Why the Bible need not be a problem for pacifists (Theological memoir #6)

Ted Grimsrud—December 16, 2019

I well remember the moment, though not the precise day. It was late in my final term of college in the spring of 1976. After quite a bit of thought and emotional struggle, I decided to affirm pacifism. I now find a bit surprising how little I knew about what it was I decided. I don’t remember having a serious discussion about the issue with anyone else, or hearing a sermon or lecture on the topic, or having read anything explicitly about pacifism.

The context for a conversion

Something was in the air, though, in our culture. The Vietnam War had just ended. I just escaped the draft as it was ended the year that I became eligible for it. I had learned to know several vets who told horror stories of their experience in the military. Perhaps more than any time before or since, precisely at the moment I became a pacifist the US military was unpopular. Society saw war as pretty problematic.

Both my parents served in World War II and my oldest sister married an Army officer—so I certainly did not grow up in an anti-military family. But I never wanted to join in. My dad, brother-in-law, and high school guidance counselor all urged me as a high school junior to try to get into a military academy. But I did not for one second have interest in that path. I knew nothing about the conscientious objection option, but I always dreaded the idea of going to war.

I had had a Christian conversion about a month after my 17th birthday. A huge event in my life, it shaped everything I did after it happened. Interestingly, at first, becoming a Christian moved me away from my vague anti-war sensibility. The church I soon joined viewed the military quite favorably. I heard sermon after sermon that presented going to war as a noble endeavor for a patriotic American Christian. For me, though, my seemingly innate reluctance to embrace violence kept me from internalizing that Christian warism. The fundamentalist theology that congregation taught me never did sink very deep into my soul, but it did dull my intellectual curiosity for my first several years of college.

Finally, during my senior year of college I began to expand my horizons. I discovered Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul. Surely their pacifist sensibilities effected me even if I did out realize it. I did realize that I truly did want to have an intellectually rigorous faith and that I saw what Bonhoeffer called “discipleship” as the most faithful manifestation of biblically oriented Christianity. I also discovered Sojourners magazine and Francis Schaeffer and his acolytes, especially Os Guinness.

While reading Guinness’s book, The Dust of Death, I took the step of embracing pacifism. Later, I realized that Guinness did not actually advocate full blown pacifism. He drew on Ellul’s book, Violence (which actually does essentially espouse pacifism), to argue against a certain kind of violence—the revolutionary violence of the Left. So it wasn’t that Guinness persuaded me to be a pacifist so much as that his critique of violence served as a catalyst to crystallize various currents that had been coming together in my heart.

That moment of clarity about pacifism changed everything for me. First of all, I had to learn the word “pacifism” itself; not a term that Guinness (or Ellul or Bonhoeffer, for that matter) even used. But I quickly sensed that indeed I did want to use that term for my new convictions. As well, I somehow knew that this new conviction was thoroughly biblical.

Pacifism in a biblical mode

In thinking about that time in my life, I’m still trying to understand the coalescing of (1) my still new Christian theology (about a year before my move to pacifism, I had switched churches and left fundamentalism behind), (2) my jump into pacifism, and (3) my convictions about the Bible. My mentors taught that the Bible stood at the center of everything related to faith. I accepted that belief, though I now realize that the authoritarian view of biblical inerrancy did not seep all the deeply into my bones. I assumed that a commitment to pacifism as appropriate only if it had biblical warrant. So, I started with an assumption of my pacifism as thoroughly biblical (though I now realize that it was first of all intuitive based on my experience in life). However, the more I learned, the more confident I became of pacifism as biblical.

My turn toward pacifism in 1976 set the course for the rest of my life. I have devoted a huge chunk of my energies to understanding, preaching, teaching, and writing about the connection between pacifism and the Bible. After all these years, I feel that connection more strongly than ever. And continuing to seek to understand and articulate that connection will surely dominate my energies for the rest of my life.

So, I sought to learn about pacifism’s meaning, history, and theological bases. Inevitably, I would soon learn of the Mennonite tradition and the thought of John Howard Yoder (whatever problems I now might have with Yoder’s life and thought, I can’t deny [nor would I want to] the impact of his writings in shaping my thought). Mennonite peace theology provided a necessary resource for understanding the implications of my new focus. I suppose it was also inevitable that I would end up trying to be a Mennonite myself (and perhaps even inevitable that that effort to become a Mennonite would be deeply complicated).

The energy I felt for understanding pacifism in a biblical mode led to an extensive reading and writing program. Besides the obvious focus on the life and teaching of Jesus and the prophets, I also early on devoted myself to “problematic” issues in the Bible such as violence in the Old Testament and in the book of Revelation. Over a period of about two years (1978-9), I read through the Old Testament along with at least one commentary on each book. Then I tracked down the obscure doctoral dissertation written by Mennonite Old Testament scholar, Millard Lind, called “A Theology of Warfare in the Bible.” All of that reading left me confident of pacifism’s coherence with the overall message of the Old Testament. I believed from the start that pacifism most centrally means a love for peace—that is, for what the Old Testament calls “shalom” (wholeness, compassion, work for healing).

