Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lord Sabaoth: An Addendum to a Sermon

One of the marks of a good sermon is its ability to generate discussion. One of the marks of a mature campus is its ability to accommodate diverse opinions and respect variant perspectives. In that light, I would like to put an addendum on yesterday's chapel sermon given by my colleague whose personal friendship and respect I have felt deeply and received warmly. The topic at hand (handed to him), was the title of God, "Lord Sabaoth." In a masterful flurry of linguistic statistics, he pointed out just how common was this title (285x) as well is its overt military imagery: Lord of the "armies." The subtext of his sermon was that the image of Yahweh as a violent military general is at home in the pages of Scripture. This much is true but it bears substantive clarification. I would like make four points of increasing importance (if you are uninterested in linguistics, skip the first point):

First, the NIV's translation of "Lord Almighty," was criticized for obfuscating the overt military imagery. But it is not just the NIV that alters the literal translation, so too does the Septuagint (LXX). Of the 285 uses of the term in the MT (Hebrew OT), the LXX (Greek OT) retains the transliterated title only 63 times (56 of those are in Isaiah). So how did these ancient scholars understand the term? 187x it was rendered "Almighty" (pantakratōr) and 17x it was "Lord of Powers" (dunameōn), both of which could fairly be rendered by the English term "Almighty". The NIV and the LXX abandon the military imagery for good reason. The denotation of Sabaoth is, in fact, "warriors." But the connotation is "power." Furthermore, the power of Yahweh, is seldom attached to earthly military action. I could find only three passages in which Sabaoth could be used as a justification for violent military action: Once in connection with Saul (1 Sam 15:2) and twice in connection with David (1 Sam 17:45 and 1 Chr 11:9; cf. Psa 24:10). Though one could add some eschatological references to Yahweh mustering troops to battle (Isa 13:4, 13; 14:2223, 2427; 17:3; 19:4, 17; 22:5; cf. Rev 19:1719). Nevertheless, far and away, the dominant implication of "Yahweh Sabaoth" was his zealous protection of the poor, oppressed remnant (e.g. 2 Kgs 19:31; Isa 1:926; 2:12; 3:13, 21:10; 28:5; 31:45; 37:32; etc.). Isaiah 3:15 is a classic example: "'What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?' declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty." One might say, "Well, there you have it! God is going to crush Israel's Enemies!" Not so fast. The bulk of these passages threaten the wrath of "Yahweh Sabaoth" against Israel herself! She is primarily the one who elicits God's anger by her mistreatment of the poor among her (Isa 5:2425; 9:13, 19; 10:2333; Jer 2:19; 6:6, 9; 7:3, 21; 9:7, 15, 17, etc.).

A second important observation about "Lord Sabaoth" is where and when it is found. Only 24 of its 285 uses are prior to Isaiah. Then the title explodes: Isaiah (60x, c. 700 b.c.e.), Jeremiah (76x, c. 586 b.c.e.), Haggai (12x in 6 chapters, c. 520 b.c.e.), Zechariah (46x in 14 chapters, c. 520 b.c.e.), and Malachi (24x in 4 chapters, c. 450 b.c.e.). Hence, the title increases in frequency as Israel's military might dwindles into oblivion. It is almost never used when Israel had a standing army. One suspects, therefore, that the title served as a mechanism for eschatological hope rather than justification for military action.

Third, "Lord Sabaoth" is not merely an OT term. It is used in the NT several times. (1) Romans 9:29 recalls Isaiah 1:9 when Yahweh Almighty threatened Israel because of her unfaithfulness. Paul applies the same argument to the pompous Gentiles who believe that their position in Christ is a matter of boasting over Israel. The great Apostle warns against all such boasting because the Lord Sabaoth will reduce to a stump all those branches who are faithless to him. What, pray tell, was this faithlessness? The whole of Isaiah 1 describes it but verse 17 makes the point with special poignancy: "Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." Being a "Son of God" is not about making war, but making Shalom for the oppressed and the widow. In that sense, Mother Teresa is more Sabaoth-like than William Wallace. Would to God that I could attain her Spiritual testosterone. (2) Similarly, the second NT use of "Lord Sabaoth" is James 5:4–5 when the Lord's half-brother decried the economic injustices of the wealthy who shorted wages of day-laborers: "The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter." (3) The third NT passage, doesn't use the term "Lord Sabaoth" but rather allows his "Angelic Warriors" to speak for the first time in the Bible. What is their message? What ominous words of warfare issue forth from the Heavenly Horde?: "Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests'" (Luke 2:1314). It is right, of course, for Luke to tap into the imagery of the Lord Sabaoth for the birth announcement since Isaiah had used such verbiage to predict his coming more than seven centuries earlier: "Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this" (Isaiah 9:7). Furthermore, the quotation of Jesus during the cleansing of the temple, referenced a "Lord Sabaoth" text from Jeremiah 7:3–11, "This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: 'Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place…. If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers forever and ever…. Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!' declares the LORD." In summary, the NT use of the Lord Sabaoth imagery, far from presenting Yahweh as a war-lord, emphasizes the Divine demand that God's people prioritize social justice, compassion, and peace.

