Monthly Archives: January 2009

Retribution and Mercy—Genesis 6–9; 18–19

Here is the fourth in a series of Bible studies that present the Bible as being in the side of pacifism. In this essay, “Retribution and Mercy—Genesis 6–9; 18–19,” I look at the stories of Noah and the flood and of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here we have the problem of inter-human violence and injustice identified leading to divine retribution. In Genesis 6–9, God “repents” of creating humanity. And as a consequence of God’s distress, an overwhelming punitive act happens–the great flood. However, the story ends with a renewed covenant with humanity and God’s resolve to bring healing to creation. In Genesis 18–19 God brings judgment down on Sodom, allowing only Lot and his family to escape. Are these story “problem stories” or inspirations for our peacemaking work?  Both, I suggest.

Nicholas Guyatt. Have a Nice Doomsday

Nicholas Guyatt. Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans Are Looking Forward to the End of the World. Harper Perennial, 2007.

Though this book has a fanciful title and is written with a light touch that at times combines a personal travelogue with portraits of the main figures of the North American prophecy scene, Guyatt is a serious scholar with a serious agenda. A history professor at Simon Fraser University and contributor to leftish political periodicals, Guyatt took it upon himself to try to understand the amazing phenomenon of prophecy belief among North American Christians–and its impact on our broader political culture.

He traveled throughout North America, talking with many of the major figures (including Tim Lahaye–though despite his best efforts, Guyatt never manages to secure an audience with Hal Lindsey [he does talk with several of Lindsey’s close associates]). He also has read widely in the literature and perceptively gives us the historical background for this phenomenon.

The result is an engaging and informative portrayal of an important American sub-culture. Guyatt does an impressive job of getting people to talk with him–and largely succeeds at presenting a human (and humane) picture instead of the cardboard caricatures too easily settled for in much critical writing on this topic. And, in the end, Guyatt is critical. He does not let his own distaste for the views of the LaHayes and Lindseys color his reporting–but he is not simply a neutral observer either.

I think this is a fine book. It is readable, engaging, informative, enjoyable, and useful for anyone who wants better to understand this phenomena.


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David Leiter. Neglected Voices: Peace in the Old Testament

David A. Leiter. Neglected Voices: Peace in the Old Testament. Herald Press, 2007.

We certainly need more books like this one. Church of the Brethren pastor and Old Testament scholar David Leiter takes on the question of whether peace-oriented Christians should approach the Old Testament more as a problem or more as a positive resource. In helpful ways, he makes a good case for seeing the Old Testament as containing much material that does support our actively seeking peace on earth (and understanding such seeking to be God’s will).

He demonstrates just how important the motif of “shalom” (the Hebrew word usually translated “peace”–though Leiter suggests that the sense shalom carries is significantly bigger than our term “peace”) is throughout the Old Testament. It is good to see a short but comprehensive and persuasive summary of just how central the ideal of shalom is for the ancient Hebrews. 

We then are introduced to several stories showing that nonviolence often played an important role in the resolution of conflicts and in attempts to challenge an unjust status quo. Numerous other ways that peace plays an important role in the Old Testament story are then discussed–including visions and mandates for peace.

Leiter has written a most helpful book–it is concise and clear, and makes its case persuasively. He concludes: “When addressing the concept of peace in the Old Testament, we need not begin by looking at the concept of war and violence. The conversation can start off with a discussion of peace. [I] hope that, [for readers of this book,] when conversation emerges regarding the absence or presence of peace in the Old Testament, [they] will be able to identify various passages and address the blank stares and comments that suggest that peace is non-existent or a sidebar in the Old Testament. On the contrary, peace is a central concept in the Old Testament that gave life to the people of ancient Israel and can give life to us today” (pages 155-56).

An additional contribution the book makes is in Leiter’s thorough bibliographic essay that identifies many resources for people interested in the issue of peace in the Old Testament. Since for many of us, this may be a fairly new issue, such guidance for further reading is to be appreciated.


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Christopher Browning. Ordinary Men

Christopher Browning. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. HarperPerennial, 1998.

This fascinating and disturbing book has been out a while, but I just lately got around to reading it. It addresses a big issue–trying to gain some understanding of how German people could have participated in mass murder in the Nazi era–in a helpful way by focusing on just one small part of the story. Browning looks at a single group of German soldiers and their process of becoming ever more involved in genocide.

