Sorry it took so long to get to this entry, Gentle Readers. I was interrupted by the move..
I argued that Jesus does not teach impossibly hard ideals in the Sermon on the Mount. Despite the New Moses typology in Matthew’s Gospel (Jesus goes up on a high mountain to deliver the new teachings), this is not “new law” in the sense of new burdens, harder rules to keep. It is, as I argued in the section on the Beatitudes, grace–the delivering love and empowering grace which enables faithful discipleship. The Beatitudes describe the virtues, the character traits, of disciples living into the Kingdom/Rule of God which Jesus brings. We aren’t burdened with this “hard teaching” as a way to earn divine favor, but are invited into the adventure and joy of the in-breaking Rule of God.
After the Beatitudes, the Sermon can be diagrammed as 14 (twice the holy number 7) triadic statements in which the first part of the statement gives a traditional moral rule or principle (all but one of them drawn from the First Testament), the second part describes the “cycles of bondage” or “mechanisms of enslaving sin” that keep us from following that moral rule or principle, and the third part (Jesus’ commands) shows the process of deliverance out of those sinful cycles of bondage. In this exposition, I am closely following my teacher, Glen H. Stassen and will also draw from the work of NT theologian Walter Wink. (See Stassen’s full exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount here which reproduces an article he first published in the Journal of Biblical Literature.)
Now, scholars have often been misled at this point. They haven’t seen 14 Triads, but 7 antisthenes or contrast statements (“You have heard it said of old/But I say unto you.”) But this view sets Jesus in opposition to the First Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures that were his own Bible and the Bible of the earliest Christians. But that cannot be right because Jesus constantly affirms the Hebrew Scriptures, indeed, in the very Sermon on the Mount, he rebukes those who would claim that he comes to replace the Torah or Law instead of fulfilling it (Matt. 5:17-19). Also, in the phrases following Jesus’ “but I say to you” refrain there are no commands–no imperatives. What follows instead are participles and gerunds–i.e., forms of speech showing continuous or ongoing action (the cycles of bondage). The commands, the Greek imperatives, come later–showing the way of deliverance. So, we have a three part structure in which Jesus does not contrast the traditional Jewish teaching, but rather affirms it, shows why it is often hard to keep, and then shows a way of deliverance than goes beyond the older teaching but does not contradict it. The following chart shows the entire pattern from Matt. 5:21-7:12.
THE FOURTEEN TRIADS OF THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
|TRADITIONAL RIGHTEOUSNESS||VICIOUS CYCLE||TRANSFORMING INITIATIVE|
|1. You shall not kill||Being angry,or saying, You fool!||Go, be reconciled|
|2. You shall not commit adultery||Looking with lust||Remove the cause of temptation (cf. Mk 9:43ff.)|
|3. Whoever divorces,give a certificate||Divorcing involves you in adultery||(Be reconciled: I Cor 7:11)|
|4. You shall not swear falsely||Swearing by anything involves you in a false claim||Let your yes be yes, andyour no be no|
|5. Eye for eye,tooth for tooth||Violently/revengefully resisting by evil means||Turn the other cheek; Give your tunic and cloak; Go the Second mile; Give to beggar & borrower|
|6. Love neighbor & hate enemy||If you love those who love you, what more is that than the Gentiles do?||Love enemies, pray for your persecutors; be all-inclusive as your Father in heaven is|
|7. When you give alms,||blowing a trumpet like hypocrites||but give in secret, and your Father will reward you|
|8. When you pray,||making a show like the hypocrites||but pray in secret, and your Father will reward you|
|9. When you pray,||babbling like Gentiles, thinking the wordiness will be heard||Therefore pray like this: Our Father….|
|10. When you fast,||appearing gloomy to others,like the hypocrites||but dress with joy, and your Father will reward you|
|11. Do not pile up treasures on earth (cf. Luke 12:16-31)||Where moth & rust destroy, and thieves enter & steal||But pile up treasuresin heaven|
|12. No one can serve two masters||Serving God & wealth, worrying about food & clothes||But seek first God’s reign and God’s justice/righteousness|
|13. Do not judge, lest you be judged||By the measure with which you judge, you’ll be judged||First take the log out of your own eye|
|14. Do not give holy things to dogs, nor pearls to pigs||They will trample themand tear you to pieces||Give your trust in prayer to your Father in Heaven|
The items in bold show places where Jesus’ teaching is paralleled elsewhere–in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, in Luke 12, in Mark. There are also partial echoes in Paul’s writings, in the Epistle to James, and even in Revelation. These echoes are seldom in the sections describing the cycles of bondage (which some have viewed as impossible teachings or new rules) but either in the first section (reaffirming the Hebrew Scriptures) or in the third section (describing the way of deliverance and new life)–thus showing where Jesus was heard to place his emphasis.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t say, “You have heard of old “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but I say to you “Don’t be angry.” Who could never be angry? Jesus was moved with anger (at the way that ritual rules harmed the sick) when he healed a man with a withered hand (Mark 1:41) and he demonstrated anger at the moneychangers in the Temple (an incident we will revisit later in this series). Nor does Jesus say, “You have heard it said of old, “Thou Shalt not Commit Adultery,” but I say to you, “Don’t ever lust.” Nor does Jesus say, “You have heard it said of old, “Whoever divorces must give a certificate,” but I say to you, “Never divorce.”
Instead, Jesus says, “You have heard it said of old, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but I say to you that nursing anger (the Greek is the verb for holding onto –the way some people treasure grudges) and calling people “Fool!” leads to judgment. ” So, how to get out of this bondage to anger than leads to various forms of judgment and sin–including, often enough, killing? Here comes Jesus’ gracious command! “If your brother has something against you GO TO HIM and seek to be reconciled.” This is so important it must take precedence even over worshipping God (leave your sacrifice and go). Now, THAT we can do! We cannot guarantee that the brother will want to make peace (Jesus’ audience would surely have remembered Cain and Abel). But we don’t have to wait for him to come to us. We can take the initiative, no matter who was at fault. We can seek to repair the breach in fellowship (“brother” was probably also heard by Matthew’s readers as referring to “fellow church members”) instead of nursing our anger or calling names or congratulating ourselves on our self-righteousness.
And nations can do this, too. One government offends another. Can we ask that a government not be angry? No, but we can ask that it not nurse that anger or refuse to speak to the enemy nation or congratulate itself on its own righteousness. We can ask that one government go to the other and seek to make peace. After all, when you speak of the grievance between you it may include hard words of truth that the other might not want to hear–so we should be prepared to hear such ourselves. Will this guarantee peace? Of course, not! But REFUSING to speak almost always guarantees strife and war–vicious cycles of violence and judgment.
Likewise, we avoid committing adultery by removing the causes of temptation that lead us to lust. Here, Jesus uses typical Hebrew hyperbole. We should not literally pluck out our eyes (I can lust with both eyes closed) or cut off our hands (I can lust without any hands!). But we should remove ourselves from temptation. If working late nights with a beautiful colleague alone is tempting you to break your wedding vows, then don’t work with that one alone–always meet where there is plenty of light and crowds. If you have to, get another job. Don’t troll the internet for pornographic sites. Don’t do things which are likely to lead to your lusting (“committing adultery in your heart”) which will all too often lead to actual adultery. Walk away from the conditions or people or contexts which tempt you.
In order to keep this post brief enough, we will skip several of these to go to another that bears directly on our topic of Christian pacifism. The 5th Triad (5:38-42) gives the traditional teaching, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Even in the First Testament, the intent of this rule was to limit revenge. The common pattern in the ancient world, and today, is for unlimited revenge. You take my eye, I take both your eyes. You take my tooth, I just may take your life. You take my life, my brother wipes out your family. This is the “morality” of the Mafia or the Japanese Yakuza. It is the “morality” of street gangs–and of most nations during wartime. To this, the Hebrew Scriptures tried to place a break: All you may take in revenge for a lost eye is the enemy’s eye. All you may take for a tooth is the enemy’s tooth. But Jesus knows this is not sufficient. If we seek revenge, we get caught in escalating cycles of vengeance and violence.
Now, most English Bibles are not helpful here. Verse 39 is usually translated as “Do not resist evil” (KJV) or “Do not resist an evildoer” (NIV). The first is ridiculous. Jesus resisted evil every time he cast out demons or confronted the Scribes and Pharisees. “Resist the Devil,” we are told, “and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7). The NIV translation is grammatically possible, (taking ponero as a substantitive dative) but it doesn’t fit much with Jesus’ own actions, either. As Clarence Jordan and others have noticed, ponero is most likely an instrumental and so should be translated as either with evil or by evil means. Further, as Walter Wink’s exhaustive search of secular Greek shows, antistemai doesn’t mean any kind of resistance, but VIOLENT resistance–it is the term used for rebellions and armed insurrections. So, 5:39 should be translated something like, “You have heard it said of old, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you “Do not resist violently or by evil means.” Rather, if someone strikes you on your right cheek. . .
