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The Divine Wrath of Pacifism

July 29, 2013
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Not too long ago I wrote a rather long series of articles on just war and pacifism. I concluded by trying my best to annoy all constituencies by deciding that while the New Testament seemed not to ban things like serving as a professional soldier it also marked a clear trend towards pacifism as the properly holy way of life. Soon after ending this series I was asked what I did about the extremely violent saviors of Israel in the book of Judges.

Really this is merely a variant of a larger question: what do we do with the violence of the Old Testament? This is in part a stupid question: the Old Testament is quite large and while Joshua involves the annihilation of entire towns and Judges involves the story of Ehud plunging a sword into a fat Moabite king and then gathering Israel to slaughter the Moabites other parts of the Old Testament are either devoid of violence or devoid of any sanctioned violence. Meanwhile, the New Testament includes Revelation which is decidedly violent. Still, there is a general sense in which the Old Testament involves a lot more smiting while the New Testament involves a lot more extending the hand of peace (even if Jesus is sometimes threatening smiting as the other option).

This is a giant topic and I don’t intend to spend a huge amount of time on it. However, here are some perfunctory thoughts.

First, the New Testament figures do not seem to be bothered by this shift. At least, the more pacifist New Testament figures do not seem bothered by this shift although the more violent Jewish groups do seem to find Jesus troublesomely passive. In our world it is normally the peaceful who are bothered by war and not the war-mongers who are bothered by the peaceful and so it’s worth asking why Paul can laud some of the judges as men of God while saying that we should overcome evil with good or how Jesus can attach the Sermon on the Mount to the God Who ordered the complete destruction of entire Canaanite populations. This suggests that there is some worldview in which this question about what we do with the Old Testament simply isn’t troublesome. My suspicion is that this is not some simplistic worldview (“Well, if God gives entirely new marching orders whatever, just fall in line”) but rather a view of the world that relies on really reimagining war and peace.

The brings me to the second thought. I don’t know that this thought goes far enough or even goes in the right direction but I believe it is worth talking about: perhaps Jesus is not less violent but just has better targeting.

When Ehud stabs the king of Moab to death he takes out a direct threat to God’s people. The Moabite king is a tyrant who has grown fat off of Israel’s labor. Israel will be better in every sense without him. However, after Ehud dies the cycle of political strife rolls on and a faithless Israel is oppressed again by its enemies. Deborah breaks the power of Jabin, king of Canaan, but the Midianites follow (to be shaken off in a bloody spasm by Gideon), Gideon’s own son troubles Israel, and the Philistines follow that (and remain major opponents of Israel into David’s time). This isn’t a result of Ehud’s failure to stab Eglon King of Moab hard enough. Ehud could have stabbed Eglon, all of Eglon’s courtiers, the kings of all the scattered Canaanite city-states, the Five Cities of the Philistines, and the rulers of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon for good measure and yet evil would have returned to Israel.

The central problem here is that Eglon, Sisera, Hadad, Nebuchadnezzar, and all the enemies arrayed against God’s people were always nothing but slaves. When Jesus leads us away from the path of the bloody sword it is not because Jesus is making nice with the forces of darkness. Instead, Jesus has the power to not merely kill the slaves of evil but to strike at that evil itself and free those trapped by it.

There is surely a sense in which Jesus represents a different course than that of much of the Old Testament. However, there is also a sense in which Jesus represents not a reversal of the Old Testament’s violence but a culmination of it. David killed his thousands but Jesus killed death itself. There’s a straight line between Joshua and his better namesake. We often see that Jewish Messianic expectations at the time of Jesus were too small, too limited – a new Temple was expected, an entire new way to enter into God’s presence was what appeared. I am simply proposing that this is in some way also true of expectations for a militant Messiah.

So what, then, of Jesus’ pacifism or near pacifism? If Jesus is actually the conquering hero the crowds thought they didn’t see in him why all this “turn the other cheek” stuff? Again, I propose that Jesus is engaging in a more serious war. Jesus’ switch from physical warfare to spiritual warfare isn’t a mere switch but an escalation. Fighting the former war may actually hinder the current effort. Ephesians 6:12 uses language like this when it states that our conflict is not against flesh and blood (humans) but against the panoply of spiritual adversaries. When I wrote about pacifism and just war I asked why Paul and other New Testament authors don’t avoid military language and cited this passage as an example. But, of course, if Paul sees military conflict as a pale imitation of the real war to be fought he would not have a pacifist’s distaste for such metaphors.

Much of this is an argument about how we think: if we thought of Jesus as continuing (and finishing) a conflict that runs throughout the Bible in a different but more effective way would we see such a disconnect between the Old and New Testaments? However, this mode of thought also lets us think more clearly about our own decisions. Do we fight against evil or people who have fallen under its sway and could be freed? Do we see those who oppose us as implacable foes of God or as conscripts of darker forces who might rather not be at war with us? I think most of us would agree that if we were attacked by a man who was being mind-controlled by another person that we would rather avoid having to kill the man who was being mind-controlled. Could this idea be extended to all who fall under the devil’s sway?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 29, 2013 9:21 am

    I think that dichotomy of “implacable foes of God” and “people who have fallen under [evil’s] sway” underlies a lot of the political differences that relate to violence. It’s unfortunately either not apparent, or not engaged because it’s seen as a minor side issue.

    For example, the extreme side of non-pacifism (i.e., “shoot/bomb-them-before-they-get-you” arguments) tend to have a sort of predestination about them (i.e., you’re either a Good or Bad Guy, which sometimes has nothing to do with your history of behavior, and no one changes sides or lives on the fence). But if you ask a Christian who holds to this about their views on salvation, you might get a different picture of human morality.

    (I’m sure you can find similar cases on the side of pacifism, but I lean a little closer to pacifism myself, so it’s a blind spot for me.)

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