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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Have Mennonites Moved Past Peace Theology? A Response to From Suffering to Solidarity

Ted Grimsrud—January 11, 2016

A new book collects 17 essays that purport to analyze the “historical seeds of Mennonite interreligious, interethnic, and international peacebuilding” (the subtitle to Andrew P. Klager, ed., From Suffering to Solidarity [Pickwick Publications, 2015]). It’s a collection of interesting and well-crafted essays that covers a wide range of topics that do fit under the general rubric of Mennonite peace work. Definitions are a bit of an issue in thinking about this book, as I will discuss below. However, just taken at face value, the peace-focused writings make an excellent contribution.

Many insightful pieces

The book is organized with three sections: historical background, analyses of “Mennonite peacebuilding approaches,” and discussions of how these approaches have been applied “in conflict settings.” The emphasis is on the practical and specific, and many inspiring stories are told. I’ll highlight just a few of the wide selection of informative chapters.

John Derksen, who teaches conflict resolution studies at Menno Simons College in Winnipeg, gives a nice overview of the early 16th century Anabaptists, claiming “much of Mennonite nonviolent advocacy and peacebuilding today finds its roots in 16th-century Anabaptism” (page 13). This descriptive survey accounts for the sources of the Anabaptist peace emphasis, though it doesn’t make overt connections between these 16th-century “roots” and present-day peacebuilding. This lack would not be a problem in this book if later writers had picked up on Derkson’s narrative. However, there is little mention of Anabaptists in what follows. As it is, we get a good sense of the 16th century movement but not much of a sense for how it directly has influenced our current practices.

John Roth’s essay, “Historical Conditions of Mennonite Peacebuilding Approaches: Global Anabaptism and Neo-Anabaptism,” while a bit cheer-leady in tone, describes a dizzying and inspiring array of Mennonite peace activities around the world in recent decades. He can’t go into much detail, of course, but having his account of one effort after another (and knowing he has to leave many out to keep the essay to a manageable length) impresses the reader with just how seriously Mennonites have been taking their vocation to be peacemakers.  Continue reading “Have Mennonites Moved Past Peace Theology? A Response to From Suffering to Solidarity