Now, many people read the Sermon at this point to be teaching a “doormat” approach to life. In fact, in popular speech, “turn the other cheek,” is code for “let people abuse you–even invite their abuse.” Even many who see a positive dimension to these teachings often view them as “surrending one’s rights” for the sake of God’s Rule. Instead, I follow the work of New Testament theologian Walter Wink in seeing Jesus’ transforming initiatives here as teaching nonviolent resistance to evil, a “third way,” other than surrender or violence. Wink urges the reader to pay close attention both to the language of the text and to the historical and cultural background in first-century Palestine. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek. . .” In Jesus’ culture the left hand was reserved for “unclean” acts (it was an age before toilet paper) and the cultural taboo against touching someone with the left hand was very strong. In fact, one could be fined heavily for touching someone with the left hand. So, we are to imagine that the striker used his right hand. But the only way to strike the right cheek with the right hand is to use the back of the hand. So, this is not a punch, but a backhanded slap across the face. But this immediately tells the audience that this is not a fight between equals, but the abuse of a social inferior by a social superior. One does not backhand someone except to humiliate him or her, to publicly put the inferior in his or her “place.” Equals do not backhand each other. Masters backhand slaves or servants; the rich backhand the poor; abusive husbands backhand wives; tyrannical fathers backhand children (maybe even an adult or nearly adult son who is being deeply humiliated). In such a situation, the social inferior usually does not dare to strike back. The rich man who backhands his servant has guards or can get them. The wife, in a culture where divorce can only be initiated by the husband and where restraining orders for domestic abusers are unheard of, must live in the home. Does the inferior nurse resentment and plot revenge in the night? Does s/he instead simply “take it” and cooperate with her or his own oppression and self destruction? No, Jesus says, “turn to him the left cheek also!” But the social superior cannot backhand the left cheek without using the taboo left hand–which would humiliate the oppressor and leave him open to court action! If he strikes with the right hand, he has to punch the inferior, which involves treating him as an equal!” In “turning the other cheek,” the abused person refuses to be a victim, but also refuses violence and revenge. Instead, the “victim” confronts the abuser with her or his full humanity and demands to be treated as an equal–inviting repentance from the abuser. If the humiliating slap was public, the tables have been turned. Like the nonviolent activists of the civil rights movement, the abused one is told by Jesus to refuse to cooperate with evil or to respond with violence–a way of deliverance from the cycle of abuse–culturally specific–is demonstrated.
Jesus’ next example of this “third way” involves corrupt law courts. “If anyone would sue you for your coat. . .” The basic attire in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, as it had been for centuries, was two long robe-like garments, a lightweight inner robe and a thicker, heavier, outer robe. If someone was so poor (homeless) that they needed a loan and had no other collateral, the Law of Moses, allowed the lender to take the outer garment in pledge. But, the outer garment or cloak had to be given back at every sundown because, of course, the poor man would need to sleep in it. Without it, he could die of exposure in the desert air. But courts can become corrupt and side with the rich against the poor. Centuries before Jesus, the prophet Amos had condemned those whose corruption was so great they were copulating on “garments taken in pledge,” (Amos 2:8). This may have been hyperbole, but it shows the prophet’s anger at the abuse of the poor and the rejection of the protections for the poor in the Law of Moses.
Jesus shows similar anger at the courts of his day who were letting lenders actually sue homeless people for their outer garments–in effect condemning them to death by exposure! So, Jesus says, “give to him your tunic also.” In other words, strip butt naked in the courtroom! Now, remember, that while Jewish society had strong nudity taboos, the shame fell mostly on those VIEWING the nudity rather than on the nude person. Thus, drunken Noah’s curse on son Ham and grandson Canaan for laughing at his drunken, naked old body. And thus, the faithful sons walk backward to cover Noah. (Gen. 9:20-27). So, Jesus is again advocating a nonviolent protest that could shame the court (literally EXPOSING its lack of justice) and of the lender! (Jesus’ original hearers were probably dying of laughter at the imagined scene.) Of course, this move probably would result in getting the nude protester thrown in jail, but he would at least not die of exposure. And it probably would result in some new rule against nudity in court or something. Jesus is not giving hard and fast rules, but trying to teach a METHOD of confronting evil and oppression without violence. Thus, he is also inviting his hearers to use their own liberated, sanctified, imaginations to think of continuous similar examples in ever-knew situations as one lives the Third Way of the in-breaking Kingdom in the midst of this still-Fallen, often oppressive, world order.
Jesus’ third example comes from the Roman occupation of Palestine–which, like all occupying armies, was hated by the locals. But Rome was a smart empire that liked to limit the times it needed to use the Legions to suppress local uprisings. So, Roman law had limits placed on the oppressive actions of the occupying troops and strict penalties (usually death) for breaking them. One of those rules allowed for any Roman soldier to grab any local in a conquered territory and force him to carry a burden, such as the soldier’s pack, for the soldier. (When Jesus is crucified, this is what happens to Simon the Cyrene, who is forced to carry Jesus’ cross. See Mark 15:21) But the local could be forced to carry such a burden only one mile. After that, the soldier had to take back the burden or get another carrier. The Roman roads were marked throughout the empire with mile markers for many reasons, but they made it easy to check that this rule was carried out.
Now, even though this was limited, naturally locals hated ANY forced labor by occupying troops. It reminded them that they were not free. Specifically in Palestine, it reminded faithful Jews that the Holy Land was occupied by godless, pagan, Gentiles who could, like Egypt of old, treat God’s people as slaves any time they felt like it. Imagine the anger, the resentment that could build up, the cycles of bondage to violence that could result. (Note to American readers: Then imagine how the local Iraqi or Afghan people, EVEN IF THEY FIRST WELCOMED THE U.S. TROOPS as an alternative to Saddam or to the Taliban, respectively, feel about the occupying troops. The longer those troops stay, no matter how noble they believe their mission, the more hated they will be. Think how the average American would feel if foreign occupying troops paraded down our cities and towns! Back to Scripture.)
In that situation, many Jews associated with the resistance movement (later called Zealots) advocated assassination of Roman soldiers. By contrast, the Herodian puppet government and the Sadducees and Temple elites, urged cooperating with the Romans no matter what they did. Jesus does neither. Instead, he says, go a second mile. The enemy soldier wonders what’s going on. Is this Jew trying to get him in trouble with his commander? Is he leading him into an ambush? Is he insulting his strength, saying that the mighty soldier is too weak to carry his own pack? Imagine him begging to get his pack back or ridiculously knocking down the pack carrier to take it back! On the other hand, the second mile, provides the pack carrier time to confront the soldier with the injustice of forced labor and of the occupation at all. It gives time to sow seeds of repentance and peacemaking. At any rate, the pack carrier is transformed from a forced laborer–an object–into a volunteer–a free moral agent. Here is the pattern. Jesus teaches not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent, creative, transforming, resistance to evil that can deliver both oppressors and oppressed from cycles of destructive anger and revenge.
The 6th triadic statement reinforces our theme. The traditional teaching is to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:9) and, in Jesus’ day, many interpreted that to mean also “hate your enemy.” There is no command to hate enemies in the First Testament. But that is how the command to neighbor love was understood in Jesus’ day–Love your fellow Israelite. Much as contemporary Americans seem to think they are to love only other Americans (or only “REAL” Americans) and hate people in other countries–a view surprisingly found in many U.S. churches! The second section, the mechanism of bondage, is given as a rhetorical question, “If you love only those who love you, what more are you doing than the Gentiles?” Even the pagans have THAT much morality! By giving this as a rhetorical question, Jesus calls into question the supposed moral superiority of God’s people and reminds them of how often they have failed to be a “light for the nations,” and fell under God’s judgment. He invites them to remember the destructive cycles just described as the results of just loving those who love you.
The way of deliverance is to love your enemies. (This command of Jesus, to love enemies, is quoted throughout the New Testament and throughout early Christian literature. Nothing else Jesus said was remembered by the early church as being so central as this command.) And Jesus tells how one is to love enemies: praying for them. This will show that one is “perfect” (i.e., perfect in compassion) as God is–giving rain and sun to both the just and unjust.
Here is the heart of Christian pacifism because one cannot love an enemy by killing him or her. Notice how practical Jesus is–he assumes his hearers, including his disciples, will have enemies. This is not pie in the sky naivete. Too many Christians think they are too “nice” to have enemies. Jesus is more hard-headed and practical. He often is matter of fact about how following him will give one enemies. But the key to Christian living is how one deals with enemies–loving them and praying for them. Working to make peace. One may have to confront their evil actions as the previous triadic teaching showed. One may need to confront massive evil with massive nonviolent direct action. But one must hold out hope for the repentance of the enemy, for their conversion. One must not respond with violence that continues the cycle of revenge.
We’ll stop here for this post. The biblical case for Christian pacifism, for gospel nonviolence, is much broader, but nowhere is it clearer. This is the heart of God’s call in Jesus to a new life, a new way of life, which shows a new pattern to the world. The church, as the disciple community of Jesus, is to be the first fruits of the in-breaking Rule of God–and this is what that fruit looks like. The heart of Christian living is love of enemies.
There are numerous ways that Christians claim that Jesus is Lord, but still manage to evade his teachings and examples as claims on their lives as disciples. I was first alerted to this by John Howard Yoder, who describes many of these evasions early in his The Politics of Jesus. Later, my teacher, Glen Stassen presented a similar lengthy list of ways people evade taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously. (Since the Sermon on the Mount is the largest block of Jesus’ teaching we have recorded in the Gospels, how we treat it is a strong indication of how we’ll treat Jesus altogether.) If we name and describe (briefly) the various ways we dodge Jesus (while swearing loyalty to him), it will help us avoid falling into the same traps.
- The Dispensationalist Dodge: Jesus’ teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount, were not meant for the “Church Age,” but for the future Kingdom of God. My disagreements with Dispensationalism, even “progressive Dispensationalism,” are legion, but now is not the time to rehearse them. Suffice it to say that I find it extremely unlikely that when the Kingdom or Rule of God comes in all fullness that we we will still have enemies to love, that anyone will backhand us on the right cheek, sue us for our cloaks, or any occupying troops will force us to carry any packs even one mile. In the fullness of God’s Rule (whether in heaven or on earth), will we still have relationship problems that require us to stop our worship, go to our sister or brother and talk to them, seeking peace? All these teachings seem very much for this world. And at the end of the Sermon, Jesus tells the parable of the houseowner who built his house on rock (comparing him to the one who hears Jesus’ teachings and puts them into practice) versus the one who built his house on sand (comparing him to the one who hears Jesus’ teachings and doesn’t practice them.) The idea that Jesus never intended his teachings to be for the “Church age” is falsified by the very words of Jesus in the text.
