A response to Old Testament violence

Ted Grimsrud—September 17, 2018

The issue of the violence in the Old Testament has troubled and fascinated me for years. How do we reconcile the violent portraits of God with an affirmation that Jesus is our definitive revelation of God and calls us to a pacifist commitment? I have felt pretty resolved for some time that this issue is not a deal breaker for Christian pacifism. But I have yet to sit down and write out a full explanation of how I think we best think about how the OT and pacifism go together. I’m not yet ready to do that, but I think I recently moved a bit closer to doing it.

The two general historic approaches to OT genocide

I recently read and briefly reviewed a new book, Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide: Christian Interpretations of Herem Passages by Christian Hofreiter (Oxford University Press, 2018). Hofreiter surveys various ways Christian writers have “made sense of OT genocide” over the past 2,000 years. He suggests they break down into two broad categories.

One we might associate with Origen (arising in the 3rd century CE, a time when church leaders were essentially pacifist) and simplify by describing it as a view that ultimately suggests that the OT text does not accurately describe historical reality. There are two different versions of this approach—the first, echoing Origen’s own views, reads “beneath” the surface level on an allegorical or theological level, suggesting that a surface, more historical reading gives us an unacceptable view of God as a terrible killer and enabler of killers. The second version of the non-historical approach, much more modern, is to divide the OT between revealed portions (such as the stories that show God in ways consistent with the message of Jesus) and non-revealed (and non-historical) portions such as the genocide texts.

The second general approach we associate with Augustine (and arose after the 4thcentury “Constantinian shift” when church leaders affirmed the moral validity of Roman wars) and simplify as a view that suggests God has the prerogative to command (or intervene with) violent actions to serve God’s own purposes. This approach reflects the views of most Christians over most of history since Augustine’s time in their willingness to fight in and support wars.

However, many pacifists have also affirmed a version of this approach with the notion that God indeed has the prerogative to intervene with violence even while God also chooses to command Christians themselves not to use violence. This approach has the advantage of straightforwardness, in being able to accept the truthfulness of the OT stories as historical events.

Holding together (or not) five key propositions

Hofreiter helpfully provides a set of five propositions that gives us a framework for thinking about these issues (p. 9). An interpretation of the OT genocide texts must in some way come to terms with each of these propositions and with the set of five as a whole.

  • God is good.
  • The Bible is true.
  • Genocide is atrocious.
  • According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide.
  • A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or commend an atrocity.

Continue reading “A response to Old Testament violence”

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What happened in the Civil War: Reflections on James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom

Ted Grimsrud—September 3, 2018

[I have started a long-term reading and writing project to try to understand the American Civil War (CW), especially in terms of its moral legacy (here’s an introduction to this project). The first step will be to read a number of the standard accounts of the CW and its historical context. As I read these books, I will write blog posts reflecting on some of the things I am learning—both from the books themselves and from my on-going reflections. I will start with this post that responds to what seems to be considered the go-to one volume history of the CW itself.

James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era [The Oxford History of the United States] Oxford University Press, 1988. xix + 904pp.

I can see why this book has such a high reputation as the best one-volume history. Though it is 30 years old now, it still seems pretty vital and authoritative. The writing is straightforward and lively. Though obviously McPherson has to leave a lot out, the book is comprehensive. It actually does feel like a coherent volume (unlike many other long historical surveys), even though it is long enough to be broken into three volumes.

I found McPherson to be careful and respectful in his many descriptions of people and events (albeit, I grant that at this point I am just beginning my reading about the Civil War so I don’t have a lot to compare it to). His rhetoric is understated. He clearly writes as a “Yankee,” but I don’t think his tone is at all hostile toward the Confederates. He greatly admires Abraham Lincoln, but he gives us enough information to help us form our own opinions of this central character. Likewise with U.S. Grant. Conversely, he has a low regard for Jefferson Davis—though he is admirably calm and descriptive about Davis. The negative impression comes simply from the description of how time after time Davis supported morally problematic practices and ideals.

