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