The False Choice between the Old and the New, Part I

Posted: January 3, 2009 in Uncategorized
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This is the beginning of a series I plan to work on over the next several days on the false dichotomy present in the Christian nonviolence tradition: the false dichotomy between the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian texts. The dichotomy works like this:

Christian Violentist: Nonviolence isn’t biblical. God was violent and ordained violence in the Bible.

Nonviolent Christian: Jesus said love your enemies and turn the other cheek.

Christian Violentist: You’re cherry-picking and deliberately ignoring Scripture that doesn’t fit your worldview. I know Jesus said those things; but his Father said others in the Old Testament and your theology has to have room for both.

Nonviolent Christian: We’re not Jewish; we’re Christians. Jesus is the final authority. We have a new covenant, so the Old Testament no longer applies. We should stick to the New Testament.

This is a pretty typical exchange between Christians with different views on violence and nonviolence. Both make poor theological decisions as Christians.

The Christian Violentist is committing “death by qualification” (credit to Thom for a perfect turn of phrase) in that her view of scriptural unity guts many of the most important teachings of Christ.

The Nonviolent Christian position parodied above, though, borders on Marcionism. This position not only severs Christianity from its theological roots, but it caricatures Judaism as uniformly approving of righteous violence. In doing so, it cuts us off from the rich and beautiful tradition of the Jewish peacemakers and peace movement.

In the following series I will highlight texts from the Hebrew scriptures to demonstrate a strong thread of nonviolence prior to the time of Christ. I’ll then offer historical examples of Jewish nonviolence, including those that would have been common knowledge at the time of Christ and might have influenced his thinking. Then, I’ll highlight some modern examples of Jewish nonviolence to reinforce the idea that Christian nonviolence’s roots go deep into the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that we should understand Christ’s nonviolence not as a repudiation of Judaism, but as the culmination of themes latent in the sacred tradition of his people that ultimately reveal the true nature of God.

I think it’s appropriate to start with Scripture.  And, ironically, we’ll start with the opening of the Gospel least friendly to the Jews: the Gospel of John.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.

All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.

John 1

It’s important that we understand what’s being said here. According to Hans Kung,

“The view has largely become established in exegesis that the author of the prologue has used an older, probably Jewish-Hellenistic hymn which in good Jewish fashion is not about a pre-existent diving being ‘Son’, but about God and his Logos, his Word, his Wisdom in creation and revelation. The Christian author of the prologue did not chane this text about the Word which was from the beginning with God, but only gave it a Christian focus at the end: ‘and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’. For the Christian author this is the ‘climax of the prologue’, which in this way has lost nothing of its universality: God’s Word remains the life and light of human beings; God’s Word was and already is there at creation, is at work everywhere. But now it has become visible and tangible among us in a human being.” –Christianity: Essence, History, and Future, p. 89.

In other words, what many Christians generally take as merely a beautiful way of describing the pre-existence of Jesus as a person in the Trinity says something more subtle. The author of the Gospel is telling us that in Jesus we have the Wisdom of God made flesh, and that Wisdom has always been that Wisdom communicated by Christ. The God which speaks through Scripture has always been telling us that which Jesus tells us, if we know how to look and listen.

What the author of John’s Gospel has done here is provide us a method of interpretation of Scripture, both “Old” and “New.” In this scheme, we are to rank and emphasize the importance of particular passages of Scripture in ways that recognize that the Word/Wisdom of God made flesh has been constant from the beginning. Contrary to what the hypothetical nonviolent Christian does in the above parody and instead of rejecting the Hebrew scriptures outright, we should engage with them faithfully, giving emphasis and weight where Christ gave them emphasis and weight, using him as an example of what is normative and what is a record of Israel’s struggle with God to understand Him.

Before going any further, I should note that this process of reading, interpreting, ordering and emphasizing is something all Christians do already; the only question is whether we do it in the same way as Christ. One might think I’m belaboring the point, but it’s worth belaboring. Even if we all agreed that the Scripture is “authoritative” and in some sense “the word of God” (though not in the way that Jesus is the Word of God), differences in emphasis–even when the differences take place within a realm of agreed-upon propositions or values–can lead to wildly different results. Even the most strident of Christian violentists de-emphasize (rightly) certain texts depicting violence, chosing instead to emphasize others. And it’s a good thing they do so, too.  I’d hate to meet the “Christian” who’d emphasize

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!

Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

in their daily practice and spirituality.

This is true in ethics and morality, and it’s true in theology and biblical study. Here’s an excerpt from an article on morality in The New York Times to help illustrate the point:

All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense can be universal and variable at the same time. The five moral spheres are universal, a legacy of evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and which is brought in to moralize which area of social life — sex, government, commerce, religion, diet and so on — depends on the culture. Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

Christ’s teachings do not reject Judaism outright, and a tradition of Christian nonviolence does not jettison the so-called “Old Testament.” Instead, his teachings deepen traditions nascent in the “Old” and gives emphasis to certain themes. So, although these differences in emphasis wildly reconfigure what could otherwise be a “fire and brimstone” tradition, a nonviolent Christian should understand that they are firmly rooted in a biblical tradition that begins in the Old and reaches its apex in the New.

In my next post in this series, I’ll highlight Hebrew scriptures that provide the basis for the Jewish peace movement.


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