Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (7) on non-violence and Yoder’s sins

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter Six, JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER.

Hauerwas’ critique of Christian just war theory (eg Reinhold Niebhur) is a defining mark of his public persona – even if his work extends far beyond pacifism and just war. Brock elicits some very interesting responses in this chapter, not least on the actual details of what pacifism might look like in practice for a Christian.

But before we get there, what emerges is Hauerwas’ main concern – to attempt to get followers of a crucified Lord who rejected violence to at least have a major ethical and theological problem with going to war.

Christians belong to a different story to that of the modern nation-state. Theirs is a much older and deeper story; the story of God’s redemptive work in the world through his Son. They belong to his ‘peaceable kingdom’ which has arrived with the coming of the King. We live in the overlap of the ages as people of his kingdom and are called to humility, peacemaking, justice and love.

Hauerwas has tough words for American exceptionalism that has led to the hubris of multiple disastrous and unnecessary wars.

Well I think America hasn’t come to terms with being a genocidal nation, in relationship to Native Americans. We don’t tell that as a part of the story. I don’t think we’ve come to terms, still, with being a slave nation. Basically, we’re caught on the presumption that slavery has been defeated by the Civil War and by later developments that challenged segregation. Martin Luther King won. The radical implications of the fact that you are a slave nation and how to make that part of the story is just very difficult in America.  Often I say: if Americans had taken seriously that we were a slave nation, would we be in Iraq and Afghanistan now? The kind of humility that enables the historical acknowledgment that in turn funds a humble posture toward the contemporary world would give you a very different kind of foreign policy than we currently enact. (161)

And later on in a long and detailed discussion he explains his goal this way,

People oftentimes, as I’ve said earlier, ask “What about Hitler? Wouldn’t have you been a soldier in World War II?” I’m sure I would have been. It’s not like the position is saying, “You fought. You didn’t. The one that fought is wrong. The one that didn’t is right.” Those kinds of retrospective judgments do no one any good. The question is not, “Did someone, by being one of Caesar’s Legions become less Christian?” The question is, “What are we to do?” I’m just trying to help us recover why those that fought in Hitler’s Legions might have been better off if Christians had offered them a different life. I’m sure we could have! And what now, do we do, as Christians? I just want Christians to be able to say “no.” They probably won’t do it on just war grounds, but they should be a people who can maintain the kind of critical edge toward the nation- state that helps us keep the war- making potential of those states limited. (174)

I found this helpful. Christian pacifism is a minority pursuit historically. The predictable ‘What about Hitler?’ question is thrown out routinely as an obvious one-line defeater of the impracticability of non-violence. It blithely assumes that there are no other alternatives; it precludes critical analysis of nationalist narratives of war; it stunts the imagination of asking what does it mean to follow Jesus in a violent world; and it all too easily gives a ‘free pass’ to the inevitable unjust practices of war – since pretty well NO war ever matches up to the idealistic and impractical criteria of Christian Just War Theory.

What Hauerwas wants to see is real alternatives on the table for Christians – a bit like the story of Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge I guess.

Brian Brock pushes Hauerwas to spell out what he means in practice it means to be a Christian committed to non-violence. It means a basic unwillingness to kill.

BB I think it will be very helpful to continue to probe a little bit more around the edges of this position. For instance, could a Christian be a law enforcement officer if they had to train on the gun range, shooting at human-shaped targets?

SH:     No.

BB:     So they couldn’t really be trained on guns?

SH:     They couldn’t really be trained on guns. They could be trained on certain kinds of physical response to people threatening violence that would look coercive. A kind of judo? I think that’s pretty interesting; that they learn to use the violence of the attacker against themselves. I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

BB:   And, as you suggest in that passage, a Christian who was a prison warden or a cop and was in a police force where they were trained for choke holds should quit?

SH:     Absolutely. That’s exactly right. No question.

BB:     That’s a pretty robust hermeneutic for thinking these things through. But you haven’t really laid it out in this type of detail before.  (178)

What do you think of these practical positions?

Towards the end of the chapter the conversation switches to discussion of the revelations that have emerged over the sexual misbehaviour of Hauerwas’s friend and theological mentor John Howard Yoder.