As a final word, Jesus will return eschatologically to mete out justice to the nations. God's violent retribution will be sure and swift. I have no qualms about God being presented as conquering king, even embodied in Jesus (Rev 19:1114). However, the real battle of Revelation is not in chapter 19 but chapter 12. There, the weapons of choice were a cross and a martyr's testimony (Rev 12:1011). Jesus' war-tactics were not power and violence but self-abnegation and sacrifice. His decisive victory in this galactic battle was, in fact, his death. Lord Sabaoth used his immense power to rescue those this world had crushed. His apocalyptic violence is justified precisely where ours has failedhe eradicates oppression, hunger, and abuse while our attempts have perpetuated these cycles. May it be that Lord Sabaoth brings an end to war as prophesied in Psalm 46:711, "The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Come and see the works of the LORD, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire. Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress."


Blogger Tom Lawson said...

Just as I expected - helpful and thoughtful. Gracious and challenging. Thank you, Mark, for taking the time. You are, of course, correct on the contextual bend of NT passages. The emphasis is on God's great power - which is actually diminished if we merely envision him as commander of the host of heaven - hosts he could snuff out of existence by a mere thought.

Our King is, indeed, coming . . . and terrible will be that day. All the more reason we act as agents of peace and justice with the urgency of those who know D-Day is at hand, and care for the fate of our fellows caught, like us, behind enemy lines. Evangelism is, at heart, a subservice act of political hostility (reject your king and your government and its polluted sea of lies and, instead, embrace our king and his government), even as it is an act of compassion and sacrificial love.

We do take up our armor and march "as to war" – but a war of soldiers who take the blow, rather than give it. Soldiers who, in an irony too great for any but the mind of God, conquer our enraged enemies by loving them to the point of sacrificing our very lives. "O be swift my soul to answer him, be jubilant my feet. Our God is marching on."

November 18, 2009 at 6:27 PM  
Blogger Tom Lawson said...

Where did I come up with "subservice"? Darn spell checker. Of course, I meant "subversive." For subservice stay at a Holiday Inn Expess.

November 18, 2009 at 6:53 PM  
Blogger Shane J. Wood said...

I agree that a mature campus (and I would say any legitimate place of study) is one that can have conversations in a scholarly manner with Christian peace and love at the center of the pursuit for truth. Thanks Mark for extending this sermon to such a scholarly conversation.

I would like to affirm and add to your point on the eschatological perspective of the Lord Sabaoth—particularly in Revelation. There is a major difference in showing God’s wrathful nature throughout Scriptures and thereby concluding that such a nature is justified and encouraged in our own personal lives—indeed because of the cross. As a matter of fact, in the book of Revelation (the most consistently violent book in the New Testament), while God is shown as the violent fighter for the oppressed—the Lord Sabaoth—at least four key points must be observed:

1. God’s people never fight in the book of Revelation – In all of the envisioned battles in the book of Revelation, the armies of God never fight—but only God (the seals [8:5], trumpets [11:19] and bowls [16:18-21] each end with a cosmic formula after their judgment pointing back to God’s actions emanating from his throne—where the first formula was uttered in 4:5). For example, in Revelation 19:11-21, verse 14 shows the armies of heaven following Jesus as he marches out to war with a robe dipped in blood—referring to how the battle had already been won on the cross (v.13—this interpretation is favored in light of the fact that the “bloody battle” Christ is marching toward has yet to commence in the narrative in spite of his already bloodstained robe). The opposing army is formed in v. 19 with the beast from the sea gathered with the kings of the earth (an evil mirror image of Christ and his followers) ready to make war (cf. Rev. 16:14, 16; 20:7-10). The rest of the narrative shows the evil army thwarted by the capturing of their leader and the destruction of the entire evil army by “the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse,” never mentioning or referring to the army of the cosmic Christ playing no more of a role than simply onlookers of the work of their sovereign Lord. Similarly, Revelation 20:7-10 shows the released Satan marching to war with the evil armies of the world (recapitulating 19:19-21) where they surround the camp of God to make war against them. In this prime opportunity for God’s people, in self-defense, to lash out with the power of God and smite the King’s enemies with the sword (see the actions in 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, the War Scroll of Qumran, etc.), it is once again God who fights against his enemies—this time in the form of fire from heaven devouring the enemies to rescue his faithful followers (Rev. 20:9b-10). In sum, Revelation does show the violent wrath of an all-powerful God that fights for the vindication and justification of his oppressed people, but we nev
n God’s war through violence—for God is the only conquering warrior in the Apocalypse (cf. Rev. 14:14-20).

