I cannot say I was disappointed by this book as I approached it with a prejudice that was well and truly fulfilled. I have for some time been critical of Dave and the Christian nonviolence movement’s naive moralistic analysis of war and conflict and their assertion that nonviolence is sacred. I tried to disregard my prejudice when I picked up the book but it only took a few pages before I was dismissing shallow platitudes again.
I will offer no commentary on Dave’s representation of Islam. I do not know enough of Islamic theology, culture and history to make a relevant contribution. However as a Christian with some knowledge of Christian theology, culture and history I do feel competent to comment on those things.
I would not normally focus on personal matters in writing a book review but the book invites such comment as its first six pages plus the forward are dedicated to stating what a good person Dave is. Once Dave’s piety has been established, his preface immediately raises a conflict with Reza Aslan and caricatures his scholarly work about Jesus as “could be a model of violent Jihad” and later in the book describes his perspective as “ a biblically defective, politically fanciful, historically inaccurate misrepresentation of Jesus.”
Aslan is identified as a suitable ideological bad guy against which the good guy Dave is juxtaposed. I find this introduction to a thesis to be intellectually weak of itself but the language is also quite hypocritical when read in the light of the book’s deconstruction of closed thinking, us/them paradigms and their role in religious conflict. At no time does Dave examine the intellectual credibility of Aslan’s work, except to offer his own alternative hermeneutics. Dave, it seems, expects his readers to just accept his word for it that Aslan is wrong.
I will return to Dave’s descriptors of “biblically defective, politically fanciful and historically inaccurate” in assessing Dave’s own biblical interpretations but first I will comment on an obvious gaping hole in Dave’s perspective of where war comes from.
Dave describes the crusades without referring to the recapturing of Roman trade routes, he describes witch hunts without mentioning patriarchal feudalism, he describes the conquistadors and gives only a passing mention of gold, he describes central American wars while mentioning the CIA in passing and not mentioning US investments, he describes the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan without mentioning oil and gas pipelines or Haliburton, he describes Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda without referring to the CIA or Saudi oil companies. He describes Iran without referring to US foreign policy and the overthrow of their puppet Shah. He describes Rwanda without mentioning land dispossession, He describes the Palestinian conflict without referring to the imposed creation of the state of Israel and its place in US foreign policy and military objectives. He mentions the Irish war without referring to British military occupation and economic domination. He mentions South African Apartheid without mentioning white ownership and black dispossession of land.
Instead of looking at the economic and political causes of war, Dave simply identifies the problem as human capacity of immorality and our paradigms of religious belief – and describes all the above wars exclusively in those terms. As such, he has replicated a very Christian paradigm of interpreting the world through the lens of personal sin, guilt and religion that distracts and disconnects us from any real understanding of how the world works, in particular imperialism and colonisation.
While a moralist and personalist analysis of war might tickle the ears of affluent privileged liberals in societies dependent on the perpetuation of war to maintain their affluence and privilege, it has nothing to offer our understandings of war or strategies to overcome it. It also has nothing to do with the Jesus of the bible who said nothing of nonviolence but much about wealth and power – and its redistribution. The personalist/moralist way of thinking is as blind to the bible as it is to history as it is to the causes and solutions of wars today.
What is missing in the glowing testimonies of what a good man Dave is, is any acknowledgement that his perspective is a privileged European colonial perspective. As is common in colonial perspectives, Dave encapsulates the spiritual traditions of the entire world into a few categories within the gestalt of his own colonial society.
Dave states quite categorically – “There are four different types of spiritual perspectives, which seek to explain the relationship between the world of the spirit and the world of matter….” Dave states these four types as traditional, spiritualistic, materialistic and integral. Again I find this cheap caricaturing, in this case of the whole world, to be intellectually weak. These categories certainly do not describe my spirituality but more importantly do not describe indigenous and non-imperial spiritualities – around the world. They do not even describe the diversity of Christian and Muslim spiritualities at the focus of the book. They are just an invented ideological taxonomy that confirms Dave’s religious and cultural perspective.
Australian Aboriginal culture involves the non-consensual genital mutilation of children in initiation ceremonies. It involves ritual violence in conflict resolution ceremonies. It involves authoritarian control of society by elders. It involves a gendered division of labour, economy, power and land. It involves a celebration of the heroic guerrilla war against British invasion.
Within Dave’s various psychological and moral categories, traditional Aboriginal culture obviously must be described as evil – manifesting just about all of the negative traits that Dave attributes to all the bad guys. I am sure Dave would be too polite to say that publicly but it is the unavoidable implication of his framework.
The Christian church has determined that indigenous cultures were evil since the Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire justified genocide in the Americas because of it. Australian missionaries banned Aboriginal culture because it was demonic. The moralist/personalist view of the world is itself a cultural generator of war and conflict.
Now for some hermeneutics!
I found myself disagreeing with Dave’s interpretation of just about every bible passage he refers to. This I attribute to Dave, and the rest of Christendom’s theologians, failure to understand the radical transformation of the bible from the dreaming stories of tribal indigenous Hebrews and their land covenant into a superstitious, personalist, moralist compulsory religion of Roman imperial citizenship. Dave tries to understand the bible from the basic frameworks that the bishops of Rome have passed down to him and not as tribal indigenous dreaming stories of the covenant of Abraham, the perspective from which the whole bible was written.
