God is not a pacifist, right?

[Ted Grimsrud—December 16, 2012]

Last month at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings (as I reported), I was challenged again to consider how to think about God in relation to violence. I heard a couple of pacifist Old Testament scholars (a very small population as far as I can tell) in separate settings state explicitly that they believe “God is not a pacifist.” This is a relatively common view in my broader circles among scholars who still often make the point that they themselves are pacifists (a widely cited expression of this view is A. James Reimer, “God is not a pacifist,” Canadian Mennonite [July 26, 1999]; also in A. James Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology, 486-492).

This viewpoint strikes me as counter-intuitive. Like what I assume would be the case for all pacifists, I believe that violence is a bad thing and that responding to wrongdoing nonviolently is a good thing. I base this belief, in part (again like I would assume all Christian pacifists would), on Jesus’ command: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36) I tend to think that pacifism is an aspiration for a high level of ethical rigor that finds its grounding in God’s will and character. So it is a little discordant to hear that “God is not a pacifist” but we should be. Obviously, the people who believe this are bright, sincere, committed to faithful living, and thus to be taken seriously. So I want to try to understand.

Why we would say “God is not a pacifist”

These are some of the ideas I heard expressed that seem to support the belief that God is not a pacifist:

(1) We must take the Bible as a whole, as authoritative in each of its parts, and (it appears) as historically accurate in its portrayal of the events recounted in the Old Testament. The Bible obviously tells us that God commanded some humans to do violence against others, that God directly intervenes on occasion with acts of extreme violence, and that God uses as God’s agent various human warriors (including even empires that opposed God’s chosen nation of Israel to visit God’s judgment upon Israel). These teachings must be seen as truthful, accurate portrayal of God and God’s will. We must avoid trying too neatly to harmonize these clear teachings with Jesus’ pacifist message on the level of our understanding of God. For these God-is-not-a-pacifist pacifists, Jesus’ commands to us certainly are to be followed, but we risk misunderstanding God in profound ways if we try to draw too many lessons about God from Jesus’ commands—and we can not help but diminish the authority and truthfulness of the Bible if we make OT teaching harmonize with Jesus’ pacifism. That is, we must take the Bible as it is, not as we want it to be. It it’s left messy, so be it.

(2) We must be careful not to make peace an idol. It tragically can be an idol, as is obvious from the above point, if we make it into an ideology that requires us to diminish the teachings in parts of the Bible that make it clear that God is not a pacifist. That is, to claim that God is a pacifist might well itself be an idolatrous move because we are placing our pacifist ideology above an objective reading of what the Bible directly teaches. There are other ways that making peace an idol might manifest itself—such as being too inclusive in relation to non-Christians and various wrong-doers, thinking we pacifists are superior to non-pacifist Christians (especially in ways that might cause us to lessen the truthfulness of the key doctrines and creeds of Christianity), anthropomorphizing God and thereby visualizing God as a gentle and kind human being rather than a transcendent and holy Other, or making a priority of social action over evangelizing and people’s personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

(3) We must acknowledge God’s sovereignty. We best understand this sovereignty as the exercise of God’s control over events in history. Our pacifism is inconceivable apart from the reality of God’s controlling sovereignty that does judge and punish and even eradicate the wrongdoers that our pacifism renders us helpless effectively to resist. God has the prerogative to act violently when necessary—we are not to imitate God in these actions; they are reserved for God. But justice in history does require the violent punishment of wrongdoing. In God’s sovereign involvement, God uses human instruments to visit the needed judgment: we see this most clearly in God’s use of nations such as Assyria and Babylon to judge and punish ancient Israel (one image that a speaker used was that Assyria was the “ax” that delivered punishing judgment on unfaithful Israel and that God was the “lumberjack” who wielded the ax—just as we would say that the lumberjack is actually the author of the violence, so in the OT God is the author of the violence visited on deserving sinners by Assyria and Babylon).

(4) When the Bible refers to God’s “wrath” it has in mind God’s personal and offended anger that leads to direct retributive justice delivered by God’s hand (either directly in some cases or through the agency of the “ax” the “lumberjack” wields). God is angry because humanity has violated God’s laws—most egregiously in the case of God’s own chosen people who had been liberated from slavery and given Torah as a gift overtly and repeatedly violating the expectations communicated to them. These violations justifiably make God personally angry and require of God a punitive response—this is the process of “wrath.” The Bible is too clear and too prolific in its emphasis on God’s wrath to avoid it without repudiating the Bible’s truthfulness and authority. Of course, for these God-is-not-a-pacifist pacifists, the Bible is also clear that God’s people themselves are not to be deliverers of this retributive, wrathful, punitive violence.

Is there a God-is-a-pacifist response?

I became a pacifist in the spring of 1976, my senior year in college. I was a very conservative, Bible-believing Christian at the time who had been given the impression that my Christian faith should actually lead me to be more supportive of American military actions. When I made this choice for pacifism, it was a very intuitive decision—that actually went against the assumptions and teachings of my church and was not based on my reading of the Bible (beyond Jesus’ love command) nor on what anyone I knew had ever said in my presence. It was simply a kind of leap. I wish I could go back and read my mind at the time because I don’t really understand now why I took that leap.

