Quaker Theology - Issue #4 - Spring 2001

The Bible & Peacemaking -- A Response by Chuck Fager

Are there other ways of looking at the Bible and what it may have to teach us about Peacemaking? In particular, are there other ways to take the Bible seriously, on this topic?

Ron Mock invites his readers to develop alternative approaches, and here I’ll attempt to sketch one. Following Ron’s example, let me begin with some of my assumptions:

First Assumption: The Bible is not one document, and its "teachings" do not cohere. Not for me anyway. I respect Ron’s legal casebook framework, and find that it does fit some of these texts; but not all, and not overall. Or to put my assumption more positively: the Bible is a collection of highly diverse documents, which include many various and often enough conflicting assertions; whether and which of these can reliably be called "teachings" is a very challenging point in itself, which we’ll touch on only tentatively.

This confusing diversity starts with the canon itself. The Protestant Bibles on my shelf contain 66 books; the Catholic Bibles have 76, more or less; and there are other venerable variants. Which is the "right" one? I haven’t found a way to avoid this variety, either within the canon or in terms of what makes up the canon itself

Next, to "teachings." Scholars and theologians have been attempting to make the hundreds of Biblical statutes, commandments, prohibitions, and advices fit into consistent and concise interpretive schemas for two-plus millennia. That work has certainly not been fruitless; but if my studies suggest anything, it is that this process is far from complete, and its results hardly a matter of common agreement, even within most well-defined church communities, never mind among the various Christian and Jewish (Muslim too?) streams.

Again, I respect Ron’s effort to identify grand themes in the Bible–but again, for every such theme, there are one or more counter themes prominent in these texts, and they don’t all fit together, neatly or otherwise.

Second assumption: The question of what "authority" the Bible is to have over those who take it seriously is a difficult one, and clear answers are hard to pin down. This issue becomes particularly problematic when attempting to move from theory to application. If we find some specific "teaching" obsolete–say, the commandment to avoid any clothing made of more than one kind of fiber (Deuteronomy 22:11) are we still obliged to presume that the underlying motivation for this rule is one we need to follow?

I wonder. That the underlying rationale, if it can be discerned, is worth understanding most Bible buffs will acknowledge. But beyond that, what force to give it is not so clear.

This uncertainty comes strongly to the fore in the matter of war and peacemaking. Ron Mock writes that, "If. . .we pick and choose what seems comfortable to us, we are not asking what the Bible teaches, but rather ‘what am I willing to be taught?’ This often mutates into "Where does the Bible agree with the opinions I had before I consulted it?’"

I agree with this view. However, most Christian pacifist Bible studies I have seen involve applying an interpretive frame to the Bible that does a lot of picking and choosing, leaving out, ignoring or explaining away a great deal of material that can hardly be considered marginal, and which wreaks havoc with an edifice of grand themes.

The list of these texts is very long: The proud pronouncement that "The Lord is a warrior!" (Exodus 15:3) is but the beginning. It continues through the condemnation of those who, like Saul, fail to fully carry out the genocide commanded by God against various peoples designated as God’s enemies. And so on.

One response to these troublesome texts is to shift emphasis to the Christian scriptures, the "New" Testament, where all that bad stuff is presumably put on the shelf. "That was then," is what this approach comes down to, "and Christianity is beyond that now."

Except it’s not. Military images are common in these New Testament texts, imperial troops are approved of, and Paul even describes preparation for the Christian path in terms of putting on a soldier’s equipage: "the full armor" of 1 Corinthians 1:22-24. As more than one non-pacifist theologian has pointed out, it doesn’t seem likely that Paul would have urged Christians to visualize their duties in terms of a profession that was itself anti-Christian. And then, who can forget Armageddon in Revelation? (Rev. 19:11: "In righteousness He [God] judges and makes war. . . .")

True, we also hear Jesus say, "Love your enemies,"and "resist not evil" in these pages as well. Yes, a pacifist strand is surely there. But it is also in the "Old" Testament: the "Prince of Peace" comes from there, as does that favorite Quaker image of the Peaceable Kingdom (Isaiah again, 6 and 9); not to mention the whole motif of "shalom."

