Old Testament Bases for Christian Peace Theology

Paper presented in the Scriptural/Contextual Ethics Consultation

American Academy of Religion—Atlanta, October 31, 2010

Ted Grimsrud

The “just peacemaking” project has made a great start in a practical effort to overcome the curse of war. The desire to expand the project beyond Christianity is welcome—in fact absolutely necessary. My paper points in two mutually reinforcing directions—one is to challenge Christians in our understanding of the bases for our peace theology, the second is to work at finding common ground between Christian peace theology and other traditions (most obviously Judaism, but potentially beyond).

Christian peace theology tends to be New Testament centered, especially drawing on the gospels. Most Christians seem to assume that the Old Testament has little to offer for the work of overcoming war and violence. The comment of a friend of mine many years ago may be representative. We were in a Bible study group together and when someone suggested we study something from the Old Testament, my friend snorted and stated flatly, “I don’t want anything to do with that bloody book!” Many Christians who have wanted something to do with the Old Testament, going back to Augustine, have used it to justify warfare.

So it’s no surprise when a Christian peace theologian such as Jack Nelson-Pallmyer writes a polemical book critiquing Christian acceptance of violent theology, he would portray the Old Testament pretty strictly as a problem. Even peace theologians who don’t share this antipathy do little to develop a positive Old Testament centered peace theology.

Happily, numerous Old Testament scholars have helped us better to see the Hebrew scriptures as conveying a positive message of peace. But as yet, these scholars have mainly produced historical and textual studies more than biblically based peace theologies.

As a constructive theologian drawing on the work of biblical scholars, I try to develop a present-day peace theology that will be usable both within Christian communities and as we relate to fellow peacemakers outside our faith tradition. I am especially concerned to push strenuously the value of reading the Bible as a whole. I believe we find in the Bible a coherent story that provides a powerful basis for peace theology. The Old Testament plays a crucial role in this story—not as a preliminary to the essential part, but by providing the core message of peace and salvation that Jesus and the New Testament confirm and vindicate.

I don’t want to deny that the Old Testament contains numerous challenging elements for peacemakers. However, we misread the Old Testament and impoverish Christian peace theology when we let the problems overshadow its positive message of peace. In what follows, I will outline that positive message. I will speak to three points: the Old Testament peace vision, the Old Testament justice vision, and the Old Testament critique of state-centered power politics.

The psalmist tells us that “peace and justice shall embrace” (Ps 85:10), tipping us off that “peace” and “justice” are not in tension with one another in the Bible but rather are complementary. The “peace vision” and the “justice vision” are mutually reinforcing.

From the very start, the Old Testament gives a vision for peace—both in the sense of the immense value of peace but also a clear sense of how peace is achieved and the form it takes. The creation story tells of God bringing order and harmony out of chaos. This harmony is a gift, though, not order imposed by coercive force. This “original peace” empowers humanity to share in God’s work of cultivation. The creation story presents harmony between humanity and God and among human beings as our default human circumstance. We start as peaceable creatures in harmony with (even in the image of) a peaceable God.

After disharmony enters the story, we read of God’s retributive response that ends with God’s decision not to respond with such violence in the future. Then, Genesis 12 begins the main story line of God’s chosen people as agents of God’s blessing for all the families of the earth. In a nutshell, we find here the basic message of the rest of the Bible (Old and New Testaments). God will bring healing to broken creation through the establishment of a people who will know God’s peace, live in light of that peace, and be a conduit of peace to all the families of the earth.

The rest of Genesis is dominated by stories of Abraham’s direct descendents. Two of the core stories emphasize the call to brotherly reconciliation—Esau and Jacob reconciled, Joseph’s mercy toward his unjust brothers. Both provide a peaceable message in contrast to the “original sin” of Cain murdering his brother in Genesis 4.

The Old Testament’s central act of salvation also has at its core God’s commitment to peace. The Egyptians enslave Joseph’s descendents, the Hebrews. They cry out in their trauma. God hears and acts to liberate them from slavery.

The God of the exodus responds to the suffering of slaves, and is not a God of kings, emperors, or Pharaohs. The Hebrew leader, Moses, very clearly does not have the status of king nor of military leader. They do not win their freedom through wielding the sword. The only stereotypical weapons of war in the story (the Egyptians’ “horses and chariots”) are destroyed. The violence in the story stems from the structural violence of Egypt’s slave culture. The exodus events break from that violence.

As the liberated Hebrews move through the wilderness, they are given a written framework for their future society, Torah. The heart of the commandments may be accurately characterized as a concern for shalom, wide-ranging social wholeness—that is, “peace.” Torah called for a society centered around the well-being of all people in the community….

The key point to note about justice in the Old Testament that it is not a stand-alone concept. It is often linked with other related concepts such as “peace” (shalom) and “mercy” (chesed). Peace and justice shall embrace (Psalm 85). What does the Lord require? Do justice and love mercy (Micah 6). And justice is most of all about faithfulness in the context of relationships—between the people and their God and among the people.

