(01) Reading the Bible with Pacifist Eyes

Ted Grimsrud

[Other chapters in this “book”]

Does “pacifism” have a future?  I believe that it does.  However, pacifism does, as always, require justification.  We probably need to start with clarity about our terms.  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.

I find it helpful to think of pacifism in eschatological terms – that is, having to do with our “end” as human beings.  End has two senses, both of which apply.  Our end may have to do with where we will end up.  It may also have to do with our purpose.

“Pacifism” (love of peace) is where Christians confess we will end up.  “The wolf shall live with the lion” (Isaiah 11).  Weapons of war will be smashed (Psalm 46).  The nations will be healed (Revelation 21–22).  “Pacifism” (love of peace) is also what we are here for now.  God’s involvement in our broken human history serves God’s purpose of healing this brokenness – and of gathering together human beings also to serve this purpose.

Pacifism, thus, is about where we are going and how we will get there.  A pacifist commitment decisively shapes how one lives and how one sees the world.  It provides goals and purposes – seeking above all else to effect health, wholeness, and healing for all people amidst our world’s brokenness, conflict, and disease.

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.  In fact, most people over most of the past 2,000 years who have given the Bible the most authority have rejected pacifism – as is true today.  Thus, one cannot take up the Bible as the basis for one’s pacifism as if this is the obvious perspective.

However, it is not obvious what the best approach for the biblically-oriented pacifist to take in presenting one’s convictions actually would be.  A direct, point-by-point debate with the majority position, while necessary perhaps in the overall presentation of Christian pacifism, nonetheless can become tedious, as well as never-ending.

Another approach, taken in this book, is to focus more on simply presenting a reading of the Bible that does lead to pacifism.  Perhaps the pacifist might think this is clearly the one best reading of the Bible, but the simple fact that most Christians do not share that conclusion is enough to impose a large does of humility on the pacifist interpreter.

In what follows, I am taking the approach of simply wanting to lay out how this pacifist reads the Bible.  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.

The Bible is the central source for Christian theology and ethics.  We will read the Bible with an open mind, and with careful consideration of our questions and doubts – but ultimately I am assuming the Bible’s trustworthiness as revelation from God.  So our concern is, in the end, for understanding and applying the message of the Bible to our lives and our thinking, with the expectation that the Bible indeed does speak to us.

A great deal of the Bible’s teaching does concern peace and justice issues, broadly defined.  Regardless, my interest in this book will be centered on the themes of violence and nonviolence, war and peace, social structures and institutions, justice and injustice, economics and politics, power and oppression.

As a thesis to test as we go along, I propose that the core message of the Bible as a whole can be summarized in terms of God’s concern to bring healing (salvation) to a broken world characterized by a great deal of alienation.  The Bible, from start to finish, presents us with a perspective on the relationships between human beings and God.  These relationships include too much alienation (between human beings and God and between human beings and other human beings).  The Bible portrays a God who passionately seeks to bring healing and overcome this alienation.  Beginning with God’s initial work of creation in Genesis one and ending with the vision of a transformed creation in Revelation twenty-one and two, we read in the Bible the story of God’s healing strategy.

Jesus summarized this message when he taught that the central calling of human beings is to love both God and neighbor wholeheartedly.  He presented this as the core of the teaching of the “law and prophets” (the Old Testament).  Paul reinforced Jesus’ teaching by proclaiming Jesus as the fullest and clearest expression of life lived in faithfulness to this calling.

In other words, Jesus’ life and teaching provide our basis for evaluating and applying the rest of the Bible.  Jesus and Paul both assumed that their “Bible” (our Old Testament) was fully compatible with and illumined the meaning of this central command to love God and neighbor.

