Reading the Bible with Pacifist Eyes

One of the big debates in the history of Christianity has been whether or not the Bible clearly teaches that Christians should not take part in warfare–or otherwise engage in violence. Certainly the consensus belief in Christianity since the 4th century has been that Christians may (even should) go to war when called upon by their country to do so. But has that consensus truly been arrived at through the best reading of the Bible? Christian pacifists would say no.

Here is the first in a series of Bible studies that present the Bible as being in the side of pacifism. In this essay, “Reading the Bible with Pacifist Eyes,” I introduce the essays that follow by reflecting on what a pacifist reading strategy of the Bible might entail.

This is what I understand “pacifism” to mean. In a phrase, I mean by pacifism the love of peace. Pacifism is the belief that nothing matters so much as love, kindness, compassion, mercy, and care.  In the Old Testament, the word shalom is often translated “peace,” and it catches up these various values (love, kindness, restorative justice, etc.).  Close synonyms to peace would be “health” and “wholeness.”  To make peace is to effect healing.

Two key conclusions about pacifism follow from this understanding.  First, if nothing matters so much as love, no place is left for violence.  Nonviolence, though, is the consequence of having a love for peace, not the starting point.  A pacifist commitment is not first of all an avoidance of something bad; it is actively seeking something good.  Second, pacifism is about actively seeking healing.  Contrary to some caricatures of pacifism, the term as I understand it has absolutely nothing to do with passivity (beyond how the words sound) or with withdrawal.

Both friends and dismissers of the Bible are quick to point out that the Bible does not give us an obvious and detailed blueprint for thorough-going pacifism.  One cannot take up the Bible as the basis for one’s pacifism as if this is the obvious perspective. In the studies that will follow, I will focus on simply presenting a reading of the Bible that does lead to pacifism.  I offer this reading as a proposal, an encouragement for the examination of non-pacifist readings, an exhortation to those sympathetic to pacifism to seek to embody this message.


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