“Justice” provides the standard for the quality of life in the community of God’s people. They have been delivered from the injustice of enslaved life in Egypt so they might know the wholeness of genuinely just relationships within their own community. And so they might witness to the nations of this justice in ways that will bless all the families of the earth.

At its heart, Old Testament “justice” is a life-giving force more than an impersonal principle of impartial fairness. The book of Amos contains a thoroughgoing meditation on the meaning of justice. Amos’s most vivid metaphor likens justice to water, an ever-flowing stream. In a desert environment, a stream that does not dry up brings life like nothing else.

As much as any Old Testament writing, Amos speaks of judgment. Israel has left the core justice-enhancing elements of Torah behind. Maybe worse of all, injustice finds expression in the midst of an active religious life. There will be hell to pay. Amos speaks of inevitable judgment.

However, the judgment is not characterized as an expression of justice. Judgment is what happens when justice is missing. Do justice and the judgment will not come. In the end, Amos somewhat incongruously presents the final word as being one of healing, not punishment.

The vision of healing at the end of the book is both a reminder that it is never too late to repent, to turn back, to return to the way of life—and a promise that Israel’s unfaithfulness will not in the end be more powerful than God’s faithfulness. Many may miss out; the consequences for turning from Torah are genuine. But healing will come. Justice will be served.

The driving force in the justice vision is hope for healing. Amos’s vision for restoration following judgment echoes the other major prophetic books. Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah each are structured in similar ways. They tell of brokenness and trauma due to the community’s departure from Torah. But each one, in distinctive ways, concludes with a vision of healing. The prophetic message portrays justice ultimately as restorative justice.

Of the three main elements of the Old Testament message that provide bases for Christian peace theology, the two I have just summarized are positive: the Old Testament peace vision and the Old Testament justice vision, two themes that are fully complementary.

The third element is negative—the Old Testament’s critique of power politics. The surrounding empires provided models that Torah presented itself in contrast to. However, as it patterns itself more and more after “the nations,” Israel itself becomes a counter-example for the visions of peace and justice. The failure of the Israelite nation-state to embody Torah’s shalom leads to a new kind of political vision. This new vision presents biblical shalom as channeled not through nation-states so much as through decentralized trans-national faith communities.

God’s work of liberation in the Exodus established both God’s identity as a God who takes the side of slaves over against their oppressors and the community’s identity as an alternative to the way of empire that defined Egypt’s political economy.

The community is shaped by a human leader, Moses. But Moses puts his liberating God, Yahweh, at the center of the community’s political consciousness. Yahweh stands over against human kings and empires. The political dynamics of the Hebrew community emphasize decentralized human power dynamics and trust in God rather than in weapons of war.

After the escape from Egypt, God gave the people Torah, the blueprint for their common life. Torah throughout presents itself as based on a political philosophy grounded on values opposed to the political philosophy of empire. In contrast to Egypt, Torah requires the community to show care and support for the most vulnerable people in their midst—the widows, orphans, and resident aliens.

Yahweh’s direct intervention, independent from any human power blocks (no human king, no permanent military, no large collection of horses and chariots) gains the Hebrews their new home in Canaan with a political organization centered on trust in God rather than in the power of the sword.

However, the story tells of many and profound struggles in this community. The leaders of the Hebrews see themselves continually at risk and demand that God allow them to choose a human king, “like the nations.” The judge Samuel outlines the consequences of such a move. Essentially, the people will return to “Egypt” should they take this path, with a human king who (like Pharaoh) will take and take. God, though, allows Israel to embark on this path, that ultimately does lead to the destruction of their nation-state.

The book of Deuteronomy contains a brief vision of what a Torah-respecting human king would be like. The faithful king differentiates himself from the kings of the nations by refusing to gather great wealth or to marry many foreign wives or to collect many horses and chariots. As it turned out, King Solomon violated each of these commands.

Solomon’s son, King Rehoboam, continued the practice of forced labor, and faced a rebellion that split Israel in two. Both kingdoms, Israel and Judah, conformed to the ways of the nations in ordering their social life. I Kings 21 tells of King Ahab rejecting inheritance laws intended to keep people on the land. Ahab frames and murders a faithful follower of Torah who refused to give up his land due to his commitment to the inheritance laws.

A number of generations later, by Amos’s time, Israel had evolved into exactly the kind of society the inheritance legislation meant to prevent. The largest part of the community had become disinherited, landless, with few resources and little power—and vulnerable to the exploitation of the wealthy and powerful minority. The legal system, intended to protect the welfare of the vulnerable, had been corrupted and the religious practices, rather than remind the people of Yahweh’s will for justice embodied in Torah, had become exercises that reinforced the unjust status quo.