November 19, 2009 at 7:51 AM  
Blogger Shane J. Wood said...

2. God’s Timing and Not Ours – In the book of Revelation, all of the wrath of God that is carried out is not done on a whim—even when his lack of action results in the suffering, persecution, and death of his own people. Instead, God always acts in his timing, under his sovereign control, and for his ultimate purposes. This is seen in Revelation 6:9 when the fifth seal is broken prompting the souls of the martyrs under the altar of God in heaven to cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” To which God’s response is narratively described in verse 11 as, “…they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.” The judgment of God, then, is not handed out when an injustice occurs against his people, nor is it acquiesced when in our limited perspective we feel vengeance is long overdue. Instead, God gives his judgment based on his timing—which is not motivated by his desire for justice but due to his sovereign, all-powerful ability to accomplish his purposes despite the evil of man’s warring heart (as displayed in the four horsemen [Rev. 6:1-8] which represent the true face of humanity’s ability and motivation for war—cf. the Pax Romana).
3. God’s Redefinition of Victory—Mark, as you pointed out, the book of Revelation fights through suffering and the model of the cross. Revelation 11 (the two witnesses) shows the mission and tactic of the kingdom—suffer like Christ through our proclamation of the gospel even to the point of death, because like Christ we will one day be resurrected to eternal bliss in the abode of God. As you mentioned in Revelation 12:10-11, this message of fighting and conquering Satan through self-abnegation and sacrifice is at the heart of Revelation’s definition of the kingdom of God. As a matter of fact, in Revelation 1:9, John sandwiches the term “kingdom” in between two uncharacteristic elements of reigning from the perspective of the world, which function as redefining markers for God’s kingdom. Specifically, the Seer writes, “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” It is in this self-designation that John not only identifies with the Christians of Asia Minor, but it is in this statement that John clarifies the identity of followers of Christ—the kingdom of God manifested on earth through suffering and patient endurance (contra Rome—the kingdom of Jupiter manifested on earth through violence and punishment). In other words, Revelation not only redefines the term “kingdom of God/Jupiter,” from Rome to the oppressed agents of the Empire, but John also redefines how true kingdoms actually reign and fight (cf. Rev. 20:4-6 where the ones beheaded are reigning on the throne with Christ and not the ones who were doing the beheading).

November 19, 2009 at 7:51 AM  
Blogger Shane J. Wood said...

4. God’s Commands to Christians in the Face of Violence – The only commands for Christians in the book of Revelation concern actions of self-abnegation and further suffering at the hands of the militant enemies that God himself will eventually judge according to what they have done. Through John’s example of patient endurance in suffering expressed in Rev. 1:9, Christians of Asia Minor are commanded to follow this example of the apostle that emulates the methodology of Christ’s engagement with evil powers—i.e., the cross. Two times, John exhorts his audience to “patiently endure” what they are experiencing. In Revelation 14:12, John calls them to “patient endurance” in the face of the oppressive actions of the beast to force conformity upon humanity to his will through violence and the threat of death (Rev. 13:7). This call in 14:12 is followed by one of the 7 beatitudes of Revelation which emphasizes the likely result of this command: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” Similarly, Revelation 13:10 gives a proverbial word of declaration as a command to Christians in how to react in the face of such persecution and oppression: “If anyone is to go into captivity into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed.” Why such commands that are antithetical to our natural inclinations of violent self-protection? Because this is the model of the cross which the ultimate victory was won (cf. Rev. 5:6). For, despite what the world of Rome threatens, displays, and projects, the way true kingdoms reign in Revelation is through the patient endurance of the people of faith that are willing to die for their testimony to the truth, love and peace of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross knowing that vindication does not come through our efforts to make war but rather in God’s ability to bring justice in his own timing.

In sum, while violence is clearly envisioned in the book of Revelation, it is always done by the omniscient, Almighty God who defends the powerless in the face of the violent oppression of the ostensibly labeled “Pax Romana.” The churches in Revelation are therefore required not to fight with violence that only belongs to God, but rather, we are called by the Seer to emulate the cross—patient endurance in the face of suffering even embracing death in true victory in an upside-down world.