However, after I made the initial move, many things served rather quickly to confirm it. Though I don’t remember talking about it with friends before, I soon discovered that several of my friends were thinking the kinds of thing, and we soon found each other and established an informal community of conversation and support. I soon discovered the writings of John Howard Yoder and a little later a local Mennonite congregation. Yoder’s chapter, “If Abraham is our father,” from his book The Original Revolution, both helped me think about the Old Testament in relation to my new pacifist convictions and introduced to the (then mostly unpublished) writings of his colleague Millard Lind. Yoder, Lind, my friends, and other writings helped me find rational reasons to confirm my intuitive leap. My pacifism soon became grounded in biblical theology and understandings of events in history.

In the years since that initial embrace, I have continued to seek to think as a pacifist. And I want to think this way now more than ever. I am not very attracted to the God-is-not-a-pacifist perspective. I do not find it easy to understand why Christian pacifists would be attracted to such a view. I suspect, in fact, that when one affirms this perspective, one’s pacifism is more likely to be superficial, just vocational, dualistic, and even short-lived. I want to work in the months to come on this blog at testing that suspicion. For now, I will make a few short comments in response to these four points I summarized above.

(1) How do we best approach the Bible? I have at least two major problems with the assumption that we have to think of the Old Testament as historically accurate. The first is that this seems like an anachronistic approach to ancient literature. I think we best read the Bible as an argument for faithfulness to the ways of Yahweh (the entire Bible is a kind of “gospel” or piece of evangelism seeking to produce followers not provide “scientifically truthful” information) in the form of telling many stories that ultimately cohere into one story. The truthfulness of the Bible, when it’s read on its own terms, is the truthfulness of a story that guides us to wholeness. We shouldn’t hold this quest for wholeness hostage to a modern conviction about truth as facts (e.g., to place a higher priority on protecting the historicity of the divinely initiated violence of the OT than on our need for a coherent and consistent biblically-oriented pacifist theology today). Second, focusing on the historicity of the material leads us to miss out on the narrative thread of the Bible that pushes us to locate meaning and authority not in the specific moments in the story so much as in the story as a whole, read in terms of a plot with a beginning, middle, and end. The meaning of the story is best seen in terms of its outcome in Jesus. Each part plays a role in contributing to the final story, but the impact is cumulative and the meaning of each part is only fully apparent in light of the end.

(2) I have addressed the idolatry question in a sermon, “Is Pacifism Ever an Idol?” I argue there that the answer is no, assuming we are clear and careful in our use of  the terms “pacifism” (which I define as the conviction that no value or commitment is more important than the call to love one’s neighbor [defined in a way that includes all human beings]) and “idol” (making something that is best penultimate into something that is ultimate). In fact, I even argue that pacifism provides a key criterion for evaluating whether something else is an idol. That is, I believe that pacifism is what we could call an ultimate conviction that relativizes almost all other convictions and loyalties. Pacifism, as much as any other core conviction, reflects the character and will of God. Other convictions or principles or values (such as loyalty to one’s nation or church or doctrine or ethnic group) that justifies violence in its defense or propagation show themselves to be idols by their violation of the core imperative contained in the concept of pacifism. Another way of saying this is that pacifism provides a necessary criterion for evaluating whether our understanding of God coheres with what the true God is like (see my essay, “How does pacifism [properly understood] work as a core Christian conviction”).

(3) I think that the Bible gives us a much more nuanced understanding of God’s “wrath” than simply something like personal anger as we experience it. I think the best way to think about an issue such as this is to consider the big picture. The cumulative portrayal of God’s response to wrongdoing is that God responds most fundamentally with grief and a commitment to bring healing. When there is emotion involved, anger certainly is present but generally in the context of the grief and commitment. For example, in Exodus 34, God responds with anger for two or three generations, but with mercy and kindness for countless generations.

Focusing on the direct use of the term “wrath,” we actually can see strong evidence for understanding this not so much as God’s direct action and emotion as God’s allowing for negative consequences to result from unfaithful acts (most obviously in Romans 1’s “God gave them up”). “Wrath,” then is better understood in terms of God’s indirect providential care in establishing historical dynamics that provide for a kind of reward and punishment in which injustice leads to brokenness with negative consequences for the unjust. This is how it is meaningful to talk about Assyria and Babylon as agents of God’s “wrath”—the analogy of a lumberjack and an ax presumes way too much direct involvement of God. Clearly, God judges Assyria and Babylon as themselves acting in terrible evil and rebellion. Their actions might serve God’s purposes but they are fully responsible themselves, they are not acting on behalf of God. The view of “wrath” I propose is compatible with a much less power-as-control understanding of God’s sovereignty. Biblically, God’s power is understood most profoundly as an expression of God’s love (which by definition is non-coercive) than as an expression of God’s dominating control.