Most of Judah’s kings proved also to be just as corrupt as Israel’s. Manasseh proved to be the worst, actually implementing the practice of child sacrifice. His successor was assassinated and young Josiah became king. In Josiah’s reign, the scrolls of Torah are rediscovered and important reforms instituted. In the end, though, Josiah’s reforms came too late to save the nation-state. Manasseh’s sins were simply too big to be overcome.

However, Josiah’s most important accomplishment, recovering Torah, kept the promise alive. The prophet Jeremiah provided a theological grounding for Judah’s fall that helped people of faith to see in that fall not the defeat of God but actually a vindication of Torah. From the start, Israel’s place in the land was contingent on the people’s faithfulness. When they departed from Torah, their fate actually shows God’s presence not God’s absence.

Jeremiah also provides a template for the sustenance of the promise apart from the nation-state. “Seek the peace of the city where you find yourselves” (29:7). From now on, the promise to bless all the families of the earth will be carried out through faith communities in the Diaspora and in geographical Israel (but without political power) who rely on their own lived witness and word of testimony, not horses and chariots and geographical boundary lines.

The original promise in Genesis 12 was not linked to horses and chariots and any particular nation state. The move to tie the people of the promise to a geographical locale was a failure, reinforcing the problematic dynamics of power politics and clarifying once and for all that the way of the promise was as an alternative to power politics. This clarification then stood at the center of the message of Jesus, a message flowing directly from the story of Israel.

The New Testament presents Jesus’ life and teaching as grounded in Old Testament faith. Jesus intended to fulfill Torah, not abolish it. His summary of the path to salvation—love God and neighbor—is the core message of the Law and Prophets.

Jesus, though, provides a particular angle for reading the Old Testament. He emphasizes the call to bless all the families of the earth, the critique of power politics, special concern for vulnerable people, mercy over sacrifice. Jesus ignores many elements of the Old Testament. The parts that seem exclusivist and chauvinistic. The parts that glorify wealth and power. The parts the portray God primarily as judgmental and coercive.

Jesus models discernment in reading the Old Testament and applying it to our peace concerns. He does so in a way that accepts without qualification the truthfulness and authority of this collection of writings as a whole. But he follows a particular reading strategy and emphasizes the parts that best serve his sense of shalom.

Jesus furthers Jeremiah’s insight about diasporic politics vis-à-vis nation-state politics. Jesus himself lived and ministered within the geography of the ancient Israelite nation state. However, his message of the kingdom of God followed Jeremiah’s vision, not the vision of the old geographically focused nation state. Jesus challenged his followers not to imitate the rulers of the Gentiles who lord it over their subjects but rather to follow the path of the Servant. He created a community suited to be leavening within whichever nation state his followers might find themselves—leavening that would be a form of seeking the peace of these various cities.

In Acts, Jesus outlines a Jeremaic strategy: take the gospel to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Don’t imitate Rome spreading “good news” through the sword but take the “good news” as a message of peace, embodying its transforming power through defenseless communities of witness and service. This is how all the families of the earth will be blessed.

So, Jesus’ meaning in relation to the Old Testament is best seen not as “promise and fulfillment” where the partial revelation of God through Israel finally gained its full expression in something (in key ways) different from what has come before. Rather, it’s “revelation and embodiment.” The original revelations in the creation story, the calling of Abraham and Sarah, and the liberating acts of God in the Exodus and giving of Torah was complete. The further revelations in Jesus simply embody the original. The Old Testament reveals, fully, God’s ways of peace in the world—Jesus embodies that way, not something different.

Reading the Old Testament (and the story of Jesus) in the way I am proposing has major interfaith significance. Most obvious would be points of contacts with Judaism. My direct sense of common ground comes from my reading of two major 20th century Jewish thinkers whose work has greatly influenced my own: Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Buber’s Two Kinds of Faith and, even more so, Heschel’s The Prophets, seem to me to capture the heart of the biblical message as embodied by the Old Testament prophets and Jesus as well (or better) than most Christian writings. Heschel’s work, especially, makes it clear that the message of shalom, mercy, and justice as complementary elements of a transformative faith that we Christians see in Jesus is equally present in the Old Testament prophets. A more recent book such as Michael Fishbane’s Sacred Attunement, also provides many points of common ground, I think.

If we who are Christians understand our commitment to just peacemaking to be most of all based on the message of the entire Bible as I have sketched it, we should be well-suited to make common cause with all others of good will who also articulate a complementary peace vision and a complementary justice vision and a complementary critique of power politics.

The specific sources for these visions should not matter so much as the common ground the visions provide. The view of “chosenness” that lay behind the biblical story emphasizes chosen to bless, not chosen to stand over against.

1 thought on “Old Testament Bases for Christian Peace Theology

  1. Pingback: The Myth of Redemptive Violence and the Prince of Peace | Creative Love Theism: Reflections of a Contemplative Neo-Anabaptist

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