Brock asks a fascinating and disturbing question – how is it that people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Yoder, all deeply committed to peaceful revolution and justice for the disempowered, were all implicated in blatant unjust exploitation of women? They misused their power and prestige over the powerless by ‘cashing in their fame by taking sexual liberties with women.’

Hauerwas has been criticised for too quickly ‘closing the case’ on Yoder’s misdeeds, after a church disciplinary process and failing to acknowledge just how damaging his actions had been. Here, he admits he hadn’t appreciated the ‘violence’ done by Yoder and how that process had not been complete.

But it shows that men have been socialized in ways that are destructive for us and clearly are destructive for women. I myself think that I did not appropriately appreciate the damage that John was doing to women, in terms of my own involvement in that situation, which was clearly on the side. But I don’t think that the disciplinary process was as successful as I thought it had been. (184)

Hauerwas also comments that

SH: It’s called self-deception, isn’t it? I mean, who knows what kind of stories Martin Luther King was telling himself. Yoder had this stupid theory. Gandhi was a Hindu so in terms like this, who am I to speak? I don’t know how to account for them. (185)

I think some more could be said on how to account for King and Yoder’s hypocrisy, self-deception or double-standards as Christian men, but the conversation moves on.

There is a paradox here is there not? On the one hand Christians are called, and enabled, to live a new life, pleasing to God. A life of service, care for others, love, kindness, and covenant obedience to God within an accountable community. As Paul says, we are to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’.  Sin is not to be accepted as inevitable.

Yet, on the other hand, Christians should also know better than anyone else, that the heart is deceitful and wicked. Leaders fail – rare is the leader who does not. As people of the cross we should know about the power and presence of sin. As pastors and pilgrims, we should also know people and all their frailties and contradictions.

So, we should be disappointed and surprised by the infidelities and failures of King and Yoder. But not shocked.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS there is also a long discussion on gender and sexuality, so I will do a second post on this chapter.

St Stephen’s Day and the Christian paradox of powerlessness

The last few months haven’t been conducive to much blogging. And how enjoyable to have a restful and quiet day today this St Stephen’s Day.

And, in case this is the last post of 2014, warm greetings to everyone who has passed through here in 2014 and very best wishes for 2015!

Growing up in the North, the 26th was always ‘Boxing Day’ – I never really knew why. As a boy I always vaguely associated it with the sport of boxing but, confusingly, boxing never seemed to be on TV. Apparently (well, according to Wikipedia anyway) it has to do with a Victorian custom of giving a ‘Christmas box’ to tradesmen and servants.

Which also helps to explain why a British custom like ‘Boxing Day’ is never mentioned in the Republic of Ireland. In the ‘South’, it is always St Stephen’s Day – and a far better name too.

At first glance, locating the day of the first Christian martyr the day after the birth of the Messiah appears to be a rather crude mistake. Birth, joy, fulfilled promise, and hope one day followed by mercilessness, violence and execution the next?

Yet, whoever it was who got to choose St Stephen’s Day was inspired. For this day is an immediate reminder of how, while the Word has become flesh, the world into which the Word entered remains (until its final restoration) a broken, hostile, political and violent place.

Incarnation was followed by the weeping of mothers in Bethlehem for their slaughtered children. The birth of the Christ-child led to Mary and Joseph fleeing for their lives.

Deeply woven into the essence of the Christian faith is the ‘paradox of powerlessness’ – how God’s purposes are worked out in weakness, suffering and non-violence.

The Christmas story itself is full of such paradox. Jesus’ life and ministry is full of such paradox. And the cross is the place where that paradox climaxes in the violent death of God’s Son, Israel’s promised glorious liberator.

And the witness and lives of disciples of Jesus ever after are also to display that paradox.

Rembrandt, The Stoning of Stephen

Rembrandt, The Stoning of Stephen

As a follower of a crucified Messiah, Stephen deeply understood that paradox. He knew that the purposes of God will encounter violent opposition. He knew that a powerful experience of God’s Spirit was more likely to lead to death and persecution than to comfort, ease and peace. He knew that a deeply Christian response to injustice, violence and persecution was not to take up the sword in response, but, like his Lord, to pray for those who were about to take his life.

So self-evident is this paradox of powerlessness in the life and teaching of Jesus, in the life of Stephen, in the life and teaching of Paul and the rest of the NT writers, that it remains remarkable to me how many Christians, when they have a choice, routinely disregard the path of peace and non-violence for one of power, war and force.

