Reading the New Testament as a Continuation of the Hebrew Bible
Previous posts in this series-
The Liberating LORD of Peace, Part 1: Groundrules
The Liberating LORD of Peace, Part 2: Revelation
In order for me to argue that the New Testament is not that new in the sense of Jewish moral theology, allow me to review my counter-arguments to uninformed claims that advocates of Christian non-violence avoid the Old Testament.
On the contrary, it is several Old Testament theological claims that remain at the root of Christian pacifism and Christian peace-making efforts. 1. The Decalogue, specifically The Second and Fifth Commandments read together are calls to reject violence. By knowing the name of God, we avoid linguistic violence towards God and are able to have inner peace that manifests itself outwardly in a peaceful relationship with our neighbors. The negative command to avoid killing is a logical conclusion from the directive to love God. 2. The Image of God: If one understands the doctrine of being made in the image of God as where humanity’s worth is seen as immeasurable in the eyes of the Triune God, then it follows forth that all of human life is sacred because of the Creator, and second, only God has the right to take away life. 3. Blood as Sacred: Various legislation in the Torah informs readers that the blood of every creature is sacred, for the blood of the creature is its life. 4. The Wars of the Holy One: Rejecting the Holy wars in favor of the far more accurate term, Wars of the Holy One, one can see that theologically the God of Israel, the YHWH Armies is the lone sources of military victory. Any prideful attempt on the part of the Israelites to take away God’s glory is to be rejected, as was with prophets such as Elisha’s rebuke of the king of Israel (1st Kings 6). 5. Diaspora Judaism: The Maccabee’s violent revolution was rejected, even excluded from the canon at one point. Nehemiah and Ezra’s noble yet ethnically exclusive experiment should be viewed as a failure, and falling short of God’s command to “seek the peace of the city,” according to Jeremiah 29:5-7.
How Jesus and the Apostles Passed Down the Non-violent Jewish Ethic
Jesus embodies the entirety of the nonviolent morality as it relates to Judaism. It is in his life, death, and resurrect that he creates a new covenant, a better testament (Hebrews 8:6) through his obedience. The New Covenant is a better one, not because of any principles are laws but simply because the Covenant has been made available to all nations for it was first to the Jew, but now to Jew and Gentile (John 4:22; Romans 1:16). The healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2) is part of the mission of God as well as the healing of the soul. The incarnation and mission of the Logos points toward reconciliation God with humanity, as well as making possible a greater human fellowship.
1. Jesus as the Logos, or Word of God in many of the early Christians thinking was the Ten Words made Flesh or the Law Incarnate. Their understanding of John 1:1-18 was that God’s teaching had to take on a human body in order for God to teach human being holiness. What the Patristics understood is that Jesus as revelation cannot be separated from understanding God disclosing God’s Will in the Decalogue. When New Testament passages allude to the reality that all persons will confess Christ as Lord while every knee will bow, it does so because there is no other name by which human beings receive the gift of salvation (Philippians 2:10). If one knows Jesus, one will know the God of peace, thus continuing the promise of the 2nd Commandment. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew as well as his Sermon on the Hill in Luke are the re-iteration of the Ten Commandments as well as their Jubilee interpretations in Leviticus. These laws are not for a chosen few (ala Reinhold Niebuhr) but for everyone who wishes to follow the Lord Jesus. In Liberation Theology, as I have contested a number of times this year, the Exodus narrative is absolutely essential to understanding the whole metanarrative of Scripture. Without the story of YHWH redeeming enslaved Hebrew bodies from the wrath of Egypt, one cannot grasp a proper understanding of God’s Word. Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God partakes in the prophetic tradition of which Moses was the first human participant.
2. Jesus as the Image of God is the norming norm for human behavior (Colossians 1:15). As fully God and fully human, Christ is what it means to be a person. As Yoder articulates quite well,
“When Paul spoke of Jesus as image, or when the author of Hebrews , or the signers of the hymn cited in Phillipians 2 used similar expressions, they were practicing the opposite of freewheeling image making. They were affirming the abiding normativeness of the work and words of the man Jesus as revelatory of God’s being and will.”
(1) That the exclusive imagery of Jesus as some Nordic looking hippie is something that ought to be destroyed. Honoring Christ as THE Image of God means the destruction of ALL idols. In A Black Theology of Liberation (chapter 2, “The Norms and Sources of Black Theology”), James Cone criticizes those who would use the image of God as love as a ground for nonviolence. Theologies that are born out of whiteness (the powerful, the dominant culture) serve the interests of the majority including disingenuous calls for Blacks protesting injustice to be “peaceful” like Governor Jay Nixon last night. An AnaBlacktivist theological ethics would call for recognizing the Just Divinity from the Hebrew Bible as the impetus for religious peacemaking with Christ Jesus being that very Deity’s enfleshed self.