I also engaged in a thorough effort to understand the book of Revelation, reading dozens of commentaries, preaching sermons, and teaching Sunday School classes that led eventually to the publication of my first book in 1987, Triumph of the Lamb: A Self-Study Guide to the Book of Revelation. As the publication of that book indicates, I also ended up quite confident of pacifism’s coherence with the message of Revelation.

Why the Bible was never a problem for my pacifism

Only now, as I reflect on these events of over 40 years ago, do I discern something quite interesting. Though I did quickly engage the problems with seeing a close connection between the Bible and pacifism, I did so more out of intellectual curiosity than any sense of doubt about that connection. I mainly wondered how best to read the Bible as a peace book, not whether it should be read that way. I think I can now accurately say that never for one second did I experience the Bible as a problem for my Christian pacifism.

I think my sense about the Bible paralleled my sense about life. In life, I never doubted that I wanted to be a pacifist, that the term “pacifism” best captures my core convictions related to love, compassion, respect, valuing life. To move toward wholeness in life means to grow in love and in compassion and in similar values and practices. So, of course, I seek to understand life in ways that help empower such growth.

That I did not experience the Bible as a problem for my pacifism certainly does not mean that I was never around others who did see the Bible as such a problem. For the first several years after my 1976 pacifist conversion, I attended a small, non-denominational church made up mainly of people who rejected pacifism. If you asked those non-pacifists, they would insist that their views cohered with the Bible—and that mine did not. Once I shifted my ecclesial commitments to the Mennonites, I still have been surrounded by people with many doubts about the Bible as a book of peace. And, of course, in the wider world of Christian theology, only a small minority assert that the Bible is pacifist.

So, I have continually been exposed to others, including close colleagues, who do find themselves skeptical of a close connection between pacifism and the Bible. Yet, I have never found the Bible to be a problem. Since May 1976, I have never thought that the best reading of the Bible affirms punitive violent judgment—either from God or from human leaders. I have simply read the Bible as a peace book, all of it.

Starting with peaceable assumptions about the Bible

I now see why I have had that view. I think that ever since May 1976 I have assumed that Christians should not turn to the Bible with uncertainty about whether we should support or engage in punitive violence, as if this is an open question. Rather, I have always believed that we should turn to the Bible for guidance and inspiration for living nonviolently. We should read the Bible as a resource for growing in our ability to live in love, to practice compassion, to seek the wellbeing of all other people, to consider all life as sacred. Our starting point is so important. Do we have to prove that the Bible is a peace book against a sense that it might not be? Or do we simply try to figure out how we might appropriate this peace book in a way that will help us better be peacemakers? For over forty years, I have assumed that latter.

I was not self-conscious in thinking about the Bible in this way in those early days of my pacifism. However, I now believe that the kind of sensibility I sketch in the previous paragraph is precisely what has long been operative for me. Thus, I never saw the difficulties in the Bible as a problem for my pacifism. From the moment of clarity in May 1976, I never doubted the Bible as of course my ally in seeking to embody Christian pacifism. Likewise, I never doubted that the data from life around me, from history, and from my hopes for the future supported pacifism.

I affirm the soundness of my instincts even if I didn’t quite know what I was doing. Today, I would say that as a Christian pacifist, I read the Bible as part of a multi-faceted quest for understanding. I have my core convictions about life that are the result of my experiences and education—at the heart is the conviction that love is the generative force and guiding principle for healthy life. And I have my awareness of the main teachings of the Bible that at their core affirm God as loving creator and redeemer, revealed most clearly to us through the life and teaching of Jesus. As well, I have understood the realities and dynamics of oppression, domination, and destructive myths about the efficacy of violence that provide our social context as we read this peace book.

Within this constellation of perceptions, with a hope for healing in our world with its brokenness, I have long picked up the Bible with the expectation that as I read and study it, each part of it will empower my quest for shalom. As it has turned out over these past 40 years, in picking up the Bible in this way, I have never been disappointed. I have found each part to be “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in justice” (2 Tim 3:16).

Some parts do require careful thought and a self-conscious effort to read them in light of the overall plot of the Bible. However, going back to the several years after my initial pacifist commitment, I have learned a great deal about the Old Testament and the book of Revelation that supports Christian pacifism. I have never had cause to doubt my beginning assumption that, of course, the Bible should be read as a book of peace. It seems inconceivable to me to imagine being persuaded by the Bible itself to question my commitment to pacifism—partly because of what I have learned about the message of the Bible itself, start to finish.

