The 2001 Quaker Peace Roundtable:
What Can the Bible teach Us About Peacemaking?
I have been asked to bring to the 2001 Quaker Peace Roundtable a reflection on
what the Bible teaches about peacemaking. I
accepted the task with some reservations.
For one thing, among the peace churches (at least) the subject has gotten a
little stale. In fact, it is one of
the oldest and driest in all of Christendom.
Haven’t we heard all this many times already? The topic threatens to
instantly lose its audience. I
might not attend a concurrent session on it if I had any decent alternatives.
After 15 years of university teaching, I have already had my share of
talking to people who are reading for another class, chatting with their
neighbors, or even sleeping soundly with heads down on desks.
I can’t bear the thought of traveling all the way across the continent
to face any more of that.
But for an ecumenical group of Quakers, coming up with something new is not the
only hurdle. A large part of the
possible audience may have trouble finding anything relevant in the topic. If
the Bible is not authoritative, as many Friends hold, its teachings are at best
of advisory value, and at worst of quaintly historical interest.
Some of my audience may listen to what I have to say in about the same
spirit as they would bring to a visit to an antique store: the artifacts brought
to light may have nostalgic, historic, or anthropologic value.
But in our modern homes, rational, simple, humane and bright with the
modern (or postmodern) Light, who is going to tolerate clutter from a bygone
So much of my audience may find itself arrayed along a rather dismal continuum,
from those who think my topic is stale to those who think it’s positively
I propose to address these hurdles one at a time, by dividing the topic
into its two constituent parts. First
we will explore the question “What Can The Bible Teach Us...?” Then we will
reflect on what we mean when we talk “About Peacemaking.”
Operating Assumptions for a Life-Changing Encounter with Scripture
If we approach it with a couple of operating assumptions, the Bible can
draw us into a eye-opening encounter with the Word of God, and teach us things
about peacemaking (among many other things) that we would never have seen
coming. So I start by suggesting that we adopt two operating assumptions, at
least for the moment, in considering the Bible’s teachings on peacemaking.
A. First Assumption: The Bible is
one document, and its teachings cohere.
I admit that I have a professional advantage in making such an operating
assumption. I am a lawyer by
training, and some would say by temperament as well – although I sometimes
detect a puzzling note of disparagement when they say this.
Lawyers, at least in common law traditions like our own, have to approach
the judicial decisions of their jurisdiction -- a body of writing much larger
and more diverse than the Bible -- with precisely this assumption.
Under the common law, the most important source for understanding the law
is not the code of statutes enacted by legislatures, nor the regulations adopted
by administrative agencies, nor even the Constitution.
Commentaries and encyclopedias are of only modest help.
The heart of the law is found in the cases decided by appellate courts.
So the lawyer must read cases. That
is, she must read stories about real events that have happened to real people,
as told by judges writing appellate opinions.
And then she has to read the judges’ opinions about what those stories
mean, and their orders about what shall be done to or for the people in the
stories as a result. And she has to
decipher from these stories and opinions what the law is so she can tell her
client the probable implications of whatever alternatives he is considering.
The lawyer can only understand the law by reading a good sample of cases.
And she has to read those cases, at least for starters, as if they
together are all teaching her a single coherent lesson about what the law is.
Only with that assumption as her operating guide can she distill from all
those stories the common threads that constitute the fabric of the law.
If she begins to say to herself, “well, this case is by Douglas who was
a liberal, but that case is by Rehnquist who is conservative, so they could very
well disagree,” she may very well be right about Douglas and Rehnquist, but
she is likely to misunderstand the law. This
is because the law is under the influence of both Douglas and Rehnquist.
It may not strictly be true that the law exists somewhere “out there”
independent of humans and waiting to be discovered and described by them.
But a good lawyer can help herself toward understanding the law by
operating as if the law is an
independent reality, and can best be located by plotting its position from the
clues given us by Rehnquist AND Douglas (and every other appellate judge as
If every judge agreed on how to understand the law, lawyering would be a craft,
but not a very interesting one. We
could just as well list the laws somewhere on the web and then all look them up
as needed. If we ever achieved such
a systematic and reductionist rendering of the law, it would probably be a sign
of the moral collapse of our civilization.
That legal system would be dead, unable to flex with the times or learn
about its own injustices.
Fortunately, there are tensions among the cases; they are never quite identical.
And those cases are crucial, because they give the law its ability to
change, or even just to clarify itself in the light of new developments.
And yet the lawyer can do a pretty good job of describing to her client
what the law is, what the strand of consistency is right now among all those
hundreds or thousands of variegated cases.
She can do this only if she starts with the operating assumption that all
those cases are, in a way, a single body of writing, and that underneath the
surface variations there runs a coherent and consistent teaching.
I suggest that we treat the Bible as a casebook.
