Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence
Reviewed by Wes Magruder
It’s astounding how eagerly North American evangelicals have supported military operations in the recent past. Polls suggest that as many as 79% of evangelicals supported the Iraq invasion in 2003. That’s why Preston Sprinkle’s new book, Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, seems so overdue. It’s astounding that it took this long for a book aimed at the popular evangelical Christian audience to hit the market. Sprinkle became converted to nonviolence only recently; in 2009, as he claims, based on his own careful study of Scripture, he decided that “Christians shouldn’t kill or use violence — not even in war.”
Fight is Sprinkle’s attempt to “summarize what the entire Bible says about warfare and violence,” and thereby show that the Bible cannot be used to support the use of violence in any sense, even for self-defense or defense of one’s country. It’s a difficult task, for sure, and one which Sprinkle assumes will be resisted, thus he is careful to tackle every possible question and objection that might be raised. The word “evangelical,” however, encompasses a broad spectrum of thought when it comes to Scriptural interpretation. All evangelicals believe that Scripture is authoritative, but not all believe that it is infallible and inerrant. Sprinkle prefers to say that the Bible is “inspired,” which for him, means that, in Scripture, God speaks a consistent and coherent message.
It is terribly important, then, that every part of Scripture support his claim that “Christians shouldn’t kill or use violence,” even those troublesome passages in the Old Testament. By his own criteria, Sprinkle needs every bit of the Hebrew Scriptures to support his claim; there can be no contradiction in the Bible, because it is God’s Word, which, by definition, cannot contradict itself. In dealing with one problematic passage, Sprinkle clearly reveals the ground rule which he has set for himself: “I cannot emphasize enough that any solutions we propose must come from the text. God doesn’t need us to make excuses for Him, nor does He need us to give Him a lesson in morality” (sic). Unfortunately, it is very difficult to make a case for nonviolence in the Old Testament. After all, here one reads that God commands the Israelites to completely wipe out certain populations, something we would call “genocide” today. How is Sprinkle able to do it?
First, Sprinkle adopts what might be called an “incrementalist” approach to the violence found in the opening books of the Bible. He admits that God’s ultimate goal is shalom for the planet, but argues that sin is so prevalent in human society that God must advance this peace slowly and in steps. Therefore, the law of Moses contains tentative steps in the right direction: “what we have in the law of Moses is a moral code that both accommodates to and improves upon the ethical systems of the surrounding nations.” This is a critical point to Sprinkle’s argument: God intends that people not do violence to each other, but since they already are, God tries to ratchet it down. Using slavery as an example, Sprinkle shows that the Hebrew law was more compassionate toward slaves than most ancient societies, forbidding masters from physically abusing slaves, providing refuge for slaves who escape foreign masters, and in general, recognizing the human dignity of slaves. Sprinkle suggests that, “Here, God works within a broken system to gradually improve it until it’s eventually done away with.”
Second, Sprinkle argues that Israel’s method of fighting wars differed significantly from those of the nations around them. The Israelites were never encouraged to build large armies, but instead were to let God fight for them, on their behalf. This brings up the biggest problem with Sprinkle’s approach. In his attempt to find nonviolence permeating the Old Testament, he is forced to confront the fact that God is hardly nonviolent in dealing with the Hittites and Amorites and Canaanites and so on. There is simply no way around this fact, but Sprinkle doesn’t see it as a problem, because, after all, this is God we’re speaking about, and God can do whatever God wants to do:
“From the Bible’s perspective, God is the author of life, and as the author of life, He also has the right to take life away. This right belongs exclusively to the Creator. Whenever God allows humans to take life, it’s an extension of His own judgment on sin. God never kills haphazardly or without reason. However you slice it, there’s a difference between the Creator killing rebellious humans as punishment for sin and an Assyrian king slaughtering peasants because they get in the way of his empire.”
Later, Sprinkle approvingly quotes scholar Christopher Wright, who said, “There is a huge moral difference between arbitrary violence and violence inflicted within the moral framework of punishment.” But is there really? To take one example, look at the punishment inflicted upon the family of Achan, for his theft of booty from the plunder of Jericho. Not only Achan himself is murdered, but also “his sons and daughters,” according to Joshua 7:24. No amount of theological sophistry can obscure the fact that only Achan is guilty and deserving of punishment; his children are innocent. What happens to them, and others within the text, is “arbitrary violence,” plain and simple. According to the Bible, God is responsible for that violence — but why?
This is also the place to be reminded that Sprinkle co-wrote Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up with Francis Chan, a sort of rejoinder to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. It’s not that Sprinkle is against all acts of violence — he just believes that only God can legitimately perform such acts. And apparently, punishment is an appropriate context for God’s violence, and hell, an appropriate place.
Theologically, this is a tough pill to swallow, and requires more careful analysis than Sprinkle is willing and able to give it. But when your starting point is that the Bible is, quite literally, “what God says,” then you have very little room with which to maneuver. If God tells the Israelites to wipe out a people, then there must be a good reason, a reason which is consistent with God’s nature. And one must struggle to articulate that reason within a moral framework.
This is, of course, not the only way to read the Old Testament, and not even the only evangelical way to read it. One can believe in Scripture’s inspiration without believing that every time the Bible says that God said something, God said it. One could argue, for instance, that rather than God choosing to take an incremental approach to violence, the Israelites themselves incrementally understood God’s ways. Or perhaps the revelation of God was progressive, rather than absolute and static. Maybe, just maybe — gasp! — the writings of the Old Testament are inspired in some places, but not in others.
But in Fight, Sprinkle seems desperate to pull everything together in a coherent whole, to make even the Old Testament a witness to a nonviolent faith, when it doesn’t really seem to be up to the task. The third and final way that Sprinkle tries to paint over the violence of the Old Testament is to argue that, in fact, God never did command the Israelites to conquer Canaan and “devote them to complete destruction” (Deut. 20:17). He argues that this language of total devastation is “hyperbole,” a way of talking about the complete defeat of an enemy. However, God certainly did want the Canaanites out of the land, primarily because their sin and idolatry had defiled it: “God’s holiness demands sacred space for Him to dwell with human beings. This is why the Canaanites had to be driven out of God’s new residence.”
This does not amount to genocide, Sprinkle vehemently argues, because genocide is “always fueled by a feeling of racial superiority that leads to an ethnic cleansing,” therefore, by definition, the conquest is not genocide. The reason the Canaanites must go has nothing to do with their race or ethnicity, but simply their behavior and practices. This odd argument leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth, especially since it is reminiscent of the Clinton Administration’s semantic wrangling during the Rwandan genocide.
To his credit, Sprinkle tackles some very difficult questions about the bloody nature of much of the Hebrew Scriptures. He does not gloss over the contradictions inherent in the text, but he is at such great pains to insist that there are no contradictions, that his arguments seem forced and illogical.
Finding nonviolent principles in the New Testament and early church, however, is a much easier matter. Drawing on the work of such scholars as John Howard Yoder, N.T. Wright, and Richard Hays, Sprinkle re-casts Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in the framework of the kingdom of God, and describes this kingdom as marked by redemptive suffering, nonviolence, and shalom. He is able to explain that the earliest Christians couldn’t imagine that they should do violence in any part of their lives. Furthermore, he ably and expertly dismantles the arguments of patriotic, hawk-like Christians who pretend to find support for American aggression in Scripture. He argues quite persuasively that evangelicals must resist the call to militarism and violence.
In the end, Preston Sprinkle’s conclusions about the proper Christian response to war are sound and bold, but his Biblical exegesis is tortured, unconvincing, and disturbing.