Archives For Nonviolence

Predator drone (photo: U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)

Like most people, I remember watching the news unfold on December 14, 2012, when Adam Lanza gunned down 20 first-graders and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

I’m old enough to remember the mass shootings that preceded Sandy Hook. Killeen. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook was different, of course. Most of the victims were six, maybe seven years old.

The horror I felt was different, too, because this time I was a parent. My daughter was only two at the time — young enough that, thankfully, we didn’t have to tell her what had taken place. Her innocence remained intact… for now, at least.

But for the first time, I felt what every parent feels when a tragedy involving children takes place. That sense of utter powerlessness. The realization that it could happen here, in my daughter’s school. I’ve heard others describe parenthood as watching your heart walk outside your body. I finally know what they’re talking about, and it’s a disquieting experience, to say the least.

In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, I remember watching President Obama assume the role of mourner-in-chief, a duty he performed with exceptional skill: comforting victims’ families, eulogizing the dead, giving voice to the grief we all felt, and standing up to a recalcitrant gun lobby whose only answer to unspeakable gun violence is… more guns. (When all you have is a hammer…)

In his book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, Preston Sprinkle raises a troubling question: how can the president mourn the children of Sandy Hook while authorizing drone strikes which have killed hundreds of children in Pakistan and Yemen?

How can any of us mourn one while rationalizing the other?

Reports vary, but almost all of them (with the possible exception of the CIA) reveal that military drone strikes aren’t nearly as precise as our leaders have led us to believe.

  • According to a Columbia Law School study, up to 155 of an estimated 611 people killed by drone strikes in Pakistan during 2011 were civilians. That’s 1 innocent for every 4 suspected militants…
  • Suspected being the operative word. Only 20% of these suspected militants were “strongly identified” — that is, identified by name and their status corroborated by an independent, on-the-ground investigation.
  • Just last month, an errant drone strike killed more than dozen innocents in Yemen, because of an apparent failure to distinguish between a terrorist convoy and a wedding party.
  • In Yemen, drone strikes have killed an estimated 42 children. They’ve had to establish a counseling center to help surviving children cope with the traumatic effects of drone strikes — children who are terrified of the United States and its flying robots.

Are the children killed in these drone strikes worth any less than the children of Sandy Hook? Did their parents love them any less? Did God love them any less?

Many of us are uncomfortable putting them in the same category as the children of Sandy Hook. When it happens in Connecticut, we call it murder. When it happens in Pakistan, we call it “collateral damage,” if we acknowledge it at all.

Preston Sprinkle won’t let us off the hook, as I found out while reading his book yesterday. Contrasting the president’s response to Sandy Hook with his handling of drone strikes, Preston writes:

Can we extend his sympathy to the Middle East? Are the deaths of 168 incinerated children any less a tragedy than the massacre at Newtown? Or does their color, ethnicity, and religion justify their deaths?

Hard words.

They come at the end of a chapter in which Preston shows how the New Testament book of Revelation (famously the source of Mark Driscoll’s prize-fighting Jesus) is actually a message of nonviolence. Preston demonstrates that Revelation is a polemic against the violence and excess of the Roman Empire — and all empires that follow in its steps. He argues that God does not dish out violence in Revelation; he absorbs it. The blood spattered on Jesus’ robe in Revelation 19 is not the blood of his enemies; it’s his own.

Human violence is condemned, never encouraged in Revelation. The Pax Romana (peace of Rome) — which was really peace for some, violence for the rest — is a myth. It is anything but true peace. Some day, Rome and all other nations will be held to account for the blood “of all who have been slaughtered on the earth,” according to Revelation 18.

And that includes us.

Which is why it’s high time we heed Preston’s call to untangle our faith from American nationalism. It’s time we speak out against violence in all its forms, especially violence against children — no matter where it takes place. As Preston writes:

I mourn both tragedies — the death of innocent beautiful children in Connecticut and of the precious children in the Middle East. Both tragedies are evil. Both will be vindicated. Both will be judged.


Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence by Preston Sprinkle

Battle of Nandorfehervar (image public domain in the United States)Last week I was at a conference in Bangkok where the military metaphors flowed freely.

“We’re raising up an army.”

“Fighting for God.”

“Doing battle with the enemy.”

“Going to war for this generation.”

It felt like an awful lot of violent imagery for a conference that was all about kids and faith.

It’s true you’ll find military metaphors in the New Testament, as friends on Facebook and Twitter pointed out when I aired my concern the other day. Jesus talks about bringing a “sword” of division. Paul greets his friends as “fellow soldiers,” counsels believers to put on “the armor of God,” and urges Timothy to “fight the good fight.”

But there is, I think, a crucial difference between us and the earliest Christians: the pre-Constantine church was united in its opposition to violence of any kind. As Preston Sprinkle writes on Scot McKnight’s blog (and in his book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence):

While early Christian writers were divided on many issues (e.g. the mode of baptism, the role of women in leadership), when it came to killing, their voices seemed to be unanimous: believers are prohibited from taking human life.

The early church rejected the distinction that some like Mark Driscoll try to make between “authorized” and “unauthorized” killing. Origen, Tertullian, Lactantius — they condemned killing, period.

The Church Fathers prior to Constantine were united in their opposition to military service. For example, Tertullian argued that, “The Lord, by taking away Peter’s sword, disarmed every soldier thereafter.”

The New Testament writers took pains to emphasize the metaphorical (or at least non-physical) nature of the church’s “fight.” Jesus’ kingdom was “not of this world,” meaning that his followers would not fight. Paul insisted that our struggle “is not against flesh and blood” and that we “do not wage war as the world does.”

The New Testament’s military metaphors must be read in light of its larger commitment to nonviolence — a commitment to which the early church held unwaveringly. For ancient believers, there was no mistaking the significance of these metaphors — or what they didn’t signify.

But all that was before Constantine.

That was before Augustine and Aquinas and just war theory.

That was before the Crusades.

That was before a millennium of wars fought in God’s name by those who saw themselves as God’s people doing God’s work.

That was before God’s name was invoked in our own lifetime to justify military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That was before some Christians in Uganda, backed by others in the US, rallied behind an anti-homosexuality bill that included the death penalty for some offenses.

So when Christians today speak of “raising an army,” “going to war,” or “doing battle with the enemy,” what exactly do they mean? After centuries of killing and war in God’s name, is it still just a metaphor, as it was for the early Christian writers? And if so, is that clear to those listening on the outside?

I’m not so sure.

The origins and implications of our words matter, as David R. Henson’s thoughtful post reminds us. The language we use should reflect our commitment to the teachings of Jesus — including his call to nonviolence.

Choosing our words carefully is perhaps even more important, precisely because we haven’t always lived up to this call.

John Moore / Getty Images
Ten years ago.

Close to 200,000 people dead. Most of them civilians.

To say nothing of the more than 30,000 US soldiers wounded — many with debilitating injuries they will carry for the rest of their lives.

Or the undetermined number of “excess deaths,” likely in the hundreds of thousands — those who died not necessarily from bullets or bombs but from the general disruption of war.

Or the 3 to 5 million people displaced, many driven from their homes forever — including most of Iraq’s Christian minority.

Or the nearly $2 trillion price tag of this war. Never paid for, and about 25 times higher than what was promised.

Or the most recent projection, which puts the final price tag at $6 trillion, once the full cost of veteran care is accounted for.

That’s $6 trillion we don’t have to spend on our children’s education, healthcare, international aid, infrastructure, environmental cleanup, or any number of other worthy endeavors.

All in the pursuit of weapons that didn’t exist.

Was it worth it?

For me personally, Iraq marked a turning point. It was the last war I will ever be lured into supporting.

