Ted Grimsrud—February 23, 2015
This is the fifth in a series of posts.
Part of the beauty and part of the frustration of the Old Testament is that it is mostly descriptive and not overly directive in its portrayal of the political economy of ancient Israel. Certainly there are various different perspectives reflected in the story—some seem quite positive about the monarchy and emergence of a hierarchical social order, others are quite critical of those developments. And the reader cannot always be sure which perspective shapes the various parts of the story. But we do have a lot of freedom for interpretation and application.
In reading the Bible for an anarchistic sensibility (note, I say a “sensiibility,” not an overt and thoroughgoing anarchist political philosophy), we can be comfortable with the diversity. I am not making a strong claim here but rather raising some possibilities and trying to see how much support there is in the story for an anarchistic sensibility (with the focus on two general points—a critique of the state and an affirmation of the possibilities of human self-organizing).
I won’t turn to Jesus’s message until the next post. I have been arguing that the Old Testament itself can be read as pointing in an anarchistic direction. I don’t think we need Jesus to see that. However, if we do see Jesus as inclined toward an anarchistic sensibility (as I will argue) and we also understand Jesus to base his social ethics and broader theology on the Old Testament, especially Torah and Israel’s great prophets, we might be more inclined to notice the anarchistic elements in the Old Testament and to expect that when we read it as a whole and read it as pointing toward Jesus, we will recognize that the anarchistic elements reflect the core storyline more faithfully than the monarchical elements.
The story of kingship
We get mixed messages about kingship among the Hebrews from almost the very beginning. Certainly the lack of human kingship in the creation story, in the stories of Abraham and his immediate descendants, in the exodus story, and in Torah (with only a few hints otherwise) is enormously suggestive. This society is founded and guided by God and non-kingly human leaders—and ideologically grounded in both a strong suspicion of imperial power politics and a sense of optimism about human potential for self-organizing. Continue reading “An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (5)—Prophetic Critique”
Ted Grimsrud—February 16, 2015
This is the fourth in a series of posts.
We find an intense struggle at the heart of the Old Testament story—and hence at the heart of the biblical faith. It’s a political struggle. We could characterize it as a struggle between the “Empire way” and the “Torah way.” According to the story, following the liberation of the Hebrews from enslavement in the Egyptian Empire, they started a process of finding out how to embody the liberation they had experienced. God provides them with a blueprint for liberated existence, the law codes, Torah.
The story treats it as a matter-of-fact development that this liberated community would take over and settle in the land of Canaan, where they could seek to embody Torah and ultimately bless all the families of the earth. However, the process of entering the land and then sustaining their life in the land was complicated. Could the land be gained without extraordinary violence, given the unwillingness of the inhabitants of the land simply to turn it over? Can the community be sustained as a territorial political entity with borders to defend and an identity to protect without moving towards an empire-like political economy? Can the anarchistic sensibilities I identified in previous posts survive?
The “conquest of Canaan”
On the one hand, the story of the forcible entry of the Hebrews into Canaan does have important parallels with the story of the Exodus—parallels that point at least somewhat in an anarchistic direction. On the other hand, especially when read in light of the ultimate outcome of this excursion into linking with promise with territoriality, this part of the story ends up being a pretty sharp repudiation of statehood as a channel for the promise.
The actual “conquest” where the Hebrews take over the land is notable in how the victory depends on God’s direct intervention, not on generals, warriors, horses, chariots, and careful human planning. The picture, surely not at all realistic, is of a decentralized, ad hoc, even rag tag group of invaders whose success depends upon God’s actions and whose victory does not empower military leaders and a revolutionary vanguard. God is the leader from beginning to end, and the particular events tend to reinforce the sense that this is not the beginnings of a traditional political kingdom but something different. Continue reading “An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (4)—Conquest and Kingship”
Ted Grimsrud—February 9, 2015
This is the third in a series of posts.
My argument that the Christian Bible, when read as a whole, reflects a strong anarchistic sensibility certainly has at its center the life and teaching of Jesus. However, the heart of the Old Testament story—exodus and Torah—also provides important support for seeing the two main components of this sensibility (a strong suspicion of state power and an optimism about human potential for self-organization) as biblically grounded.
The exodus story is remarkable in how it contrasts the main characteristics of the Hebrews’ God with the main characteristics of the Egyptian empire. Given what follows in the rest of the Bible, it seems appropriate to see Egypt not simply as one specific opponent to the Hebrews in the ancient past but as a representative of power politics in general that is meaningful throughout the story and down to the present. Egypt also provides the model over against which the social philosophy of Torah is articulated—a model of bottom-up power over against Egypt’s top-down power.
Our introduction to Pharaoh: Genesis 41
When we simply read the Bible from the beginning without thinking about what comes later, our first encounter with Pharaoh, the god-king of Egypt, is pretty benign—at least on the surface. The morality tale of Joseph, the eleventh son of Abraham’s grandson Jacob, among other things, gives us an account of how the people of the promise ended up in Egypt.
Joseph is sold into slavery by one of his brothers (who did this to save Joseph’s life after the other brothers left him to die in the desert). What follows is an amazing story of Joseph’s wisdom and God’s providence that places Joseph next to Pharaoh as a key adviser. Joseph’s brilliant suggestions provide a plan that will save the lives of many in face of severe famine—including Joseph’s own family.
On the most obvious level, Pharaoh is presented as a wise leader, willing to listen to his bright subordinate and act in ways that to help people survive the famine. But, it is also clear—especially in light of the story’s sequel in the book of Exodus—that Joseph’s advice shrewdly greatly expands Pharaoh’s power and wealth. In exchange for providing people with scarce food, Pharaoh gains title to their land. Continue reading “An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (3)—Exodus and Torah”
Ted Grimsrud—February 2, 2015
This is the second in a series of posts.
