Tag Archives: Old Testament

Christian Pacifism Encounters the Old Testament

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.2

[Previously unpublished. From a 1983 lecture. Slightly revised in 1991.]

The Old Testament has been enormously influential in Christian thinking about warfare, especially for its use in justifying involvement in warfare.  Sociologist Ray Abrams, in his study of American Christian support for World War I makes the strong statement: “It may be safely predicted that as long as Christian ministers and Sunday School teachers continue, as the majority of them now do, to defend the crude ethics in parts of the Old Testament, the Bible will continue to be used as the greatest defense of war in history.”[1]  Unfortunately, many pacifists react to such uses of the Old Testament by dismissing it and neglecting the positive resources it offers for Christian peacemaking and social thought in general.

We do not have to explain away the Old Testament’s wars in order to remain pacifists and at the same time accept all of the Old Testament as scripture.  Looked at on its own terms, and seen as a record of the historical movement of God’s people in history, the Old Testament can provide us with a great deal of insight.  For one thing, it can help us to see that we are pacifists primarily not for negative reasons (it is wrong to kill) but for positive reasons.  We are called to be agents of God’s redemptive working in human history and that working moves in the way of the suffering servant, not in the way of power politics and violence.

Certainly, we are not left without problems.  But all areas of Christian theology leave us with problems.  The Bible is a very human book, presenting human history.  Just as human history is neither unambivalent nor unambiguous, neither is the Bible.  And the Bible, with its ambivalence and ambiguity, addresses us in our ambivalent and ambiguous contexts with words and images which nonetheless mediate the word of God for us.

The Old Testament texts should be seen first within their historical contexts.  In the age of Joshua, for example, the question of whether the taking of human life is morally permissible would never have been asked.  The key concept during the holy wars for the participants was not bloodshed, but rather the question of whether Israel would trust in God or not.  If it would trust and follow God’s will, then the occupants of the land would be driven out in ways which would make it clear that it was God and not military might or large numbers which won the victory.[2]

When we look at the historical development rather than directly comparing Jesus with Joshua, we see evolution.  First we can see novel aspects of holy war itself (e.g., dependence on God for one’s existence) and in legislation (e.g., rejection of indirect retaliation and greater dignity given women and slaves).  Progressively the prophetic line represented by writers such as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah underlines these same emphases.  Progression continues through incorporation of persons of non-Israelite blood into the tribe, expansion of world vision to include other nations, prophets’ criticism of and history’s destruction of kingship and territorial sovereignty as definitions of peoplehood.[3] Continue reading

The Old Testament God

Ted Grimsrud

Exodus and the Psalms provided stimulus for reflecting on how the Old Testament presents God in a series of short reflections I published during the Fall of 2010 in Mennonite Weekly Review.

These reflections followed the uniform Sunday School lesson for that time period. The format for these reflections allows very little opportunity for in-depth analysis of any sort. And they are meant to be accessible to non-scholars. So it’s a challenge to find something to say that has substance.

My main interest, in the small space allotted, was to test the thesis that God in the Old Testament is actually mainly presented as merciful, concerned with healing, and well worth trusting in. Of course, one could easily find 13 passages that would support this thesis. However, part of the challenge in writing these reflections was that I was not allowed to choose the passages to write on; I had to follow the outline given to me.

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The Old Testament message of mercy

Many people, we could call them the “cultured despisers,” reject the Old Testament as a “bloody book.”  Many others, probably more, affirm the Old Testament as a “bloody book” and all too often use that “bloodiness” as a justification for their own.

This article, “Mercy not retribution,” argues for a reading of the Old Testament that recognizes the centrality of God’s mercy in the story–and sees that mercy as the biblical basis for Jesus’ own peaceable message.

It was originally published in The Mennonite, September 6, 2005.

Pacifism With Justice (4)

Quite often in discussions of Christian pacifism, the concepts of “peace” and “pacifism” and “love” are held in tension with the theme of “justice.” In recent years, the discipline of restorative justice has arisen that, in its more faith-oriented strands, has sought to rethink the meaning of justice in ways that see it as more complimentary with peace, pacifism, and love.

This essay, “Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a ‘New’ Theology of Justice,” is chapter four in my book-in-process, Pacifism With Justice: The Biblical and Theological Case. It addresses the understanding of justice reflected in the Old Testament, specifically, the Book of Amos. It argues for a view of justice that emphasizes justice as focused on healing.