November 19, 2009 at 7:52 AM  
Blogger Rags said...

My goodness, Shane. Get your own blog :)

Thanks Mark. This was very helpful and insightful and true.

November 19, 2009 at 10:10 AM  
Blogger Tom Lawson said...

Shane - ignore Rags. Moore needs you. Nice posts.

November 19, 2009 at 6:22 PM  
Blogger Lancelot said...

Thanks Mark. For the pagan side of things, I wrote this up fairly quick:

God of War: An Addition to Lord Sabaoth

Much love.

November 21, 2009 at 12:17 PM  
Blogger matthew said...

i am several steps removed from this, but thank you very much for this response.

November 23, 2009 at 8:01 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

Thank you Mark, Tom, and Shane, for very well-put rebuttals based on exegesis rather than ad hominem arguments. I like the mix of graciousness and truth. Anyway, thanks.

November 26, 2009 at 6:16 AM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

Jason, if your comment was in reference to my response to the sermon, I would defy you to find a single ad hominem argument in my post. An insult is not an ad hominem argument. For an example of an ad hominem argument, see John 8:43-44.

I do agree, however, that the responses of Mark, Tom and Shane were more gracious than my own. I commend them for that, while I also think they left unsaid much that needed to be said, at least as far as I'm concerned.

November 28, 2009 at 9:05 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

I typed out a short comment and thought I submitted it but it hasn't appeared, so here's try #2:

The 'ad hominem' comment was in regards to the original sermon and to Thom's post over at his blog, and to several of the commenters over there. But as Thom points out, he didn't come right out and argue ad hominem; I inferred the argument. I apologize for jumping to that conclusion regarding everyone's motives. I should've said that I appreciate the well-said rebuttals that are free from personal attacks.

I like that the initial critiques here were gracious and focused squarely on exegesis. I hope that those of you with influence are vocalizing further gracious critiques, probably behind closed doors, regarding the other issues with this sermon.

November 29, 2009 at 5:44 AM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

Amen, Jason. :)

November 29, 2009 at 9:43 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Thanks Mark for your comments! In wrestling with this debate personally, I appreciate your respectful and gracious approach the issue. Your articulate definition of pacifism in Sept. '08 was the most helpful and concise I've read to date.

December 3, 2009 at 11:08 AM  
Blogger Last Man Standing said...

You all speak with knowledge I do not have. Yet I ask when is it time to enter war? When is it time to defend another? Should I ask a different question.
When was the last time you had to cover the bodies of 300 women and children killed by the hand of a dictator?
When have you watched women being used as a wall of protection in the midst of a battle.
When was the last time you had an old man come and thank you for providing freedom to speak in his own country?
When was the last time you had to make a decision such as kill this person and these others live or don't kill and these others die.
These events I have seen,heard, done and live with.
You men are full of thought. What would you do? Have you had to make such decisions? Not just for self preservation but for the sake of another mans family. For a child in danger of loosing his life.
I pay for my decisions through my nightmares but would those nightmares be worse if I had done nothing. Am I now in danger of Hell because I chose not to just pray but to stand, not to kneel but to protect?

December 3, 2009 at 9:28 PM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

You got us. We hadn't thought of that before. Now we realize that peacemaking is really just cowardice in the face of real evil.

December 3, 2009 at 9:38 PM  
Blogger Last Man Standing said...

I am asking a real question to some on this page that I respect. Unlike you Mr. Stark I think before I speak.

December 3, 2009 at 9:52 PM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

I know. I don't respect me either.

December 3, 2009 at 9:55 PM  
Blogger Tom Lawson said...

I heard two men speaking today
Two old men who live and work in a manmade prison called Bethlehem
Surrounded by high walls of seething malice
One of them saw his father shot at the family's front door
They had to drag the body back inside
And bury him in the small garden in the back - because no one could go outside without being shot

And they spoke of massive poverty, hungry children, and people dying for lack of medical care

Because of a wall
Because of hatred which, of course, is
Because of fear
And hatred begatting hatred

Except - They spoke of a prince of peace and they talked about love and forgivenss - who ever heard of such a thing? Forgivenss in the middle of misery caused by the power and malice of their oppressors - whom they love and long to reach out to

They talked about taking Jews and Palestinians, groups of equal size, driving them out and leaving in the desert. Alone. Just Jews and Palestinians . . . so they would learn to love one another

But these were Christian Jews and Christian Palestinians

So they stood in a desert and made paradise, breading bread, and finding new depths of sweet communion

God have mercy - if men could just open their eyes and see the metaphor in this

But they just keep building deserts

We have talked about and written about peacemaking, but today I saw two peacemakers in person

It was stunning

December 3, 2009 at 10:07 PM  
Blogger Tom Lawson said...