Like most Americans, I threw my support behind the call to arms. September 11 showed us how vulnerable we are (even though Iraq had nothing to do with the events of that day).

I wanted to feel safe again. I wanted to believe that a little bit of “shock and awe” could deliver on its promise of security.

It couldn’t and it didn’t, because there is no such thing as redemptive violence. There is no such thing as a war to end all wars. Violence only ever breeds more violence.

“Peace through victory” is the myth of empire. It didn’t work for the Romans, and it will not work for us.

May God forgive us for what we’ve done to ourselves and to the people of Iraq.

Ten years on, kyrie elieson. 

Lord, have mercy.

This is part 1 of a series on rethinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a Christian, inspired by the most recent assault on Gaza. Part 2 can be read here.  

Here’s a little perspective on the conflict in Gaza…


Update (03/21/13): An earlier version of this infographic ended with an iconic photo of BBC journalist Jihad Mishrawi carrying the wrapped body of his son, Omar, who was thought at the time to have been killed in an Israeli air strike. A report was publicized last week suggesting that Omar may have been killed by a Hamas rocket instead. So as not to distract from the larger point being made, I’ve removed the photo. What remains unchanged, in my opinion, is: (1) firing rockets at someone is never, ever justified, and (2) Israel has utilized disproportionate force to subjugate the Palestinians. Until both sides renounce violence as a misguided path to security, the death toll is sure to rise.

Global Voices of Nonviolence (GVON) is a new initiative to share stories and perspectives on nonviolence from around the world. It was started by EthnoGraphic Media (EGM), the film company behind the documentary Little Town of Bethlehem.

This week they republished an old post of mine called “People of the third way,” in which I share how Jesus practiced (and taught) nonviolence against a political backdrop every bit as volatile as the modern Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Rejecting both violent uprising and docile acquiescence, Jesus offers a third way: confronting the oppressor without fighting back. Refusing the be enemies. Subverting evil with love.

I hope to contribute more to GVON in the future. I tend to write a lot about “love your neighbor” and how this idea is central to the way of Jesus. GVON and EGM are putting these words in action, calling the church to recover its rich heritage of nonviolence.

I don’t do many shameless promotions on this blog, but here’s one. Support GVON. Follow their blog. Connect with them on Facebook. Listen to their stories of nonviolence and maybe share some of your own.

Yes, but the cross is an offense. So if you’re being true to the gospel, you’re going to offend someone.

This is one of the more common rejoinders I hear when Christians are accused of being unloving.

(The idea that it’s OK — perhaps even necessary — to offend for the sake of the gospel has come up recently, for example, as a result of the Chick-fil-A debate. It’s implicit in J.P. Moreland’s response to Matthew Paul Turner’s Chick-fil-A post.)

And it’s true. The cross is an offense. It was scorned as utter folly by many in Paul’s day, just as it is by many today.

The way of Jesus is a stumbling block for lots of people.

The question is, what made it a stumbling block in the first place?

“The offense of the cross” is sometimes used to justify any offense we cause, however loosely connected to the gospel it may be. Like our participation in the never-ending culture wars and the “us vs. them” mentality we’ve cultivated. Was that really the original offense of the cross?

Let me suggest the cross is an offense for reasons that have nothing to do with politics, gays, or societal decay.

The cross is an offense because it rejects the world’s idea of power.

By going to the cross, Jesus renounced any claim to power. By staying his hand — by refusing to wield a sword in his defense or summon a hoard of angels — Jesus showed us that the way of the cross is the path of a servant, not a conqueror or a culture warrior.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said during his trial. That’s why his followers didn’t fight to prevent his arrest. The kingdom of God doesn’t play by world’s rules.

To take up your cross, you have to lay down your sword, your placard, and maybe even your chicken sandwich. You have to give up the pursuit of power. You have to give up your “rights” — including the right to fight for your rights.