I look forward to in the future looking back at this book with much deeper and wider knowledge based on my upcoming reading. I find it difficult to imaging that my positive assessment will waver much, though. I should say that I have read a number of essays by McPherson, mainly in the New York Review of Books, so I already had a pretty positive impression of his abilities and perspectives. I also want to note in these preliminary comments that McPherson’s agenda was quite a bit different than mine. I didn’t get a lot of direct guidance for my assessment of the CW’s moral legacy—partly because the narrative ends abruptly in 1865 so there is not concluding analysis of the CW and its impact, and partly because McPherson strives mainly to describe the events and people with little evaluation beyond what was effective (or not) in the prosecution of the war.

Nonetheless, I feel after reading this book I am more condemning of the Confederate cause than I even was before. Not because McPherson directly insists on condemnation but because he quite effectively simply lays out the historical details. Of course, I obviously need to learn more. But I expect that my condemnation will get ever stronger. I suspect the deeper my antipathy toward the Confederacy, the more complicated it will be to argue against the value of CW—there is a grim satisfaction to be had in seeing the slave society get its comeuppance. Continue reading “What happened in the Civil War: Reflections on James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom

An interesting book on divine violence

Ted Grimsrud—August 16, 2018

What follows is a review I have written responding to a recent book on the ways Christian theologians have responded to the issue of divine violence in the Old Testament. This book does little directly to help us know how to resolve the problem. But having an understanding of the history of Christian attempts to resolve it is important.

Christian Hofreiter. Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide: Christian Interpretations of Herem Passages. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

One of the most vexing moral issues that has challenged Christians over the years has been the question of what to do with the teachings in the Bible that portray God as one who commands and empowers horrendous acts of violence. Despite continual attempts to find resolution, this issue remains as unresolved today as ever.

In this book, Christian Hofreiter’s revised Oxford University dissertation, we are certainly not given a quick and easy answer to the dilemma of divine violence. However, what we are given is a most helpful sketch of how various Christian theologians have, over the centuries, struggled with the issues.

Hofreiter frames his account as an exercise in “reception history,” the discipline that “consists of selecting and collating shards of that infinite wealth of reception material in accordance with the particular interests of the historian concerned, and giving them a narrative flavor” (p. 10). He limits his focus, as a rule, to Christiantheologians.

Even so, Hofreiter casts the net pretty widely, choosing more for a sense of comprehensiveness over depth of analysis of any particular thinker. Still, he does spend a bit more time on the two thinkers who provide what seem to be the two main historical options: Origen and Augustine.

The dilemma: Holding together five points

He helpfully summarizes the dilemma in terms of five points. The question is how many of these points are affirmed. (1) God is good. (2) The Bible is true. (3) Genocide is atrocious. (4) According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide. (5) A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or comment an atrocity.

Each one of these points, taken in isolation, would seem likely to be true, at least for what Hofreiter calls “a pious Christian.” Things become difficult, though, when they are combined. Can they allbe true? And, if not, which one(s) should be denied? What problems arise when one of the points is denied? Continue reading “An interesting book on divine violence”

God and punitive judgment in Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—July 29, 2018

 The book of Revelation is generally understood to be a visionary account of God who judges and violently punishes human wrongdoers and idolaters. I have long disagreed with that “standard account” interpretation of Revelation. Early in my career I wrote a book that presented a much more peaceable interpretation of Revelation called Triumph of the Lamb. Now, thirty years later, I am in the process of completing a new book that interprets Revelation in a way that is even more radically peaceable—tentatively titled “Jesus, the Conqueror: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation” (a lot of the writing I have done in recent years on Revelation is available on my PeaceTheology.net website).

A recent Facebook discussion in a group of which I am part, “Wrestling with the Disturbing Parts of the Bible,” engaged the issue of God and punitive judgment in Revelation. The discussion started with an examination of the famous incident at Revelation 6:9-11 where martyrs cry out for God’s judgment and vengeance against “the inhabitants of the earth.” The original post quoted Old Testament scholar John Goldingay to the effect that these verses tell us that hoping for God to exercise punitive judgment to wreak deadly violence on sinners is appropriate—and that God will act on those prayers in God’s time and punish such sinners.

