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Christianity and War: Old Testament

This is the second article in a series on Christianity and War. If you missed the first one, you can find it here. This article is split into two sections: the first discusses how I read the Bible and the second attempts to make a constructive argument for pacifism through that lens.

  1. Taking the Whole Bible Seriously

Anyone who calls him/herself a pacifist has the whole nagging problem of, you know, tons of war and violence supposedly sanctioned by God all throughout the Old Testament. Many pacifists (as well as other –ists) are apt to discard the parts of the Bible that don’t align with their sensibilities – I think this is a great danger. I’ll be the first to admit that drudging through chapter after chapter of violent warfare in Joshua, Numbers, Judges, etc. doesn’t sit with me well. But I don’t think the answer is to ignore these occurrences. If we only pay attention to the parts of the Bible that we like, we’re not serving God, we’re just serving our own egos. if we are serious about being Biblically-based Christians, we have to consider the whole thing and ask what story it tells.

Origen of Alexandria, an early Christian theologian, believed that if we found a passage obscure or difficult, that was a sign that the Spirit was telling us to pay special attention to it. We are not meant to discard or ignore these passages, but to pay more attention to them. He also believed that we should look to clearer, more direct passages to understand these obscure passages – the best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture. If we want to be true students of the Word, we have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. God is too great to be contained in our limited, human minds – and attempting to figure out the way God works can be disorienting.

We have to understand that the Bible is ‘multivocal’, meaning that there are a lot of voices in it that seem to say a lot of different (sometimes contradictory) things. This is why snippets of scripture have been used to justify almost anything. The quest of the faithful Christian should not be to find a verse here or there that reinforces the way they already think, but to take the entirety of the world of the Bible seriously and to ask where we fit in this world.

          2. Prophecy Fulfilled

Keeping all of this in mind, I have to say that it would feel dishonest/hopeful of me to claim that God has always unequivocally declared war wrong. I can’t just ignore the narrative of Sampson, in which the Spirit descended upon Sampson and enabled him to kill the Philistines. I can’t just put away the stories of the Exodus and the loss of first-born sons. But amidst the cacophony of voices that spring out of the pages of the Hebrew scriptures, there are stories of war and songs of condemnation alongside prophecies of praise and promise. These prophecies speak of a coming prince of peace and a day when nations will study war no more.

St. Justin was a pacifist and a martyr in the early church. When accused of impropriety and unwillingness to worship the Roman gods, he was given a national podium on which to make his defense. He used this opportunity to explain that the prophecy spoken of in Isaiah 2:2-4 and Micah 4:1-3 (the longest verbatim parallel in the Bible) had been fulfilled. And the proof that the Lord had come was that “we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.” (The First Apology of Justin, Chap. XXXIX) In other words, he argued that we know Jesus was the Messiah because his followers have laid down their swords and would rather die than lie.

I cannot answer why violence is ubiquitous throughout the Old Testament (and certainly not absent from the New Testament), but I also think St. Justin was on to something. As one friend has said, “religion isn’t as good at the ‘why’ as it is at the ‘what now.'” If we believe Jesus was this Prince of Peace the Hebrew scriptures pointed to, then we are the inheritors of a vibrantly non-violent faith. And that means the ‘what now’ is that we, who were brought up in a culture of violence, no longer look to harm our enemies. Instead, we confess Christ.

God’s peace,

Brandon Miller

 

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Brandon Miller

Brandon Miller is currently a student at Duke Divinity School and a candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church. He and his wife Meredith live in Durham, North Carolina

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