Part of what is disturbing in this story is that, as the title states, these were “ordinary men.” They were not professional soldiers but rather a reserve unit of civilians pressed into service, sent to Poland, and ultimately ordered do kill thousands of Jews in cold blood. A number of men in the unit did resist, a little (there was only one who successfully evaded the call to kill), but most–in Browning’s telling–initially drug their feet but in time simply “obeyed orders.”

As a theologian, what I note to be missing is any sense that these church-going men might have found anything in their faith tradition that might have pushed them to stand between the obviously, horrifically, sinful commands from their leaders and the helpless victims they were being called upon to slaughter. Another sad element of the story is the on-going denial characteristic of most of the participants in the years following these events.

Browning challenges the argument of well-known author Daniel Goldhagen that “pent-up anti-Semitism” that simply was waiting for a Hitler to serve as a catalyst  (and was in some sense distinctive to Germany) explains these events. “The fundamental problem is not to explain why ordinary Germans, as members of a people utterly different from us and shaped by a culture that permitted them to think and act in no other way than to want to be genocidal executioners, eagerly killed Jews when the opportunity offered. The fundamental problem is to explain why ordinary men–shaped by a culture that had its own peculiarities but was nonetheless within the mainstream of western Christian, and Enlightenment traditions–under specific circumstances willingly carried out the most extreme genocide in human history” (page 222).

“It would be very comforting if Goldhagen were correct, that very few societies have the long-term, cultural-cognitive prerequisites to commit genocide, and that regimes can only do so when the population is overwhelmingly of one mind about its priority, justice,and necessity. We would live in a safer world if he were right, but I am not so optimistic. I fear that we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce ‘ordinary men’ to become their ‘willing executioners'” (pages 222-23).

I highly recommend this book.


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Creation’s Harmony Disrupted—Genesis 3–4

Here is the third in a series of Bible studies that present the Bible as being in the side of pacifism. In this essay, “Harmony Disrupted—Genesis 3–4,” I look at the story of the entry of alienation into the story following the creation account. I reflect on the way this part of the story (Adam and Eve’s becoming afraid of God and the initial act reflecting the alienation, Cain’s murder of Abel) sets the stage for the main focus of the larger biblical story: God’s healing strategy of persistent love as the means of healing creation.

Timothy Gorringe. Salvation

Timothy Gorringe. Salvation.  Epworth Press, 2000.

British theologian Timothy Gorringe has written several important books that combine in an exemplary way solid scholarship with direct engagement with present social issues (my favorite is God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation). Here he addresses the general theme of salvation in an self-consciously popular-level way. I think it is a very helpful book and would work well in a study group.

Gorringe uses the story of a young couple who are beginning a romantic relationship–one a charismatic evangelical, the other an agnostic. He recounts their conversations, interspersed with more overt theological reflection. In the end, the couple meet kind of in the middle, in a socially-engaged, thoughtful, theologically-inclusive common ground (likely close to the kind of faith Gorringe himself affirms).

In Gorringe’s God’s Just Vengeance, he traces the historical link between retribution-oriented doctrines of salvation and the practice of state-sponsored violence in the treatment of convicted criminals. In the final part of the book, he outlines an alternative understanding of salvation. In his little book, Salvation, he does not develop his constructive theology any further, but he does helpfully set it in the context of contemporary life and shows its relevance by looking as the stories of his two main protagonists.

In short, Timothy Gorringe deserves our gratitude for giving us an antidote to the problematic views of salvation that are so widespread among “people in the pew.” It’s too bad that this book is hard to find–it deserves to be used widely.


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Jouette Bassler. Navigating Paul

Jouette M. Bassler. Navigating Paul: An Introduction to Key Theological Concepts. Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.

We have no shortage of short, accessible, clearly-written, and thoughtful books on the theology of Christianity’s most important theologian–Paul the Apostle. However, since Paul’s thought is so fascinating and complex, and because Pauline theology remains so relevant to the life of faith today, and because one’s interpretation of Pauline theology is such an indicator of one’s views of so many other things, we should welcome all attempts to help us with such important material.