Here’s a quote from a fine book I’m reviewing by Jeremy Gabrielson, Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel: the theological politics of peace in Paul’s life and letters:

non-violence in its many expressions is not merely an ethical implication of the gospel, but is itself constitutive of the politics of the gospel … This gospel challenges the status quo of the (Roman) political order but not in a directly subversive way. Rather, it creates an alternative political body that seeks to overcome evil and enmity not by subduing it (as Romans and their opponents would have it), but by reciprocating good for evil. Such a strategy does not promise to be effective, not does it promise to achieve desirable results by gentler means. Rather, Christian obedience to the command of Jesus to turn the other cheek and to love the enemy heralds to the cosmos that in God’s kingdom “the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history”.

It is as if the paradox of powerlessness is, when push comes to shove, seen as unreal, idealistic, naive and impractical in the ‘real world’.

The refusal to embrace the paradox of powerlessness is, I suggest, the greatest and most destructive temptation for the church, and for each individual Christian. For, at heart, it is a matter of faith and trust – in whom or what do we trust? In the foolishness of God and the power of his cross or in our own ability to protect ourselves and enforce our will on others?

The failure of Christendom through which we in the West are now navigating – where the [Western] church was in a position of authority and power for centuries to shape culture and impose its will – lies in its disconnect with the witness of people like Stephen (and ultimately his Lord).

I don’t think it is any co-incidence that the church is growing and vibrant and expanding globally in the very places where Christians experience and embrace the paradox of powerlessness; places where they are poor, excluded, persecuted and marginalised.

Yes of course these are not good things in themselves. Yes, we should work and pray against such injustice and violence. Like Pope Francis, we should speak out for and seek to help those enduring terrible suffering.

But we should also pray for God’s Spirit to empower believers to endure suffering in the name of Christ. That in their very powerlessness that the power of the gospel would be made manifest. That in their love for enemies, the love of God would triumph over evil.

And what we pray for others, we need also to pray in faith for ourselves this St Stephen’s Day.

‘No-one can force us to hate’: the courage and cost of non-violent resistance

One of the themes that Darrell Bock, who is a messianic Jew, unpacked from Luke-Acts in the recent IBI Summer Institute, was the place of Israel in the continuing purposes of God.

As this topic always seems to do, it raised some raw emotion and lively discussion. Bock is on the other side of the fence (you could almost take that literally) from Munther Issac, a Palestinian Christian who visited IBI a while ago.

But Prof Bock has been to the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, has Palestinian – Christian friends, and keeps an open dialogue going on. While holding to a different theological interpretation, he actively forges relationships with fellow believers in working towards reconciliation.

All this is to link to this storyplease read it. 

This is a report from a professional secular news agency: but the heart of the story is the good news of the Prince of Peace. I can’t think of anything I’ve read that embodies the gospel more than Daher Nasser and his family.

News of reconciliation

News of love in a world filled with hate

News of hope

News of peace in a region of war

News of another kingdom

What are your reactions as you read it?

Anger? Outrage? Rage at the injustice of Israel?

Admiration?

Inspiration?

Grief?

Prayer?

Sometimes those who believe that Jesus’ words about loving enemies means not killing them are accused of being unrealistic and naive – taking the ‘soft option’ of non violence rather than the realistic option of violence in the cause of the greater good.

The Nasser family put that old canard to rest. This is the way of the Messiah who confronted injustice, evil and violence with self-giving love. It is in weakness, persecution, and even death that God’s power is, ironically, most evidently displayed.

May the Lord sustain and empower the Nasser family as they walk in the way of the cross.

 

Jesus and violence

In late July I did a seminar at New Horizon on ‘Jesus and violence’. Here are the ‘starters for 10’ used on the day.  I really enjoyed the interaction and discussion in a packed (and very hot) room.

And really enjoyed meeting Rikk Watts and his wife Katie and listening to his excellent Bible reading on Friday morning. Very encouraging to see loads of teenagers and young adults there.

Much to keep reflecting on, especially from reading Yoder’s War of the Lamb.

