Doing Violence to Scripture Christian pacifism Just War Tradition

Doing Violence to Scripture

I used to be a pacifist who thought the Bible taught pacifism. After many years of studying the question of the Church’s ethics of warfare, I came to the opposite conclusion: warfare can, under certain circumstances and undertaken with a certain disposition, be a just activity. It is a just activity, not merely a necessary thing that is bad. This conclusion was the overwhelming view of the Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians throughout their history. Pacifism has always been a minority position that has enjoyed growing support across denominations as of late, perhaps because the West has enjoyed unprecedented peace post-World War II so that Western Christians can entertain this luxury. Nevertheless, Christian pacifism became untenable for me because the God who punished, killed, and destroyed in the Old Testament remains the God of the New Testament.

After I became a Christian, I developed a habit of reading the Bible daily for long periods of time. When you are a college student, you can do such things. At the same time, I was reading the works of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, the two leading lights of contemporary Christian pacifism. I became a devout and convinced pacifist immediately. The pacifist position was straightforward: read the Sermon on the Mount. It seemed so obvious to me that Jesus was teaching pacifism that to hold to any other position was not only ignorant but immoral.

As a convinced pacifist, I continued reading the Bible daily, including the Old Testament. The whole of scripture is the inspired word of God, so I believed the whole of scripture must be studied in order to get a complete picture of this wonderful, holy, and mysterious God. What I could not square with the pacifist position was the portrait of God in the Old Testament as a just and holy God who justly punished Israel and the surrounding nations. For example, in reading about God’s reasons for sending Judah into the Babylonian captivity, the prophets and historical books are absolutely clear that God is punishing Israel for its covenant unfaithfulness, and this punishment means the violent destruction of Jerusalem and the death and enslavement of many Jews. Ezekiel 16 and 2 Kings 17 are some of the saddest words one can read in the Bible. For instance, the Israelites are described as “whores” who go “whoring” after other gods rather than being faithful to the God who brought them out of Egypt.

I could go on and on. The picture is clear: God is a just and holy God who punishes sin. He has to do so because God’s perfect justice and holiness require it. That is the God of Israel. This realization has led many today and in the past to reject the Old Testament. Some of the earliest heresies in the church are connected with the rejection of the God of Israel. Marcion claimed the God of the Old Testament was an evil God that should be rejected. Much like Jefferson after him, he created his own Bible that consisted of the epistles of Paul and the Gospel of Luke. It is worth noting that most of these heretical groups were profoundly dualist, often separating body from spirit and holding creation and earthly life in disdain.

I have come to the opposite conclusion of those who reject the Old Testament. If we are to take all of scripture as inspired, we are not afforded the safety hatch of the Sermon on the Mount or parts of the New Testament read in isolation from the rest of the Bible. The God of Israel is the God revealed to us as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the New Testament. It is Jesus himself who says at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that he has not come to abolish the Law and prophets but to fulfill them (Mt 5:17-18).

Though I believe many pacifists would deny it, the image of God presented to us by pacifism basically abolishes the Law and prophets. Pacifism inevitably requires overruling the words and deeds of the God of Israel because it cannot accept that the just and holy God of the Old Testament did what they claim he cannot do: punish, kill, and destroy. That is a violent God who cannot be the God revealed to us as the peaceable God of the New Testament. Something has to give.

While I believe Christian pacifists are acting with sincere motives and respectable theological claims, they ultimately end up doing extreme violence to scripture. They either must sever the Old Testament and parts of the New or so completely chop up the Bible that we have nothing more than a mutilated carcass. I am not saying that the images of the Holy One of Israel enacting His wrath are easy to swallow or very appealing. And yet, we are not asked to construct an image of God as we would have him be. That is idolatry. A line from C.S. Lewis’ Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe captures this point well. Mr Beaver describes Aslan to Susan: “‘Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.’; ‘Ooh’ said Susan. ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion’… ‘Safe?’ said Mr Beaver … ‘Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”

Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at the Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.

Image Credit: David and Goliath, by Titian, 1542 – 1544. Santa Maria della Salute, Venice. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Kenny Gooch

    There’s so much here, I’m not even sure where to start. Probably over coffee would be best. But I’ll throw a couple of thoughts out there. Please note – this is not a defense of Pacifism, but rather a critique of your positions espoused in this specific article.

    1. You note that God is just and therefore must punish sin. Your logic flows that God uses “just” war to punish deal with sin. However, the Scriptures wholly point to a Messiah – Jesus – who will (or has, depending on the Testament you’re reading at the time) deal with sin once and for all. The punishment for sin that comes from God was absorbed by Jesus on the cross, and then done away with by his resurrection. The coming punishment is that which will take place after the judgement of those who do not believe. In between the cross and that judgement, there is only correction from God toward those he loves. Thus, the New Testament can be seen to paint a picture of a continuous God who is doing something new in Jesus. And this without chopping up the Scriptures in any way, but rather by placing them in their historical context and letting them speak for themselves.