But if we resist the temptation to pick and choose among texts about war and peace, what do we get?

In my reading, a collection that is highly ambivalent, to say the least. What to do with it all?

Ron Mock advises, and again I agree, that "if we keep the awkward parts, and give them authority over us, forcing ourselves to remain in dialog with them – then we give the Bible its full power to change us in ways we could not have anticipated." But if there was such engagement with the Biblical war texts and teachings here, I was unable to find it.

For purposes of furthering such a dialog, here is my own third assumption, based on attempts to follow this counsel:

Ambiguity and paradox are part and parcel of what the Bible has to teach, on peacemaking as much as everything else.

Is this a way to dismiss or diminish the Bible and its potential–to reduce it to mere "literature"? Not in my experience.

For one thing, this assumption fits a great deal of what I find in the Biblical texts: for instance, fierce and unfinished debates between various figures within it: the Preacher of Ecclesiastes trashing the optimism of Proverbs, for example; the canonical prophets ripping into the priests, or their tame courtly competitors; and Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount, taking on, not what Mock calls "the wisdom of the world," but pieces of his own sacred tradition: "You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye’. . .but I say to you. . ." (Matthew 5:38ff) Not to mention those perennial favorites, Jonah and Job.

Being a Christian of my own Quaker sort, I have no problem putting Jesus at the center of this ongoing series of debates; but doing so has not enabled me to conclude that these Biblical ambiguities and paradoxes have been thereby resolved.

Indeed, one of the corollaries of my third assumption is that even within the Bible itself, a refusal of sacred authority, even rebellion against it, can be a faithful response. After all, when God speaks at the end of the book of Job, who is it that receives the divine commendation? Not the gabby quartet of "comforters" who rationalized the pointless suffering inflicted on him, but Job, who had raged at God and never stopped demanding an explanation, even knowing that he wouldn’t get one. (Job 42:7) The "authority" of the Bible, then, falls surprisingly often on the rebel and the resister, not the obedient one.

Job’s experience, and that of others, also leads me to a different set of inferences about God that those Ron Mock presented, based on my study of the Bible. Consider four contrasts:

1. Omnipotence: I’ll simply nod to this one, noting that this idea presents big problems juxtaposed to the second, that God is love. This conundrum continues to bedevil scholars and theologians, especially those who attempt to read these texts with open eyes.

2. God is love: In theory, perhaps; anyway we hope so. But the Biblical God often has a mighty odd way of showing it; ask the Amalekites. Or Isaiah, to whom Yahweh declares: "I am the Lord, and there is no other. . . . I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all these things." (Isaiah 45:5-7)

3. God is truth: Well, again, we hope so; but this is also the God who admits to putting a "lying spirit," into various figures (1Kings 22:22f; 2 Chronicles 18:21f); and who was accused by Jeremiah, one of his greatest prophets, of deceiving him (Jer. 20:7).

4. God is merciful and just. Sometimes; but like any absolute monarch, the Biblical God’s justice is whatever that God says it is: "I have mercy on those [on] whom I have mercy" (cited by Paul, no less, in Romans 9:15, quoting Exodus 33:19); and many others need not apply

Hear again the complaint of Ecclesiastes, in a contemporary rendering: "Why do people commit crimes so readily? Because crime is not punished quickly enough. A sinner may commit a hundred crimes and still live. Oh yes, I know what they say: ‘If you obey God, everything will be all right, but it will not go well for the wicked. Their life is like a shadow and they will die young, because they do not obey God.’ But this is nonsense. Look at what happens in the world: sometimes righteous men get the punishment of the wicked, and wicked men get the reward of the righteous. I say it is useless." (8:11-14)

In sum, the Divine as I have encountered it (them?) in the Biblical texts is a figure of awe and unpredictability; comforting and preserving sometimes, but not always, and impossible to understand. Isaiah again: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD."(55:8)

I find Ron’s lawyer’s framework appealing in many ways, but rather than seeing God as a faultless lawgiver, my reading of the Bible finds many clues of a Divine hat is more of a great, unsolved Mystery. (Maybe because I’m a mystery writer and investigative reporter?)