Extended response in three parts:

Last man standing raises a side of the question with which I struggle almost daily, although (thank God) to this point in my life it is personally hypothetical.

In October of 2006, when the Amish called the police to stop the madman from killing their children, were they indirectly requiring their neighbors do something wrong? If the actions of the police are said to be a “necessary evil,” then the defining word is still “evil.” That fact that the Amish did not themselves seek to stop the gunman by potentially lethal means does not remove the ethical issue. Snce the Amish were aware the oaths taken by the police would require to the act – to the potential risk to their own lives, and the Amish contacted them in order that they might act – if the police actions were wrong, then the Amish – at the very lease – acted to require others to do wrong.

Would doing nothing have been more noble? More admirable? More Christian - particularly since the children being killed had not themselves volunteered to serve as martyrs and sermon illustrations? Would walking up to the schoolhouse to stop it without force have been the right thing to do? History demonstrates the gunman would only kill those coming up (immediately impacting the slain person’s family) and that children would have been spared by such actions, it would seem to have likely only resulted in increased carnage and even larger numbers of families devastated by murder.

If a person is able, with violence, to stop the slaughter of the innocent and does nothing, is that a reflection of love? If so, is it love for the victims or merely love for oneself? Is my own piety so important that I will willingly allow others to be injured or slain to maintain it?

To draw another hypothetical: If a madman were to break into one of our college dorms and begin violating and killing women, should this person be resisted and stopped? Do we telephone and ask the police to come? Even then, if one of us (OCC people) could have acted more swiftly to stop the killing, even at the cost of the killer’s life, then would those who suffered waiting for the police to come and perform the evil we, in effect, require them to do – then are those additional women only the victims of our personal piety?

If not acting to stop the gunman or call the police is understood to be the Christian approach, then should we notify those in the dorms or the parents that such is our policy?

If such is known to be the Christian approach, then is the safety of those who live in the dorm dramatically increased or diminished?

If the Christian response to even a burglary is to do nothing (after all, the police acting to arrest a burglar will, at minimum, involve the violence of involuntary restraint and has the potential to involve much greater violence) then do we believe such would promote a just society or provide the level of safety we may be obligated to provide for our families? Or, as I think evidence demonstrates, would such only serve to decrease both?

That that Amish did, can, and will call the police serves as a restraint toward justice within Amish communities. Ironically, the decision not to contact the police in such circumstances would, in itself, be a potential felony – an accessory to murder or, at the least, criminal negligence.

The suggestion that we walk in and offer our own lives and that things would then be magically resolved fails to meet even a modest level of probability - as the kindhearted janitor at East Carter High School demonstrated with a teenage gunmen when we lived in Grayson. Such actions only provide an additional target easily dispatched and do nothing to restrain the gunman’s cold-hearted determination.

December 5, 2009 at 1:04 PM  
Blogger Tom Lawson said...

The non-violence of Gandhi was effective - because he knew he was appealing to a “civilized” culture that was still infected by the pangs of Christian conscience. It was the British army (in bringing court martial charges) and Parliament influenced by public outcry that made his methods effective. Had the oppressors been Gestapo or Stalin’s secret police or the genocidal machete wielding murderers of Rwanda, victim-nonresistance would only be welcomed as it facilitated more rapid killing and it’s only impact on the murderers would be increasing their disdain for the victims – and this is not hypothetical because this is exactly what happens. Whether Jews or Gypsies or Slavs or Tutsis, quiet and passive acquiescence of the victims in the face of imminent slaughter seems more normal than abnormal – and does nothing to deter or restrain the murderers.

Many advocates of nonviolence have not required such is connected to a society without armed individuals enforcing justice. Gandhi himself sought and utilized the power of armed individuals to resist criminal violence. Once independence was established, and the responsibility of the nation rested in Indian hands, he did not seek a land without police. The ideal would be a society where the police would act justly – although such justice would entail violence against criminals.

As did Martin Luther King, of course. He appealed to law enforcement and courts and, if that failed, to federal troops to enforce justice justly. Some in uniform were African-American and Christians – and King never suggested he wanted them to lay down their arms and turn in their badges. He actively sought both protection for innocent people and justice against violent racists – and sought that such be carried out by armed individuals – who he wanted to act justly, but to act nonetheless.

