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.