- The “Preterist” Dodge: Jesus expected the Rule or Kingdom of God to Come either in his lifetime or shortly after–and his teachings were only meant to be an “interim ethic.” He did expect his disciples to practice his teachings, but they are so heroic that they could never be practiced for long–and the ongoing centuries required a different ethic for the Church. This view was made popular by the New Testament scholar, Albert Schweitzer, in his classic The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer had much right, but this seems off. Why would the ongoing centuries make Jesus’ ethic less normative? It is true that many Christian pacifist movements throughout the history of the Church had, at least initially, a heightened eschatological feeling, but the resurrection and the Holy Spirit give an empowering grace for Jesus’ ethic. When Schweitzer later adopted his own spirituality of “reverence for life,” I wonder that it did not lead him to reconsider his “interim ethic” view.
- The public/private split dodge. Jesus’ teachings are only for individual Christians in their private lives, but if they hold a public office requiring violence (e.g., soldier, judge, executioner, head of government) they must be governed by some other ethic. This dodge was a favorite of the Reformer, Martin Luther and many Lutherans (and others) since then. The problem with this is that there is no evidence for this in the New Testament texts. Nowhere do we find Jesus saying, “In your private lives, if struck on the right cheek, turn the other also, but as a member of the Sanhedrin it’s okay to condemn people to death.” The problem with such “two kingdom” thinking was shown most graphically in the German Third Reich–with many Christians reserving their Christian behavior for private lives, but as guards or doctors at death camps they used a different morality. We cannot limit Christ’s lordship to the church; Christ is cosmic lord and if that is still hidden in the world (to finally be revealed at the End–Phil. 2), it is to be manifest throughout all aspects of the lives of Christians.
- The “inner attitudes” dodge. This one was popular with John Calvin. Jesus’ teachings are about our inner attitudes more than about our outer actions. We can love our enemies even if, in war, or execution of criminals, we must kill them. There are attitudinal dimensions to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus wants us to renounce the nursing of anger and holding grudges rather than just avoiding killing people. But Jesus has plenty of instruction for actions, too. He tells us that we love our enemies by praying for them, seeking to do them good, stopping our worship to make peace. We confront those who backhand us (an act of humiliation) by turning the other cheek, so that they are forced to acknowledge our human dignity; we confront those who who would sue us poor for the very coat on our backs by stripping naked in the court of (in)justice; we react to the occupation troops who force us to carry their packs one mile, by carrying them two miles. None of those commands are simply about our inner attitudes.
- There is the dodge that simply ignores Jesus’ teachings and example because, supposedly, the only that counts is Jesus’ atoning death. Historically, one strand of Lutheranism took this view–even concentrating on justification to the exclusion of sanctification. (I’ll never forget how stunned I was when one Lutheran theologian defined sanctification as “getting used to your justification!”) But this view is becoming more popular with a broad range of American evangelicals–especially the resurgent 5-point Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention. But this makes Jesus into a cipher–so that he was just marking time until the crucifixion. It also reduces the cross and resurrection into a divine transaction–not asking what the human motives of the Romans and their Jewish puppet leaders were for killing Jesus (something this series will discuss). While it is true that the Apostle Paul could say that he determined to know nothing “but Christ Jesus and him crucified,” (1 Cor. 2:2 ), but even Paul could paraphrase Jesus’ teachings (e.g., Romans 12) and was quick to say that Christ was also an example for his disciples. The Baptist prophet Clarence Jordan mocked this view by saying that American Christians “will worship the hind legs off Jesus, but not do the first thing He says!” The debate in the ’90s among some American evangelicals over whether or not Jesus could be someone’s savior without also being Lord gets into this, too. The answer is clear: Jesus called out disciples, that is followers and in the Great Commission commanded them to make disciples from among all the nations and part of that disciple making would be “teaching them to practice all things that I have taught you.” (Matt. 28:18-20). Following Jesus’ example and teachings is not an optional add on to Christian salvation–but part of the very definition of the term “Christian.”
There are other evasions, other dodges, but these are the most common, especially among lay Christians. Readers can bring up others in comments. Naming and rebutting these dodges, these ways we evade Jesus’ claims even while calling him “Lord, Lord!” puts us on guard against the evasive tendencies of our own unfaithful hearts. For, as John Calvin rightly noted, the human heart is an idol factory. We seek to root out these evasions and to be able to take Jesus’ teachings seriously as describing a distinct way of life for Christians who embody a foretaste of inbreaking Rule of God.
In beginning our examination of Holy Scripture on the questions of war, violence, nonviolence, and peacemaking, we will begin with Jesus, as presented in the 4 canonical Gospels, then turn to the rest of the New Testament before examining large sections of the Hebrew Scriptures or “Old” Testament. Why are we taking this approach? Why begin with Jesus?
We begin with Jesus (and, in a different sense, end with Jesus) because, for Christians, Jesus is the ultimate authority on matters of faith and practice, of doctrinal and ethical convictions and living. The earliest Christian confession, found repeatedly in the New Testament, is “Jesus is Lord!” That is the ultimate title of authority in the first century Roman empire in which the NT was written. The Romans proclaimed that Caesar was lord–was supremely sovereign. For the early Christians to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord!” was to say “Caesar is NOT lord! NOT supreme! NOT our ultimate authority!” It should carry the same political weight today. No Christian can give ultimate authority to anything or anyone else than Jesus. There have been many attempts at political or religious or other Powers and Authorities to try to usurp that authority. In the days of the Third Reich, the Nazi ideology claimed by the “German Christian” movement argued for “Christ for the Church, Hitler for the Fatherland!” They proclaimed that considerations of “Blood” (racial-ethnic identity), “Soil,” (national land ownership, but also implying cultural superiority), and “Volk” (Peoplehood, a term having far more racist overtones in German than the English equivalent of “Folk” carries) could be valid revelations of God alongside biblical revelation. This is what led the Swiss theologian Karl Barth to reject the ancient tradition of “general revelation” of God through nature and reason, along with the particular revelation of God in and through the unfolding history of Israel and the Church recorded in Holy Scripture. The Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church (which arose to combat the heresy of the German Christian movement), written by Barth declares in Article I, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we must trust and obey in life and in death.” Then along with this affirmation, it gave a denial, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and and truths, as God’s revelation.”
In considering a biblical case for Christian pacifism, we do well to heed the lessons of Barmen. I am not claiming that any particular government is “another Hitler,” (a charge that is flung about by both Right and Left far too quickly). I am saying that governments make idolatrous claims and they want obedient subjects whenever they want to wage war. Even liberal democracies like the U.S., which allow for conscientious objection to military service, prefer that the numbers of conscientious objectors remain small. They give out propaganda campaigns through military recruitment commercials and military recruitment in public school classrooms and this seeps into the minds of churchmembers almost by osmosis.
In the 1990s, I was slightly irritated with the U.S. evangelical fad of wearing “WWJD?” (for “What Would Jesus Do?”) on bracelets and T-shirts and other paraphanelia because I didn’t think that this was accompanied by any serious examination of the Gospels to see what Jesus did in his time and place as any kind of guide to what the Risen Christ would have his disciples do here and now. The question WWJD? was not, it seemed to me, being answered by serious Bible study, but by mere guesswork–informed no doubt by sermons and praise songs, etc., but not tested by serious NT study. Yet, immature as that fad was, it was onto something. It could have led to a great reformation of the Church in these United States. It at least understood that Jesus’ life, teachings, and death are a model for Christian discipleship (1 Peter 2:20-22). But since the attacks on the U.S. on 11 Sept. 2001, these have all but disappeared. Most ordinary American Christians are not asking themselves anymore “What Would Jesus Do?” certainly not in responding to terrorists (or suspected terrorists), to Muslims, to immigrants, to treatment of “detainees.” These ordinary Christians are not asking, “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” or “Who Would Jesus Torture?” but are taking the name of Christ as a totem in all out war against declared national and religious enemies. (I remember how shocked I was when newspapers ran a picture of a tank in Iraq with the words “New Testament” painted on it. See below.)
See also my previous post on the “Military Bibles” with accompanying quotes by George Washington, George W. Bush, General Patton, etc. designed to remake Christianity into a religion of war and conquest.
Beginning with Jesus, and reminding ourselves via Barmen, of how crucial it is to begin with Jesus, and to expect that the gospel message of Jesus will be one that other Powers and Authorities don’t quickly welcome, is a helpful corrective to the many insidious ways that rival messages try to pour Jesus into their preexisting molds: Jesus as CEO of a Fortune 500 company preaching a gospel of capitalism; Jesus as Therapist, preaching a gospel of self-actualization; Jesus as Self-Help Guru; Jesus as Super-Patriot (forgetting that Christians are a global community, called out “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9); Jesus as Warrior and not the Prince of Peace.
This brings us to another problem: If we “begin with Jesus,” whose Jesus? That is, what view of Jesus guides our interpretation? The “politically correct” Jesus of the so-called Jesus Seminar is very different from that planned by the folks at “Conservapedia.” The Jesus of Rod Parsley stands in great contrast to the Jesus of Jeremiah Wright; the Jesus of Rick Warren is vastly different from the Jesus of Tony Campolo or Jim Wallis. Whose Jesus? How do we keep from making Jesus over into our own image? Well, as the late theologian H.Richard Niebuhr said, we have the “Rosetta Stone” of the original Gospel portraits. There are no absolute guarantees against misinterpretation, but we will consult a range of contemporary New Testament scholarship, and the Gospel portraits resist attempts to fully distort Jesus into an idol of our own making–as often as that has been tried.
An objection to this method of beginning with Jesus is that God’s revelation begins with the First or “Old” Testament–with Abraham and Sarah and Moses, with the faith and history of Israel, and the critique of the prophets. This is true. One does not fully understand Jesus apart from his context and heritage–his teaching in parables paralleled the teaching style of the sages of the Wisdom tradition (as found in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job ) and he stood deeply rooted in the tradition of the prophets of Israel/Judah. Those not familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures miss all the “Old” Testament quotations, paraphrases, themes, and allusions throughout the New Testament and especially in the Gospels and on the lips of Jesus. We also misunderstand Jesus by not understanding the rival factions within first century (i.e., Second Temple era) Judaism–rivalries so sharp that some scholars speak of the rival Judaisms of the Second Temple era–prior to the “normative” rabbinic Judaism of the 2nd C. We will have to situate Jesus (and the Jesus movement that became the early Church) within the rivalries of the Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots (or proto-Zealot revolutionaries and social bandits), Essenes, or Hellenized philosophical Judaism like that of Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE). And it is important to note that what we call the “Old” Testament was the Bible of Jesus and the early church.