The kingdom of God comes through a cross. It will not come by any other means. To go the way of the cross, then, is to live like people who actually believe the best way to transform lives is by loving and serving others — rather than fighting, protesting, or waging an interminable culture war.

That is the offense of the cross. That is the “weakness of God” which, according to Paul, many find so laughable. We do not fight the world’s war; we have more important work to do.

I’m not against offending people with the gospel, but let’s not offend for all the wrong reasons. There is only one legitimate “offense of the cross.” And that is when we set aside our agendas and self-interest in order to love and serve our neighbor in ways that baffle a watching world.

This is an updated (and mercifully shortened) version of a post
I wrote five years ago…


Today is July 4, the day Americans light fireworks at ungodly hours and listen to the music of Lee Greenwood.

Many church sanctuaries will be draped in red, white, and blue this week; and many Christian thought leaders will argue once more that America was founded as a Christian nation.

There is, in fact, lots to admire about our revolutionary history. Many of our founding fathers, like John Adams, were men of great moral character. Others (*cough* Jefferson, *cough* Franklin) were not.

For me, perhaps the finest moment of the American Revolution came when it was over. General Washington, fresh from his triumph over Lord Cornwallis, had the chance to become America’s first king. Instead, he resigned his commission and went home.

Several years later, Washington was elected America’s first president, but he voluntarily stood down after just two terms, setting a precedent that was later enshrined in the Constitution. He laid the foundation for a peaceful transition from one government to the next — something many countries would kill (and have killed) for.

And yet… for me, the marriage of Christianity and nationalism isn’t exactly a match made in heaven.

While it’s true many of the founding fathers invoked God as they gave the call to arms (providing fodder for the Christian Identity movement), that wasn’t not exactly a new idea. Plenty of people — from revolutionaries to despots — have used God’s name to sanctify their chosen course of action. Sometimes for noble purposes, sometimes not.

The real question is whether it’s legitimate to invoke the name of God to justify our revolutionary past. If we are (or were) a Christian nation, then the Bible should be the standard by which we judge our history, right?

If it is, then how do we reconcile our violent beginnings with these words from the Apostle Peter?

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify Godon the day he visits us.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

Bear in mind Peter was addressing Christians living under the thumb of the Roman Emperor Nero (or perhaps Domitian), a ruler far more tyrannical than any 18th-century British monarch. Peter himself would be executed by Rome, not long after writing this letter.

And then there’s Jesus. Much like the founding fathers, he grew up in a land ruled by a distant monarch. Many of his countrymen were caught up with revolutionary zeal, determined to overthrow their oppressors by force.

Jesus spent most of his adult life within a few miles of the birthplace of the Zealots — a movement whose tactics could be compared to those of the “Swamp Fox” of American revolutionary lore.

But in one of his most politically charged sermons, Jesus categorically rejected the way of the Zealot:

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

To his listeners, Jesus articulated an uncompromising stand against military resistance, even against the cruelest of tyrants.

What’s more, Jesus practiced what he preached, even (and especially) when his own back was against the wall. When Jesus was arrested outside Jerusalem, Peter reacted like a Zealot: he began swinging his sword. Instead of urging him on, Jesus stunned Peter with this rebuke:

Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.

The fate of anyone who raises a sword is sealed, says Jesus. They will be cut down by yet another sword.

Revolution breeds only more revolution. Insurgency breeds counterinsurgency. Peace — lasting peace, that is — does not come by force. If it did, we would all speak Latin today. “Peace through victory” was the mantra of history’s mightiest empire, yet even Rome succumbed to someone else’s bloody path to victory.

Sorting out what all this means for us today isn’t necessarily easy. After all, the Bible doesn’t always fit neatly into our predefined categories (which I would argue forces us to take it more seriously). Along with the stubbornly nonviolent Jesus and Peter (who learned his lesson following the incident in the garden), the New Testament also mentions more than one soldier who wasn’t required to abandon his post as a prerequisite for following Jesus.

