“I do not believe that Jesus wants Christians to use violence. And if I can be so blunt: I think that a large portion of the American Evangelical church has been seduced, whether knowingly or not, by nationalistic militarism. Yet our inspired Word of God aggressively critiques this very thing….” – Preston Sprinkle (Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence, 24)
Preston is absolutely right, the seduction is subtle. I realized that during my first year of seminary. I honestly don’t know how that happened. I grew up in a household that was personally affected by the horrors of American militarism. I have had family members assassinated by American Puppet governments. I won’t go into details, but if one knew what really went on behind the scenes (in Guatemala for instance), one would gag. Neverthless, this review isn’t about me and its definitely not about America. It’s a review about a book on non-violence from a Christian perspective. On the cover of the book, Francis Chan recommends that you read this book because you “may discover that much of your current belief system has been influenced by sources other than scripture.” Preston tries to take us back to Scripture, throwing off the weight of cultural influences that hinders us, in order to show us that scripture unabashedly advocates for Christians to embrace non-violence.
A Brief Overview
Preston begins the book with a definition of violence…. Violence is an interesting topic; I am currently writing a paper on violence in the theology of Jonathan Edwards, so we will get back to this later in the review.
Preston devotes four chapters to violence in the Old Testament. In my mind this is the most important part of the book. Most Christians live with Marcionite tendencies, the God of the OT isn’t the same God as the God of the NT. Now nobody would ever say that, but its often implied when people say things like “Oh but that was in the OT…” Either way, In chapter 3 Preston address violence in the Law. In chapter 4 Preston addresses Israel’s warfare policy. In chapter 5 Preston takes on the difficult “kill Everything that breathes” type passages. He concludes with a chapter on violence in the prophets. The conclusion is that the prophets “proclaim a message that in general moves away from violence and toward peace.” The Old Testament gives us a window into a reality that will be put on full display in the life of Jesus.
Preston also devotes 4 chapters to the New Testament; devoting two on the Gospels, one in the Epistles and one on Revelation. What he has to say about Revelation is quite instructive especially in light of Mark Driscoll’s article, “Is God a Pacifist?”.
Outside of Biblical Theology, Preston spends a chapter on the early church. This chapter clearly shows that among the church fathers there was widespread agreement, even among different theological lines, that violence is absolutely off limits for Christians. Preston makes a great point, that “while the opinions of the early church aren’t authoritative, where there is widespread agreement across different regions, we should pay special attention to what they are saying.” Us Protestants tend to overlook the importance of the Church Fathers, and we greatly suffer because of this. If only we would listen carefully to what they had to say we would be all the better for it. He concludes with two chapters on answering questions that are often brought up in discussions about non-violence, and he includes an appendix on Just war theory.
I would like to (kind of) briefly point out three things that Preston should be commended for in this book.
- The Law – Accomodation and Improvement. Preston did his PhD on Leviticus 18:5, and he would consider himself an OT scholar before an NT scholar (although there definitely is overlap…). Preston addresses an argument, often found among the New Atheists, that God is a blood thirsty genocidal power hungry provincial maniac. This argument (or name calling) is made in light of the fact that parts of the OT seem to advocate violence. Preston debunks this argument by pointing out that “the law was not God’s ideal moral code for all people of all time. Rather, God met Israelites where they were and began to take “incremental steps” toward his moral ideal…. What we have in the law of Moses is a moral code that accommodates to and improves upon the ethical systems of the surrounding nations.” (46-47) Take for instance divorce. Jesus says that God accommodated to their hard hearts by allowing divorce in certain circumstances. Or take the example of slavery. Israel accommodated to the cultural practices of the day (they had slaves), but God made incremental improvements upon such practices (humane treatment of slaves). In essence Preston is arguing that whatever we say about violence in the OT, it must be said in light of the “redemptive movement of God’s plan.” This concept will almost certainly irritate some people. The notion that God would accommodate to culture and that his law isn’t perfect will cause an uproar in certain circles, neverhtless, the NT clearly teaches that there is a certain teleology to the law, it is a teleology that is directed towards and is fulfilled by Jesus.