Do I want those empowered to enforce justice, and armed in order to carry out that enforcement, to be absent Christian presence and influence? Would not such an insistence only make it more likely the frequency of unjust violence perpetrated by armed law enforcement officers increase? If I insist that no Christians serve as prison guards, is not the end result likely to be increased violence against prisoners?

The questions regarding participation in the military raise additional issues – many of which are in conflict. If a US soldier chooses to act justly in the broader setting of an unjust war of aggression, are they free from wrong because they themselves are merely carrying out their deeds in a lawful “chain of command”? Would that approach have been appropriate for members of the SS claiming moral insulation from what they had done in the name of their authorities and nation-state?

But what about a “just” war? However just its causes, can any war actually be prosecuted to its conclusion justly? Aren’t there always innocent people who suffer? And doesn’t the nature of war inevitably mean that, over time, the boundaries of morally acceptable military actions blur as the carnage brought about by war increases? (war, after all, may start to serve political goals but ends up serving only the cause of victory) If the United States and Great Britain could come, in that final year of the Second World War, to justify the intentional bombing of cities (something both nations would have labeled war crimes in the 1930s), then how can any war long sustained lay a claim to be just?

December 5, 2009 at 1:06 PM  
Blogger Tom Lawson said...

The other side, however, is at least as troubling. Leading historians are universal in acknowledging that a major factor that facilitated and enabled massive build ups in Nazi and Fascist military strength was the widespread pacifism popular in England in the 1920s and 1930s. The decision to dramatically reduce arms served to embolden, not restrain, Mussolini and Hitler. The strong isolationism of the United States, turning a blind eye to Japanese conquests in China in the 1930s, served only to feed into the hands of the militant military factions of the Japanese government. The decision of the United Nations to do nothing in the midst of the Rwanda slaughter of the Tutsis did nothing but enable to Hutus to dramatically increase the carnage. In all of these cases, the willingness to act militarily, or to act before being compelled by direct attack, would have spared tens of thousands to millions of lives.

Finally, the most egregious atrocities of war willingly committed are often done at the purely tactical (local) level – often at the level of individual small groups of soldiers or individuals acting outside the chain of command. Would removing all Christian presence from the military only serve to increase the frequency and severity of those atrocities? Would they make punishments for such actions less likely? That they occur is undeniable – the question is simply would the removal of all Christians from the military (or law enforcement) only serve to increase human suffering, not reduce it?

If a desire of God is, among many other things, to encourage just societies then in what scenario would the presence of armed individuals tasked to restrain unjust actions – through maintaining law and restraining (by active arrest and punishment) injustice – not be required? And, if required for justice, then how can such roles be inherently evil? And how would justice be served to insist that all Christian presence in such institutions must be removed?

In light of the ubiquitous distinctions both the OT, first century Judaism, and other world religious traditions make between personal actions and those done without personal malice in actions of societal justice (thus no serious contradiction was seen in Judaism between “thou shalt not kill” and mandates for capital punishment standing side by side within the Jewish law-code), how likely is it that Jesus intends such distinctions be obliterated? If he did, then where does He make that clear (this must be demonstrated in light of the fact that the OT contains numerous precepts for individual behavior, also).

In our current system of laws the policeman who shoots a man committing a violent crime is exonerated – but if it is discovered the man shot was also having an affair with the policeman’s wife, all kinds of legal questions and potential prosecution for murder would be initiated. The separation of moral codes between personal and public spheres existed in the ancient world as much as it exists today. A man who had killed in war might be unclean for a period of time (as would be a man who carried his child’s body to its burial), but he would not have been seen as guilty of the sin of murder.

In closing, the most personally challenging aspect of obedience to God’s mandates in my life is related to the mundane – will I respond gently and with courtesy to persecution, to harsh words, to people who have hurt and angered me? Will I be an agent of peace in my own circle of friends and my own family? Will I seek reconciliation even when I still want to harbor bitterness? That these are not the subject of our primary attention is, in my opinion, because bantering about issues largely disconnected from our day to day lives is seductively attractive, intellectually satisfying, and appeals to my competitive ego. It also does little to foster biblical wisdom.

December 5, 2009 at 1:07 PM  
Blogger Tom Lawson said...


I am not challenging anyone to a debate. I do not intend or want my post to appear elsewhere. I am trying to give my personal response to a serious question - a response that indicates my own ongoing ambiguities.