Some Christians today have come to the conclusion that military service is incompatible with our faith — perhaps (like Derek Webb) not wanting to surrender their conscience to the government, letting someone else decide for them when it’s OK to kill another human being.The New Testament may not forbid military service, but it doesn’t quite encourage it either. Either way, the scriptures call us to embrace a distinctly nonviolent alternative to the notion of “peace through victory.”

No matter what path we choose, and no matter what emblem is stamped on the front of our passports, may we always strive to be good citizens of God’s kingdom first and foremost. May we remember that we can only serve one master, and that loyalty to God always trumps loyalty to country.


Related posts:

Colorado burning

27 June 2012 — 2 Comments

Yesterday, photos of smoke, ash, and devastation began to fill my Facebook feed.

I have a lot of friends in Colorado Springs.

I heard from one who spent the evening watching the ash descend on his house and praying it wouldn’t light. Another spent the morning watering her roof.

Then came the updates from those forced to evacuate — who don’t yet know whether their homes are still there.

As Christians, the best thing we can say (if we say anything at all) is Kyrie eleison.

Lord, have mercy.

Sadly, if the fires had struck any other city, some religious leaders might be tempted to say more.

If this were New Orleans, for example, someone might declare the fire God’s judgment on homosexuals, as John Hagee did when Hurricane Katrina struck.

If this were Port-au-Prince, someone might attribute the victims’ misfortune to a pact their ancestors supposedly made with the devil. That was how Pat Robertson explained the 2010 earthquake that killed over 300,000 in Haiti.

If this were Minneapolis, and there was a gathering of liberal Lutherans in town, someone might proclaim the 15,000-acre conflagration as “God’s gentle but firm warning” to repent, much as John Piper did when a tornado briefly disrupted the ELCA’s national convention taking place in his hometown.

But this is Colorado Springs, home of Focus on the Family, Compassion International, The Navigators, and a hundred other evangelical ministries. This is the veritable Jerusalem of the Rockies, with THREE Christian radio stations.

So who’s going to stand up and condemn it? Who’s going to claim insight into the divine counsel and tell us why God allowed and/or caused this disaster — and precisely who he’s mad at this time?

Is it Focus on the Family? Has God grown weary of their conflict with those whose values don’t line up with theirs? Is he mad at the entire state of Colorado for voting to ban gay marriage in 2006 — an effort spearheaded by Ted Haggard, a once-prominent Colorado Springs pastor?

Should progressive Christians take this opportunity to do some pontificating of their own?

The answer is, of course, no.

You see, even if you believe God is meticulously sovereign — that he not only allows bad things to happen but determines each and every one of them, it takes a colossal amount of hubris to point the finger at someone else and say, “God brought this disaster to judge YOU.”

Even if you believe God has used calamity to judge people in the past, that doesn’t mean you or I have the authority to say which disasters (if any) are divine judgments today.

“But unless you repent, you will all perish.”

When the tornado hit Minneapolis during the ELCA’s convention in 2009, John Piper took to his blog and quoted Luke 13:1-5 as proof the cyclone represented God’s judgment against the gathering of liberal Lutherans, among others.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

On the basis of this and a few other texts, Piper believes every disaster, natural or manmade, is the judgment of an angry God.

But let’s take a closer look at Luke 13.

Jesus learns that some Galileans were slaughtered in the temple by order of the Roman governor. Galilee and the surrounding area was a tinderbox of Jewish resentment against Roman occupation. (See this post for more about the political climate of first-century Galilee.) It’s more than likely these Galileans were killed in retaliation for some challenge to Pilate’s authority — whether they were the instigators or just “collateral damage.”

Many Jews of Jesus’ day longed to thumb their noses at their Roman oppressors. All they needed was a messiah who would rise up and lead them to a blood-soaked victory.

