Handling warlike texts in a peacemaking church

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
21 Jul 2009

Readings: Deuteronomy 20.10-19; Joshua 6.1-7; Ephesians 2.13-22

Enter any public debate about the pros and cons of religion today, and it will not be long before someone raises the thorny issue of ‘texts of terror’ in the Hebrew scriptures, the Qur’an, or even the Christian testament (think of the grimmer portions of the Book of Revelation).

Those who use warlike texts to attack a particular religion from the outside and those who use them from the inside to justify acts of violence through alleged divine sanction usually have one thing in common: they deploy their chosen verses without any serious attention to the historical or literary (let alone spiritual or theological) context in which they arose and that in which they now need to be understood. This is as true of Dawkins, Hitchens and the so-called ‘New Atheists’ as it is of Al Qaeda, revanchist Zionism and the apocalyptic denizens of American Christian fundamentalism.

To rip ‘texts of terror’ from the rich and challenging seam of scripture as whole (and from their interpretation in the lives of an enquiring and faithful community) is to show both ignorance and disrespect for the biblical tradition. But we are equally culpable if we simply try to ignore the genuine problems that come to us in the Bible – to pretend that the history of war and merciless brutality in the name of God does not exist or can easily be ‘trumped’ by something nicer and more serviceable to modern tastes in our Christian imagining.

Yet that latter attitude is, it appears, the majority one among contemporary Christians, by default if not design. We close our eyes or ears to what is uncomfortable. We hear stories about awful deaths willed by God and still chant ‘This is the Word of The Lord’ afterwards, apparently without too much trouble. Maybe we keep our doubts to ourselves. Or perhaps we maintain an artificial division whereby modern stories of violent jihad are examples of barbarism, whereas previous ones contain ‘spiritual lessons or allegories’ as someone put it to me recently. (How would that one work at the funeral of a Hittite, an Amorite, a Canaanite, a Perizzite, a Hivite or a Jebusite, I wonder?)

In an age when civic Christianity (the polite ‘C of E version’ that even the Free Churches were expected to practise!) held sway in society at large, such evasion was possible. ‘Everyday Christians’ could leave these problems to ‘the experts’. After all, issues about the ethics of war and peace are not central to what Christian faith has to say about salvation for ‘ordinary believers’, it was popularly maintained. These topics were therefore the preserve of specialists and those ‘interested in that kind of thing’.

That approach has now been blown apart – if you’ll forgive that metaphor – by two things. First, the demise of the kind of majority Christian civic order implied in this account. We are now moving into post-Christendom: a new era where Christian faith can still be very much alive (if Christians are lively, that is!), but where historic Christian assumptions and institutions are no longer in control and can no longer demand some automatic right to be taken as ‘the norm’. Instead, Christians have to face the challenge of other religious traditions and of those who argue that all faith is childish, morally thin or even dangerous. Second, in a post-9/11 world, the association of faith with a generally benign state of affairs in the world has been deeply ruptured. Belief is on trial and its foundational texts are among the key witnesses for both the prosecution and the defence.

That is true even of what appear to be charming Sunday School stories about heroes like Sampson, who still stars in thousands of kids’ Christian comics. But hold on: a man who out of religious duty vindicates his faith and his people by demolishing twin towers resulting in the deaths of 3,000 people? Where have we heard that one recently? Likewise the Walls of Jericho fable (long a target for weak jokes about ice-cream manufacturers in the Bible) turns out to be more than a nice story about trumpets trumping armies. It ends in an act of blatant genocide – the ‘righteous’ slaughter of every man woman and child in the city, one traitor and her family apart. Likewise, Deuteronomy chapter 20 specifies the mass murder of Yahweh’s male enemies, wholesale plundering and the enslavement of all their dependents – sparing only some fruit-bearing trees. An ecological benefit, but a strange mercy in the circumstances, you might think.

(There is an added irony here, because the Jericho story is both part of a journey of liberation from captivity for the wandering Israelites, but also death and enslavement for others. In modern times it is located in the occupied West Bank of Palestine, where the cycles of revenge continue.)