It is a collection of stories (and other literary forms, akin to
commentaries and opinions) assembled to teach us about how to relate to God and
each other. The various pieces of
the Bible present to us, quite often, significant tensions between one another.
We could treat these as contradictions and throw out the
pieces that seem weakest. Or we
could avoid a lot of work by seizing on one passage and ignoring others.
But if we do either of these, we risk losing a good portion of what the
Bible can teach us. We remove
ourselves from the creative tensions in the Bible, and its instructive value
B. Second Assumption:
the Bible is authoritative.
But tolerating ambiguity in the Bible, and valuing it as a source of creative
and instructive tension, isn’t good enough by itself.
We also need to approach the Bible with a second working assumption: that
the Bible is authoritative. If we
consider the Bible as having no claim on us, then its instruction and the
creative tension that gives it life have no hold over us.
The Bible becomes mere literature when it loses its claim of authority
over us. Literature might help us
understand how someone else views an issue, but it has only weak influence over
its readers’ lives. We are free
to dismiss literature as mistaken or worse whenever it confronts us with a
challenge to our way of thinking or living.
All of us find passages in the Bible that are hard to swallow. Some might even
seem a little embarrassing. The temptation is to dismiss them. Some do require
us to take into account factors that are no longer present.
We may be free to eat ham, for example, partly because refrigeration and
animal husbandry have reduced the risk of trichinosis.
(Of course, Christian freedom to eat ham also has Scriptural support in
the book of Acts, in the story of Peter’s vision of various kinds of formerly
forbidden food.) But if we take the
Bible as a single coherent document, and as authoritative, even when we conclude
that a particular standard is time- or culture-specific (and thus not literally
applicable to us), we still must dig down to find the reason for the rule.
We need to understand the underlying principle that motivated the
standard in the first place, and that carries down to us today.
Hardly anyone practices animal sacrifice anymore, including the vast majority of
Jews and Christians. We have
concluded that the instructions to slaughter animals for our sins no longer
govern. For Christians, the death
and resurrection of Jesus makes animal sacrifice redundant.
I don’t know for sure why Jews no longer sacrifice; I presume it has
something to do with the destruction of the Temple. But even though the practice
is gone, the reason for animal sacrifice presumably lingers. We still need to
express repentance, even sacrificially, and seek forgiveness for sin. We still
need to recognize the potentially fatal costs of our wrongdoing, to ourselves,
and to others, including the most innocent and blameless around us.
If we just dismiss animal sacrifice as an awkward, cruel, and outdated practice,
and excise that part of the Bible from our minds, we miss a good part of the
lesson the Bible can teach us. But if we keep the awkward parts, and give them
authority over us, forcing ourselves to remain in dialog with them – then we
give the Bible its full power to change us in ways we could not have
anticipated. And, of course, those are generally the ways we most need changing.
If, on the other hand, we pick and choose what seems comfortable to us, we are
not asking what the Bible teaches, but rather “what am I willing to be
taught?” This often mutates into
“where does the Bible agree with the opinions I had before I consulted it?”
This reading of Scripture
is a sure way to insulate ourselves from the Light, by assuming the Light
can’t really be anything too inconvenient to our current mode of living.
In suggesting these two operating assumptions for reading the Bible, I am
drawing on my own experience. Part
of this is my own devotional experience with Scripture.
There are several areas of my life where a Biblical text first woke me to
the possibility of being a better person. The whole idea of loving one’s
enemies, so prominent in what will follow in this paper, comes from almost no
other source in my life.
But even more powerful is the way the Bible interacts with the rest of my life
to form a creative, instructive dialog. For
example, I first heard of stewardship while being taught what the Bible says
about it. Then in law school I studied the duties of a fiduciary, one who acts
for another. On my next encounter
with the Biblical teachings on stewardship, I quickly saw both the Bible’s
teachings and my law school studies in a new light.
Suddenly stewardship changed from one-dimensional notions of tithing to a
life-filling understanding of what it really means to see ourselves as not
owning anything, but being in every aspect of our lives stewards for God and for
those around us God would have us serve. This
richer understanding, arising out of the interplay of an authoritative Bible
with other sources of God’s Light, has proven to be exceptionally fertile
ground for helping me deal with everything from my relationship to others to the
possibility of being greedy for nonmaterial things.
So I am inviting you to reflect on the Bible’s teachings with these two
assumptions in mind: the unity of
the Bible’s teachings, and their authority. Perhaps for you these will only be
provisional assumptions for the purpose of this study, and you will abandon them
for the rest of your life. Even
that will be much better than nothing.
I really cannot ask more of you, anyway. For
we can also safely make a third assumption: I am a flawed Biblical interpreter.
I have tried to avoid obvious errors, but I doubt that I have achieved
this goal, despite my best efforts. So
while I urge you to treat the Bible as authoritative when seeking its teachings
on a topic, I cannot urge you to treat my little study with this kind of
deference. Consider it a first draft, and make out of it your own, better one.