But when Jesus hears about these martyrs for the cause, he doesn’t mince words. He tells his listeners, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

This is not a general call to repent of just any sin, lest some disaster overtake you. Jesus is warning his listeners to abandon their plans for armed revolt. “Unless you repent of this futile effort to retaliate against your enemies,” he tells his compatriots, “the entire nation will perish.”

Indeed, Jesus’ prediction came true when the temple was razed and Jerusalem destroyed in A.D. 70.

Again, it was not a natural disaster he was talking about in Luke 13. It wasn’t even divine judgment. It was manmade and self-inflicted.

The Bible gives no encouragement to those who interpret every act of human suffering as divine judgment. There’s even one story where three individuals, too smart for their own good, are condemned for doing so.

Rather, we are told simply to “mourn with those who mourn.”

So as Colorado burns, we put our hands over our mouths and say,

Kyrie eleison. 


Related posts:

James K.A. Smith’s tweet the other day got me thinking.
(He has a way of doing that.)

I’ve wondered the same thing. Those who oppose “big government” — generally, Republicans and Tea Party supporters — are also the most likely to oppose any cuts to defense spending.

Given that the U.S. accounts for more than 40% of global military spending, this is not a trivial discussion. (Put another way: our defense budget is bigger than the entire economic output of 85 countries. Combined.)

Twenty cents of every American tax dollar goes to defense. The unpaid-for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed $1.3 trillion dollars to the federal debt. Republican leaders chastise Democrats — with good reason, I might add — for creating expensive government programs without bothering to pay for them. But they did the same when they launched our two most recent military ventures.

Big military IS big government. How do you support one while opposing the other?

Is it because defense is closer to the “natural function” of government? If so, how do you decide what constitutes a government’s natural function and what amounts to a dangerous overreach?

Bearing the sword, 21st-century style

Some try to base their view of government on the Bible — for example, interpreting the apostle Paul’s statement about rulers “bear[ing] the sword” (Romans 13:1-7) to argue that a government’s role should be limited to defending its citizenry from external (military) and internal (criminal) threats. (Though it’s worth noting that Paul was writing about a tyrannical Roman emperor who just as likely to set Christians on fire as protect their liberty.)

But what about all those prophetic injunctions to care for the poor, orphans, widows, and foreigners? They weren’t just written to private citizens. The biblical prophets were addressing governments, kings, and whole societies.

For others, opposition to big government often boils down to a basic mistrust. The government, many argue, cannot be trusted with too much power. “Most bad government has grown out of too much government,” as Thomas Jefferson once said.

Therefore, if the government can mandate private health insurance for everyone today, then by tomorrow they’ll be rationing healthcare and telling everyone which doctors they can go to. That’s how the argument goes, anyway. A small expansion of government power now inevitably leads to a much bigger one later.

I respect that. A healthy mistrust of power is a good thing, because power does indeed tend to corrupt.

But here’s my question:

If you don’t trust a politician with a checkbook, why would you trust him with a nuclear missile?

If government tends to abuse what power it’s given, why would you allow it the power to kill with impunity?

How is it that the same government that can’t be trusted when it says, “We need to give everyone healthcare,” is entitled to our full, unquestioning support when it says, “We need to invade such-and-such country?”

The founding fathers understood this. That’s why they were ambivalent about even having a permanent military force. They knew all too well that ordinary citizens have little recourse for holding a government with guns to account.

For Lent, my wife and I are reading (and I’m blogging my way through) the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books” or the Covenant History. Today’s installment is the last from Exodus.


The second half of Exodus features (among other things) some very specific interior decorating tips, a troubling story involving a golden calf and 3,000 slaughtered Israelites, and a renewal of the covenant between God and his people.

"Wait. Where's the one about bearing arms?"

Oh yeah… and the Ten Commandments. But why go for the obvious?

Tabernacle: creation 2.0

According to Exodus, the Israelites are commanded to build a tabernacle, basically a great big tent for worship.

Exodus describes the tabernacle design in great detail.

Mind-numbingly great detail.

