Ted Grimsrud—February 9, 2021
It’s fairly common for me to see or hear someone bemoan the influence of the Christian Bible. People blame it for all kinds of wars and rumors of war, tribalism, and other boundary maintenance violence. It seems that most of the people I know, with all sorts of faith convictions, share in this concern. For many of them, the Bible is also a source of light—so it’s both a necessary resource and a problem.
Now, I hate war and all kinds of violence at least as much as my neighbors. I hate how violent Christians are. And I spend a lot of time with the Bible. I think I have a pretty good understanding about all these criticisms of the Bible and the sense of how the Bible seems to contribute to a more violent world. However, I love the Bible without any qualms. I have nothing but good things to say about the Bible. In my view, it’s not the Bible’s fault that Christians are violent. Let me briefly explain.
How do we read?
The Bible’s connection with human violence stems from how we read and apply it. The Bible is not itself violent but is only used by human beings in ways that lead to violence. It is a thoroughly human document—written by human beings, translated by human beings, interpreted by human beings, and applied by human beings. So, if the Bible is linked with human violence that is because of the humans who read it and apply it in violent ways. It’s not the Bible’s fault. All the Bible can do is provide us with the materials that we then use. I believe the materials in the Bible as a whole actually underwrite peace and undermine warism. I have addressed themes of the Bible and peace in detail elsewhere. But here I want to focus on our ways of reading, not the content.
It is certainly not that the Bible does not contain stories of violence or even portray God as doing violence and commanding violence. There are plenty of violent stories and violent teachings—though maybe not as many as sometimes thought. Regardless, those seemingly pro-violence materials only support our violence when we choose to have them do so.
Most of the time, those who turn to the Bible for instruction in doctrine and ethical guidance read it with an agenda in mind. We look for guidance and empowerment as we seek to live faithful lives. We have some kind of sense of what such lives look like when we pick up our Bibles, and we read it looking for reinforcement and correction. The Bible works as a conversation partner where we bring together our questions and convictions with the materials in the Bible with the community of others we read and discern with. We don’t generally approach the Bible with a blank slate nor with a passive stance simply waiting for new directives. We are in motion when we approach the Bible and read it as a kind of fuel for our journey.
So, in relation to human violence, the impact of the Bible will be determined by what we bring to it. I suggest that the Bible only underwrites human violence when one or more of the following conditions is present:
- People want a rationale for war. This may be the most important factor. Christians so often have approached the Bible after being shaped by their country to favor war and its preparation. The Bible only comes into play in relation to war when there is already significant momentum in favor of fighting. An ancient example may be found in the writings of the great early Christian bishop, Augustine of Hippo. Most theologians prior to Augustine did not imagine that the Old Testament justified Christians going to war; most theologians remained pacifists. Then the relationship between the churches and the Roman Empire changed, war came to be assumed to be something Christians should support, and only then did the Old Testament become a basis for warism—as we see when Augustine becomes one of the first to cite the Old Testament as a justification for fighting in wars. Much more recently, we can see a parallel dynamic with how so many Christians in recent times refer to the first part of Romans 13. After theologians express their support for war, many then turn to Romans 13 and the call to obey the government as the key New Testament passage that makes such support okay.
- People interpret the Bible as an authoritative source of rules for behavior. Many Christians think of their ethical responsibility mainly in terms of finding direct commands and explicit guidance from the Bible. Romans 13:1 is seen as crucial: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” The Bible does not directly command citizens to refuse to fight and, if you look carefully, you might find examples of commands to people to obey what their governmental leaders tell them to do. With such an approach, there is little sense of the general direction of the Bible’s teaching about loving neighbors and resisting idolatrous empires.
- People give authority to their leaders to discern when war is appropriate. A common approach in the history of Christianity has been for people in the churches to accept that the responsibility to decide about war rests with political leaders with perhaps some input from institutional church leaders. The moral responsibility of ordinary Christians is to accept whatever directives and rationales are given them by their leaders, including interpretations of biblical texts—be it texts that might support war such as Old Testament violence and Romans 13 or explanations of the lack of applicability of texts that seem to point toward peace.
- People think of the Bible as direct words from God. The idea of inspiration is interpreted to mean that each part of the Bible is exactly the way that God wants it to be—with the implication that the stories of violence are God-breathed and normative. Hence, the Bible is not read as a creative human work with many voices and perspectives that reflects its own time and place. So, rather than reading a biblical call to do violence as part of a time-bound and legendary story, believers in this kind of inspiration read such a command as a timeless and normative command directly from God.
- People ignore, marginalize, or distort Jesus. Surely the most important condition for reading the Christian Bible in a pro-violence way is to decenter the message of Jesus. The Bible gives us a clear and strong message for peace in the life and teaching of Jesus. And the Bible is also arranged in such a way as to make clear that the Jesus material is central. However, for most of the history of Christianity, Jesus’s life and teaching have not been placed at the center when Christians read the Bible. Christians affirm violence only when they decenter the message of Jesus.
An ethically responsible way to read the Bible
None of these human choices for how to appropriate the Bible in favor of violence actually stem from reading the Bible on its own terms in a straightforward way. It makes a lot of sense in relation to what the Bible itself emphasizes to read the Bible in an ethically responsible way that actually leads the readers to oppose war and to advocate for compassion and peaceable living.
When the Bible is read in an ethically responsible way, it becomes a powerful resource for peacemaking. The key for reading the Bible thus is to start with love of neighbor as the core interpretive principle. We then will expect that the Bible is most of all concerned with such love and read the Bible in light of that. The task of interpreting the Bible then is a task of learning from the Bible how to love and how to think of God in light of love.
When we approach the Bible in this way, we will place great importance on the teaching of Jesus. When he is asked, in so many words, “What matters the most in life?”, he responds with his famous command: “Love the Lord your God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself.” With this command as our lens for reading the Bible, we note that throughout the Bible—beginning in Genesis, say, with the story of Esau and Jacob and continuing to the fate of the nations in Revelation—love for neighbors, care for vulnerable people, compassion for the needy, forgiveness of offenses, are presented as the highest ethical ideals. The Bible generally presents human nations (the great empires and the territorial kingdoms of God’s people alike) as corrupt, too quick to turn to war, and entities to be considered with great suspicion.
The Bible is a collection of stories, recorded by and about human beings, that tells often of brokenness and conflict. However, these stories as a collection point toward affirming God’s character as peaceable and God’s intent that human beings be peacemakers. The Bible is not a “problem” that underwrites interhuman violence. Rather, it is an antidote to that problem.