War and the Old Testament: A Proposal

Ted Grimsrud—October 3, 2011

It seems to come up all the time in discussions about pacifism. What about all the violence in the Old Testament? I’m not sure why the OT is considered to be a problem especially for pacifists—the violence there should be a problem for any moral person, I think.

I remember my Old Testament teacher, Millard Lind (of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary), speaking at the University of Oregon and making the point that the violence in the Old Testament creates problems for all Christians. We all say that the OT is revelatory, and it portrays God ordering or performing some horrendous and indiscriminate acts of violence. The OT is not about “just wars” in the sense that the western moral tradition has used that term. It positively portrays acts of indiscriminate murder, acts that are condemned by just about all moral systems.

I had a student a number of years ago who signed up for one of my Bible classes with the intent of refuting the pacifism I taught. To get ready for the class he began to read through the OT, making note of all the materials that went against pacifism. He did not get far into this project before he faced a major crisis in his faith. He realized it was actually too easy to prove his point; his own non-pacifist moral framework was also under assault by the Bible’s stories. Ultimately, he resolved the problem by giving up on the Bible and Christian faith.

So, it could be (1) that those who evoke the OT as evidence against pacifism are being disingenuous in acting as if the OT does not equally provide evidence against the just war theory or any other view that places moral limits on lethal violence used against civilian populations. Thus, it could also be (2) that non-pacifist Christians should be just as concerned about this dilemma as pacifist Christians. That they don’t seem to be is itself an indictment against the lack of moral rigor in the easy Christian acceptance of warfare. Continue reading “War and the Old Testament: A Proposal”