Monday, January 08, 2007

Biblical Language and Life as a Battle: Some Thoughts

I have been a committed pacifist for much of my adult life. Recently, I have come to realize that peacemaking is not only about opposing war; it also involves conceiving of life in a different way. In this quest for peacemaking at a deeper level, I have looked to the Bible for guidance. However, I am troubled by the violence and battle language I find there.

My pacifism has largely arisen out of my study of the Bible and church history. As a Baptist pastor in the early 1990’s, I spoke out publicly against the first Gulf War. I received a great deal of criticism from people both inside and outside the church for that stand. This criticism prompted me to engage in an extensive study of peace theology in the Bible and early church history. I came out of that study convinced that when one used the life and ministry of Jesus as the starting point, the Bible supported a pacifist position. Furthermore, it was clear from a study of early church history that for the first 300 years of their existence, Christians were largely non-violent and opposed to participation in military service.

However, when we look at the Bible as a whole, and not just at Jesus, we see that God is often portrayed in militaristic and violent terms. Exodus 15.3 proclaims “God is a warrior.” The Old Testament is full of stories where God leads people into battle to defeat the enemies of the Jews. Furthermore, God is often depicted as commanding people to completely destroy their enemies, their houses and their livestock in accordance with the Hebrew concept of “the ban” (see Numbers 21.1-3; Deuteronomy 20, Joshua 7-8). To my mind “the ban” is not much different than the Islamic idea of “jihad” or “holy war.” Now granted, God often won those battles in unconventional ways like having Gideon only take soldiers who drank water a certain way (Judges 7) or Moses holding up his arms (Exodus 17), or Joshua walking around the city of Jericho seven times (Joshua 6). At other times angels appeared and scared off the enemies of the Jews. Even so, Yahweh is portrayed as a warrior God who vanquishes the enemies of his people.

Furthermore, when Jesus was recognized as the Messiah, one of the disconcerting things about him to the Jews of his time is that he was not a conquering king. Jewish tradition had prepared them to expect a warrior Messiah and Jesus did not fit that role. Even so, it appears that Jesus did not erase the image of a warrior king, he only postponed it. For in his vision of the Second Coming, John depicts the apocalyptic Christ as a mighty warrior who comes to slay the enemies of God (see Revelation 19.11-21). “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32. 35; Romans 12.19). Believers get their retribution, just a little later

Moreover, the spiritual life itself is often described using military and battle imagery. In Psalm 80.1 God is invoked to do battle with the enemy:

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel…
Awaken your might and come and save us

Psalm 137.9 calls on God to seize the infants of the Babylonians and “dash them against the rocks.”

Paul explicitly calls on this battle imagery in Ephesians 6 when he says

Finally be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the devil’s schemes (vss. 10-11).

Furthermore, Paul refers to the spiritual life as a battle “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the spiritual forces of evil” (vs. 12).
Now certainly there are other images of God found in Scripture (Redeemer, Savior, Midwife, Shelter), but one can not deny how often God is associated with violence and battle.

Philosophers of language have pointed out that the words people use reflect their thought forms, and in turn those thought forms profoundly influence the paradigms or cognitive lens through which they interpret events in the world. The Biblical writers lived in a violent time and were under constant physical threat from foreign armies. Furthermore, some of their own leaders were ruthless military leaders. They drew on imagery and language that was familiar to them: the imagery of battle. By extension the Bible profoundly influences the words most Christians use and the ways they think about their lives in the world. The preponderance of biblical violence and battle imagery can not help but cause Christians to see their lives in terms of a battle against temptation, against evil, and against those who oppose or obstruct the things of God.

In the introduction to Terror in the Mind of God (a study of religiously-based terrorism), sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer asks “Why does religion seem to need violence and violence religion, and why is a divine mandate for destruction accepted with such certainty by some believers?” (p. 7). While it is a large leap from reading the Bible to someone like Timothy McVeigh bombing the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in part the answer to that question lies in the battle mindset embedded in the Scriptural narrative. We are set up for violence by the underlying polarities in the Scripture. Increasingly, I struggle with the tension between my convictions for peace-making (which is Jesus –centered and Biblically based) and the violence and battle mentality so prevalent in the Bible.

Parker Palmer suggests that we reconceptualize the spiritual life as a journey rather than a battle. His comment underscores the important point that all language about God is at best metaphorical and symbolic. People use images and words familiar to them to describe a Presence and a Spirit they can not literally see or touch. The language we use does not describe the reality of God as much as it helps us talk intelligently about transcendent realities beyond our full comprehension. Perhaps as Palmer suggests we need to embrace other biblical imagery for the spiritual life other than life as a battle, weaning at the breast of a nursing mother (Psalm 131)or as a process of growth from seed to plant (Mark 4.1-20).

At this point I have more questions than answers, because I find myself confused and troubled by the fact that I worship and serve a God who seems to be so violent. Collins concludes his study of Biblical violence by suggesting that the Biblical depictions of violence give “an unvarnished picture of human nature of the dynamics of history” (p. 31). I seek to live a life of peacemaking that does not ignore that unvarnished picture of human nature. We live in a violent world. I believe that realistic pacifism must engage that world in part by helping people see themselves and others in new ways. That’s why the issue of language and mindset concerns me so deeply.

5 comments:

Major Ben said...

Hello Brother Drick!

Just finished your assessment of violence in the scriptures. It was a very interesting perspective that I don't believe most people realize as much as they say they read the bible. I have just embarked on a goal for 2007 of reading the bible in its entirety this year. As I read Genesis, I am amazed at the level of violence and other interesting social issues at that time. Keep up the good work. We need your type of intellecutual discourse.

Ben Brooks

Marla Burkholder said...

Hi Drick,
I actually went to your blog to read your piece on the war protest this weekend but read on to this piece. I appreciate your thoughtful words about this. Language is a powerful tool and I believe it does both reflect and influence our view of the world. I am also troubled by language that frames spirituality as a battle, and further that describes God as the kind of male military head of that battle. As a woman, I struggle with what seems to be a careless use of the word "Lord" which comes from an Old English term for the feudal owner of an estate (the "keeper of the bread", always a man). I am bothered that we use same word as a verb that means to behave in a "domineering, patronizing or haughty manner." If language reflects what we think, I think it's important to examine what words we're using. Thanks for speaking to this.
Marla Burkholder

Kefira said...

Great work.

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