THESIS 1: THE USE OF ‘JUST VIOLENCE’ HAS BEEN, SINCE CONSTANTINE, THE MAJORITY POSITION OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH

THESIS 2: VERSIONS OF ‘JUST WAR’ HAVE UNDERPINNED CENTURIES OF VIOLENCE IN IRELAND

 

THESIS 3: JESUS CALLS HIS DISCIPLES TO FORSAKE VIOLENCE AND EMBRACE A LIFE OF RADICAL OBEDIENCE WITHIN THE KINGDOM OF GOD

THESIS 4: VARIOUS HERMENEUTICAL OBJECTIONS TO JESUS’ TEACHING IN MT 5 ON RADICAL NON-VIOLENCE FAIL TO PERSUADE

THESIS 5: THE REST OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CONFIRMS JESUS’ TEACHING ON NON-VIOLENCE

 

THESIS 6: IN REGARD TO VIOLENCE IN THE OT, THE BIBLE NEEDS TO BE READ AS ONE UNFOLDING NARRATIVE THAT CLIMAXES IN THE LIFE, DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF JESUS

THESIS 7: EARLY CHURCH HISTORY IS COMPELLING IN ITS WITNESS TO NON-VIOLENCE

 

THESIS 8: ACTIVE NON-VIOLENT WITNESS IS NOT EQUAL TO SUPINE PASSIVITY

THESIS 9: CHRISTIAN ‘JUST WAR’ PRACTICE IS FATALLY FLAWED

 

THESIS 10: PRACTICING ACTIVE NON-VIOLENCE REFLECTS THE UPSIDE-DOWN, SURPRISING, COUNTER-CULTURAL AND SELF-GIVING WAY OF JESUS – AND IS A POWERFUL FORETASTE OF AN ALTERNATIVE COMMUNITY LIFE WITHIN THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Hauerwas and ‘war and the Irish difference’

I’m writing this on a train sitting in Connolly Station. On the table in front of me is a book I’ve been reading by Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: theological reflections on violence and national identity. It is superb.

Back when, I wrote a book on evangelicals and nationalism in Northern Ireland but I can only dream of writing like Hauerwas on ‘War and the Irish difference: theological reflections on violence and national identity’.

In a quite brilliant chapter he unravels ‘Why war is a moral necessity for America’.  In it, he traces how the Civil War descended into a ‘total war’, vigorously supported by the clergy. The moral stakes were raised to justify obliteration of the other side. God and nation were joined together, the latter being given a messianic destiny that demanded utter loyalty – and utter violence. For both North and South, “Christianity offered the only terms out of which national identity could be constructed and a violent war pursued.’ [Hauerwas quoting Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: a moral history of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006), p.43]. Blood sacrifice and martyrdom for the noble national cause sacralised the war, elevating it to a moral battle. And nowhere is this more plainly seen in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work for which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people , by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

A nation determined by such words, Hauerwas proposes, means that it does not have the capacity to keep war limited.

Which brings me back to Connolly Station. Just across the platform on the wall is a plaque inscribed with the 1916 Irish Declaration of Independence. It begins

IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

The context is different, the theology of blood sacrifice for national freedom the same. ‘Just war’ or ‘just violence’ lies at the heart of Irish identity and history, just as it does for America. And the unleashed power of sacred nationalism could not be controlled in Ireland either – it led straight to a vicious civil war and later to 30 years of IRA violence.

Later, Hauerwas talks of the silence surrounding war and killing.

To kill, in war or in any circumstance, creates a silence – and certainly it is right for silence to surround the taking of life. After all, the life taken is not ours to take. Those who kill, even when such killing is assumed to be legitimate, bear the burden that what they have done makes them “different”. How do you tell the story of killing? Killing shatters speech, ends communication, isolating us into different worlds whose difference we cannot even acknowledge. (67)

This is why, I think, the Irish Civil War was virtually erased from popular consciousness throughout the 20th Century. The shame and pain of Irish ‘fratricide’ was too deep to dare uncover.

And such is the stain of killing that establishing the legitimacy of violence becomes of crucial importance.  The battle for legitimacy of past violence continues to dominate Northern politics.

But, Hauerwas argues, the Christian alternative to war is worship and reconciliation.

The church does not so much have a plan or a policy to make war less horrible or to end war. Rather, the church is the alternative to the sacrifice of war in a war-weary world. The church is the end of war … Christ has shattered the silence that overwhelms our killing and restores those who have killed, because his sacrifice overwhelms our killing and restores us to a life of peace. Indeed we believe that it remains possible for those who have killed to be reconciled with those they have killed. This is no sentimental bonding represented by the comradeship of battle. This is reconciliation made possible by the hard wood of the cross. (69)

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Musings on Pacifism 2

pacifismChristian pacifism, as the name tends to suggest, begins with Jesus.