    2. You note that Just War Theory enjoys the status of being the majority position among Christians throughout history. However, JWT typically traces its Christian roots to Augustine (which based on your bio, you are quite familiar with) – it was not the first position of Christianity. Many early church fathers swear off violence because of their faith – and they do so as early as the early 100’s. While this is not the same flavor of pacifism that is alive today (I don’t think the early church fathers are making the same arguments), it is more like pacifism than it is JWT – or at least something completely different than either. This is significant because JWT begin to appear only after Constantine’s baptism and the acceptance of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Thus, JWT comes of age and becomes the majority position in the context of unity with a world power. And it has been almost entirely this way since. Perhaps JWT theory enjoys the place it does precisely because Christians got in bed with power so quickly in our history. Either way, its hardly the cut-and-dry case you make in your article.

    3. Your arguments from the Old Testament have something that modern “Just” War Theory does not have: An inspired piece of literature backing it up. If the Bible makes the case that war is, at times, just, it does so with the understanding that God is inspiring the story and tell us concretely that it is so. We simply cannot know this in a concrete way in today’s world – so even if JWT is the position of Scripture (which I don’t think it is) its application cannot be certain or concrete in any way in this life, and as such, or ability to call any modern conflict “just” is dangerous ground on which we ought not tread.

    4. I’m interested in your hermeneutical methodology because in the article is seems like the position you take is that – “the Bible says God did violence, thus, violence must be okay if it is just” (assuming that the measure for “just” war or violence is the character of God. I could be off on this, and welcome correction if I am. However, if this is the case, it misses some key, classically held hermeneutical ideas. The primary one is that genre, as well as, historical, political, and cultural context must be understood (as best it can) in order for interpretations to be made. In as much as these hermeneutical ideas are quality (which I think they are), many of the just war case studies you would pull from Scripture loose their polemical bite because the Scriptures do not (in almost any case) an overarching philosophy of war and violence in which violence is okay simply because it happened in the story of Israel and surrounding nations. In most OT stories, there is not prescription, but description of what happened and how God worked among them, through them, and in spite of them to bring forth his Messiah and begin putting the world together again. To assume an authoritative and God-ordained position simply because something happens in Scripture is not a quality measure for a theory. If it were, slavery would be okay, because it was not explicitly by New Testament writers. In fact, this argument was used in defense of slavery at times in our history.

    As I noted before, I’m not defending Pacifism, but critiquing your arguments for Just War, which I believe fall fatally short of being convincing logically or biblically. The New Testament writers are abundantly clear that in Jesus we have the most clear, real, and visible portrait of God, period. It is in His way we are supposed to walk, and Jesus only approached violence once, in the symbolic and prophecy-fulfilling cleansing of the temple; in which, he harmed no one.

    I am not arguing that any Christian going to war as a part of a military battle is wrong or burdened with more sin than the rest of us, or anything like that. I am arguing that the development of theory of Just War is not a position that the Bible takes. Your argument above offers only two options, much like our current political reality, and I think both options kinda suck. The Scriptures – and our Nation – are much more robust and messy than that. The Scriptures are so, so comfortable with tension, with not drawing the lines clearly enough that we can box each other out, or box God in. As someone said one time, if you live by the sword, by the sword you will also die.

