Monthly Archives: January 2009

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.


Peace Theology Book Review Index

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.

John D. Caputo. What Would Jesus Deconstruct?

John D. Caputo. What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. Baker Academic, 2007.

Though I have long been sympathetic to what I have understood to be some of the main concerns of the philosophical movement known as “deconstruction,” I never put in the energy to read much of the literature. Partly, writings on deconstruction had the reputation of being inaccessible; partly, they had the reputation of being quite unfriendly to religious sensibilities. I wasn’t sure if either generalization was fully accurate, but somehow those assumptions were enough to deter me.

This past summer I presented at a conference where the featured speaker was John Caputo. I figured I better give his writing a shot before finding myself face to face with him. On the cross-country flight, I read What Would Jesus Deconstruct? and was delighted to find it both totally accessible and quite friendly to Christian faith (at least to the kind of Christian faith I affirm). As fate would have it, I found myself in a car traveling from the airport to the conference site with Jack Caputo and his wife Kathy. We had a nice visit and I was happy to be able to compliment him on this book.

What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is aimed at an evangelical audience (Caputo himself is a very liberal Catholic), intending to present the ideas especially of Jacques Derrida (and Caputo himself) as relevant to faith concerns, as useful for the task of applying Christianity to our contemporary world, and, especially, as having significant resonance with the life and teaching of Jesus.

I think Caputo succeeds admirably. Even if one is not as sympathetic to Derrida’s and Caputo’s views as I am, one still would greatly benefit from encountering the admirable way those views are presented here. They are an important part of our current philosophical and theological landscape. Too many have taken my own path of least resistance and avoided direct engagement with deconstruction. Caputo here leaves us without excuse–like his suggestions or not, we will all benefit from an encounter with them.

N.T. Wright. Paul: In Fresh Perspective

N. T. Wright. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Fortress Press, 2005.

If this book were written by just about anyone but N.T. Wright, I would praise it to the skies as a clear, accessible, but substantial introduction to the Apostle Paul’s thought. The author puts Paul theology in the context of 21st century discussions about empire and Paul’s Judaism in a way that draws on the insights of these discussions without coming across as faddish. The Christian faith community both in Paul’s context and ours is taken as the locus for deliberations on Paul’s thought–an emphasis much to be welcomed.

Yet, since it is N.T. Wright that wrote this book, one feels a bit disappointed. Wright promised years ago that the next volume in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series would be on Paul’s thought. He ended up devoting his energies to a volume of Jesus’ resurrection instead. How many more of these massive, magisterial tomes does Wright have left in him? 

If Paul: In Fresh Perspective is a volume meant to tide us over for the main course, I am willing to be patient. It’s quite good for what it is, a popular-level (in the sense of being accessible to a general, non-specialist audience of thoughtful Christians) summary of some of the latest thinking about Paul’s thought. And we should appreciate this effort–even as it joins numerous other similar books in the field.

However, Wright is uniquely situated to give us more, something few other contemporary writers (if any) could–an epoch-defining treatment of Christianity’s most important theological writer that takes his historical and theological context into account and is also engaged with present-day concerns.

Wright has gained his current stature because of his unique combination of an engaging writing style, extraordinarily clear thinking, sympathy to theological and social currents in our contemporary world that highlight the need to read the Bible as a resource for present-day discipleship, and an unmatched engagement with just about any scholarly literature that matters.

If one is interested in Paul, this book is as good a place to begin in understanding the Apostle as any basic-level book I know of. And let’s hope the main dish will arrive in due course.

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.


Naomi Wolf. The End of America

Naomi Wolf. The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007.

I found many things to like about this book, a best-seller written by a leading American feminist social critic. Wolf presents her polemic against American social and political trends in recent years as reflecting her one “conservative” (as in affirming the democratic traditions pioneered in the U.S. and reflected in our Constitution and Bill of Rights). She sees herself in the long tradition of dissent against oppressive government dating back to colonial days, especially evoking Thomas Paine.

Wolf gives us a clear and carefully thought through portrayal of how recent trends in our country, when looked at carefully, put us clearly on the road to fascism–this is a persuasive argument, I think. Her writing is accessible, well-reasoned, logical, and passionate.

I also like how Wolf, already a very prominent figure and sure of selling a lot of books, chose to publish with a truly independent publisher rather than making money for the very corporations that are underwriting our journey away from democracy.

I haven’t read any of Wolf’s reflections following the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. I would expect she would draw some hope from that election–our democracy may still have some vitality. But I would hope she would also raise some strong words of caution. We are far from out of the woods. The temptations facing Obama to live too comfortably with the perks of the imperial presidency will be powerful. Citizens must sustain, even heighten, their efforts to make sure we decisively turn from the path toward fascism.