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[Previously unpublished.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.” 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.
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. Continue reading