But we must still learn to read the Hebrew Scriptures as Jesus did. For us, all these centuries later, there is often a tendency to develop our theology from a particular reading of the Old Testament and then decide to fit Jesus in and be sure he says or does nothing to disturb our view of biblical revelation. Yet Jesus was constantly surprising both his rivals and his disciples–who read the same Scriptures. Flat Bible approaches end up subordinating Jesus to a doctrine of biblical authority or a reading of Scripture derived apart from Jesus. They end up becoming religions “about” Jesus that stand in contrast to the faith of Jesus. The NT writers resist this tendency. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is they that speak of me.” John 5:39. Or, as the writer of Hebrews put it, “Long ago at many times and in various ways God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, but in these final days God has spoken to us supremely by a Son.” Heb. 1:1.
Christians throughout history have reacted to previous moldings of Jesus into mistaken shapes by affirming the supremacy of Jesus himself as revelation. Thus the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, in 1925 and 1963 said, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
So, we will begin with Jesus, with the portraits of Jesus and his teachings found in the 4 canonical Gospels. In our next installment, we will consider ways in which people try to avoid or water down Jesus–often without realizing that’s what they are doing. And we will argue for reading the “Old” Testament as Christian Scripture, as the Bible of Jesus and the earliest Christians.
Note: My approach is not the only way to present a biblical case for pacifism. One could read the entire Scripture through lenses shaped by Jesus but present such a reading in a “Genesis through Revelation” canonical order. That is the approach taken by Church of the Brethren scholar Vernard Eller in his classic, War and Peace from Genesis to Revelation (Repr. Wipf and Stock, 2004). It’s also the route chosen by Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud on his website, PeaceTheology.net in a blog series that will become a book, The Bible on Peace. I recommend both works strongly. But I have seen so many recent attempts to remake Jesus and distort Jesus’ message (see the picture above for an extreme example) that I am taking extra precautions that, in the words of the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, “We Do See Jesus.” (The phrase comes from the essay, “But We Do See Jesus”: The Particularity of Incarnation and the Universality of Truth” reprinted as chapter two in Yoder’s The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985). )
We are exploring a biblical case for or defense of Christian pacifism. To get started, we need to define our terms and approach to the problem. First, this is a biblical case for Christian pacifism, not the only way the case can be made from Scripture. There are a variety of interpretations and approaches to Scripture held by Christian pacifists–and a number of legitimate ways of laying out the case. This is simply the case I am making and the approach I, as a Christian pacifist who has long studied these matters, have chosen to proceeed.
Second, this is a biblical case. Although bypassing debates over terms like “inerrancy” or ‘infallibility,’ I will be writing with the assumption that most readers are Christians who hold that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are uniquely authoritative for both the doctrinal convictions and also for the ethics or moral practices of the Church, both collectively in its gathered life together and individually as members. Protestant Christians generally belong to Reformation or post-Reformation groups which confess the Scriptures as the supreme authority, sometimes even saying the ONLY authority, in these matters. Eastern Orthodox Christians place the Scriptures within the interpretive framework of the early ecumenical councils of the undivided Church, especially the Apostolic and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds, and the Definition of Chalcedon. Roman Catholic Christians hold that Scriptural authority is part of the twofold teaching authority of the Church Magisterium, the Teaching Church, along with ongoing church tradition as embedded in councils and papal pronouncements. (Under certain very limited circumstances, Catholics hold that the pope can and does teach ‘infallibly.’) Some Quakers and some Pentecostals view the authority of the Scriptures through the authority of the living voice of the Holy Spirit discerned within the local church. But all Christians have the Scriptures in common and I will appeal to those books which all consider canonical or forming the teaching norm of the Church universal.
For this reason, though some references to historical scholarship will be made from time to time, I will not here be trying to reconstruct “the historical Jesus” behind the four canonical Gospels, nor engaging in a “quest for the historical Israel” different from that presented in the historical accounts of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. This study is not aimed at scholars, but at ordinary Christian laity. I assume that if I cannot show that the Bibles they actually read point to pacifism and nonviolence as a Christian norm, it won’t matter what case could be made to academics. I may from time to time alert readers to matters they may want to pursue in-depth in other works, but I have to keep my attention on the goal: understanding the Biblical message as calling for nonviolence and pacifism on the part of all Christians.
Defining some key terms in this study:
- Christian: refers here to all who make the earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” whose faith in God is mediated by Jesus, and who seek to follow Christ. “Christian,” means “Christ-follower,” and before the earliest believers were called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 13:1) they were simply called “Followers of the Way [of Jesus–as opposed to the Way of the Pharisees, Zealots, one of the Greco-Roman mystery cults, etc.]. So, in this study I am not writing to those who, as Clarence Jordan used to mock, simply want to admire Jesus, but to those who sincerely want to follow in the Way that he opened up. “Christian” in this study does not mean someone who had a certain religious experience (whether they call it being “born again,” or by another name), but then live just like their non-Christian neighbors, but those who realize that being Christian involves addressing claims that Jesus Christ makes on their lives. It will be the burden of this study to show that living without violence or revenge or waging war is one of those claims on the lives of Christians. Engaging in the pursuit of justice and peace is another strong claim Jesus makes on our lives. So, negatively, we avoid killing or violence, and positively we work for justice and peace.
- Violence is defined in this study as “using force or the threat of force to overwhelm the will or violate the rights or bodily integrity of another human being.” Questions of violence to property or to animals or other living things will be bypassed in this study. But mental or psychological violence is covered in our definition by means of the threat of physical violence. For more on this definition see, Glen H. Stassen and Michael L. Westmoreland-White, “Defining Violence and Nonviolence” in Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts, ed., J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). Update: Mark Congdon thinks this definition needs to change “or” to “and.” I’ll think about that. He may be right. But we need to separate the definition of violence from arguments about whether or not it is right or wrong. After all, Just War Theorists will agree that war is violent; it involves shooting, bombing, stabbing with bayonets, etc. Nevertheless, they would argue that, under precise conditions and terms spelled about by JWT (many of which are now codified in both U.S. and international law), these would be justifiable (they claim) to prevent conditions they would think of as even more evil. Likewise, there may be some things that would not technically count as violence under the definition given–such as assisted suicide, perhaps, that one would still want to argue are morally (and maybe legally) wrong. We need to define violence correctly, but then also argue for it being wrong. The article cited goes into far more detail and is more philosophically precise. Here, we are just getting our bearings for a biblical argument on pacifism. There will be many “borderline” discussions and “grey areas,” but the main argument against war or terrorism, violent coups, spouse or child abuse, etc. will be clear. Once we have moral clarity about the general direction of the life of discipleship as Christians, we can worry about “grey areas.” But we don’t want special pleading–to say that “I don’t believe in violence but I do believe in X, therefore X is not really violent.” We need to separate the definition of violence (whether or not that definition needs refining) from the argument about an action’s morality so as not to hide some types of violence behind definitions.
- As such violence is distinguishable from two related terms force and coercion. Force refers to any power to set an object or a course of events in motion. Coercion refers to all practices that pressure others to take actions or refrain from actions against their own desires. Violence always involves coercion and usually involves force, but not all force or coercion is a form of violence. If I swing a baseball bat, it always involves force, but it is only violent if my intended target is my neighbor’s head rather than the spheroid thrown by my neighbor called a “baseball.” However, if I poison someone without her knowledge, I have not used force, but my action was still violent. Similarly, if I insist that my children do their homework when they would rather not, I am being coercive, but I am not being violent just by using my moral authority as their father (nor is Kate when using her authority as mother to achieve the same end). If I threaten to lock them in a closet otherwise, or beat them into submission, my coercion has been violent.
- These distinctions may seem petty, but they are important. Many have objected to Christian pacifism by claiming that it does away with authority (and thus is always anarchistic) and that Christian pacifists are hypocrites if they discipline their children. That is not so. Some pacifists are against spanking, but not all. (My own objections to spanking do not involve the claim that spanking is always wrong or always child abuse–but that the difference in adult strength is so great, and adults are usually angry when they employ spanking, that abuse is always a strong potential outcome. Once I grabbed one of my daughters by the arm to prevent her from running into an oncoming car. I did the right thing. My action, though forceful and coercive, was hardly violent. But I still accidentally bruised her arm. So, I refrain from spanking because I do not trust my own strength when angry. I do think that parents for whom spanking is the USUAL form of punishment are failing as parents, even if they manage to spank in such a way as to not be abusive.)
- Consider other examples: If someone is attempting suicide by jumping off a bridge and another prevents this by tackling the jumper, the rescuer is being forceful and coercive, but not violent–not even if they injure the jumper in the rescue. Workers in a mental hospital who practice safe methods of restraint against a violent patient are not being violent, but if they fight the patient they are being violent–defensively violent, but still violent. Nor are intentions everything: If a pilot accidentally releases his bombs over a wedding, we still call the resulting carnage violence. The argument being made in this study is that Christians are forbidden violence (and commanded to engage in practices of justice seeking and peacemaking), NOT they are forbidden to ever use force or coercion.
- Nonviolence is a term that has evolved in meaning. It once meant only refraining from violence. It has evolved to mean, and I use the term here, to refer to active practices against injustice and war that are not themselves violent. Examples of such practices include: strikes (if the strikers remain disciplined and nonviolent), boycotts, demonstrations, walkouts, nonviolent protests, symbolic actions, work slowdowns, general strikes throughout a nation, fasting (under certain conditions), etc. We will see numerous such examples in Scripture and history throughout this study. Nonviolent direct action is a form of conflict, of struggle against injustice. It is not passive or submissive or cowardly. It is an alternative to flight or fight, to submission or armed, violent, resistance.