Some concluding challenges

Part of the problem with the God-is-not-a-pacifist perspective, especially when held by pacifists, is that it actually is a pretty abstract concept with potentially terrible practical implications. We may say, “God is not a pacifist” as a kind of principled affirmation. However, what might this actually mean in reality? If God is violent, who actually is God going to be violent towards? How does God’s violence work in real life? Does God actually smite individuals? Does God perform God’s violence through historical actors that by the nature of the case always effect significant “collateral damage” when they pursue their tasks (be it the killing of innocent bystanders in acts of war or the execution of innocent people that is inevitable in any practice of the death penalty by human governments)?

The implications of the “God is not a pacifist” view include the possibility that we will be likely to accept various human agents acting on God’s behalf in doing violence—this may also include affirming the preparation for violence (e.g., military buildups, preparation of the apparti for capital punishment) that likely will result in some violent acts that no one would see as blessed by God. It also seems inevitable that if we don’t see God’s character as merciful all the way down, we will not be as committed to sustained mercy in our own attitudes and actions.

Ultimately, the God-is-not-a-pacifist view seems to have a certain coldness at its very heart. Even the pacifism that may be held by some who see God as not a pacifist seems more likely to be based on commands and obligations than a heart of compassion and thoroughgoing kindness.

[I hope to continue to reflect on these issues in blogposts to come. The next one will be to construct a typology of various ways Christians seem to think about Old Testament violence and pacifism. I will try to follow that overview with a series of posts on the various tendencies I outline there—plus I want to write responses to several books on these themes I have read recently.]

4 thoughts on “God is not a pacifist, right?

  1. Once again you hit on the heart of the matter Ted. Although I would prefer to use the word ‘non-violent’ rather than pacifist. While neither term is completly clear, I think non-violence conveys the concept of Jesus’ teachings on the return of good for evil as the way to ovecome evil. In that case the question would become: ” Is God non-violent in ‘his’ nature? “. If as Christians we believe that Jesus is the clearest revelation we have available of the nature of God, then we have little choice but to answer in the affirmative. Many have tried to interpret Jesus’ teachings in such a way as to nullify the core idea that the only response to evil that Christians can have is the return of love. But scholarship has shown these interpretations to be disingenuous. Now, fewer take the tack of skewing Jesus’ teachings . Rather there tends to be a calculated ignoring of the difficult teachings. If Jesus is non-violent in his teachings and actions, and if Jesus is the clearest revelation of God, then God is non-violent. In this view the OT can be seen as the struggle of a people trying to understand the nature of God and God’s will for them, but without the benefit of the fullness of revelation that Jesus brings.

  2. Ted,

    I look forward to your coming development of this topic.

    In view of the recent Newtown school shooting, this statement caught my attention: “Wrath, then is better understood in terms of God’s indirect providential care in establishing historical dynamics that provide for a kind of reward and punishment in which injustice leads to brokenness with negative consequences for the unjust.”

    That is the way I’ve been accustomed to thinking about “wrath,” perhaps even God’s “violence,” i.e. as an outworking in history of the destructive consequences of human choices to disobey God.

    I am troubled, though, that this kind of wrath is such a blunt, undiscriminating instrument.

    It is tempting to see the Newtown and other recent shootings as a (predictable) consequence of America’s idolatry of violence in general and guns in particular, and hence a warranted outbreak of God’s wrath.

    But in Newtown, it was the innocents, not the “unjust”, who were the first targets of that wrath (though how many of those grieving parents have guns…the mother of the assailant certainly did). And when innocents are caught up in God’s generalized wrath-as-historical-process, I can’t help but also grieve, same as I do when I read about God using Assyria as his “ax” against Israel as in my Advent reading this morning from Isaiah 9. I’m sure there were innocents caught up in that exhibiton of wrath too.

    I know, this raises the old issue of why the righteous suffer and evildoers flourish. But sometimes it is tempting to wish that God’s “giving them over to their sin” could be more justly targeted.

  3. Interesting conversation. A couple of thoughts. If we anthropomorphize God, then it becomes easy for those who are pacifists to say God is a pacifist. God indeed must be! In fact, God must be a Mennonite. However, if we have a more mythopoetic view of the divine (and thus associate the Creator with the awful forces of Creation = the ocean is not a pacifist) or if we move from mythopoetics to a more naturalistic or bio-historical philosophy and thus do not hold to a “personal God” in our understanding of theology (like the later work of Gordon Kaufman), then the question of whether God is a pacifist or not is not terribly relevant, The political and ethical question of our pacifism remains just as urgent because pacifism is a construction of culture, not an unmediated expression of either nature or divinity. Along with William Blake, we can pose a rhetorical question to the Tyger: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” We know the answer yet we need not be the Bengal Tiger.

    Go see “The Life of Pi” this weekend at your local movie house and you will find the question about God’s pacifism even more de-centering.

    Further, yet another perspective on this question. In terms of intercultural theology, in my peacebuilding work in Nigeria with the pacifist Christians of the EYN, they insist, in face of the terrible violence at the hands of the Boka Haram, “Because Yahweh is a Warrior we can be a people of peace.” The theology here, with an eschatology of just peace & justice in view, is that in the end, “the judge of all the earth must do rightly and justly.” It is this theology that makes their nonviolence possible.

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