So, our basic reading strategy for the entire Bible is to read it in light of Jesus’ most basic command for his people – love God wholeheartedly and love neighbor as oneself.  As we read the rest of the Bible in light of this central command, we seek to let all the biblical materials have their own integrity.  That is, for example, we don’t read the Old Testament first of all simply as predicting Jesus.  Rather, we start by reading it in terms of what the Old Testament writers were directly meaning to speak to.  At the same time, we pay special attention to elements in the Old Testament that illumine Jesus’ core message.  So, we recognize that the exodus account tells about what happened then, when the people of Israel were liberated from slavery.  Yet, we also look for connecting points with the message of Jesus – seeing that, say, the exodus story presents us with a God who sides with the poor and oppressed.

All the pieces of the Bible are part of a whole, and we understand the whole in terms of Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor.  As we consider the different pieces, we look for pointers toward the message of the whole.  So, when we read the story of Noah and the Flood in Genesis we do not read it in isolation from the message of the whole but rather look especially for elements in the particular story that point toward the ultimate message of the whole Bible.

Or, take another, broader, example.  When we consider the issue of the place of women in the community of faith, we ask whether there are elements in the on-going story that go counter to the general patriarchy of the cultures of Bible times and point toward Jesus’ egalitarian approach.  We don’t simply focus on the elements that simply reflect cultural biases against women.  Or, we ask, are there pointers in the Old Testament toward the “politics of Jesus” in contrast to the power politics of the ancient empires (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon)?

In this approach, we do not let “variant” materials overly obscure the core message.  Certainly we recognize the presence of tension.  We do not simply ignore, for example, overt support for the use of violence in the Old Testament.  We resist seeking for a too-neat harmonization of all the pieces, and we recognize that at times there are competing voices (for example, some writers strongly support the institution of kingship in the Old Testament and other oppose it).  However, we keep the tensions in perspective and let the “core” shine through.  In the case of the pro-violence materials, then, we respect that this is part of the picture, but rather than assuming that we have a total contradiction with the way of Jesus we look for elements in the stories that may actually point ahead to Jesus.

We practice a “hermeneutics of consent” in relation to the Bible (not a hermeneutics of suspicion).  “Hermeneutics” refers to the practice of interpretation.  By “hermeneutics of consent” I mean that we interpret the Bible with a sense of optimism that it indeed does bring us a word of peace and justice in harmony with Jesus main commands.  If one’s convictions lead one to believe that the world needs peace and justice, then one should read the Bible as if it might be a positive resource for peace and justice.

All of this is to say that my approach tries to avoid an atomistic approach to the Bible that focuses on isolated texts as if they are autonomous from the rest of the Bible.  That is, I try to avoid an approach to the Bible that focuses simply on the “personal message to me” of specific verses.  I try to avoid using isolated “proof texts” as a basis for our theology.  I try to avoid focusing on “problems” in isolation from the movement of the story as a whole.

In relation to peace and justice, one key element of my approach is that it encourages us to look at the Old Testament as a story dealing, in part, with a particular political strategy – and its failure.  That is, a big part of the message of the Old Testament (understood in light of Jesus) is that the strategy of having a king and being a nation-state like the surrounding nations was a failure when it came to faithfully following God.  The story is meaningful for us, then, in large part as a story of what God’s people are now not to do.  This is one reason why the Old Testament needs to be read in light of Jesus’ love command.

Finally, in this book, I will be trying to think about the story line as a whole as we go along.  The stories do not have meaning simply as isolated stories, but more so as part of the whole.  As we go along we will be thinking about where the story we are considering fits in the overall flow.  Our basic question throughout will be this: How does this part we are looking at illumine the overall message of the Bible calling upon us to love God and neighbor?

Jesus stated his priorities in Matthew 22.  Someone asks him, which is the greatest of the commandments, and he responds: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (22:34-40).  Mark and Luke also report this assertion (though Luke puts the actual words in the mouth of Jesus’ questioner) – as does Paul, in a slightly modified form, (Romans 13:8-10).