So, I feel compelled to welcome this book by Bassler. However, I would rank it well below recent similar books such as those of N.T. Wright (Paul: A Fresh Reading) and Michael Gorman (Reading Paul). She engages contemporary scholarship in an accessible way in a series of short studies on various Pauline themes (e.g., grace, the law, and the “future of Israel”). However, I found very little here that made Paul come alive. Bassler’s book especially pales in relation to Gorman’s Reading Paul–a book that helps us see why Paul remains so relevant for our quest for faithfulness to the way of Jesus today. In Bassler’s telling, Paul seems more like a kind of boring first-century Christian.


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Richard Horsley, ed. In the Shadow of Empire

Richard A, Horsley, ed. In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

I recommend this collection of short, clearly written, and perceptive essays providing a comprehensive overview of the centrality of resistance to empire in the Bible–from Genesis through Revelation.

Several big names are here–Norman Gottwald, Walter Brueggemann, John Dominic Crossan, and Richard Horsley for example–but the strength of the collection is the consistent high level of all the essays.

Maybe the most important contributions this book makes have to do its accessibility and its touching on so many bases. It’s an overview, and introduction, to an easily overlooked theme. We see in just over 180 pages how the entire Bible is best understood as anti-imperial literature. The social context for all varieties of biblical literature must be understood as God’s people living amidst the Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires. There are no major biblical writings that do not touch on this theme.

Though they focus on the biblical text, most of the writers are sensitive to our raised awareness in the present about parallels between biblical anti-imperial perspectives and our lives amidst the contemporary American empire. I think these parallels are important, and I appreciate this book pointing to them.

Once you read the Bible with empire on the mind, you will see how much of the Bible is relevant; this book is not faddish imposition of a present-day agenda on the Bible (though it is true at present-day alarms about our empire have pushed us to be more aware of what is clearly there). For me, the frustration lies with how blind Bible-readers have been to the anti-Empire agenda of the Bible, not that we now are being helped by books such as these to pay more attention to it.


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God’s Creative Love—Genesis 1

Here is the second in a series of Bible studies that present the Bible as being in the side of pacifism. In this essay, “God’s Creative Love—Genesis 1,” I begin with the beginning of the Bible and discuss the fundamentally peaceable way that the story begins. The focus of Genesis 1 sets the tone for the rest of the Bible and makes clear the fundamental intentions of the God of this story–the creation of a peaceable world by a loving creator.

David Clough and Brian Stiltner. Faith and Force: A Christian Debate About War

David L.Clough and Brian Stiltner. Faith and Force: A Christian Debate About War. Georgetown University Press, 2007.

A timely and interesting book. Clough is a British Methodist pacifist; Stiltner an American Catholic non-pacifist. They are friends and have gathered the results of a debate they had with one another over the moral acceptability of war, especially in the context of the U.S. and British war on Iraq.

I highly recommend it, not so much because either writer is necessarily extraordinarily able in presenting his views but because of their honest, respectful, and detailed give and take. They perform a great service in showing how the arguments supporting both pacifism and the acceptability of war might be challenged.  In most writing on this topic, you have one side or the other, allowing writers to evade the hard challenges.

Of course, as a pacifist, I prefer Clough’s presentation. But both writers make many good points and represent their viewpoints ably.

My biggest criticism would be that they treat the just war position mostly as the view that war should be prevented or even abolished. This is the view of some in that camp, most notably the American Catholic Bishops in their 1983 letter The Challenge of Peace. However, the view that war should be restrained (which is much more favorable concerning the moral acceptability of warfare) is not presented as being in the mainstream of the just war tradition–even though this is the view of several of the most important just war theorists (e.g., James Turner Johnson, Paul Ramsey, William T. O’Brien, probably John Courtney Murray).

In this way, the distance between pacifism and just war thought comes across as much less than if the restraint view were considered as the determinative view in the just war tradition. That is, the common ground these writers affirm may give a false impression that the differences in the “Christian debate about war” might be more amenable to resolution than is actually the case.

I am coming to suspect that the “just war” view is actually quite unstable. Those in the just war school who believe in preventing war are being pushed ever closer to pacifism. Those in the just war school who affirm restraining war (that is, making war more moral and therefore more acceptable) end up being very close to what I would call the “blank check” view (that when it comes to war, citizens essentially give their governments a blank check). 

So perhaps Stiltner may be moving closer to pacifism, but he does not represent the just war position as a whole, only one important strand within it.