December 5, 2009 at 1:18 PM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

You realize that you're not reasoning morally like Jesus for two reasons: (1) you are reasoning from the perspective of those who have power, not from the perspective of the peasant classes under imperial domination, (2) Jesus believed the world was going to end very soon, and that gave justification for his mandate to his followers not to engage in violence against their political enemies.

In other words, I don't exactly disagree with you, so long as you can concede that that form of moral reasoning isn't specifically "Christian."

If you want to extend the date of the parousia indefinitely, that doesn't change the logic of Christian moral reasoning. You have to deny the parousia in order to deny the moral fecundity of Christian nonviolence. Belief in the resurrection is what makes it intelligible, and I saw no reference to such belief in your reasoning.

My only other criticism is that you don't say anything to address the way arguments in favor of restraining violence like the ones you've given are often USED not to legitimate restraining violence, but to legitimate wars of aggression or police brutality. Your "real world" justifications for violence are also utopian in the sense that they are disconnected from the reality that the people in power often use that power illegitimately. And you also leave out an account of "group think" and mass hysteria, as well as of propaganda and misinformation, which are all relevant also to the way arguments like the ones you've employed are used to justify actions other than the ones the arguments themselves are designed to justify.

December 5, 2009 at 1:37 PM  
Blogger Tom Lawson said...

I do not think Jesus expected the world to end shortly after his death and resurrection. I do think there is strong typological (as well as temporal - but that would take way too long to explain) overlap between the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the age.

Because Jesus, the apostles, and some of their subordinates were led by God in their teachings and writings, I do not think it a true no scenario in which Christians might hold civil responsibility was envisioned. God certainly knew.

Yes, it is a horrible thing that moral rationales for the existence of armed force have been used to justify unthinkable abuses. I cringe at the thought that any idea I presented earlier might have served such purposes. I would point out, however, that the morality that rightly labels such official abuses oppressive and criminal often seeks the just culpability for those actions be laid upon the criminals who committed them. In other words, the moral framework suggested in my earlier post provides the very basis out of which the abuse of civil authority in the use of violence is denounced, stopped, and the abusers brought to justice.

I have no universally workable answers. Pathetically naive as it may seem, I do believe the personal compassion and gentleness of individual Christians has tremendous power to alleviate the suffering people inflict on one another. I will not back down from that, and my assertion that civil enforcement of justice is morally acceptable stands alongside my continued commitment to resist evil with goodness, hatred with kindness, and anger with love. For the Chritian police officer, I would want them to act to defend the helpless and to stop criminals, even with violence. But, I would want them to act with an absence of personal malice - A police officer need not hate a person to restrain and arrest them. I honestly believe many police officer (even some who are not Christians) do exactly that. They act to enforce the law but they act without personal anger and malice toward the individual criminal. When they act with unreasonable force or violence, they should be themselves identified as criminals with all the implications that involves.

On a related note regarding U.S. real-world issues in the Middle East: I pray for our President and the heartbreaking choices before him in regard to the Middle East. To unilaterally withdraw will be to sign the death warrants of thousands of local civilians in the carnage that will follow our departure. To elect to remain engaged will only continue to perpetuate outrage against our nation - an outraage that serves only to empower numerous factions bound largely by their common hatred of our presence. To remain will also see the continued loss of American lives and, at least as tragic, continued damage to those thrust into hostile populations and then handed weapons of such terrible lethality.

Even the amoral but pragmatic Germans recognized that putting an effective military force into the role of an occupying force surrounded by pockets of hostile populations serves to undermine and eventually destroy that army's military effectiveness. It gradually turns soldiers into thugs. Not all soldiers, thankfully. But more than I want to imagine.

I wish we were not in the Middle East at all. But, to be honest, I do not know what our President should do at this point. All choices before him are pathways of blood. God help him. I did not vote for him, but I pray daily for President Obama and his family.

I ache for a world where such ambiguities fade and pass away late a late morning fog in the bright light of day.

December 6, 2009 at 7:47 PM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

Good thoughts, except for your first paragraph which I think is mistaken.

"Immediately after the suffering of those days, the sun will be darkened..." (Matt 24:29).

One of myriad clear indications Jesus believed that the final judgment would come directly on the heels of the destruction of the temple.

It's wishful thinking to think otherwise, but if you do, I'd be happy to have your engagement on the relevant posts on my blog.

December 6, 2009 at 7:57 PM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...


I'm not being rude. I'm honestly asking: How much research have you done into second temple Jewish apocalytpicism? I'm curious, because your comment seems to betray a lack of familiarity with the material, but I don't want to jump to any conclusions.

December 6, 2009 at 7:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thom - I am a Christian Anarcho-Pacifist.

