Yoder spends the fourth chapter of his book discussing pacifism and the Old Testament. Nowadays, of course, the creepy resemblance between much of it and the modern rhetoric of holy war tends to leap out at us. But, Yoder argues, we have to look at it from the point of view of the readers of the time.
Back then, the idea that a god was a tribal war leader wasn't any more remarkable than the idea that the President is commander-in-chief. It was, in part, what gods were for. What would have struck readers then, Yoder says, is how often Yahweh achieves his ends without the people going to war at all. The most famous example is Exodus, where the Hebrews simply wait while God takes care of the Pharaoh (and the rest of Egypt). Other such cases occur in Chronicles, where enemy armies are destroyed by infighting or "an angel of the Lord" without the Israelites having to throw a single spear. Yoder also see several examples of battles where the Hebrews were vastly outnumbered, yet won, as illustrations of the principle that faithfulness, rather than military might, determines the victor in conflicts.
So, he concludes, what Jesus preached was not a radical break from what Jews had heard before: "be still, and wait for the Lord." They would get rid of the Romans the same way they got rid of their earlier enemies: by trusting in God.
This is an interesting way of looking at it, and kind of follows an Old Testament theme that I'd started to notice myself: how Yahweh fulfills what would have been people's expectations of a god in those days, but subtly messes with them. He demands a human sacrifice from Abraham, but takes it back; he threatens to destroy various people but lets himself be talked out of it; he rewards and punishes Israel based on its fealty to him, but he also makes a covenant that he won't abandon no matter what they do. Given the violent tribal society he was starting with, one can make a case for Yahweh laying the groundwork for Jesus while still playing the sort of god that the ancient Middle East could have believed in.
So it is the Old Testament and not Jesus that Paul quotes in Romans 12: "Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all ... Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, 'if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.'"
There is, however, a dissonance here that Yoder never brings up. Compare the above quote with Jesus making the same point in Matthew 5: "But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."
They seem to be arguing for pacifism from opposite directions. Paul is saying, don't crush your enemies because God will crush them for you. Jesus seems to be saying, God doesn't crush your enemies, therefore you shouldn't either. Paul's reasoning is more in line with the Old Testament theme that Yoder points out, though Jesus' point is not without foundation. Particularly apposite is the book of Jonah, where the hero explains why he wouldn't preach to the evil Ninevites: "I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity." (The fact that Jesus refers to his three-day entombment as "the sign of Jonah" may be for more reason than the fish episode.)
But still, there are basic unresolved questions here. Do we love our enemies to heap coals on their heads, or because they are actually as deserving (or undeserving) of love as we are? Is God a radically different being who plays by different rules than we do, or is he an example for us to imitate? The Bible at certain points supports all of these notions, but they defy easy synthesis. Perhaps this didn't serve Yoder's purpose, but I wish he'd analyzed it a little more.Posted by Camassia at July 07, 2004 05:37 PM | TrackBack