In this survey of some biblical themes looked at from an anarchistic angle, I will not be real precise in my use of “anarchistic.” I’ll be talking about a sensibility more than a full-fledged political philosophy. The key “anarchistic” motifs I will focus on will be a strong suspicion toward centralized social power, especially kingdoms and empires, and an optimism about human possibilities for self-organizing and decentralized social power.
And I will be reading the Bible in fairly naïve and straightforward ways. I approach the Bible as a storybook and see it as providing a loosely coherent message, amidst a great deal of diversity. I will focus more on the loose coherence than the diversity—largely due to a desire to find usable guidance in the Bible. At the same time, in reading the Bible more as a storybook, I mean to reject any authoritarian dynamics. The story is invitational and winsome, more than coercive or dominatingly powerful.
The story of creation
The very beginning of the Bible provides much important information about the Bible as a whole, about the cosmology of the whole, about the character of the God seen to be central to the entire story, and about the relationships between humankind and this God.
Though the creation account in Genesis one portrays God as the power behind what is, the actual exercise of that power is muted. God speaks and what is is made. The dynamic is quite peaceable—in contrast to some other ancient creation myths (especially the Babylonian) that portray violence at the heart of things. Continue reading “An anarchistic reading of the Bible (2)—Creation and what follows”
One of the more challenging passages in the Bible is the story told in the book of Joshua. God’s chosen people enter the “promised land,” meet with opposition from the nations living there, and proceed—with God’s direction and often miraculous support—the kill or drive out the previous inhabitants. The book ends with a celebration that now the Hebrew people are in the Land, poised to live happily ever after.
Probably the most difficult aspect of the story to stomach is the explicit command that comes several times from God to the Hebrews to kill every man, woman, and child as part of the conquest. This element of the story is horrifying, even more so in light of the afterlife of this story where it has been used in later times to justify what are said to be parallel conquests—such as the conquest of Native Americans and nature southern Africans. So what do we do with it as pacifists? Or, really, even if for those who are not pacifists, how could an moral person want to confess belief in such a genocidal God?
The dismissal strategy
Probably the easiest response to the Joshua story is simply to dismiss it. To say, this is not part of our story. The God of conquest is not the God of Jesus Christ. One way to think of this is simply to say that the Bible here contains stories that cannot possibly have been true. We can’t know why these stories were included in the Bible, but we can know that we need to repudiate them—or at least agree to ignore them.
I hope some time in the not too distant future to reflect in more detail on this problem. There are various strategies to read Joshua in ways that don’t go to the total dismissal extreme but to in fact see some truths expressed there that may be appropriated for peace theology (this may be said to be the strategy taken by Mennonite scholars such as Millard Lind and John Howard Yoder). And there are other strategies, not necessarily with a peace theology agenda, for coming to terms with the story in ways that do not require its repudiation but still allow us to place our priority in reading the Bible on the message of Jesus.
For now, though, I simply want to reflect on a particular reading strategy I just thought of. To me, it’s quite different than the total dismissal strategy, though since I do not accept the historicity of this story, some might see it as pretty close to dismissal. I don’t actually feel much of a need to protect the Joshua story from dismissal—however, I still tend to want to see if we can find meaning in the story that at the least will help us put it in perspective and protect us from the uses that find in the story support for our violence. More than defending Joshua per se, I am interested in defending the larger biblical story of which it is a part—an essential story for faith-based peacemakers. Continue reading ““Saving” the Joshua story? An anarchistic reading”
Ted Grimsrud—May 25, 2014
I keep thinking of new angles for reflecting on the perennial question of how, as a Christian pacifist, to think about the portrayal of God in the Old Testament. What I will do in this post is think about how the main story line of the Old Testament does not work if we assume that the God portrayed there is fundamentally violently punitive.
Obviously, the Old Testament is a widely diverse collection of writings from many different times and places that reflects many different points of view. And equally obviously, some of these diverse writings tell us that God engages directly in violently punitive acts and directly commands some human beings violently to punish other human beings (both in the sense of general laws and in the sense of direct incidents). Modern critical biblical scholarship has strongly emphasized this diversity.
However, the writers of the Old Testament and the communities that gathered and utilize the writings have not approached this collection as mainly an inchoate accumulation of disparate texts. To the contrary, often in the Old Testament (as well in the New Testament), the writers themselves offer summaries of what they portray as the core story to which the collection as a whole witnesses. And the communities that have used these writings until quite recently have tended to read the Old Testament as containing a coherent story, one that offers clear guidance for those who see themselves as in continuity with the communities that created this collection.
The precise content of this “core story” of course has been and continues to be debated. What I offer is only one way to construe the story. I won’t make the case here that it’s the best one, though I do think it reflects the general orientation of the various summaries of the story line in the Bible itself. My main point is to suggest that looking at the story line is a better way to approach the God-as-violent-punisher theme than simply reporting and struggling with various specific incidents and commands.
My approach is to say that the most meaningful (or, one could say, the most authoritative) element of the biblical writings is the big story—the specifics should be understood in light of the whole. At some point soon I hope to spend more time reflecting on how this approach works in helping us use those texts that portray God as a violent punisher. For now, though, I simply plan to explain why I think the story line does not work if the God of the story actually is a violent punisher. Continue reading “How the Old Testament story refutes the God-as-punisher assumption”
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: Continue reading “God is not a pacifist, right?”