I was drawn to this discussion by your blog post on that offensive sermon.

Let me add my two cents from a layman in SoCal, a dropout from Hope International University.

1. I hate when people attribute MLK or Ghandi's success to the 'civilized' character of their oppressor. This assumes that the point of non-violence is to 'win' on the world's terms rather than to be a faithful witness. It also ignores the fact that the greatest act of non-violent, self-donating enemy love was from Christ to the Roman Empire and those that aligned themselves with Caesar. In essence, Jesus was showing us how God conducts himself in the midst of violence and injustice. I would think his example is more pertinent than MLK and Ghandi's to this discussion.
2. I disagree with you about Jesus believing the end was imminent. The 'sun being darkened', as you know, was apocalyptic language. I don't think it's meant to be taken literally and does (long topic) refer to the destruction of Jerusalem.

I think that your argument that Jesus thought he'd be back, um, "back then" could be borrowed from those (like Niebuhr) that promote a kind of Christian realism rather than faithful witness. In other words, that sort of thinking (true or not) would undermine the idea that we are still called to non-violence.

Great stuff, all.

December 7, 2009 at 2:54 AM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...


Thanks for your comments.

I am aware how apocalyptic imagery works and what "the sun darkened" means. Did you notice the ellipsis after that phrase? That was meant to indicate that what he went on to describe was the final judgment in which all the nations of the earth mourn, etc.

I have two posts on my blog that deal with this issue, one of which addresses your concerns about Niebuhrianism. Just search "Jesus Was Wrong."

December 7, 2009 at 8:39 AM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

In further response to Tom Lawson's musings, and in the vein of Joey's critique, I would add that in several instances nonviolent tactics worked against the Nazis. In one city in Poland, for instance, the entire city (including all the non-Jews) chose to wear the Star of David bands, in solidarity with the Jews. That city had one of the lowest death dolls of any throughout the entire war, because the "uncivilized" Nazis were impotent against such a tactic, short of killing the entire city, which was impractical.

I also commend you to read the story of Andre Trocme, if you haven't, who was a French pastor during WWII. Trocme saved thousands of Jewish lives and was a nonviolent resister of the Nazis, who happened to believe that he had God's power on his side. He wrote a book called Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution and his story can be found in the introduction. It is available at under the Books dropdown.

Finally, once again to stress, the perspective from which you are doing your moral reasoning is the perspective of the nation with military power. The perspective from which Jesus and the early Christians did their moral reasoning was from the perspective of those without power.

Whose side are you on?

December 7, 2009 at 8:55 AM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

In other words, those without power recognize that they can't stop all the world's evils; but they can resist it courageously, and refuse to perpetuate it themselves.

December 7, 2009 at 8:55 AM  
Blogger Last Man Standing said...

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Tom for your response. I have struggled with some of the points that you have posed. Jesus was non violent over all in what we know of Him. His relationship with military personnel, reminds me that he did not rebuke them on their positions.
I have been back from the war for 5 yrs. I have not acted violently even once. I know that I have the HS as a guide in this life. I have chosen to use my verbal skills to deescalate problem situations. Even I can not say that my response will be that of violence if a particular situation arises. I will say I am physically and mentally capable, I keep my body in shape and my defense and offense skills refined if in fact the situation arises. I do not harbor any ill will to any person who feels convicted to be non violent, I will however stand for those that are not able to stand for themselves. I will let justice follow it's course.
I successfully finished 150 combat missions in Iraq. I had compassion and used wisdom and prayed diligently that I would honor God not only for the men I served with but also to the enemies I fought against. I prayed for the families on both sides and every family I destroyed I thought of the brothers, fathers, and children of these men.
I fulfilled missions and I did save lives on both sides it is just hard to find clarity when both sides are right in this discussion.
The pain is no different regardless of the outcome. I killed this person or should I have killed this person. One is not better than the other...

December 7, 2009 at 1:07 PM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

So because we don't accept pacifism, we just throw just war criteria out the window too?

The bigger question than how we fight is, whose side are we fighting for?

December 7, 2009 at 1:10 PM  
Blogger Daniel Bare said...

Isn't it the duty of every Christian to "rescue those being away to death..."? Keeping in mind that the life or death of the soul is paramount over physical life or death, in this world some of us will have to make tough choices. "Do I send this soul to hell, or do I let him send ten other souls to hell?" If we can stop violent crimes peacably, we should...but stop them we must. Our witness to the world is destroyed when we sit by and do nothing. Tom, good words. Last Man Standing, "greater love hath no man than this"--those like you.

December 23, 2009 at 8:48 PM  

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