Debunking The Myth that Christian Pacifists Are Allergic to the Old Testament
Ground Rules: Part 1 of The Liberating LORD of Peace.
There is a popular belief that continues to be universal, unchallengeable truth in Christian circles: Christian pacifists run and hide from the Hebrew Bible because of the Holy Wars and violence. Not only is this a fallacy in the worst, it is quite untrue of myself. In the first place, as Christians, Christian pacifists and advocates of non-violence have a love of the Christian canon; if they did not, they would cease to call themselves Christians. That is what separates Christan non-violent artists from secular as well as other religious pacifists.
For example, Lisa Sowle Cahill, in her Love Your Enemies, on more than one ocassion, takes the liberty of questioning the pacifist Christian’s loyalty to the Jewish Bible. For example, her comments on pacifist and early Christian theologian Tertullian:
“The nature of that faith and life are defined in relation to Scripture, the New Testament taking precedence over the Old” (1)
“The primacy of the teaching of Jesus in regard to killing is developed in the context of Terullian’s polemics against Judaism, and by means of a distinction between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ divine laws.” (2)
This dis-ingenuity continues in her analysis of the Alexandrian Fathers, as she typically subsumes Origen and Clement in the same boat.
“While the Alexandrian School did not deny the historical meaning of most biblical texts, it subordinated them to a high meaning. It was this freedom over against the literal sense to which the Antiochene exegetes reacted so negatively. However, the ability to transcend the literal sense without rejecting it allows interpreters such as Origen to retain the Old Testament while refuting the Jewish Tradition, which retained the Mosaic Law, and gnostic Christians who rejected the Old Testament because of its ostensible incompatibility with the New.” (3)
I reject Lisa Sowle Cahill’s view of Church history and the church in Alexandria, but if one goes along with Cahill’s particular and all too familiar narrative, it goes something like this: The strength of Augustine’s Just War theory, so it goes, is that it incorporates the story of the Hebrews into the narrative of the early Christians and thereby avoids the racial and religious violence of supercessionist Christendom.
A non-violent AnaBlacktivist theology begins with the God of Peace (Judges 6:24). Now, I object to certain Christian theologians who would call upon “The Nonviolent God” without having their foundation being the Hebrew Bible, for to address God in this manner, without doing so, is to do linguistic violence upon God’s revelation, for upon revelation in the very notion of non-violence. We cannot address God as we please. Contrary to relativism or much that gets accepted as theology today, Christians are dependent upon revelation first. As James Cone put in his A Black Theology of Liberation, “In the Bible, revelation is inseparable from history and faith. History is the arena in which God’s revelation takes place.” The Exodus is the beginning of revelation history, or God exposing Godself to humanity; in the choosing of enslaved Hebrews under the crushing oppression of Pharaoh, God communicated to humanity what type of God YHWH was: a Deity in solidarity with the poor. Reading the First Commandment as a call to faithfulness to YHWH alone, the second commandment initiates a non-violent religious response to the world order by teaching the Jew and the Christian how to communicate with God, for we cannot have a relationship with God on our own terms, for that would be the beginning of violence. True peace is sustained by fellowship with the Godhead, by the Divinity’s playbook, or what we call covenant. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon comment on the Second Commandment:
“To be able to call God’s name entails moral obligation. Because we had to be told God’s name, we cannot make God mean anything that we want. God must reveal who “I AM” is through loving actions toward Israel and by the resurrection of Christ. Revelation is the way we name our discovery that God has discovered us. God has chosen to come close to us, to be intimate, to reveal the “name that is above every name” (Phillipians 2:9) in order that we might joyfully witness to the whole world that we have not been left to our own devices.” (4)
In addition to the revelation of the Creator as well as the Ten Commandments, the Hebrew Bible provides a plethora of resources that I will briefly outline, with the help of John Howard Yoder and Black theologies:
A. The Imago Dei: Revert back to Genesis 1, and then chapter 9; all of humanity is found to be in the image of God before & after the “Fall.” To argue that the somehow that image within us is lost, I would have to disagree for the lack of sufficient evidence posed in Scripture. Murder is prohibited because all people are stamped with the divine image (Genesis 9:6), and that image no one can measure for only God has rights over human life as Creator. African American Christianities have throughout the years found new and exciting ways to uphold the doctrine of all of humanity’s sacred worth. In the mid-20th century, it was Martin Luther King Jr. who appropriated Boston Personalist philosophy to proclaim the infinite value of every human being. Today, one could argue that Womanist theologians are the bearers of this tradition.