  • Kenny Gooch

    There’s so much here, I’m not even sure where to start. Probably over coffee would be best. But I’ll throw a couple of thoughts out there. Please note – this is not a defense of Pacifism, but rather a critique of your positions espoused in this specific article.
    1. You note that God is just and therefore must punish sin. Your logic flows that God uses “just” war to punish deal with sin. However, the Scriptures wholly point to a Messiah – Jesus – who will (or has, depending on the Testament you’re reading at the time) deal with sin once and for all. The punishment for sin that comes from God was absorbed by Jesus on the cross, and then done away with by his resurrection. The coming punishment is that which will take place after the judgement of those who do not believe. In between the cross and that judgement, there is only correction from God toward those he loves. Thus, the New Testament can be seen to paint a picture of a continuous God who is doing something new in Jesus. And this without chopping up the Scriptures in any way, but rather by placing them in their historical context and letting them speak for themselves.
    2. You note that Just War Theory enjoys the status of being the majority position among Christians throughout history. However, JWT typically traces its Christian roots to Augustine (which based on your bio, you are quite familiar with) – it was not the first position of Christianity. Many early church fathers swear off violence because of their faith – and they do so as early as the early 100’s. While this is not the same flavor of pacifism that is alive today (I don’t think the early church fathers are making the same arguments), it is more like pacifism than it is JWT – or at least something completely different than either. This is significant because JWT begin to appear only after Constantine’s baptism and the acceptance of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Thus, JWT comes of age and becomes the majority position in the context of unity with a world power. And it has been almost entirely this way since. Perhaps JWT theory enjoys the place it does precisely because Christians got in bed with power so quickly in our history. Either way, its hardly the cut-and-dry case you make in your article.
    3. Your arguments from the Old Testament have something that modern “Just” War Theory does not have: An inspired piece of literature backing it up. If the Bible makes the case that war is, at times, just, it does so with the understanding that God is inspiring the story and tell us concretely that it is so. We simply cannot know this in a concrete way in today’s world – so even if JWT is the position of Scripture (which I don’t think it is) its application cannot be certain or concrete in any way in this life, and as such, or ability to call any modern conflict “just” is dangerous ground on which we ought not tread.
    4. I’m interested in your hermeneutical methodology because in the article is seems like the position you take is that – “the Bible says God did violence, thus, violence must be okay if it is just” (assuming that the measure for “just” war or violence is the character of God. I could be off on this, and welcome correction if I am. However, if this is the case, it misses some key, classically held hermeneutical ideas. The primary one is that genre, as well as, historical, political, and cultural context must be understood (as best it can) in order for interpretations to be made. In as much as these hermeneutical ideas are quality (which I think they are), many of the just war case studies you would pull from Scripture loose their polemical bite because the Scriptures do not (in almost any case) an overarching philosophy of war and violence in which violence is okay simply because it happened in the story of Israel and surrounding nations. In most OT stories, there is not prescription, but description of what happened and how God worked among them, through them, and in spite of them to bring forth his Messiah and begin putting the world together again. To assume an authoritative and God-ordained position simply because something happens in Scripture is not a quality measure for a theory. If it were, slavery would be okay, because it was not explicitly by New Testament writers. In fact, this argument was used in defense of slavery at times in our history.
    As I noted before, I’m not defending Pacifism, but critiquing your arguments for Just War, which I believe fall fatally short of being convincing logically or biblically. The New Testament writers are abundantly clear that in Jesus we have the most clear, real, and visible portrait of God, period. It is in His way we are supposed to walk, and Jesus only approached violence once, in the symbolic and prophecy-fulfilling cleansing of the temple; in which, he harmed no one.
    I am not arguing that any Christian going to war as a part of a military battle is wrong or burdened with more sin than the rest of us, or anything like that. I am arguing that the development of theory of Just War is not a position that the Bible takes. Your argument above offers only two options, much like our current political reality, and I think both options kinda suck. The Scriptures – and our Nation – are much more robust and messy than that. The Scriptures are so, so comfortable with tension, with not drawing the lines clearly enough that we can box each other out, or box God in. As someone said one time, if you live by the sword, by the sword you will also die.

  • To blame all pacifists of Marcionism is not only dull, it’s thoughtless. I find your reading of the Old Testament to be careless and literalistic in the worst sense of the term. You’ve gone to the other extreme from saying the New Testament (particularly the Sermon on the Mount) are the only determinative to saying that the revelation of Jesus essentially has no effect on how we read the Hebrew text.

    I’m being honest, I really don’t know how you’ve read the prophets and have become convinced that it means Christians ought to kill others. The prophets are a clarifying interpretation of Israel’s history that reveals that God’s anger is against injustice, and that this injustice will result in judgment. He does not, therefore, himself smash Israel. These are poetic images used in the prophets. If you were to reconstruct the history, of course the exile came as a result of the political stupidity of God’s people, but theologically, it was a problem of covenant faithfulness. Moreover, it’s clear that God had zero approval for the violent societies who judged Israel (Habakkuk 1-2 are particularly express about this). It was the covenant faithfulness of God’s people to become a society where idolatry, and thus injustice and exploitation, were to be ended. Israel was to be God’s example to the world of how to live God’s peace.

    This, then, leads to the unsurprising conclusion of the story: Jesus reveals God to judge the whole world by dying. That was Christ’s victory. That was his conquest. Giving himself up for all his enemies, and thus enacting the only true defeat of death and evil. His proclamation of the kingdom in his teachings were not an addendum or some nice moral stuff to go along with an atonement theory, they were in fact the agenda of God’s kingdom, which is the fulfillment of Israel. The surprise in the story of Christianity is the cross: that it is by abandoning power that all power is gained. It is such that in Revelation, you can hear the announcement of a mighty warrior, and what you turn and see is a slain lamb, or Christ on a white horse already stained with blood before the battle begins, or an “army” of saints marching into battle with songs, prepared to die.

    I reject that just war theory has claim to the concept of realism. To say so is to say that it is the only “effective” way to create peace, but this flies in the face of the revelation of Jesus on the cross. That is the way God has made peace with the world. That is the way God has judged the world. By his death and resurrection, not by his conquest of the weapons of the world. It is a revelation that the weapons of the world are, in reality, not effective. They have been overcome. And the funny thing is…that was what the prophets said the whole time.