The Bible does not underwrite our violence

Because of the fruitfulness of my pacifist reading strategy I have never in these 40+ years imagined that the pictures of punitive violent judgment in the Bible (the divinely initiated and endorsed violence) could possibly be an accurate portrayal of God. Nor have I imagined that the Bible’s violence could possibly validly underwrite human violence.

I link Christian pacifism closely with a commitment to follow Jesus’s way. As a follower of Jesus, I simply assume that all of the Bible, including the violent parts, should be read with the intent to find empowerment to be peacemakers. Jesus himself seems to have read the Bible in that way. Hence I wonder if it might be the case that only if one starts with a desire to justify violence could one be likely to read the Bible as accepting of violence (be it war, death penalty, punitive criminal justice, or corporal punishment of children). The ambiguities and complications of the stories of the Bible will most likely be read in ways that overrule the clear message of Jesus and the prophets when one wants them to.

I tend to think that when we have debates about the Bible and nonviolence, the debates should focus first of all on the starting point, not on specific texts. Why would anyone want the Bible to support war, or to support obedience to warring governments, or to support punitive criminal justice practices? I wonder if only when one wants such an outcome will one interpret the Bible in ways the justify such violence.

In relation to the standard account in the history of Christianity, we may ask how it could be that Jesus would, on the one hand, teach and live in such an unambiguously nonviolent and politically transformative way and, on the other hand, seemingly unquestioningly accept and even affirm the truthfulness of the Old Testament (with the standard account’s assumption that the OT is deeply and profoundly pro-violence). I think the only answer that makes sense would be to recognize that, unlike the standard account, Jesus simply accepted the Bible as a book of peace and couldn’t imagine it being the basis for justifying violence.

How the pacifist approach works: Revelation

So, how might we read the parts of the Bible that traditionally get cited as providing support for the acceptance of violence? I will mention only one example, the book of Revelation. We may see here the importance of one’s assumptions about the Bible and peace that exist prior to one actually reading the book. These assumptions shape what one looks for when one reads the book. Everyone would agree that Revelation is difficult to interpret, full of symbolism and obscure imagery. What is it like to read Revelation as a peace book?

I start by taking seriously the initial self-identification of the book as the “Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1). I take this title as, among other things, a link of what follows with the gospel story of Jesus and as a call to follow Jesus on the path of discipleship. The messages to seven congregations in chapters 2 and 3 emphasize the agenda of the book as a whole—to challenge those in the congregations to resist the lure of the Roman Empire to give it loyalty that belongs only to God and the Lamb.

The key to the book may be found in chapters 4 and 5, where we read of a worship service focused on the One on the throne as the true master of the universe (in contrast to the deifying of the Empire and its human leaders). Crucially, the service links the One closely with the Lamb who has the power to “open the scroll” (i.e., to win the decisive victory that determines the outcome of human history). This may be described as the power of self-giving love that leads to execution by the Empire and that God vindicates by resurrection. As a consequence of the Lamb’s victory, won through faithful (nonviolent) witness (5:5-6), all of creation worships the Lamb alongside the One.

So, the “revelation of Jesus Christ” has to do with Jesus’s faithful nonviolent resistance to the Empire, God’s vindication of that witness, and a call for John’s readers to follow that path. What follows after the vision of chapters 4–5 reinforces Jesus’s way as the way of victory and that, indeed, Revelation may accurately be called a peace book.

Chapter 7 reiterates the praise of the Lamb from 5:8-14 when an uncountable multitude stands before the One and the Lamb, offering thunderous praise. These worshipers “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). They share in his self-giving love, his nonviolent resistance to the domination system that finds victory through persevering love. Those in the multitude follow the Lamb and his ways (7:17).

Chapter 12 then makes this link between the Lamb’s path and the call to the readers to the ways of disciple clear. This chapters identifies God’s enemy as the Dragon, the agent of the violence visited upon the Lamb and his followers. We may best understand this Dragon, “who is called the Devil and Satan” (12:9), not as an individual being so much as a personification of the social and political forces, structures, and ideologies that try to destroy the earth. These forces have been defeated (note the past tense) by “the blood of the Lamb and the word of [the Lamb’s followers’] testimony” (12:11). Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection and the discipleship of his followers provide the means to defeat the Powers of evil.

Following chapter 13’s account of the Dragon’s servant, the Beast, and its overwhelming power of violent persecution and irresistible propaganda, we read that the Lamb nonetheless stands victorious on Mt. Zion along with “144,000” who follow him wherever he goes. Chapter 7 has told us that this 144,000 refers to the multitude that washed its robes white in the blood of the Lamb. A cryptic and graphic picture at the end of chapter 14 (grapes pressed into wine that, as blood, rises as high as a horse’s bridle for about two hundred miles) may be best understood as another reference to the efficacy of the Lamb’s blood and that of his followers that bring healing to those “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9).