- “Kill Everything that Breathes” – Grace and Retributive Justice. Did God command the destruction of the Canaanite population? Yes. Was it as bad as we think it was? Probably not. It seems as though it wasn’t a total annihilation. Hyperbole and war rhetoric are not meant to be taken literally. Regardless, we need to account for the fact that God commanded the destruction of innocent people…. I use the term “innocent” very loosely. In fact I don’t know why I used it. Well actually I used it because that is the typical objection to the Canaanite conquest, God commanded the wiping out of innocent people who were living happily ever after in their own homes. Well that is certainly not the case. As Preston says, “the Canaanites on the whole were a particularly wicked people by anyone’s standards.” (76). Incest, bestiality, orgies, prostitution, and child sacrifice were typical within these cultures. When addressing the annihilation of the Canaanites there are two key words we need to keep in mind: 1)Grace and 2) Retributive Justice. God offers grace to the Canaanites prior to their destruction. And their destruction was an act of retributive justice.
- Church History – I am grateful for the fact that Preston included a chapter on non-violence in the early church. This subject could easily turn into a book of its own, and I think it should. I mentioned this above, but as protestants we tend to overlook the church fathers as authoritative (in some sense), it smells of too much like Catholicism. I think we need to discard this notion. Yes scripture alone is authoritative, it is our norming norm, yet the church fathers were some pretty smart guys, and they were closer chronologically and culturally to the writings of the NT than we are.
I don’t really have anything negative to say about this book. However is one thing that I would have liked to have seen covered more in depth….
Violence. Give me violence!!! Just kidding, however I did want to see a fuller treatment of the topic of violence. Preston acknowledges that definitions of violence are manifold. There are probably as many definitions of violence on the internet, books, and journals as there are hipsters in Silver Lake, that is to say that there really are a lot. Now I don’t expect Preston to examine all these definitions, but it seems as though focusing on only one definition (a very good one at that) makes him susceptible to many objections. This definition of violence seems to assume that violence is bad. In other words it’s a value-laden definition….
This is an issue that Reformed theologian Hans Boersma takes on in his book Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross. In his discussion of violence he points out that many theologians fear implicating God in violence because they understand violence as only being a negative thing. Boersma says that: “the underlying assumption in many discussions of divine violence appears to be that violence is inherently evil and immoral…I suggest however that we need to test our sensibilities. In particular we need to ask whether violence is, under any and all circumstances, a morally negative thing.” In attempting to offer a value-free definition of violence, Boersma appropriates Donald X. Burt’s definition of a violent act as: “any act which contravenes the rights of another. It can also be described as an act which causes injury to the life, property, or person of a human being, oneself, or others.” How would a value-free definition of violence change this entire discussion? What if Boersma is right? What if violence really is neutral… I know that takes this discussion in a completely different direction, but it’s the kind of objection I have experienced “on the ground” while talking about non-violence with people at church. I have heard people say that “it is not wrong to cause injury to the life, property, or person of a human being” (i.e. do violence) for the right reasons. Since the definition is neutral we can engage in discussion about the appropriateness of violence. But the defintion that Sprinkle uses already closes off possibility of discussion. The definition he uses says “violence is destruction to a victim by means that overpower the victim’s consent.” Before we talk about “violence” we know that it is wrong to override anybody’s consent. So right from the gate we are forced to say that violence is always wrong (unless you believe that it is appropriate to override other people’s freedom).
I don’t necessarily disagree with the definition that Preston uses. I actually think it’s a really good definition, all I am saying is that I would have liked to have seen an more in depth treatment of violence. I wanted more “violence.”
It has already been said by other bloggers, but this book breaks paradigms. I have met a ton of Anabaptist pacifists, in fact all of my ethics professors at Fuller were Anabaptists, but I have never met a Reformed pacifist (other than myself and possibly one other guy). Even among people I work with, my pacifism is seen as an oddity, an interesting quirk, probably attributed to the fact that I went to Fuller Seminary. I partly agree, Fuller influenced/solidified the position I already held. My position was also birthed out of my family’s life experiences. I read Scripture the way I do because I was shaped to read it that way. Then Fight enters the scene… written by a guy who had completely different life experiences than my own, who was educated in a radically different kind of seminary than mine, yet we both land on the same position. That is what happens when one takes scripture seriously, and when you let the Bible speak for itself. The biblical case for non-violence is overwhelming. Yes there are “practical” objections, yes there are “political hiccups” that we run into. (Can a Christian president declare a just war? What if the war is unjust? I guess that depends on what your understanding of a president is. Where is the line between a president acting as an individual vs. a president acting as a representative of a country? Can one individual represent himself and a nation at once in an ontologically meaningful way?) Regardless of these types of questions, one thing is clear. We are not called to do “what works” we are called to faithfulness to Christ and his word. At the end of the day faithfulness to Christ is the most important filter for making a decision about where we fall on the violence vs. non-violence spectrum.