I see three keys points being made here that are crucial for our concerns.  First, love is at the heart of everything for the believer in God.  Second, love of God and love of neighbor are tied inextricably together.  In Jesus’ own life and teaching, we clearly see that he understood the “neighbor” to be the person in need, the person that one is able to show love to in concrete ways (not to be an insider over against non-neighbors who are “other” and whom we are not expected to love).  The third point is that Jesus understood his words to be a summary of the Bible – that is, what Christians now call the Old Testament.  The Law and Prophets were the entirety of Jesus’ Bible – and in his view, their message may be summarized by this double love command.  He quotes Deuteronomy and Leviticus directly in making his statement.

In his call to love, Jesus directly links human beings loving even their enemies with God loving all people.  “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven: for he makes his son rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:44-45).  These words of Jesus, of course, are part of his lengthy manifesto on faithful living known as the Sermon on the Mount.  Near the beginning of this manifesto, he makes it clear again that his message of peace follows directly from the Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament).  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17).

Just as the double love command comes directly from the law and prophets, so too the call to imitate God’s love for all people (with its implication, as Jesus asserts, of loving even enemies) comes from the law and prophets.  Of course, the Old Testament gives a wide variety of impressions of God’s attitude toward the Hebrews enemies.  However, Jesus’ message has deep grounding throughout the biblical story, and he provides a hermeneutic for understanding the peace message (shalom) as the core message of the Bible.

From the start, the Bible presents God as willing peace for human beings – for all human beings.  And, crucially, God’s means for this love for “all the families of the earth” to be channeled through a community formed through God’s election of them as a people of the promise.  The story makes it clear that this election is pure mercy – God’s persevering love for God’s elect is itself an expression of God’s love for enemies.  Time after time, the story makes clear, the people turn from God.  Yet, as the prophet Hosea reports, God ultimately does not respond with violence and wrath, but with healing love.

The original calling of Abraham and Sarah and the gift to them of descendants in spite of their barrenness (and their unfaithfulness), the saving work of God to bring the Hebrew people together and to free them from slavery in Egypt (again, as the story makes clear, saving work in spite of the Hebrews’ unfaithfulness), the gift of Torah to guide their lives as the people of the promise (a priestly kingdom mediating God’s love to the entire world), and many more gifts, including the gift of new life even after the fall of the Hebrew nation state (a fall that Hebrew prophets attributed directly to the people’s unfaithfulness) – all of these gifts clearly portray God’s love as unearned, even undeserved.

The basic guidance that Jesus draws from the story of God with God’s people, the story that he understood himself to stand within, may be summarized in Jesus’ words as reported by Luke:  “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36).

In articulating the centrality of love in this way, Jesus makes clear that he reads the Bible this way.  The love command summarizes the law and prophets and provides the fundamental way that his followers should orient their lives in the world.  That is to say, if we understand pacifism as the placing of the highest priority on love, Jesus provides here Christians’ central grounding for pacifism.

Following after Jesus, we find in later New Testament writers a parallel portrayal of the centrality of love, even for enemies, as a reflection of the way God loves.  I will only mention Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In chapter five, Paul writes of God’s immense love for us that reaches out to us in Jesus’ life and death, “while we were still sinners,” “while we were enemies” (Rom 5:8,10).  A little later, Paul (who also understood himself as, like Jesus, capturing the core message of the Bible [i.e., the Old Testament]) echoes Jesus’ summary of the core message of Torah: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:9-10).

So, the first and most basic biblical theme grounding Christian pacifism, finding clarity in Jesus but reflecting the biblical story as a whole, is the centrality of the love command.  The love command provides the central building block for Christian pacifism – both in the positive sense of establishing love as the highest ethical standard that can never be secondary to some other possibly violence-justifying ethical value and in the negative sense of providing the basis for rejecting the participation in war as a morally acceptable choice.

My proposal in this book is to read the entire Bible in light of Jesus’ stated priorities, assuming that just he apparently understood the love command to summarize the message of the whole, so may we also make this assumption.

1 thought on “(01) Reading the Bible with Pacifist Eyes

  1. Pingback: Self Defense is not biblical - Page 14 - Christian Chat Rooms & Forums

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