Now, Facebook discussions can be exhilarating and educational, but they are also extraordinarily fast moving and rarely allow for an in-depth response. If one does not notice the discussion until it is well underway and much if not all of the early momentum has dissipated, then one usually can’t join the fray. In this case, I was not aware of the debate until someone tagged me and asked what I thought. At that point, I was en route with my family to New York City and not in position for even a belated contribution. But missing out on the original excitement does give me an opportunity to put a bit more care into a response—and to expand it into a lengthy blog post. Continue reading “God and punitive judgment in Revelation”

Wondering about the American Civil War

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2018

I grew up in western Oregon. Until I was 17, the farthest east I had ever been was Wallowa Lake in the northeastern corner of the state. Then, the summer after my junior year in high school, my family took a road trip out to Virginia to meet my new niece. My dad, who was a history teacher with deep interest in the Civil War, was thrilled to get to visit battlefields, museums, and other key Civil War sites. It was pretty interesting, but we had to leave to return home way too soon and only scratched the surface.

Ever since Kathleen, Johan, and I moved to Harrisonburg, VA, in 1996, I have felt guilty that I have not given much thought to the Civil War. My dad (who died in 1984) would be furious if he knew how I had wasted my time here by not paying more attention to Civil War places and materials. My apathy might finally be ending.

Did slavery actually end?

In the past few years I have learned about the impressive work of Bryan Stevenson. In his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014), Stevenson details his work as an attorney who has devoted his energy to saving the lives of people treated unjustly by our criminal justice system. He established the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, as the headquarters for his work.

Living in Montgomery has exposed Stevenson to the long and deep history of American violence toward people of color. He led an effort to establish a museum that would recognize the terrible toll of lynching in our country. This museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and its accompanying Legacy Museum opened their doors in late April this year. With this opening, Stevenson has been asked to talk in various settings about the legacy of such terroristic violence. He is extraordinarily clear and straightforward in the story he tells. A few weeks ago, I listened to an extended interview he gave the Washington Post.

Stevenson made a comment that got my attention. He stated that slavery never actually ended in the United States. It only evolved. This statement came simply as an observation, not as a strong thesis that he laid out a detailed rationale for. But his discussion of the tradition of Jim Crow segregation and lynchings by the thousand in the generations following the legal ending of slavery following the Civil War and his allusions to the ongoing plague of mass incarceration that has especially targeted black Americans offer anecdotal support for his statement about slavery’s evolution (and correlate with Michelle Alexander’s arguments about the dynamics of mass incarceration, especially in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness). Continue reading “Wondering about the American Civil War”

What does Romans 13 actually teach?

Ted Grimsrud—June 18, 2018

What does it mean for the United States to be a “Christian nation”? For many, it seems to mean that people should support the political status quo, and they will quote the 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans to support that support (“be subject to the governing authorities”). We find this most often when Christians want to offer “biblical support” for obeying the state’s call to go to war. But it comes up in many other circumstances as well.

Just lately, our evangelical Attorney General used Romans 13 as a basis to demand acceptance of Donald Trump’s policy of separating would-be immigrant children from their parents when they are arrested trying to cross the border into the US. Many commentators have noted that such a use of Romans 13 is not appropriate. I agree, but I also think that when this passage comes up in a public and controversial way, it is good to take the opportunity to offer some suggestions for how this oft-cited text might best be read.

The message of Jesus

The first step for thinking about the issues that Romans 13 are purported to address (our relationship to the state, our responsibilities as citizens, et al) is to start with Jesus—just as the New Testament itself does. Though Paul wrote Romans decades before the gospel writers wrote the gospels, the early church used these writings in a way that placed the gospels first. I think we can assume that the stories about Jesus that make up the core of the gospels circulated from the time of his death.