- Conflict resolution or conflict transformation refers to a series of evolving practices for peacemaking in the midst of conflict, including in the midst of war or armed violence. These practices are distinct from the practices of nonviolent direct action, but they are not in tension with them. The practices include negotiation, cooling off periods, etc.
- Pacifism refers to the ideological conviction, often religiously rooted, that all war and violence is morally wrong and may not be used even as a “lesser evil.” In this study, I refer to Christian pacifism, the claim that Christians (Christ-f0llowers) must attempt to live without violence, especially without lethal violence, and, positively, to engage in practices of nonviolent struggle for justice and peacemaking. For this reason, at a minimum, Christians must refuse to go to war or to prepare for war by serving in national militaries (or by serving in armed militias or guerilla groups, for that matter). (The question of police work is more complex than can be addressed here, but it cries out for more attention. See further Tobias Winright, “From Police Officers to Peace Officers,” in The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, ed. Stanley Hauerwas, Harry J. Huebner, and Chris Huebner (Eerdmans, 1999, repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005). This is based on Winrights unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in Christian ethics from Notre Dame, which I hope will be published in full in the near future.)
- Nevertheless, as we will see, the major thrust of the biblical message is not on what we should refrain from doing (violence, making war), but on what we should be doing (working for peace and justice). This point has come to have wide agreement beyond Christian pacifist circles. Christian pacifists and those from the “Justifiable War Tradition,” are beginning to agree on a set of normative practices in Just Peacemaking. I have discussed those in depth elsewhere on this blog. I may refer to them again at the end of this study, but not in detail.
I think we will end this first installment here so as to refrain from making these too long for busy readers to follow. The next installment, then, will deal with two more “getting started” questions: “Why Does This Study Begin with Jesus and the New Testament?” and “How Ought Christians to Read the Old Testament?” From there we will begin our biblical studies.
The theme at this year’s summer conference (“peace camp”) of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America is “As the Powers Fall: Sustaining Our Faith and One Another as Empire Crumbles.” [Berea College, Berea, KY 23-28 July 2007–I can’t wait!]. I was asked to prepare an annotated bibliography on the themes of “the Powers” and “Empire” as a resource for the conference, marked as to level of difficulty and/or amount of background needed. I share my results with all of you and, since the bibliography is hardly exhaustive, invite additions as well as other feedback. (P.S., I will not be able to blog from the conference, this year, but I will be taking many notes and photos and, as with last year, will share them on this blog afterward.)
An Annotated Bibliography on “The Powers” and “Empire” for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.
by Michael L. Westmoreland-White, Ph.D.
Key: Items marked with an asterisk (” *”) are introductory or for beginners in these fields of study. Those marked with the number sign (“#”) are of intermediate difficulty. Items marked with a plus sign (“+”) are more difficult or presume background knowledge in biblical studies, theology, and/or political theory.
I. The Powers
Throughout the New Testament, but especially in the Pauline epistles, there is a range of terminology referring to the spiritual dimensions of organized power, e.g., powers,authorities, principalities, thrones, dominions, angels, demons (the latter two terms may have other meanings, but when qualified as “the angel of” a church, etc. or the “demon of” a particular city or kingdom, they definitely refer to the spiritual dimensions of an organized power), aeons, etc. They are often referred to collectively as “The Powers and Authorities,” or “The Principalities and Powers,” or simply “The Powers.” They refer to (the spiritual dimensions of) governments, economic systems, the institutional dimensions of religion, ideologies (“isms” such as capitalism, communism, communitarianism, authoritarianism, individualism, creationism, Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism, etc. as well as democracy, theocracy, oligarchy, plutocracy, etc.), systems, culturally dominant philosophies, etc.–semi-personal forces that shape, even rule, human life.
#Arnold, Clinton E. Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul’s Letters. InterVarsity Press, 1992. Argues, against the consensus, that the “principalities and powers” refer only to occult, demonic, beings.
#Berkhof, Hendrikus. Christ and Power. Trans. from the Dutch by John Howard Yoder. Herald Press, 1962. The Dutch original was the work which began the modern study of the Powers.
+Caird, G. B. (1917-1984) Principalities and Powers: A Study in Pauline Theology. Clarendon Press, 1956. This was one of the most thorough early studies. Written by an Anglican pacifist N.T. scholar.
+Carr, Wesley. Angels and Principalities: The Background, Meaning, and Development of the Pauline Phrase hai Archai kai hai Exousiai. Cambridge University Press, 1981. A revision of the author’s Ph.D. dissertation, University of Sheffield, 1974.
*Davenport, Gene L. Powers and Principalities. Pilgrim Press, 2003. A brief introduction for beginners in the field.
#Ellul, Jacques(1912-1994). The New Demons. Translated form the French by C. Edward Hopkins. Seabury Press, 1975. A political theology based on the new work by Berkhof, Caird and others on The Powers. This theme became interwoven into all Ellul’s work, but this is the most accessible account.
*Gingerich, Ray C. and Ted Grimsrud, ed., Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice, and the Domination System. Fortress Press, 2006. Builds on the work especially of Walter Wink. Includes two essays by BPFNA’s own Glen H. Stassen.
*Stringfellow, William.(1928-1985). An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. Word Books, 1973. A non-technical interpretation of the Book of Revelation as a political theology. Two chapters on The Powers. The “Babylon” passages of Revelation are read as applying to the U.S. scene that Stringfellow knew so well. Walter Wink was deeply influenced by Stringfellow.
+Wink, Walter. Cracking the Gnostic Code: The Powers in Gnosticism. Scholars’ Press, 1993. A nice contrast between the function of “Powers” language in the Gnostic writings and the canonical NT ones. This work will make you glad that the Gnostic writings are NOT part of the N.T. canon.
+__________. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Fortress Press, 1992. The 3rd volume of Wink’s original “The Powers” series. This is a full-blown political theology from the perspective of the work he has done on The Powers theme.
+____________. Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament. Fortress Press, 1984. This is the most serious exegetical work on this theme throughout the New Testament since Berkhof’s original work. This is the first volume in Wink’s trilogy “The Powers.”
*___________. The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium. Doubleday, 1998. This is a popularizing digest of Wink’s “The Powers” trilogy designed for the non-specialist.
+___________. Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence. Fortress Press, 1986. Second volume of Wink’s “The Powers” series, this begins his theological reflections on the biblical work done in the first book.
*____________. When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations. Fortress Press, 1998. A popular look at practical peacemaking that is informed by Wink’s work on The Powers.
+Yoder, John Howard(1929-1997). The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. 2nd edition. Revised and Expanded. Eerdmans, 1994. Original edition, 1972. Chapters 8-10, but especially chapter 8, “Christ and Power.”
The theme of “empire” has become widespread in recent biblical and theological studies, as well as recent political studies. Political theorists debate whether or not the U.S. is an empire (remember that Rome was called an empire in its colonies long before that language was used back in Italy, where the trappings of the earlier republic were kept for some time), whether globalized capitalism forms a new kind of empire, and related matters. For brevity’s sake, I am including only biblical and theological works, although they may reflect on contemporary issues. In general, the anti-imperialist tone of the biblical writings has become newly emphasized in these studies.
#Avram, Wes, ed., Anxious About Empire: Theological Essays on the New Global Realities. Brazos, 2004. These are collected papers from a conference held in light of the unveiling of the “Bush Doctrine” in 2002 which proclaimed that the U.S. would tolerate no military or economic rivals and would launch “preemptive wars” against any and all perceived threats. Most of the contributors are quite critical of this doctrine, but political ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School, once a liberal just war theorist, has become a vocal apologist for the Bush administration and the “war on terrorism.”
*Carter, Warren. The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide. Abingdon Press, 2006. This is an excellent place to begin exploring the recent biblical works on this theme.
#___________. Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations. Trinity Press International, 2001.
*Cassidy, Richard J. Christians and Roman Rule in the New Testament: New Perspectives. Crossroad, 2001. A good introduction from a brilliant Catholic New Testament scholar who is also a peace and justice activist.
#___________. Jesus, Politics, and Society: A Study of Luke’s Gospel. Orbis Books, 1978.
#____________. John’s Gospel in New Perspective: Christology and the Realities of Roman Power. Orbis Books, 1992.
+____________. Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles. Orbis Books, 1987.
*Crossan, John Dominic. God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007. A popular-level book with rather sweeping conclusions, some of which may outrun the exegetical evidence.
#Crossan, John Dominic and Jonathan L. Reed. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom: A New Vision of Paul’s Words and World. HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.
#Cullmann, Oscar (1902-1999). The State in the New Testament. Scribner’s, 1956. Contrasts the vision of the state as “God’s instrument to you for good” in Romans 13 with the vision of the state as demonic “beast from the sea” in Revelation 13 and says that discernment as to when the state is more in line with Romans 13 or Revelation 13 is a major Christian task.
+Griffith, Lee. The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God. Eerdmans, 2002. This is a difficult, but very important book. Griffith had already completed much of the book prior to 9/11. That terrorist attack and the U.S. response simply reinforced most of these conclusions.
*Howard-Brook, Wes and Anthony Gwyer, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now. Orbis Books, 1999. This is a serious study of the Book of Revelation, but written in the easy-to-read style of all of Howard-Brook’s works.
*Howard-Brook, Wes and Sharon Ringe, eds. The New Testament: Introducing the Way of Discipleship. Orbis Books, 2002. This is an excellent introduction to the New Testament from biblical scholars committed to radical discipleship and nonviolence. Two chapters deal especially with our theme: “Paul’s Letters: God’s Justice Against Empire,” by Neil Elliott and “Revelation: Claiming the Victory Jesus Won Over Empire” by Wes Howard-Brook.
#Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Fortress Press, 2003. Glen Stassen warns that some of Horsley’s biblical exegesis in this book doesn’t seem very careful. What is certain is that Horsley has changed his mind considerably since his earlier work, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence. Harper & Row, 1987. In that earlier work, Horsley argued that Jesus dealt almost exclusively with Palestinian village society and that his teachings on nonviolence and enemy love did not address the question of Rome. Horsley has had a rather large change of heart in this regard.
*____________. ed. Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society. Trinity Press International, 1997.
*Horsley, Richard A. and Neil Asher Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. Putnam, 1997.
+Horsley, Richard A., ed., Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl. Trinity Press International, 2000. Includes several scholarly essays on the theme of empire.
+____________., ed. Paul and the Roman Imperial Order. Trinity Press International, 2004. A collection of very deep scholarly essays.
#Keller, Catherine. God and Power: Counter-Apocalyptic Journeys. Fortress, 2005. Keller is a feminist historical theologian who has co-written and co-edited works with the more famous Rosemary Radford Ruether. While I share her negative attitude toward the normal idea of apocalyptic writings, I argue that the only biblical examples, Daniel and Revelation, use the genre of apocalypse to subvert the usual expectations. I would not want to be “counter-apocalyptic” in the sense of counter-Daniel or counter-Revelation.
*Laarman, Peter, ed. Getting on Message: Challenging the Religious Right from the Heart of the Gospel. Beacon Press, 2006. See the chapter, “Easter Faith and Empire: Recovering the Prophetic Tradition on the Emmaus Road.” by Ched Myers.
# Northcutt, Michael B. An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire. I. B. Taurus, 2004.
+Phillips, Kevin P. American Theocracy: The Perils and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. Viking, 2006. The author is a former political strategist for the U.S. Republican party who has become alarmed at the direction of his party and the nation.
+Sugirtharajah, R.S. The Bible and Empire: Postcolonial Explorations. Cambridge University Press, 2005. A difficult, but rewarding, study from the viewpoint of a liberation theologian from India.
+Stringfellow, William (1928-1985). Conscience and Obedience: The Politics of Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in Light of the Second Coming. Word Books, 1977. A popularization of the work of Oscar Cullman on the state and application to the U.S. that Stringfellow knew.
#Taylor, Mark Lewis. Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire. Fortress Press, 2005. Very important reflections from a contemporary theologian. Medium difficulty.
+Thompson, Leonard. The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire. Oxford University Press, 1990. Difficult, but rewarding reading.
+Wengst, Klaus K. The Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ. Fortress, 1987. This is an important and very careful study of the contrast between the kind of peacemaking that Jesus taught and the “peace through strength” policies of empire.
Marcus J. Borg, Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, is one of the most prolific and engaging scholars of the “historical Jesus.” As he has described in several places, he grew up in a traditional conservative Lutheran household, became skeptical of faith in adolescence and college, but slowly returned to a (less traditional, but very lively) Christian faith slowly as an adult. He is now married to an Episcopal priest and is one of the most reasonable and helpful members of the “Jesus Seminar.” (The Jesus Seminar, part of the Westar Institute, bills itself as a consensus of NT scholarship, but it is no such thing. It’s methods and conclusions are regularly ridiculed at meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and, outside of the U.S., it is the butt of numerous jokes. Except for Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and one or two others, few of the Jesus Seminar members are considered heavyweights in historical Jesus research. But the Seminar does manage to popularize itself with the media and give the average layperson the mistaken idea that its publications are worth the paper they are printed on, but they aren’t.)
I have elsewhere called Borg one of my favorite theological liberals. Unlike most of his colleagues in the Jesus Seminar, I find much of his work helpful. I first encountered him through his book, Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus (1984, rev. ed., 1992) and again in Jesus: A New Vision (1987). In my view, these are the best of Borg’s many writings on Jesus. They contain many helpful ideas that I believe are on target: 1) Borg’s understanding of the conflict between Jesus (and his movement) and the Pharisees as a conflict between rival Jewish renewal movements and, thus, a conflict within 1st C. Judaism instead of a rejection of Judaism. 2) Borg’s belief that Jesus was closer in outlook to the Pharisees than to other rival parties within Palestinian Judaism. (Anyone who has seen siblings feud understands the dynamics involved. The further away from someone’s viewpoint, the more another view can be ignored. But one is often infuriated by folks one thinks right on many things, but dead wrong on others. –Aside to Jonathan Marlowe: This also explains my love/hate relationship with Stanley Hauerwas.) 3) Borg’s contrast of the Pharisees’ “politics of holiness” (or “purity”) with Jesus’ “politics of compassion” seems almost exactly right, although I would not say that Jesus was unconcerned with holiness, but rather that he redefined it in terms of justice and compassion. 4) The importance that Borg places on Jesus’ table fellowship. 5) Borg’s recognition (with many others) that Jesus, though nonviolent, was a real threat to both the Romans, their client rulers in Palestine, and the temple elites. This nonviolent threat to the established order was the motive for Jesus’ execution.
However, I also have many differences with Borg’s approach to Jesus. 1) His attempt to have a non-eschatological Jesus simply will not work. “Kingdom of God” is clearly eschatological, even apocalyptic, language and if we know ANYTHING about the historical Jesus at all, it is that the Kingdom of God was central to his message. 2) Although recognizing some prophetic elements in Jesus, Borg downplays this and sees Jesus far too much with the Wisdom traditions in Israel. (For very different reasons from Borg and each other, Ben Witherington and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza are both mistaken about this, too.) In my view, all Jesus borrowed from the sages was the form of his teachings, while the content of his message was far closer to that of the prophets. The Sages, as exemplified especially in Proverbs, were far too accepting of a stratified status quo for the social sphere, but Jesus shares the prophets’ hunger for social and economic justice. 3) N.T. Wright and others go too far, I think, in dismissing all value from Borg’s attempt to see Jesus in cross-cultural perspective, first in terms of other teachers in the Mediterranean world, but also in comparison with other figures in world religions. I have, for instance, found some real insights in Borg’s Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings (1997). But where Wright (and others) are right is that Borg jumps to such cross-cultural work too soon, without first making sure he has completely understood Jesus as a figure within 1st C. Palestinian Judaism. Borg (and his fans) will protest this, saying rightly, that he insists that Jesus is thoroughly Jewish. But, frankly, Borg’s Jesus (unlike the various–and not entirely compatible–reconstructions of Wright, E. P. Sanders, Richard Horsley, John P. Meier, Brad Young, and Bill Herzog) just doesn’t seem all that Jewish. If one is only comparing Borg’s Jesus with that of much of the Jesus Seminar, then, yes, he emphasizes Jesus’ Jewishness. But, if one is really trying to fit Jesus firmly into 1st C. Palestinian Judaism, then Borg’s Jesus just doesn’t quite fit.
I have more problems with Borg as a theologian. This puts me in a minority in my local church, I think. My pastor is very taken with Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. There are helpful insights there and in his Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and The God We Never Knew. But ultimately, I have a higher Christology, a more objective view of the atonement (although my view is more with the Christus Victor than substitutionary tradition), and a bodily resurrection.
As my biblical and theological readers probably ALL know, Nicholas Thomas (Tom) Wright is the Anglican Bishop of Durham (U.K.) and a renowned New Testament scholar. He is a prolific author of both scholarly works and popular works for laity. (He also has a secret career of dancing a silly dance over at Chrisendom, thanks to the superb technical skills and bizarre humor of biblio-blogger, Chris Tilling! If your life would not be complete without seeing an Anglican bishop dance a silly jig, you can find it here.)
Not being Anglican, I have no thoughts on how good or poor Wright is as a bishop or priest. However, I have been fascinated by how controversial he is in certain circles as a New Testament scholar. In some circles he is widely admired and in others viewed quite negatively. In Pauline studies, Wright is either praised or disrespected for being one of the proponents of the so-called “new perspective on Paul,” which holds basically that Paul was not a Lutheran-before-Luther and that “justification by faith” is more of an ecclesiological concept than one about individual salvation. Paul remained far more Jewish in his thinking than is usually credited. I don’t find this very controversial, and I am mostly surprised that this perspective is thought so “new.” Surely it dates back at least to Krister Stendahl (Dean of Harvard Divinity School in the ’60s and later Lutheran Bishop in Sweden) and his famous essay, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Judaism, and James D.G. Dunn have also promoted this view. When I went to seminary in the mid-’80s, I understood it to have become nearly a consensus. So, in this area, Wright seems to me to be neither a brilliant pioneer, nor some kind of arch-heretic. He has, I believe, consolidated the arguments for this perspective and, in his What Saint Paul Really Said, has popularized a view that had not previously “trickled down” from scholars to the pew. Perhaps that is what makes this aspect of Wright so controversial.
But Wright is not only a Pauline scholar, but a Jesus scholar, part of the so-called “Third Quest for the Historical Jesus.” He is controversial here, too. Liberal scholars like John Dominic Crossan (and, to a lesser extent, Wright’s friend, Marcus J. Borg) believe that Wright is basically a “scholarly fundamentalist” who defends far too much of the Gospels’ materials as historical, including the bodily resurrection. For this reason, many evangelicals have become major fans of Wright, but others have assailed him, because his interpretation of Jesus and the Gospels is far more Jewish (and political!) than many evangelicals find comfortable. And many are furious at Wright’s realized eschatology (following his teacher, G. B. Caird, and, before him, the legendary C. H. Dodd), which revels in apocalyptic imagery, but reinterprets it in ways that rule out a literal end of the world or even, apparently, a literal Return of Christ. (So, although the Crossans of this world continue to dismiss Wright as just one more evangelical, it is not your average evangelical whose hero in Jesus studies is Albert Schweitzer!)
Here, I agree with about 90% or so of Wright’s work. I find his description of the Jewish milieu of Jesus’ day convincing, and his rooting of Jesus in it spot on. I find his “politics of Jesus” similar to the perspective of John Howard Yoder (except that Wright seems to hesitate to draw the full pacifist conclusions of his view, as Richard B. Hays has pointed out) and, with quibbles over details, highly persuasive. I share an amillenial outlook, but I demur at being as completely preterist as Wright is. Both Jesus and the N.T. writers clearly speak of a close to history when the fullness of God’s Rule will be established at Jesus’ parousia (future return–literally “unveiling”). Wright says that he prefers to call his eschatology “inaugurated,” to “realized,” but the former usually leaves room for a future dimension that he seems to omit. I can’t follow him there.