Chapter 17 once more emphasizes the decisive role of the blood of the Lamb and his followers (I take “blood” here to symbolize the entirety of Jesus’s life of persevering love that ended with the Empire’s execution). We have a new image in chapter 17 for the Powers of evil, a Great Harlot (17:1) who represents the spirit of empire. The Harlot, “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (17:6), meets its doom(17:16).

Chapter 18 retells the same vision. Here, Babylon—who gets the nations to “drink of the wine of her fornication” (18:3)—meets its doom due to being mixed “a double draft…in the cup she mixed” (18:6). These visions of the destruction make sense when linked with the earlier references to the blood of the Lamb and his followers that brings healing. Remember 12:11 proclaiming that the victory of God over the Dragon happens due to the blood of the Lamb and the word of his followers’ testimony. Though the visions in chapters 17 and 18 portray some kind of violence (though note that violence only find expression vs. the Powers and not human beings—for example, the human cohorts with Babylon stand to the side during is destruction in chapter 18), they also support the earlier assertion that God wins in Revelation against the Powers with persevering love and nonviolent resistance.

Chapter 19 tells again of God’s victory over the evil Powers and conveys the same understanding. Here, Jesus rides forth to a battle with the Powers with his blood already shed (19:13) and his only weapon being his word of testimony (the sword that comes from his mouth, 19:15). We actually have no battle (Jesus’s shed blood already has won it, 5:5-6) but simply the capture of the Beast and False Prophet and their being tossed into the lake of fire.

Finally, we read in the vision of New Jerusalem in chapters 21–22 of the presence of the kings of the earth (21:24) who several times earlier are mentioned as God’s human enemies. The work of God to defeat the Powers does not result in punitive judgment against God’s human enemies but in their healing. The violence defeats the spiritual Powers of evil (not evil people). When the revelation of the Lamb breaks through the deception of the Powers, humanity finds healing and the only Powers are destroyed. It all happens due to the nonviolence of the Lamb’s persevering love—love that provides the model for the lives of the Lamb’s followers. Thus Revelation serves an excellent coda for the Bible’s message of peace.

My reading of Revelation, which I believe fits the evidence of the book, would not be possible without my starting assumptions that shape the kinds of questions I ask of the text. I think the old Liberation Theology concept of a “hermeneutical circle” helps explain why I believe that the Bible need not be a problem for pacifists. If we ask pacifist questions of the text, following pacifist assumptions about the realities of human life, we will gain insights into the deep meaning of the text itself. And we will find ways to apply those insights to our present-day task of seeking healing for the world.

I don’t have space here further to illustrate my approach to the Bible by addressing the other most commonly cited difficult biblical texts—the divinely initiated violence in the Old Testament. I have written a bit about that elsewhere (see this short essay and this very long series of blog posts). These writings certainly do not provide definitive answers to all the questions, and they will not likely be persuasive to all non-pacifists. However, they do help explain why I have not found the Bible to be a problem for my pacifism.

[The “Theological Memoirs” series of blog posts]

4 thoughts on “Why the Bible need not be a problem for pacifists (Theological memoir #6)

  1. Seeing the Way the World… from the amoeba to the Human Being… as revealing the handiwork… and thus too the heart set of God… it appears that biological mutualism and humanistic pacifism are both subject to and purposely paired with powerful and utterly destructive (creative?) forces. Our bodies are living/dying manifestations of generative and too degenerative forces. Our earth bound bodies, even our communities self destruct. As works of God… We are conceived.. We grow… We grow old… We get old…. We die… and our bodies decay. As Spiritual Beings (the Offspring of God) is it conceivable that we may sustain the celebration of Eternal Life and even Eternal Love in abiding pacifistic personal relationships in the Space of Relation?

  2. “Why would anyone want the Bible to support war, or to support obedience to warring governments, or to support punitive criminal justice practices? I wonder if only when one wants such an outcome will one interpret the Bible in ways that justify such violence.” Thank You Ted

  3. Biologists tell me that predation among the living (the Original Fall?) began on the Earth in the actions of single celled life forms something like 3.5 Billion years ago. Relative to the human experience…our Creator(s) obviously are not pacifists and the original pair of human beings are not singularly responsible for the pit they/we have fallen into. There are examples of biological mutualism where two different species of interdependent organisms both benefit from their relationship with each other. So it is not like the Creator(s) can not or have not created such arrangements but in the main they obviously did/do not favor them. Personally, I am pretty much a vegan living off veggies. And I am pretty much a pacifist, in that I have not murdered another human being… not yet any way. But life is messy, and I really do not have much of an idea as to what is going on in my gut. I also pay taxes that go to fund horrible wars waged by out right liars. Still I work at being the change I want to see in the world. Step by step…I journey on to the greater glory of Being Together co=creating shared reality in the space of our loving relationships.

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