There’s a whole section of Exodus that’s full of riveting stuff like this:

The tent curtains will be a cubit longer on both sides; what is left will hang over the sides of the tabernacle so as to cover it.

But there’s something we shouldn’t miss in all the mundane details of what kind of yarn to use for which curtains and the like. The tabernacle is meant to be God’s dwelling place. He is coming to live among his people.

For Christians, the tabernacle is a preview of coming attractions — of a time when God will dwell among his people again, this time in the tent of a human body. As John wrote in the prologue to his gospel: “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”

Jesus, in effect, becomes our tabernacle.

But the Exodus tabernacle also looks back to the original creation. According to Wheaton professor John Walton, Genesis describes the making of a cosmic tabernacle. Creation itself is God temple, as indicated by the final act of the creation story: God rests. As Walton writes in The Lost World of Genesis One:

Deity rest in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for. We might even say that this is what a temple is — a place for divine rest.

The tabernacle echoes creation itself. It’s a reminder that God is in our midst. The tabernacle is, in effect, creation 2.0 — except in this case, God’s people are invited to participate in the act of creation. Human beings are God’s co-creators, his junior partners.

The Canaanites: driven out or wiped out?

Easily the most vexing problem in the Bible is the Canaanite genocide, supposedly commanded by God and carried out by Israel.

All manner of rationalizations have been offered, many of which come down to arguing that the Canaanites were really, really bad and basically had it coming.

Maybe they were as bad as they’re sometimes made out to be. Maybe they really did sacrifice their children to Molech. But it seems strange to argue, as some have, that God punished the Canaanites for slaughtering some of their children… by slaughtering the rest of their children.

Others appeal to the inscrutability of God’s justice. But if divine justice is anything, it had better be scrutable. Otherwise, God is no different from the many other capricious, temperamental deities of the ancient Near East.

What struck me when reading Exodus was how surprisingly vague it is about the anticipated conquest of Canaanite territory. Exodus mentions the conquest several times. But it never uses the language of annihilation.

It’s strongly implied that Israel will have a passive role in clearing the land. God will do the heavy lifting, thank you very much:

I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites out of your way.

But there’s more. Exodus directly contradicts the idea of a decisive conflict in which the Canaanites are wiped from history. Exodus predicts a far more gradual (and far less apocalyptic) process:

But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.

Time and again, Exodus uses the phrase drive out to describe what will happen to the Canaanites. The same phrase (Hebrew, garash) is used four times in the first part of Exodus to describe what happened to the Israelites in Egypt. This is the language of upheaval and displacement — but not extermination.

Other passages elsewhere in Scripture will give the Canaanite conquest a genocidal tinge. But Exodus, which is first to mention the conquest in detail, strikes a milder tone.

Covenant renewal

The last half of Exodus features an alarming story in which Israel worships a golden calf (after deciding that Moses and his God have been away for too long). In retaliation, those loyal to Moses kill 3,000 of their own people, and God threatens to wipe out the rest and start over with just Moses.

The story is troubling on many levels. How could the Israelites turn from God so easily? How could Moses order the seemingly random slaughter of his own people? How could God even think about destroying his people on the way to Canaan?

Whatever we make of this story, it highlights the seriousness of the covenant between God and his people. A covenant was a binding treaty with obligations for both parties. It was serious enough business that God had once said to Abraham, in effect, “May I be dismembered like a bunch of dead animals if I don’t keep my covenant with you.”

When Israel made the golden calf, they violated at least two of the Ten Commandments. They nullified the covenant. God had no further obligations to them.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that God reinstates the covenant after it has been obliterated. God reiterates the covenant law and gives Moses a new set of stone tablets. The people get busy building the tabernacle and, amazingly, God fills the finished structure with his presence. The “creation 2.0” project is very much still on.

People say the Old Testament is a book of law, and the New Testament is a book of grace. But you can’t get much more “grace” than the last half of Exodus.