews because they mean nothing and are not fellow humans with hopes, fears, feelings, and so on. All except for Helen Hirsch, the Jewish woman who serves as his maid. Helen is lovely, and Goeth is attracted to her. The first time Oskar Schindler begins to think that Goeth senses true humanity in Helen is when — as Helen silently clears a plate of cookies — Goeth makes a point of saying, "Helen. Thank you." But the contradiction between Jews as rats and Helen as a real person is finally too much for Goeth. In an intense scene, he argues with himself as Helen stands silently before him in all her true humanity and beauty. "I ask you, is this the face of a rat?" he says as he gently strokes her cheek. "Are these the eyes of a rat?" But then the contradictions become too much for Goeth, and he strikes Helen in cruelty and in an outburst of sudden violence as his mind returns her to the status of rodents, vermin, and lice.

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.