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

Posted: January 5, 2009 in Uncategorized
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As I said in my previous post on this topic, nonviolent and violentist Christians often mistreat the Hebrew scriptures. Violentist Christians assert that violence in the “Old” Testament tradition negates the possibility of nonviolence as a faithful interpretation of scripture. Nonviolent Christians concede the underlying assumption–that the only faithful interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures is the violent interpretation–and fall back on a kind of Marcionism or dispensationalism. Both of these approaches are incorrect.

It’s important for Christians to understand that the construction of our sacred scripture took place over a very long period and was the result of, to say the least, a very heavy editing job. Each hand that touched and formed the scripture worked in a particular historical context and with a particular agenda and perspective. I say this not to discredit the scriptures or undermine their authority; I only point out that several voices speak in the text. One can find in the so-called Old Testament, for example, verses celebrating or pining for vengeance, and the injunction against vengeance. Swords are hammered into plowshares, and plowshares hammered into swords. One must wrestle with the texts, prayerfully, if one is to discern the voice of God. And many Jews and others who study the Hebrew scriptures discern the voice of the God of Peace.

Take, for example, this passage from Leviticus (Vayikra) 19:16-18:

  • Do not be a talebearer or spread hate among the people.
  • Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.
  • Do not hate your brother or sister in your heart.
  • Rather speak directly to your brother and sister about your concerns.
  • Do not take vengeance. Do not bear a grudge against the children of your people.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself, I am YHVH.

The most recent issue of Fellowship Magazine features Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb interpreting these verses as the basis for nonviolence in the Jewish tradition:

I will interpret these words according to the tradition of interpretation by which I was ordained as a rabbi.  I stand before you today as a rabbi rooted in the lineage of those in the Jewish commnity who follow the path of engaged nonviolence, which is called shomer shalom. As a shomeret shalom I renew a vow of engaged nonviolence every year at Yom Kippur. My teachers, those whose memories are a blessing, and those who still walk upon this earth, have taught me the way of nonviolence as I seek peace and pursue peace (Psalm 34:15).

…I would like to interpret Vayikra. The first verse of the passage states: “Do not become a talebearer or spread hate among the people.” Hate speech is to be avoided because it often leads to acts of violence. As you are well aware, I come from a community that has experienced the genocidal results of hate speech leading to hate action…

…[T]he next verse of Leviticus instructs us: “Do not stand idly by the shedding of blood of your neighbor.” We are commanded not to be silent or passive in the face of prejudice, militarism, violence or structural injustice which privileges some while exploiting others. In fact, challenging systems of injustice is essential to peacemaking.

The text continues: “Do not harbor hatred of your brother or sister in your heart.” This mitzvah relates to the inner dimension of peacemaking. Even in the face of violence and the struggle for human rights we are told to remember that we are all one human family. …Hatred is a form of alienation as is linked to fear and violence. Therefore peacemaking begins by trying to erase hatred of others from one’s heart, to see the other as a full human being, to know that the flaws we find in others are also flaws within ourselves. We are to judge everyone from z’khaf zechut, a place of merit, and thus begin to build an atmosphere of trust out of which peace can grow even as we make every effort to redress wrongs.

Rather than respond to violence with violence we are told: speak directly to your brother or sister about your concerns. The Torah urges direct negotiations, acts of face-to-face reconciliation as the way to peace.

…As the next verse categorically states, as a matter of religious obligation, we are not to take vengeance, nor bear a grudge. This is a weighty obligation and the heart of the instruction to act nonviolently, even in the face of violence. This instruction is explicated further as the central tenet of all our traditions: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am YHVH.” Love is not a sentiment, but a condition in which we face obstacles to peace with the view that the man or woman who stands before us is indeed our brother or our sister. We are commanded to choose love and not fear, love and not violence, love and not war.

And in case you were wondering how strongly she felt about this interpretation, Gottlieb gave this interpretation during a speech to a modest-sized group that included Iranian President Ahmadinejad.

[Incidentally, the NRSV translates Leviticus 19:16 slightly differently:

You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

Lockheeds, Boeings and Blackwaters, take notice.]

The Hebrew scriptures, aside from containing commands from God that can lead to a nonviolent theology, include several stories of nonviolent resistance to power. Arthur Waskow identified several incidents in a May/June 2003 article written for the Fellowship of Reconciliation:

  • The story of the saving of the baby Moses by Shifrah and Puah – the midwives who refused to obey Pharaoh’s order to murder Hebrew boy babies – is perhaps the first tale of nonviolent civil disobedience in world literature.
  • The process of liberation in the Exodus itself is woven with violence in the form of disastrous ecological upheavals and ultimately the death of Egypt’s firstborn. But the imposition of these plagues is ascribed to God, and thus placed one giant step away from Israelite behavior.
  • Jeremiah warns against using violence and military alliances to oppose the Babylonian Conquest, and argues instead that God will protect the people if Judah acts in accord with the ethical demands of Torah – freeing slaves, letting the land rest.
  • Daniel and his friends famously are cast into the lions’ den for nonviolently refusing to obey the king’s command to worship foreign gods.
  • And although the Book of Esther ends in violence, Esther herself demonstrates nonviolent civil disobedience when, in fear and trembling, she approaches the Persian king without having been invited so that she can carry out her mission to save the Jewish people from a murderous tyrant.
  • There is a powerful story of an Israelite king, Saul, who had to deal with an underground guerilla whom he thought of as a terrorist…named David. And David, with a very small band of underground guerillas, went off, hungry and desperate, and found food and protection at a sacred shrine, where they asked the priests to let them eat the show-bread, the lehem panim, the sacred bread placed before God, because they were desperately hungry. And the priests fed them from the sacred bread. When Saul heard about this, he said (more or less), “Anybody who harbors a terrorist is a terrorist!” (do you hear an echo?) and so King Saul ordered his own bodyguard to kill the priests of Nov. But the bodyguard refused. His own bodyguard, yet he refused to murder these priests. An act of nonviolent civil disobedience against an Israelite king, not an Egyptian Pharaoh.
  • Jeremiah…used “Yippie” acts of street theater to protest. He wore a yoke as he walked in public, embodying the yoke of God that the King had shrugged off, as well as the yoke of Babylonian captivity that the King was bringing on the people.

In my next post in this series, I’ll discuss the Genesis 1 account of creation and contrast it with other creation myths to show how, in context, the Judeo-Christian creation story gives a glimpse of a God of nonviolence, and of the nonviolent Word woven into the nature of the universe and by whom all things were made.

You can learn more about the shomer shalom tradition at the Shomer Shalom website.

“If the sword then not the book; if the book then not the sword.”


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