Whatever–given these assumptions of mine, is it still possible to discover and sustain a Biblical "teaching" on peace?

I think so, and here’s how:

Rather than seeking a coherent, consistent message or "teaching," I focus on a recurring phenomenon in the Biblical saga, from the Hebrew through the Christian texts, namely that of calling: Repeatedly, a person is summoned by the divine to do something or go somewhere. Abram is called to leave his home and go he knows not where; Jonah is called to Nineveh, and runs away. Jesus is called to the wilderness; and Paul is called by being knocked off his ass.

Sometimes the purpose and destination of these callings is clear to the one called; but often it is not. Moreover, sometimes the calling comes to groups as well as individuals: indeed, what theologians call the "election" of the people Israel can be interpreted as such a collective calling.

These various Biblical callings do not all fit together in the texts; indeed, in practice they sometime come into conflict (think of the prophets taking on the priests and the kings, who all have Divine sanction too). This can be confusing, no question; but for me, this lack of coherence is also something of a relief. That’s because none of the overarching patterns (or doctrinal systems) I’ve come across really succeed in holding all this disparate experience and witness together rationally; so my conclusion is that, while the effort to understand them is still worth making, the ultimate work of fitting all these puzzle pieces together is up to God, not humans.

Biblical peacemaking for me, then becomes a calling, a specific summons issued to individuals and groups. And among the latter, I definitely include the Religious Society of Friends. I believe Quakers have a divine calling to study and live peacemaking, to the best of our all-too fallible ability. As I read Quaker history, this appears to fit the early Friends’ sense of it too. Their "peace principle" was not a formula for preventing or ending wars; nor was it a path to interior or domestic tranquillity, or personal safety in dangerous situations; any of this might happen, but at bottom, peace witness was simply part of the Quaker vocation.

Does this mean others may have a different, non-peaceful calling? Alas, it probably does. Again, early Friends seemed to think so. At one level, this admission sets my teeth on edge, because I’m a liberal universalist, and we like policies to be inclusive and universally applicable, especially when it comes to matters of ethics and practice. And any good liberal would agree that "everybody" ought to be for peace – it just makes sense, and liberals are all for things being sensible and reasonable.

But that’s our liberal problem, which I won’t try to sort out now. Here we’re sticking to the Bible, and to find in these texts a welter of diversity, even clashes of callings is, I think, hardly a novel or unorthodox notion, and one moreover with considerable verisimilitude.

Because of this, however, as Friends pursue our calling to peacemaking, it is quite possible we may find ourselves coming into conflict with others who have different callings; indeed, like Job, we may now and then be obliged to go up against God. After all, in Ecclesiastes we are told (warned?) that there is "a time for war," as well as "a time for peace" (3:8), and from the standpoint of our calling, this forecast seems almost a guarantee that we will sometimes (often?) be shouting our NO! to the heavens as well as to the Powers.

I don’t say this to be pessimistic, or irreverent. Only to suggest that, based on the Bible, the calling to peacemaking is one which can be quite real, but that it is also a commitment which does not bring with it an end to ambiguity or incoherence, in the Bible or in life. We can’t be surprised if we often find ourselves struggling to understand it: sometimes we will be unclear what "peace" means in practice; and even when that seems obvious, we may not always know how to "make" it. In short, it is a calling to be lived and worked out, like our salvation, in "fear and trembling." (Philippians 2:12)

Again, I’m grateful to Ron Mock for presenting us with an appealing approach to the Bible as a legal casebook, even though to me, it is more of a continuing and unsolved Mystery. On both of these counts, however, I’m free to admit that the jury is still out. 

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE:

For this discussion I owe the most to a fine Mennonite scholar, Willard Swartley, and his masterful, but under-appreciated volume, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women, Herald Press, 1983. My views should not be confused with his, however.

Another principal source is Jacques Ellul’s book, Violence: Reflections From a Christian Perspective, Seabury Press, 1969.

As always, my debt to Arthur Waskow’s Godwrestling, Schocken, 1978, is immeasurable.

And I’ll match the mystery that pervades my dog-eared copy of Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper, 1972) against anyone’s lawyering.

              

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