In short, I find Wright’s work significant and helpful, but I can’t be counted either in the camp with those who think he hung the moon, nor with those who dismiss his fans as adherents of “Wrightianity.” I find him to be more original and creative in Jesus studies than in Pauline studies and such creativity risks making large errors in order to make real advances. Those content to simply add a few footnotes to scholarship risk less, but make less progress. Anyway, that’s my $.02 worth.
Update: 1) Thanks to Jonathan Marlowe for reminding me to link to N.T. Wright’s webpage here. It contains much information about Wright, but also many of his sermons, lectures, papers, etc. on a variety of topics. 2) In places of agreement, I forgot to mention that Wright’s overall approach to Jesus’ studies (and to NT and early Christianity generally) is based on two principles that I share (and had adopted before I ever heard of Wright): A. A commitment to historical evidence and to realizing that, for Christianity, historical research is important–and not unconnected to faith. Thus, Wright and I (along with many others) completely reject the semi-gnostic attempt to secure faith by sealing it off from historical research which, in different ways, is done by fundamentalism, by some followers of Rudolf Bultmann (it’s an open question as to whether or not they are reading Bultmann himself right at this point), and some followers of Karl Barth (again, whether Barth himself is implicated is debatable), and by the conservative Catholic scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson. B. However, Wright just as thoroughly rejects the extreme historical skepticism (in the principles set out by Van A. Harvey in The Historian and the Believer) and methods of the Jesus Seminar types, even in the less-extreme versions represented by Wright’s friend, Marcus Borg.
3) Confession-time: Unlike many evangelicals, I find much of value in Borg’s work. As I discussed here, Borg is one of my favorite liberal scholars, though I do not consider myself “liberal,” theologically. (Politically, I am, for a U.S. context, very liberal, although I prefer the term “progressive” because of my identification with the early Progressive movement.) I love the book co-written by Borg and Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, not least because it is a great example of how two Christians can disagree strongly while remaining friends. Overall, I am more in sync with Wright’s portrait of Jesus than with Borg’s, but there are a number of places where I thought Borg had the better of the argument.
4) I found out this past Advent, that an argument I constructed in seminary in the ’80s for the historicity of the Virgin Birth has much in common with a recently published defense by Wright. (This is what happens if you don’t publish quickly and often. Later, everyone thinks you’re just cribbing from a more famous person!) HT: Darrell Pursifal (Dr. Platypus) for calling this to my attention last Advent. My argument came more from thinking through hints and clues in the work of the late, great, Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown, but if Wright has made similar arguments then maybe I was onto something and not just having semi-fundamentalist holdovers from my past. 🙂 As I pointed out here and here, however, I do not think the emphases of the NT birth/infancy narratives have much to do with the question of whether or not Mary was physically a virgin when Jesus was born. The tendency of evangelicals to focus on that question and miss the major themes of these narratives may be very close to straining at gnats and swallowing camels.
5) The resurrection is a different matter. I have not yet read Wright’s book on the resurrection (It’s on my birthday wish list to be posted this weekend. Wink, wink; nudge, nudge.), but the description in several reviews shows an overall approach that I would approve–one I learned from such diverse sources as the late G. E. Ladd, my teacher, Gerald Borchert, my teacher, Frank Tupper, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. I cannot agree with Marcus Borg that the resurrection is wholly “history metaphorized,” instead of “history remembered.” There do seem to be legendary or metaphorical details, as well as contradictions on details between the Gospel accounts (and the attempts of someone like Craig Blomberg to harmonize every one of those details do not persuade me). But the underlying event happened in our history–in space and time–even though it changes the nature of history, is eschatological, and is not just another event like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. I cannot agree with those like Crossan who believe that the body of Jesus was thrown in the garbage dump (Gehenna) and eaten by dogs and, with the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 15), I hold that if Jesus was not raised, Christian faith is vain–an illusion. The spiritualized resurrections that people like Borg, Crossan, (or Bultmann?) embrace strike me as dualist, gnostic, and, more to the point, something that no first C. Jewish writer would have described as a “resurrection.” So, if the reviews are correct in their description, I expect that I will agree with Wright’s book on the resurrection, and like it as well as Jesus and the Victory of God.(Now, the question is, will Wright understand, with Barth, and Moltmann, and Pannenberg, that Christ’s resurrection is the “prolepsis of the future?” That is, will he/does he see what the resurrection of Jesus means for the future dimensions of the Christian hope? I’ll have to wait and see.)
I have much neglected this series of posts in setting up the Christian Peace Bloggers blog-ring and with many events, but I haven’t forgotten it. For the previous posts in this series, see one, two, three, four, five, and this one. We come, at last, to the New Testament. We shall have to spend much time (I anticipate 2 posts) on Romans 1, but first, we need to deal with 2 other brief verses in the Pauline epistles that are often cited on this subject. As we will see, the verses are quite brief, and there are major issues of translation and interpretation. Because of this, I will first quote the relevant passages while leaving the key terms untranslated.
1 Cor. 6: 9-11: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Reign of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor μαλακοι, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers, will inherit the Reign of God. And such were some of you, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.”
1 Tim. 1:8-11: “Now we know that the Law is good, if anyone uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the Law is not laid down for the righteous, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers, ande murderers of mothers, for manslayers, sexually immoral folk, άρσενοκοίταις, kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”
Both these unusual terms have been translated in some modern translations by the term “homosexuals,” or, in older translations, as “sodomites,” but, as I mentioned earlier in this series, the term “homosexual” (and its equivalent in other languages) did not exist until the late 19th C. when it was coined to refer, as we now do, to persons whose sexual orientation/attraction is toward their own sex and not the opposite sex. And, as also mentioned, we do not find anywhere in the Hebrew Bible or Greek New Testament, any nouns built off of the place name “Sodom.” The terms “sodomy” and “sodomites” to refer to a range of sexuals behaviors considered illicit, especially between persons of the same sex, dates to the Middle Ages, as we have seen.
These verses include standard “vice lists” which were common in pagan Greek literature, especially from the philosophers, to list disapproved behaviors. Skipping over all the other interesting features about the use of these vice lists in the NT, let us work with our strange terms left untranslated. Μαλακοι (“malakoi”) literally means “soft ones.” Some translations have rendered it “effeminate males,” but since what counts as “effeminate” appearance or behavior varies from culture to culture, we have to probe further into the likely background. Robin Scroggs, William Countryman, Victor Paul Furnish, George Edwards, and many other NT scholars think that there are two common Greek practices that Paul is condemning in the 1 Cor. passage. First, was the widespread (but often condemned even by Greek philosophers like Plato) practice in the Greco-Roman world of rich men taking young male protoges and mentoring them–but with part of that mentoring including using them sexually. In this VERY patriarchal society, men married to have offspring, but women were not considered intellectually or spiritually equal to men, and so it was improper to attempt having any “soulmate” kind of mutual love between the sexes, even between spouses. One turned, instead, to other males. In Plato’s ideal, this male-to-male love was non-sexual (from where we get the term “platonic love” or “platonic relationships”), but Plato himself acknowledged that this ideal was often not met–both in terms of equality and in terms of the love being non-sexual. Instead, these rich elite males would take young boys who were barely pubescent and forcibly make them the passive partners in sex. They made them “soft” or “effeminate” by forcing them to shave body hair, etc., to minimize their masculine appearance. It is possible that this is the practice that Paul is condemning in 1 Cor. (and it is certainly one part of what is in view in Rom. as we will see in a future post), but the problem is that if μαλακοι refers primarily to these “effeminized males” then Paul would seem to be blaming the victims in saying that they will not enter the Reign of God.
Another possibility, which I think more likely in 1 Cor. 6, is that the “soft ones” are male prostitutes which we know existed in the 1st C. Greco-Roman world. Especially common were male temple prostitutes and we have evidence that there were some at the temple in Corinth. If this is the reference for μαλακοι, then Paul is condemning male prostitution, especially temple prostitution, which, we have seen earlier in this series, was a major factor behind the condemnation of male on male sex acts in Leviticus.
The term used in 1 Timothy is άρσενοκοίταις (“arsenokoitais”) which appears only here. It appears to have been a word that the Pauline disciple who wrote 1 Timothy (or Paul, himself, if Paul is the author) made up to describe a practice that he found repugnant but had no ready word for. It combines the terms for “male” and “bed.” The reference is clearly sexual, coming directly in the vice list after πόρνοις (“pornois”), “sexually immoral ones.” Robin Scroggs, again, argues that this probably refers to those men who used the male prostitutes’ services and/or to those male child abusers who effeminized and forced themselves on their young protoges.
If this is accurate, then these two verses are condemning not just ANY FORM of male-to-male sex, but a very exploitive (and even idolatrous in the case of temple prostitution) form. The contemporary equivalent would not be gay couples in longterm relationships trying to get permission to be married, but the horrible “Man-Boy Love Association” which is condemned even by most gay activists and which argues that it should be legally and morally okay for middle aged or older men to have sex with teen and pre-teen boys! I condemn the Man-Boy Love Association and would do so even without specific guidance from these Pauline verses because such relationships are clearly harmful and exploitive. As we have seen throughout this series, exploitive sex is alway, ALWAYS wrong. (This is why I am glad that Kentucky has become one of the first U.S. states to make marital rape illegal, even though the very CONCEPT of marital rape was unknown until the recent past. For most of history and most cultures throughout history, men were considered to own their wives and wives had no right to ever say “no” to husbands when the latter wanted sex.)
