Roots of Violence: Creating Peace through Spiritual Reconciliation
Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2016
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Reviewed by Sara Olson Dean
I first encountered Krister Stendahl’s work as a seminary student about fifteen years ago. He was a theologian, a biblical scholar, and a church member; for a time, he served as the Bishop of the Church of Sweden. Stendahl is probably best known for rethinking the traditional Lutheran (and Augustinian) reading of Paul, which assumed that Paul was primarily concerned with alleviating individual guilt with the good news of justification by faith. Stendahl was confident that while this was Martin Luther’s concern, it wasn’t Paul’s. He saw something very different in Paul’s writings: a concern for how both Jews and Gentiles might be brought together into the Body of Christ. All along, his scholarship has yielded rich insight for how people of different faiths might relate to one another. I was delighted, then, to learn that a new Stendahl work was being published: Roots of Violence: Creating Peace through Spiritual Reconciliation. I anticipated that it would contain Stendahl’s trademark wit, creativity, and theological acumen. I was not disappointed.
The thrust of Stendahl’s argument is that we, as people of faith, must wrestle with the sources of violence both within our Scriptures and within our understandings of salvation. The stakes are high: if we cannot discern what makes for violence and what makes for peace in our own faith traditions, what hope do we have of ending the violence that surrounds us?
In the first chapter, “Salvation as Victory,” Stendahl argues that from the Exodus forward, “salvation has been understood as liberation from slavery, and as victory over the oppressor… [but] the glorious notion of salvation as victory has an ugly downside. The vanquished. The Egyptians” (20). Though he doesn’t quite put it this way, Stendahl seems to look at the Israelites on the far side of the Red Sea, rejoicing over the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers. He perceives in that rejoicing the seeds of violence. Of course, the threads of salvation-as-victory are woven into other biblical narratives in both testaments, reaching far beyond the story of the Exodus. Stendahl explores some of these texts, and how these ways of thinking have been carried on through the years, particularly in Christianity.
Having laid out his concerns with understanding salvation as victory, Stendahl sets out to explore other ways of understanding God’s work in our midst. In “Salvation as Nirvana,” Stendahl has in mind the via negativa, which is “to be concerned only with God, to be absorbed into God, to lose oneself” (34). Perhaps the most intriguing part of the chapter comes in a brief discussion of 1 Corinthians 15:28: “When all things are subjected to [Christ], then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all (NRSV).” Stendahl paraphrases Paul: “‘Finally, the Christ, the son, will lay down all before the Father and God will become All in All.’ It is as if Christ disappears” (32). When all is brought into God’s own self, reconciled by the cross, there is no longer a distinction between winners and losers. “No, the via negative is that enormously strange way in which even one’s religious victoriousness is dying away” (33).
Stendahl then moves on to “Salvation as Shalom.” If salvation as nirvana is the more mystical approach, then salvation as shalom is rooted in an understanding of salvation that is centered in the life of the community. As Stendahl puts it, “There can never be shalom only for some, because the word itself means fullness and wholeness” (37). The idea of the victor has no place here, nor the idea of the saved and the damned, for only when all are included in the abundance of creation can anyone truly have a share in it. Here, one finds no shortage of Scriptures to explore; Stendahl draws heavily on Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God and Paul’s exhortations about love.
In the fourth and final chapter of Stendahl’s book, “The Language of Violence and the Language of Peace,” Stendahl digs deeper into the question of how we appropriate biblical language that sows seeds of violence and enmity. Stendahl is too creative a reader of Scripture to simply throw out that which is problematic. Rather than disregard such texts, he wrestles with them, trying to find what could be life giving within them. He also calls for greater diligence in mining Scripture for other, non-violent ways of understanding God’s work in the world and our relationship with our neighbors.
The form of this book is as interesting as its content. It is being published posthumously; Stendahl died in 2008. The various chapters were originally given as a series of lectures, first at Dana College and then elsewhere. Stendahl’s wife (Brita Stendahl) and a former student (Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh) worked from the transcripts of the Dana College lectures and other notes found in Stendahl’s papers to bring the book to its final form. They both contribute a series of reflections on the significance of Stendahl’s work. James Carroll provides a foreword, and still more richness is added to this slim volume by the contribution of chapters by Jewish and Islamic scholars (Prof. Marc Brettler and Imam Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi). They are appreciative of Stendahl’s work, and bring their own creative insights about salvation and peace to bear on what Stendahl always intended to be an on-going conversation.
The taped recordings of the Dana College lectures were typed in 1981; presumably the lectures were given not long before that. In other words, these words were spoken more than 35 years ago. At the time, Stendahl opened with some sober observations about violence. He noted assassinations, executions, terrorism, torture. He said, “we have broken through a threshold. We have gone past the watershed of what is bearable in terms of violence. The unthinkable has become the actual” (15-16). Indeed, he had seen much violence in his lifetime: the second world war with its Holocaust and nuclear weaponry, conflicts in Asia and the Middle East and Central America, attacks here in this country against those participating in the movement for civil rights. I suspect that Stendahl opens with these observations because they are what give his work its urgency. In the 35 years that have passed, God’s creation is still racked by violence, and his work is urgent still. Though he is not still with us, we still need his words.
It is perhaps true that this book raises more questions than it answers. Perhaps you will wish, as I did, that you could sit down with Krister Stendahl and ask him to tell you more. All the same, this book is a gift. It will not take you long to read, but it will give you a trove of insight to which you can return again and again. “So, sisters and brother, let us go on a hunt in the Scriptures for the language of peace, for the mystery, which is always open and always revealing more” (59).