3. The Sacred Blood of Jesus: The author of 2nd Peter makes the death of Christ Jesus the reason for our righteousness, and because Jesus’s blood is sacred, we are called to a new life (much like Abel’s blood cried out for justice). Note that 2nd Peter 2:24 says that the two-fold reason for the death of the God-man is for human beings to turn from sin and live in cruciform holiness– both substitutionary atonement and moral exemplar. It is not an either/or when it comes to divine reconciliation. Jesus was victorious in his obedience, representing humanity and taking the punishment what we deserve; our act of worship should be the life of sacrifice, of self-giving, of living in humility, residing in solidarity with the crucified peoples of this world. In Black Christianities, Jesus’ bloodshed connects God in se to the history of blood that has been shed on U.S. American soil: African enslavement, the genocide of First Nation peoples, lynching, the death penalty, police brutality, the poor being sent to unjust wars ordained by the wealthy. While this idea may be offensive to many persons’ sensibilities, traditional hymns spirituals such as ‘Oh, The Blood of Jesus’ and ‘Nothing But the Blood of Jesus’ or ‘Were You There When They Crucified My LORD?’were/ are still sung in Black churches do NOT point to a retributive God. Rather, Christ’s atonement is at once salvific, sanctifying, and a symbol of solidarity with the oppressed.
4. Wars of the Holy One in the New Testament, i.e., Exorcisms: When one recognizes that it is not broken human beings who we are not struggling with, but what the Pauline/pseudo-pauline letter of Ephesians calls ‘the powers of this dark world” and evil from the heavenly realm, one must understand the testimony of the Gospels as they tell us of Jesus healing persons such as Legion [Mark 5; Luke 8] as well as other daemon-possessed persons as going to war. In fact, at the cross, Christ himself alludes to YHWH his Father as the YHWH Armies (Matthew 26:53). How God reigns is on the cross, and through suffering throughout creation. Christ fights our battles for us, and he has already conquered at his death and resurrection; God does not have a social strategy outside of these two events. Yoder puts it this way, “The church does not attack the powers; this Christ has done. […] By existing, the church demonstrates that their rebellion has been vanquished.” (2) The Johannine literature, such as the Apocalypse (the revealing), purposefully depicts Jesus as a warrior king. Specifically, it is the crucified Christ whose very words function as the sword that conquers the rebellious powers (Rev 19:21. Waiting upon the Lord, trusting in Christ’s teaching (Rev 13:10) is the key to victory, and not any human tradition. A possible reframing of this notion of Christus Victor is what Joerg Reiger, in Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times, calls a Christus Victor from the Margins. Rather than a CV that is from above, which can give into triumphalism and nationalism, this view of Christus Victor “stands a chance to be more real and push toward resistance” against empire (page 259).
5. Diasporic Jewish Christianity: The New Testament authors understand Christian existence as one being in exile, foreign to the surrounding nations in which followers of the Way resided in. Paul places Christian citizenship in the realm of God (Phillipians 3:20). In the midst of living in the violent and oppressive “Pax” Romana, the NT writers wanted to emphasize that we are in the world, but not of it, and our actions should show likewise. As I mentioned in part 2, Black communities have faced histories of alienation and systems of death. Part of learning how to navigate being Christian and Black as a descendent of enslaved Africans as well as a U.S. citizen meant being an actual “resident alien.” Living in exile is not just some metaphor that Christians from the dominant culture can appropriate just because they have a few less votes in the U.S. Senate. The experience of exile is first and foremost a material reality, wrought with feelings of human betrayal and Godforsakeness. If God has deemed it appropriate to show God’s universal love for all through God’s own preferential option for the marginalized, then what should a Christian ethic of nonviolence look like. For part 4 of this series, that is where I will turn, looking at ideas of community, revolution, and responding to Just War theorists.
(1) John Howard Yoder. The War Of The Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence And Peacemaking. Editted by Glenn Stassen, Mark Thiessen Nation, and Matt Hamsher. Brazos Press, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2009, 168
(2) John Howard Yoder. The Politics of Jesus : Vicit Agnus Noster. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.Carlisle, U.K.: Eerdmans ; Paternoster Press, 1994, 150.
James Cone. God Of The Oppressed. 1975.
John Howard Yoder. The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. 1972.