Would Paul (and the Pauline author of 1 Timothy) also have condemned non-exploitive same-sex relationships? Those, like myself, who argue for revising traditional church teaching and welcoming and affirming gay & lesbian Christians in our churches argue that we do not know the answer to this because Paul does not address the questions being asked today. He had no knowledge of non-exploitive same-sex relationships analogous to heterosexual marriage. Traditionalists argue that Paul also condemned even loving same-sex acts and relationships among equals. But traditionalists do not have much to work with in these two brief references. They rest almost their entire case on Romans 1: 24-27. It is to that passage that we shall turn in the next installment in this series. Stay tuned.
Dr. Joe Cathey, an Alttestamentler (Old Testament or Hebrew Bible scholar) and blogger, wants to debate/discuss Christian pacifism with me on his blog. I’m more than game and may want to lay out a positive case here while responding to his posts over there. Before doing that, however, I thought I would give an example of my approach to biblical texts on this subject. Here is a (very brief and lay-oriented) article I once wrote on violence and nonviolence in the Book of Revelation. Enjoy or hate, but discuss!War of the Lamb: Violence and Nonviolence in the Book of Revelation
by Michael L. Westmoreland-White
[First published in the November-December 2005 issue of The Baptist Peacemaker.]
The Revelation to John at Patmos, like most examples of apocalyptic writing, is filled with violent imagery. “Apocalypse,” means “unveiling,” and apocalyptic writing “unveils” a global conflict between Good and Evil in cosmic terms, a ‘war to end all wars’ between God and the powers of Light and Satan and the Powers of Evil. Unlike prophetic eschatology, apocalyptic writing seldom mentions judgment on the supposedly righteous community(ies) and doesn’t deal with ambiguity or humility.For these reasons and others it is hardly surprising that those Christian groups which are most obsessed with studying the details of the Book of Revelation are usually also the most militant: They draw strong lines between the “lost” and the “saved,” and they look forward almost in glee to the way that the forces of evil will “get theirs” when God brings cosmic revenge upon them. Most of these groups also justify Christian participation in military violence. The best-selling “Left Behind” novels portray Christians (those converted after the pre-millennial “rapture” has removed most of the Church from the scene) forming holy death squads and raids on the enemy. Many sermons from popular TV evangelists from this school are hardly more restrained.
So, it probably isn’t a surprise that Revelation is fairly unpopular in Christian peacemaking circles. Reversing Ernst Käsemann’s dictum (which controlled New Testament scholarship for two generations) that apocalyptic was the underlying substructure that birthed both the New Testament and early Christian theology, some recent researchers into the “historical Jesus” have argued that Jesus was a non-apocalyptic figure who did not expect an imminent end of the world. Passages such as Mark 13 are seen by these scholars as coming later than Jesus and being read back onto him. (My own view is that Jesus’ eschatology was both prophetic and interacted with the popular apocalypticism of his day, reforming rather than rejecting that genre. But that is an argument for another time.) Sermons in progressive or peace-oriented churches seldom come from Revelation.
This strikes me as understandable-but-mistaken. It allows a very thorough misreading of the Revelation to continue to dominate popular Christian thought. In the Revelation to John, the followers of the Beasts and the Dragon do violence, but the followers of the Lamb do not. Instead, a central theme throughout the book is that the followers of the Lamb do the deeds that Jesus taught (Rev. 2:2, 19, 23, 26; 3:8, 10; 9:20-21; 12:17; 14:4, 12; 16;11; 19:8, 10; 20:4, 12-13; 22:11). In fact, the Revelation gives Christians clear teaching against doing violence, “Whoever takes the sword to kill, by the sword he is bound to be killed” (Rev. 13:10 NEB, echoing Jesus’ in Matthew 26:52). The verse then gives a call for endurance and faith.Richard Bauckham, a perceptive student of apocalyptic writing in general and Revelation in particular, observes:
No doubt in the Jewish circles with which John and his churches had contact . . . ideas of eschatological holy war against Rome, such as the Qumran community had entertained and the Zealots espoused, were well known. . . . Therefore, instead of simply repudiating apocalyptic militancy, [John of Patmos] reinterprets it in a Christian sense, taking up its reading of Old Testament prophecy into a specifically Christian reading of the Old Testament. He [John the Revelator] aims to show that the decisive battle in God’s eschatological holy war against evil, including the power of Rome, has already been won–by the faithful witness and sacrificial death of Jesus. Christians are called to participate in his war and his victory–but by the same means as he employed: bearing the witness of Jesus to the point of martyrdom. (Bauckham, The Bible in Politics [Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989], pp.233ff.)
G. B. Caird, an Anglican New Testament scholar and pacifist of a generation ago, is also helpful:
Throughout the welter of Old Testament images in the chapters that follow, almost without exception the only title for Christ is the Lamb, and this title is meant to control and interpret all the rest of the symbolism. It is almost as if John were saying to us at one point after another, “Wherever the Old Testament says, ‘Lion,’ read ‘Lamb.’” Wherever the Old Testament speaks of the victory of the Messiah or the overthrow of the enemies of God, we are to remember that the gospel recognizes no other way of achieving these ends than the way of the Cross. (Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation to St. John the Divine [Harper & Row, 1966], pp. 74ff. Emphasis in original.)
To be continued.
But wait, don’t the Christian martyrs in Revelation ask God for vengeance? Yes, in 6:10, they cry out, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” Such feelings are natural even among those committed to nonviolence. But the martyrs are not answered in a way that would encourage continuing their vengeful fantasies (or those of John’s readers who may take up the martyrs’ cry). They are “each given a white robe [symbolizing innocence] and told to rest a little longer.” They are not given “garments rolled in blood” as warriors. Further, when the Rider on the White Horse (Christ) goes into battle with the “kings of the earth,” he slays them with the “sword of his mouth” which is specifically called the Word of God. (Rev. 19) That is, the only sword with which the risen Christ is armed is the prophetic word of the Good News and he “conquers” by means of evangelism!
(U.S. Christians also fail to notice that the “kings of the earth,” the political Powers and Authorities, are arrayed against Christ. There is no description of an exception, a “Christian nation.”)
In this John of Patmos affirms that Jesus stands in continuity with the Torah and the Prophets, understood not in Zealot/Revolutionary fashion, but interpreted nonviolently as Jesus (following Isaiah) did. The two witnesses of Rev. 11:5 are the prophets Moses and Elijah. The Hebrew Scriptures describe Moses beginning his liberating career as a murderer of an abusive Egyptian guard, but, although Israel encounters armies and responds with violence during Moses’ career, his role in God’s exodus liberation is portrayed as prophetic–as testifying to the power of God and not human arms. Likewise, the prophet Elijah had not learned nonviolence, but had the priests of Baal put to the sword. But in Revelation these two witnesses to God, standing for the Torah and the Prophets, slay with fire that comes from their mouths, that is, with prophetic word, not physical violence.
The theme of the prophetic word as fire or sword is woven throughout Revelation (1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21) and builds on similar themes in Isaiah 11:4, Jeremiah 5:14, and the non-canonical Jewish writing 4 Ezra 13:25-39. 4 Ezra was an apocalyptic book in circulation during John’s day with which his readers were probably very familiar. Lest anyone miss the point, thinking that the fire/sword is inflammatory speech that could lead to physical violence, chapter 21 shows the same “kings of the earth” (previously slain by the sword of the mouth of the Rider on the White Horse, called Faithful and True, and specifically named as the Word of God) “bringing their glory” with them into the heavenly City. That is, evangelism backed up by Christian faithfulness may convert all cultures. The best of all cultures, now redeemed and transformed into respective “glory,” will become part of the eschatological joy.
The destructive Lake of Fire is reserved for “the Dragon and his angels,” not for humans, not even the “kings of the earth.”As Caird says again, “The Old Testament leads John to expect a Messiah who will be a lion of Judah [i.e., a Davidic military ruler, MLW-W], but the facts of the gospel present him with a lamb bearing the marks of slaughter (5:5-6). The Old Testament predicts the smashing of the nations with an iron bar, but the only weapon the Lamb wields is his own cross and the martyrdom of his followers (2:27; 12:5; 19:15)” (Caird, p. 293, cf., pp. 243-245). I would add to Caird’s insights that this conquering by Word and martyrdom is also attested in the Hebrew Scriptures. John of Patmos, like Jesus before him, does not reject the Hebrew Scriptures, but reads them selectively, with a different interpretive grid than that of Essenes, the Pharisees, the social bandits of popular messianic movements, or the revolutionary Zealots whose actions led to the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and of Israel as a political entity in 144 C.E.
It seems to me as if Christian proponents of gospel nonviolence must cautiously re-embrace Revelation and the language of apocalyptic, instead of simply leaving them to the war-mongering fanatics. Nonviolent ministers must do the hard work of preaching from Revelation, because only by teaching our people to read this book as a handbook of nonviolent patience for persecuted churches can we inoculate them against the virulent war-mad interpretations so popular in many U.S. Christian circles. Why do so many resist reading Revelation in a nonviolent perspective? I have come to suspect that many of us Christians are embarrassed by the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels. So, we invent theologies in which the “real” Christ who is Coming is a Warrior-King and invent atonement theories which both make God violent and justify Jesus’ nonviolence as a necessary detour—not as the Way in which God is to be followed. (It is very possible to affirm the atoning work of Christ in a way which supports nonviolence, but that is a topic for another time.) But Revelation insists that the Christ who Comes in Glory will be the same Lamb of God we met in Jesus of Nazareth. There is no other Savior, no other Way.
Some would say that the way out of religiously-motivated holy wars and violence is to excise all military and violent images from our language, even our religious language and our hymns. I respect their motives, but I dissent. Following the example of Jesus, Paul, and even John of Patmos, I encourage rather the reinterpretation of military imagery for nonviolent purposes, subverting the standard uses of violent imagery and war language. This was also the pattern of the first generation of the Friends/Quaker movement, who did not hesitate to say that their “Publishers of Truth” were fighting “the Lamb’s War” by nonviolent means.
In a separate post, I will list good commentaries on Revelation that could help preachers and adult Sunday School classes see the book differently than the “Left Behind” militarism of popular culture.