The argument goes something like this (and feel welcome to add / correct / expand, these are just blog musings written while watching the latest Scandinavian drama, Arne Dahl and nothing seems to be happening)

Violence ultimately is imposing your will on another through physical force. Violence in the name of Empire or nation is compelling another community to do the same. Where god is used to legitimate and justify the use of that power, it becomes idolatry.

Jesus rejected the violent power-narratives of Roman Empire and also eschewed the route of religious Jewish violence to ‘liberate’ Israel in the name of YHWH. His was a very different path to the bloody one trodden by the Maccabees earlier and the Zealots later. His mission is that of the servant-king, whose kingdom is of a different form to the kingdoms of the world. Rather than use force to advance his mission, he submits to ‘unjust justice’ and illegitimate violence. He is the innocent one, who gives up endless power to win the victory over the powers; over evil; over violence and death by self-giving love.

Disciples in his kingdom are to be busy peacemaking, exercising humility, being self-giving, repenting, loving their hated neighbours and their oppressing enemies. Paul is such a disciple. He embraces suffering, persecution, imprisonment, character assassination and eventual martyrdom for his Lord. He gives up his rights for the sake of the gospel. He never turns to force to advance his mission. He persuades, argues, reasons, serves, teaches, pastors and writes of grace, forgiveness, faith, hope and love. His identity is in Christ, all other identities are relativised – whether his Jewish pedigree or his Roman citizenship.

He models the way of the cross, as his saviour had done – as all Christians are called to do. It is not for nothing that Christians are to remember the Lord’s death as often as they meet. They are to be people of the ‘crucified God’.

The work of the Spirit also rejects ‘the will to power’. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control fulfil the Law and are characteristic of life within the kingdom of God. This fruit is incompatible with force, compulsion, intimidation, threat, control and fear – all ‘fruits’ of violence and war.

Eschatological hope forms the basis of Christian ethics. Christian hope is of a new creation of God’s shalom. Christians are to be agents of the ‘kingdom come’ here on earth. That vision compels them to be peacemakers not war-makers; to reject the use of arms in favour of sacrificial costly love; to forgive rather than fight.

Historically, it is deeply compelling to me that in the first 2-3 centuries of the Christian church, believers refused to take up arms for Empire; soldiering was seen as a sin, utterly at odds with following the Messiah executed by that Empire. The greatest tragedy of church history in my opinion is the later church’s complicity with power, and the ruthless use of force to support and reinforce that power.

Christian pacifism is also coupled with (I would argue) a deeply realistic Christian scepticism about sinful human capacity for self-deception and the mis-use of power. What ‘just war’ does not end up multiplying unjust violence and who decides what is just or not? (one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter etc)  What war cannot be presented as ‘just’ (even if it manifestly isn’t) if the ‘will to war’ is there? (Blair and Bush on Iraq – enough said).

OK, even if you are not persuaded by how this sort of thinking about Christian faith, pacifism and war can actually work ‘in the real world’, why is it that the overwhelming ‘weight’ of Christian non-violence in the life and teaching of Jesus, the Lord and head of the church, has historically been marginalised within the history of western Christianity?

Musings on Pacifism

pacifismThis summer I’m leading a couple of seminars at New Horizon. One is on Jesus’ radical call to pacifism.

So, first up – any top recommendations on Christian pacifism / just war? Glad of suggestions for a bit of summer reading.

Second up –  do you believe that to follow Jesus authentically means you must be a pacifist?

Third up – what do you think of these imagined typical questions / critical problems facing those who espouse a Christian pacifist position?

‘A non –violent response by Christians to aggression is perhaps required and maybe even possible at an individual level, but it is unrealistic and even unloving at a community level. Where there is a threat to life it is moral to use force to protect the innocent. To stand by and let evil triumph would be immoral.’

‘Pacifism is idealistic. It is rooted in an eschatological theology of redemption, where the future hope of the kingdom come is brought right into the here and now. But we don’t yet live in the future. Our theology and praxis needs to be realistic, taking into account a theology of creation, sin and the Fall.’

