Yahweh Has Always Been a Peacenik

Oct 5, 2017 by

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blog-logo-webWhere did Jesus get his inspiration? From the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, of course. Little of what Jesus said was original with him. His genius was not so much in the substance of his sayings as in the way he curated his source material, the methodology he used for selecting what to highlight and what to leave on the shelf. And Jesus left a lot on the shelf.

He ignored the negative qualities attributed to Yahweh: the wrath, the retribution, the jealousy, the pettiness. He also ignored accounts of Yahweh’s military exploits, those occasions where God is portrayed as siding with one Iron Age tribe over other Iron Age tribes.

I believe Jesus knew, intuitively, that stories of Yahweh behaving badly were projections of the humans who wrote the texts. He understood that “Yahweh the Warrior” was a literary character, created by the scribes for their narratives about Israel’s glorious past.

Instead, Jesus resonated with Yahweh’s noblest attributes. He took seriously the account in Exodus 34 where Yahweh described himself as compassionate, merciful, loving and forgiving.

Jesus scoured his scrolls for passages showing God in the best light:

— “The love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (Lam. 3:22).

— “Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for the child who came from her womb? Even these may forget, yet I won’t forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).

— “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink” (Prov. 25:21).

— “If there is among you anyone in need, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted. Open your hand willingly to meet the need, whatever it may be” (Deut. 15:7-8).

— “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:9).

— “Don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge against anyone. Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

Passages like these helped Jesus develop his philosophy of conciliation, affirmation and pacifism. Jesus was confident that the God who really exists — the Source of All Truth and Beauty in the Universe — is conciliatory, affirming and nonviolent. Any teachings or texts not in harmony with God’s mercy and compassion simply carry no weight.

This perspective isn’t novel or unique. Several early Quakers were of the view that God never approved of violence, even in the days of Moses, Joshua and David. Hannah Barnard, for example, was a Quaker preacher from Hudson (N.Y.) Meeting. In 1798, she went on a speaking trip to Ireland and England and soon found herself the focus of controversy for her ideas.

Historian Peter Brock, in Pioneers of the Peaceable Kingdom (Princeton University Press, 1968), says this about Barnard: “Her espousal of the peace testimony had led her to have strong doubts whether a beneficent deity could ever have sanctioned war under the old dispensation. If he had, she reasoned, did not this constitute ‘an impeachment of the divine attributes’ of love and goodwill toward the creation? Surely Old Testament wars, like modern ones, stemmed wholly from men’s passions and lust.”

Five decades later a Philadelphia Quaker named John Jackson published Reflections on Peace and War (1846). Of violence in the Old Testament, Jackson wrote: “Once take the ground that men have been divinely commissioned to fight, there is no war for which this authority will not be claimed.” The Jewish writers, he insisted, had been mistaken in believing that their wars were divinely inspired.

Again from the pen of Peter Brock: “His reasons for doubting their claims Jackson drew from his understanding of God’s love as revealed by Christ in the New Testament. How, he asked, could the barbarous policy of extermination pursued by the ancient Jews against the Canaanites and other tribes be reconciled with the spirit of Christian forgiveness?”

In our own tradition, Anabaptist leader Hans Denck refused to believe God could be vindictive or wrathful, no matter what the Bible says. The essence of the Divine is love, said Denck. God’s actions and teachings can never contradict that essence.

Werner O. Packull, in Mysticism and the Early South German-Austrian Anabaptist Movement (Herald Press, 1977), touches on this idea when discussing Denck’s universalism: “Christ, himself a manifestation of divine love, had taught us to love our enemies. If God did otherwise he contradicted his revelation in Christ.”

As pacifists, this should thrill us. It relieves us of the need to come up with complex theological theories to explain why Yahweh was a warrior in one era and antiwar in another. Now, thankfully, it is easier to assert with confidence that Yahweh has always been a peacenik. Yesterday, today and forever.

Charlie Kraybill lives and works in the Bronx, New York City.

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