Indeed, in what we call the Old Testament there are some seventy different acts of genocide which, according to the authors of the texts, are directly approved or willed by God. It is difficult but to conclude either that something must ‘give’ in our inherited understanding of the nature of these biblical stories as Christians and Jews, or that our God is in fact a mass killer. Saying that anything God chooses to do becomes right makes nonsense of any traditional attempt at morality. So what are we to do? I began by pointing out that tearing these narratives of destruction from their context is illegitimate. But what context could possibly reclaim, re-interpret or redeem their horror?

The beginning of an answer is in the Letter to the Ephesians. What marks out the Christian community is its vocation to be ‘a holy nation’, unlike all the other nations and religions with their standing armies and hierarchies. Moreover (and this is crucial) it is the self-sacrificial blood of the Innocent One – not the slaughter of the innocents (or the guilty, for that matter) – that lies at the heart of a radical re-visioning of who God is, who we are and what God’s true purposes are about. The Body of Christ is about absorbing rather than inflicting suffering so that the grounds of enmity and division between human beings can be healed and overcome.

This is what atonement, at-one-ment, means: not the repetition of murderous sacrifice but, as in the Letter to the Hebrews, its abolition. In Christ, God’s capacity to transform us and to deliver us from evil is made available through the triumph of love over power, not through propitiation. Violence is faced fully, not bypassed or excused. The ‘substitution’ of which traditional atonement language speaks is finally a reversal, not a replacement, for an order of society (and of faith) hitherto based on ‘redemptive violence’.

You have heard it said, Jesus declares, that there can be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This is lex talionis, the law of measured retribution. Its aim is to limit violence through proportionality, not to sanction it per se. The Gospel, the Good News, goes much further, however. Building on the assumption that violence is a bad thing and to be restrained, it carries the Law to its logical conclusion: forgiveness, not vengeance, is Jesus’ message. You have heard it said… “But now I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, pray for those who persecute you.”

In Jesus Christ a whole new order of being is declared. When we are baptised, we ‘get our dying in first’ so that it need have no final power over us. We pass through the waters of death and are raised by the Spirit of life. We are now no longer accountable to death-dealing, but instead we are joined indissolubly to those whose lives are directed by a new community of sisters and brothers. “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.”

It is this new reality and new ecclesiology, not some extra-curricula ‘ethical debate’, that leads many of us, myself included, to the conclusion that, as followers of Christ, we can no longer kill. What possible sense could it make for me to acknowledge the baptised as part of Christ’s body and yet still be prepared to slaughter them if a state, political cause or ruler commanded it? If we are in Christ we cannot be Christ-killers. [1] Likewise, if I am bound to love my neighbour as myself, as someone redeemed in Christ, I cannot kill that neighbour (of whatever persuasion) without making a nonsense of the truth that, regarding those inside and outside the historic community of faith, Christ “has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility between them.”

The church is called to be a community of costly peacemaking rather than war-justification because of who it worships and the One to whom it witnesses, not because of any temporal arguments about the efficacy of pacifism or ‘just war’ theory. It is, or should be, theology that decides us, not politics or ethics – and certainly not the ethics of Caesar. The suffering, sin and state execution absorbed by Christ on the cross is nullified not by a force of more efficient death-dealing, but by the ‘revenge’ of the resurrection – the gift of life that, being God’s, is beyond our life, our death and any other power we can possibly envisage (as the Epistle to the Romans puts it). If we truly believe this, we will abandon the way of death, and undertake within Christ’s body to learn how not to be killers, seeking instead to repay evil with good.

This is an immense and difficult challenge. Impossible, in our own strength, in fact. Meanwhile, the ruling authorities of this world seek to restrain evil with evil. There is a realism about this in the New Testament. Some evils are greater than others, and those to whom the God of Jesus Christ remains a stranger or an oddity have no reason to do other than to defend or assert themselves by force of arms. But when we are in Christ, we are meant to be a new creation. The ground-rules for the church are therefore very different to those of the state. Yet this truth has often been lost in the ecclesiology of a church accommodated to ‘the powers that be’ rather than conformed to the difficult peace of Christ. We put on the armour of truth, peace, righteousness, forgiveness, grace and love. In worldly terms this makes us pretty vulnerable, to say the least. But then, it is not ourselves upon whom we finally rely, but God.