‘Pacifists aren’t the only ones who want peace. At times a just war is just as much a route to peace as non-violence.’

‘Pacifists are purists who, when push comes to shove, opt out of the harsh realities of a fallen world. War and violence are part of being human. Pretty well every nation that exists was created through some sort of violence. National security depends on having armies and police forces. Pacifists conveniently let others do the dirty work of fighting to overcome the horrors that violent men habitually resort to.’

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Overcoming Violence: is it possible to distance God from all violence in the Bible?

1331567925I’ve been reading and reviewing Johnston McMaster, Overcoming Violence: Dismantling an Irish History and Theology: an alternative vision. Columba Press: Dublin, 2012.

McMaster is Assistant Professor and Co-ordinator of the Education for Reconciliation Programme within the Irish School of Ecumenics. This is an ambitious and passionate work of Irish political theology emerging out of years of reflection and active participation in reconciliation programmes.

I can’t reproduce the formal review but before I lose more brain cells and forget the details, I’d like to explore what I think is his central theme (and what follows is my take on McMaster’s overall argument not his own words unless in quotes):

It is possible, indeed absolutely essential, to distance God from all violence in the Bible. And therefore, God’s people are to renounce and be utterly opposed to violence.

Violence is always an evil. There is nothing redemptive about violence. Any idea that violence is redemptive is heresy and owes more to Babylonian religious militarism than the Bible. The myth of redemptive violence has been a curse in Western history and within the church. It is something we need to be delivered from for good.

And there have been few places more negatively impacted by the myth of redemptive violence than Ireland. Our blood-soaked religious history testifies to the poison it injects within a culture. Our love of violence reveals the corrosive effects of the ‘Constantinian mistake’ where violence has been exalted and justified in the name of God and of nation. What is required is ‘a whole new vision of what it means to live the faith’ (185).The best way the decade of centenaries of 1912-22 can be remembered is to remember the past dead is as ‘victims to our shared inhumanity and acquiescence in violence’ (190).

God is good. Jesus is the climax of the biblical revelation of who God is, is manifestly against violence. He is the king of the peaceable kingdom. He rejects the way of the sword. He calls his disciples to peace and, if necessary to suffering. McMaster says that ‘this inherent ethos of the kingdom is far removed from the ambivalence towards and even collusion with war and violence in Irish and Western history’ (184-5).

A theology that endorses violence is due to a massive mis-reading of the OT and the NT.  If you read the OT ‘literally’, says McMaster, you end up with all sorts of ‘texts of terror’ that appear to glory in images of a pathological warrior God who divinely sanctions brutal violence against children, humanity in general, the enemies of Israel and women.  You end up with ‘violent zealot’ like King Josiah being seen as a good guy. You end up  with the ‘divine right of kings’ being supported from the OT and being used a pretext for empire building and destruction of enemies by any means possible. To bring it closer to home, you end up with Cromwell in Drogheda.Cromwell in Drogheda

So how else can the violent ‘texts of terror’ in the OT be read? McMaster uses a pretty radical heremeneutic. Following a critical strand of OT scholarship (he doesn’t name him but Martin Noth was a forerunner) he argues that these ‘texts of terror’ need to be read through the lens of exile and judgement. In other words, Deuteronomy to 2 Kings needs to be understood as a theological history (McMaster calls it theo-mythical imagination) compiled in exile and re-interpreting Israel’s earlier history (the details of which are lost in time).

And this revisioning of history is actually anti-violence. The story of exodus, Canaan, Israel’s taking of a king and all the violence than ensued, was a tragic departure from her true calling. And the stories we have in the Bible are best read as a critique of Israel and her violence and lack of trust in YHWH. Underneath the narratives is the call to faith, to powerlessness, to rest in God being their God rather than take up arms. Violence, in this reading, is a lack of faith, a moral failure, a warning to future generations not to repeat their mistakes. And you see this counter narrative of non-violence all through the OT, which culminates in the coming of the Messiah.

McMaster doesn’t go into lots of examples, but presumably every time God is portrayed as commanding violence or as a victorious warrior, it is part of this anti-violent critique of the failure of Israel during this mythological history. Now, that’s quite a lot of re-interpretation going on.