B. The Notion of Blood as Sacred: John Howard Yoder suggests that at the most, the idea that blood is sacred was an idea prior to Israel being placed in exile. The shedding of blood is wrong; thus Leviticus is quite graphic in detail about the consequences for eating the blood in the meat from animals (check Leviticus 19:26 & 1st Samuel 14:33). Eating blood is strictly forbidden–thus uncritical Christian endorsement endorsements of the Twilight novels and movies comes into question (couldn’t help myself there). The blood is the life of the creature, and this includes humanity. (5) The power of the blood has historically been a mainstay in Black Churches, with spirituals such as “Were You There, When They Crucified My Lord” and in “secular” poetry and song such as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” which help us to remember the bloodshed during the times of lynching & Jim/Jane Crow.
C. A Close Reading of the Wars of the Holy One: Rather than label the crusades in the Hebrew Bible the Holy Wars, I prefer the Wars of the Holy One, particularly the Holy One of Israel. It is a far more accurate label for biblical and theological reasons. One cannot generalize that the military efforts of modern society are compatible with the Ancient Israelites. In fact far from it! One does not see today that prophets are giving military instruction or doing espionage; what we see are professionals whose lives are geared toward the MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX. The wars of the Holy One have at their core, “Yahweh himself gives the victory. […] [Victory is a miracle.]”(6). Complete dependence upon God, the YHWH of Armies (Chad’s translation for YHWH Sabatoah) is what gives humanity the victory and not dependence upon chariots and horses (Psalm 20:7).
A concrete example from the biblical text that I ran into actually one morning during my devotional reading of Our Daily Bread was 2nd Kings 6: 8-22. The YHWH of Armies has surrounding hosts around his prophet Elisha (verse 17), and rather than slaying his enemies the Aramean army, Elisha asks YHWH to strike them blind, as the prophet leads them into another city. The king of Israel, being the power-monger that the monarchs tended to be, desired to kill (ahem, re: take credit away from YHWH of Armies) his enemies. Instead, Elijah advises the Israelites to feed their enemies (v 22) The victory of fellowship is far superior to the victory of the sword. Indeed this is exactly the reason why YHWH of Armies restricts the Israelite kings from warmongering and institutionalizing human enslavement (which, of course, YHWH’s word goes unheeded, thus, the Exile) like in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. The imagery of YHWH Sabatoah/YHWH of Armies was expressed vividly in David Walker’s “Appeal To The Color Peoples of the World.” The theological usefulness of the YHWH of Armies for Walker was viewed as a resource of liberation to give hope for the downtrodden in their time of despair.
D. Diasporic Judaism: Lastly, what I find most compelling about Yoder’s reading of the Hebrew Bible is his understanding of the Jews mission within the Exile. Along with the rejection of the Maccabees (as well as the Zealot model) as heretics since God, in the eyes of some, had not blessed their violent revolution, God’s command to God’s people to seek the peace of the city where they are sent (Jeremiah 29:5-7) for no longer is the divine activism of YHWH found in the centralized location of Judah, but throughout the world. Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s restorationism in light of the prophets should be seen as a FAILURE theologically. (7)
In a similar vein, Black Christianities’ existence as part of the African Diaspora better enables these practicioners to witness to a New Pacifism, by way their history of marginalization. It is only by learning from those who have a history of subjugation that the privileged can learn what it means to live powerless; that is, a refusal to live by Western, violent notions of “being powerful.”
For part 3, I shall look at Jesus, the apostles Paul and Peter, as well as the Johannine literature to observe their continuity with the Jewish non-violent tradition.
1.Lisa Sowle Cahill. Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1994. Page 48
2. Ditto. Page 45
3. Ditto. Page 49
4. Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon. The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in the Christian Life. Nashville, Abindgon Press, 1999. Page 42
5. 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. Page 74
6. Ditto. Page 69
7. Ditto. Page 72-73