This, curiously enough, links us back to those texts of terror in the Old Testament. First, if what I am suggesting about the pattern of the Gospel is true, we are invited to re-read Joshua, Judges, Deuteronomy (and much more) not on their own terms alone, but out of what we know and are given in Christ, in the continuing history of God’s re-deeming of people and their (our) understanding. It is the Gospels and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that is the ‘hermeneutical key’, the interpretative lens, that we need. Without these, or something very like them, there is going to be (as in the ongoing story of religiously-sanctioned violence in our world) hell to pay.

In his book Yahweh is a Warrior, Mennonite peace church scholar Millard Lind [2] begins to show us what a different take on the Holy War tradition of the Hebrews might look like. He is not the only scholar to do this, and his readings are not uncontested, but the overall trajectory he suggests is solidly grounded in textual and narrative analysis.

Lind demonstrates how the disturbing violent episodes we are considering are themselves re-narrated in scripture as the story about how God seeks to wean his people off violence, starting from a position where it is virtually inconceivable to them that anything but the preservation of their purity through the redemption of war is possible. They are told not to kill. But this does not quite work. After all, formal war isn’t killing, is it? Well, it is actually, but they (we) are slow to learn, so the law of equal (not excessive) retribution is given. An eye for an eye, not a hundred eyes for an eye. Then, as in Deuteronomy, certain peace codes and restraints are built in to the Holy War ethic. Even more importantly, as in the Jericho narrative, the people learn to fight from a position of military inferiority.

Later, they are commanded to be outnumbered, so that they shall not boast of their own strength. They are taught not to trust in swords or chariots; not to be like the imperial, kingly nations. Eventually their feeble understanding grows to the point where they begin to understand that God’s purposes are achieved “not by power, not by might, but by my Spirit, says the Lord”. [3]

Finally, in Christ, the reversal is completed. God does not inflict or justify violence; God absorbs, transforms and terminates it. Even in the Book of Revelation, which is in part the revenge fantasy of a people haunted by persecution, and in part a vision of final salvation for all who resist injustice, the moral and theological heart of the story is that it is the Lamb who was slain (not the slayers of lambs), who sits on the throne.

In the final analysis, the Gospel and the Epistle to the Ephesians tell us, God’s ‘holy nation’ is not an ethnically limited and pure group of people defended and extended by force of arms and the annihilation of all that threatens it. Instead it is a vulnerable company of people from all nations and all backgrounds who have discovered that God is truly and decisively met in a wounded healer. The warrior is trapped by his or her weapons, living and dying by the sword. But Jesus Christ, in his final injunction to his followers before he faces his fate, tells Peter to put away his sword. It is now officially redundant. It can neither thwart nor express the will of God, and in reality it is a counter-witness to who Christ is about to be revealed to be: God’s unarmed and undefeatable Word made Flesh.

Notes

[1] In anti-semitic interpretation, the Jews have been accused of being Christ-killers. In fact it was a whole nexus of political and religious forces that ended up crucifying Christ. But only Christians continue to kill Christ when they take the life of fellow believers baptised into him. This is an issue of massive importance for understanding what the church is and how it is called to behave to those inside and out, yet it is largely overlooked in official thinking on ecclesiology.

[2] Yahweh is a Warrior by Millard Lind is available through Ekklesia's online book service with Metanoia, here: http://books.ekklesia.co.uk/product_info.php?products_id=906 A different but complementary perspective is offered by by Walter Brueggemann in Divine Presence amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua - http://books.ekklesia.co.uk/product_info.php?products_id=2409

[3] This article is adapted from a sermon at the United Church (Methodist and United Reformed) in Crowborough, Sussex, on 19 July 2009, as part of a series about Old Testament faith: http://www.unitedchurch.org.uk/?p=198

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change (2008), is published by Shoving Leopard. His forthcoming book, Threatened With Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ, will be published soon. Simon co-edited a book on violence and atonement in 2005 - Consuming Passion: Why the killing of Jesus really matters (Darton, Longman and Todd).

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