OK, that’s the OT. When it comes to the NT, McMaster doesn’t tone down the radical arguments. He claims that Christians (and especially evangelicals since their close association with penal substitution) have deeply distorted the atonement. Those who believe in substitutionary atonement are responsible for propagating an inherently violent and immoral image of God that is flat contradiction with the teaching of Jesus himself. He says it is

‘baffling to know why Christians have allowed a violent God’s blood sacrifice of “his only Son” as a substitute for sinful humanity to dominate theology and liturgy for the last 1,000 years’ (116)

Without considering other models, or offering a fair view of penal substitution, he chooses the Christus Victor theory of the atonement instead of substitution. The violence in Christus Victor is that of the state, not of God. To believe in substitution (he does not add the word penal) is to ‘traumatise children’ with the immoral image of God as a father murdering his son at the cross (116). Strong, even violent, opinions.

Now, if you read this blog from time to time you may know that I happen to agree with McMaster that following Jesus means a life committed to active non-violence. I happen to agree that violence justified in the name of God has characterised and disfigured much of Irish (and church) history and that narrative needs replaced with an alternative story to that of power and coercion. It is only within such a narrative that the church can begin to recover its integrity as well as its ability to speak authentically of Jesus’ kingdom vision of peace, forgiveness, mercy, love of enemies and of self-giving non-violence.

But it seems to me that McMaster’s theological goal of distancing God from any involvement in violence leads to a critically debatable view of the OT narratives that still fails to deal convincingly with the numerous times God is very directly involved in violence.  And his passionate anti-violence framework leads to a caricature of penal substitution. Revelation is also read primarily as an anti-Empire text rather than a vision of God’s ultimate judgement. I’m not sure if there is a place for judgement in McMaster’s framework but I could be wrong.

While there are not easy answers, I found Chris Wright helpful on the OT and violence, here, here and here.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

UPDATE

Reading this over, I should add that lots in this book is very helpful and I haven’t made that clear in the narrower focus on hermeneutics. There are 4 chapters of history and 2 on putting active non-violence into practice within church communities – all good stuff.

Guns and God and the USA

I was over on a work-related trip to the US last week. There are lots of things I love about America. The people are hugely generous and hospitable. I’ve been fortunate to have great friends and colleagues who are American. There is such energy, enthusiasm and optimism. There is a wonderful climate with proper winters and proper summers. The landscapes are fantastic and the sheer scale of the place is liberating; it’s the best place in the world for a road trip. All sorts of things seem possible.

And then there are things that I know I’ll never really get about the US. Last week, before the indescribably horrific events in Connecticut, I was taken to a huge sports store 09122012563(photo). A large proportion of it was taken up with what can only be described as everything needed to start a small war. Combat gear, telescopic sights, every sort of bullet, pistols, semi-automatics, rifles and sub-machine guns. All there for purchase with ID. The place was packed with men, women, families – all window shopping and buying guns.

Yes, I get the idea about the self-defence, freedom and the ‘sport’ of range shooting and hunting.

Scot McKnight has a good post on this
that asks good questions beyond surface simplicities. Worth reading, especially on asking questions about America’s ‘cognitive dissonance” between violence at home and overseas American military action that leads to civilian communities being destroyed by US Drone attacks – the President grieving over one and ordering the other.

The narrative seems to buy uncritically that American is the land of God-given freedom. That freedom is tied up in the individual’s right to bear arms. Freedom is enforced through violence or the threat of violence. Normally, it is the state (police) that is mandated to enforce law and order through violence if necessary. In America, it seems to be accepted that it is OK to have an ad hoc army of self-armed citizens operating in parallel to the state.

But OK, let’s get beyond the idea that America (or any nation) is a ‘Christian’ country. What I struggle to understand is the enthusiastic and active involvement in this gun culture by so many American Christians (and I know many others are as baffled by this as I am). By gun culture I mean a culture that puts trust in violence to solve problems and bring ‘peace’. That blithely seems to assume that I, the individual, am righteous enough not only to use violence for ‘just’ ends, but also that I am beyond making fatal mistakes and beyond the corruption that the power over life and death brings. Which leads, in some places, to numerous Christians turning up at church armed and where churches employ armed guards?

How can Christians (of all people), with a supposedly developed and realistic sense of human sin, be so unself-critical? My theory – is this the dark side of American optimism about human nature? And the church (or part of it) has bought into it without a second thought?

Comments, as ever, welcome