Paul himself insisted he simply reinforced Jesus’ message. If our basic question in looking at Romans 13 is a question of social ethics, we need to set the context for Paul’s own life and thought by taking note of what Jesus did and said that establish his own approach to social ethics. Continue reading “What does Romans 13 actually teach?”

The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—May 8, 2018

I have read with great appreciation many of the books John Dominic Crossan has written over the years and have heard him speak several times. A few years ago he published a book I found pretty helpful and relevant to my interests, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015). I don’t know for sure whether Crossan, who is Catholic, shares my pacifist convictions, but he clearly cares deeply about peace on earth.

The right agenda

I believe that Crossan has exactly the correct agenda for this book. He argues, “escalatory violence now directly threatens the future of our species and indirectly undermines solutions to other survival problems such as global warming, overpopulation, and resource management” (p. 244). He writes this book in order to address that problem, to show how the Bible can be used in ways that contribute to violence, and to suggest ways the Bible might be read that will actually help us move toward peace.

Crossan’s book may be read alongside Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). Boyd and Crossan happily share deep convictions about helping Christians deal with the violence in the Bible in way that will empower Christians to be peaceable today. They approach the issues quite differently, though. The differences are significant, for sure. I would recommend reading both works as a way of getting a sense of the breadth of possibilities for Bible-centered peace theologies.

One big difference between these two thinkers is how they think of biblical inspiration. Boyd affirms what he understands to be a very high view of inspiration, and as a consequence he undertakes to construct a quite detailed and elaborate argument for how he can see the Bible as truthful throughout and yet also argue that the Bible is consistently a book of peace. I have written a lengthy critique of Boyd’s argument. I see it as way too convoluted. But I find his work enormously instructive.

Crossan, on the other hand, has no trouble with asserting that parts of the Bible simply are untrue. This makes his argument much simpler and more straightforward than Boyd’s—though not without problems of its own. I am not fully happy with Crossan’s approach, either. I think he too quickly accepts the presence of major internal contradictions within the Bible and thus misses some insights that an attempt to read the Bible’s overall message as largely coherent might provide. However, in this blog post I want to focus my criticisms of Crossan elsewhere. Continue reading “The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation”

What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment after all?

Ted Grimsrud—May 4, 2018

For the past several months I have been putting most of my writing energy into a study of the book of Revelation, and have not met my goals for blog posting frequency. I finally realized that I need to combine thinking so much about Revelation with writing blog posts. So I expect to share several sets of reflections that draw heavily on Revelation in the next few weeks.

Punitive judgment in Revelation

One of my ongoing interests is the issue of punitive judgment—in the Bible and in life. I feel that I have developed a pretty strong argument that shows that the book of Revelation as a whole emphasizes mercy and healing much more than punitive judgment. However, some passages in Revelation have been rather persistently interpreted in punitive terms. Perhaps the most notorious comes at the end of chapter 14. This is what is written:

“Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle. ‘Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’ So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.” (Revelation 14:17-20, NRSV)

After reading through several dozen commentaries and other book and articles on Revelation, I recognize that there is a pretty strong consensus that these verses are talking about God’s punitive judgment against humans who have turned against God. There is one important stream of interpretation, starting with the influential 1966 commentary by George B. Caird, that reads this paragraph in a non-punitive way. In general, though, even commentaries that read other difficult passages in non-punitive ways, tend to see John teaching violent retribution here. Continue reading “What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment after all?”

An authentic witness: Remembering Norman Kraus

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2018

As I appreciatively joined in the memorial service yesterday (April 28) for my friend Norman Kraus, who died on April 6 at the age of 94, I reflected on my first encounter with his writing. Back in the Spring of 1976, if I had imagined that 42 years later I would be sitting in a Mennonite church in Virginia grieving the loss of the author of The Community of the Spirit as one who had been my good friend for over 20 years I would have been pretty shocked.

My final term attending the University of Oregon, Spring 1976, was when I decided not to pursue journalism as a career. I went ahead and graduated that term, but with no intent to stay with journalism. I had gotten intensely involved in a small evangelical congregation, gotten bitten by the theology bug, and read with great attention writings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul among others.

I took to browsing the shelves at Northwest Christian College, next door to the UO, looking for books to help me deepen my theological understanding. I happened upon a small volume written by a man named C. Norman Kraus who was identified as a Mennonite professor at a college in Indiana. Not only did the name Goshen College mean nothing to me, the term Mennonite also meant nothing to me.

However, when I started looking at the book, I quickly was hooked. Kraus spoke a language I understood—”discipleship,” “community,” “the gospel of peace.” I read the book thoroughly a couple of times and began to look for other Mennonite writings. That lead to Guy Hershberger, John Howard Yoder, and Millard Lind. It also led us to going to hear Myron Augsburger when my wife Kathleen and I visited her family in Arizona. One thing led to another, we visited the Mennonite congregation in Eugene, headed for Elkhart, Indiana, to attend the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, and by 1981 we joined the Mennonite church and embarked on a long surprisingly fraught journey.

The writings of Norman Kraus were the starting point for all this. For better or worse, he played a foundational role in my life as a Mennonite. I personally would say absolutely for the “better.” I am deeply grateful for the role Norman played in my theological development, and in more recent years in my remaining in good standing as a college professor and pastor in the Mennonite world. Some who do not appreciate his theological journey (or mine) might say for the “worse.” Continue reading “An authentic witness: Remembering Norman Kraus”

Christianity on war and peace: An overview

Ted Grimsrud—March 15, 2018

[I was recently asked to write up the following brief overview of how Christians tend to view warfare. It will hopefully be published in the forthcoming Bloomsbury Companion to Studying Christians.]

Accounts of how Christians think and act in relation to war have tended to repeat the general typology that was introduced back in 1960 by historian Roland Bainton in Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. Bainton saw three categories: pacifism (the commitment not to participate in war in any form), the just war (the willingness to go to war when certain criteria insuring the justness of the war are met), and the crusade (a sense of call from God to fight in a war that is understood to be divinely required).

However, this typology has been criticized for leaving too many options out and over-simplifying what is left. As an alternative, I propose a revised typology that has two main types: (1) Negatively disposed toward war and (2) positively disposed toward war. Each of these two types has three subtypes.

“Negatively disposed” toward war

What unites the three “negatively disposed” approaches is the conviction that, morally, the benefit of the doubt is always against war.

  1. Principled pacifism. This view is against war based on starting principles. For example, some Christians have said that they can not fight due to their understanding of Jesus’ commands such as “love your enemies.” The relative justice of particular wars is irrelevant. For example, in the United States during World War II those who were morally opposed to fighting were allowed to do alternative service as conscientious objectors. Such conscientious objectors refused military service simply because they believed any possible war was wrong due to their moral principles. Even if their country was to fight in a “just war,” principled pacifists would still refuse to fight.
  2. Pragmatic pacifism. This view is against war based on the evidence of how warfare works in actual practice. These conclusions follow from using just war criteria to conclude that all actual wars are certain to be unjust; that is, this pacifism is based on evidence. This view suggests that each war has violated some if not all the standard just war criteria.
  3. Critical just war. This view differs from “pragmatic pacifism” due by being open to the possibility that just war criteria may be met. These criteria typically are sorted into two categories: “just cause” (e.g., defending against aggression, resisting tyranny, stopping atrocities, declared by a legitimate authority, only undertaken as a last resort, undertaken with the near certainty of victory) and “just means” (e.g., noncombatants are not targeted, the violence used is not out of proportion to the good that the war achieves, of limited duration, the humane treatment of prisoners of war). This view starts with the assumption that any particular war is not just unless proved otherwise. The logical conclusion for those holding this view is that wars that do not overcome that burden of proof should be opposed. Something like this was a common view in the U.S. during the Vietnam War for many draftees who refused to fight went to Canada or prison.

Continue reading “Christianity on war and peace: An overview”