Instead of tackling all of Dave’s biblical references, I will just focus on the schism he has identified with Reza Aslan, the interpretation of Jesus’ word’s “I have not come to bring peace but a sword”. Aslan simply asserts that Jesus said this and it should be read in the context of other things he said and other things in the bible. Dave however suggests this hermeneutic approach is too simplistic and offers a convoluted string of “what if”s and “could be”s to explain that Jesus really meant the opposite to what he said. To confirm this he joins dots that he himself placed with references to opinionated commentary on the text by people he agrees with. I find Aslan’s Occam’s Razor approach to hermeneutics to have much more intellectual credibility than the traditions of systematic theology that isolate and decontextualize passages and reinvent them to conform to doctrinal tenets, of which Dave’s hermeneutics is an example. But lets thrash this out a bit more and to do so I will rely on some categories – biblically defective, politically fanciful and historically inaccurate.
Dave’s hermeneutic theory is biblically defective in that he has totally misrepresented the story of swords. I agree with Dave that the story must be read metaphorically but he goes further to suggest it is ironic and I see nothing at all to substantiate that except Dave’s own wish that it might be so. I disagree with what he suggests the metaphor is about – simply a tokenistic reference to Isaiah. If the prophesy had of included roller skates then Jesus would have been wearing roller skates? To dismiss the meaning of swords as just a literal device without any meaning of its own is a bastardization of both Isaiah and the new testament.
The symbol of the sword is all through Isaiah. It is not just “beat swords into plowshares”. Even in that passage, however you interpret it, sword has a specific meaning – and whatever it is, Jesus came to bring it. It is not a meaningless literary device like I just used roller skates.
Isaiah also references swords in chapter 34.“For My sword shall be bathed in heaven; Indeed it shall come down on Edom, And on the people of My curse, for judgment.”, chapter 65 “Therefore I will number you for the sword, And you shall all bow down to the slaughter; Because, when I called, you did not answer;”, chapter 66 “For by fire and by His sword The Lord will judge all flesh;And the slain of the Lord shall be many.”
If we are saying Jesus reference to swords has anything to do with Isaiah then what Isaiah says about swords must inform our understanding of what Jesus was talking about.
It is worth noting that Micah’s telling of swords into plowshares includes – in the same chapter as swords into plowshares passage – Micah 4:13 “The Lord says, “People of Zion, get up and crush your enemies. I will make you like a threshing ox. I will give you iron horns and bronze hoofs. So you will crush many nations. They got their money in the wrong way. But you will set it apart to the Lord. You will give their wealth to the Lord of the whole earth.”
In defending the metaphorical use of swords in “I have not come to bring peace but a sword”, Dave states that the same story is told in Luke with a different metaphor, which it does. What I find curious is that Dave did not identify what that other metaphor is in his book, he just referenced the existence of another metaphor as confirmation that Jesus did not mean swords when he said swords. That other metaphor is “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” , a metaphor that thoroughly extinguishes Dave’s assertion that Jesus was really talking ironically about humble kind nonviolence and gives a clear complementary meaning to the meaning of the word sword in Matthew -consider the above mentioned passage from Isaiah 66 “For by fire and by His sword”, which is obviously the base reference of Matthew and Luke’s telling of the story. I hope Dave’s omission of the other metaphor was an editorial oversight and not an attempt to hide the passage to avoid weakening his argument.
If we accept, as Dave and I do, that Jesus is speaking metaphorically about swords, we must also accept that all the sword story is metaphorical. Dave argues that Jesus’ pacifism is implied and metaphorical when instructing the disciples to carry swords yet he is being explicit and literal when he instructs Peter to put away his sword. This of course makes sense if you are trying to reconfigure both elements into an ideological template but it is very poor hermeneutics. If we accept swords as metaphor we must be open to at least the possibility that the passage has nothing to do with violence or nonviolence at all and is about something else, just as Dave rightly points out Jesus’ metaphor about the pharisee’s yeast was not about baking.
One particular theologian, Wes Howard-Brook who says wonderful things about Dave in the first page of the book, suggests that contradictions in the bible such as Isaiah’s various uses of the word sword can be explained by the existence of two religions in the bible – a good one and a bad one and the theologian’s job is to discriminate between the two and discard the bad one. His hermeneutics is clearly the model Dave is using and I suggest it has no intellectual credibility at all. It is just the same as right wing fundamentalists who cherry pick what they like and ignore what they don’t to perpetuate their pre-existing ideology.
This cherry picking approach to the bible disallows the exploration of any meaning that might exist outside of ideological presumption. For example it does not lend itself to exploring what might be the conceptual unity of “swords into plowshares” and “Therefore I will number you for the sword”. What world view or story could explain both sides, the thesis and antithesis into a coherent synthesis? Such thinking is impossible if we dismiss one side of the dialectic as bad or irrelevant.
What could explain the inconsistency of swords in Isaiah? Well, for a start if we read the prophecy we see that the peace, the shalom, the right relationship is when the imperial enemy has been defeated. Furthermore, the peace is geopolitically specific – the reunification of the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel who have been at war with each other since the breakup of David’s kingdom and as a result been divided, imprisoned and exploited by their imperial enemies. If we read Isaiah’s references to swords in the context of Isaiah’s prophecy then the ideological schism of violence and nonviolence simply does not exist. The story is about something else.
As for political fancifulness, I can’t describe Dave’s book this way as he explicitly rejects political spirituality and lists it amongst the causes of war. However what is apolitically fanciful is Dave’s definitive “no” in answering Jesus’ question “Am I leading a rebellion that you have come with swords and clubs”. The definitive answer “yes” is the answer that fulfills the reference to swords in Isaiah. The quiet times in the temple Jesus refers to were long before he stormed it with a whip. It is apolitically fanciful for Dave to suggest that after leading a mass march from Galilee to Jerusalem via Samaria, being proclaimed king of the Jews and then marching on the temple and evicting the money changers with a whip, that Jesus was not leading a political rebellion. Again the nonviolence ideological template has made Dave blind to what is clear in the bible.
Dave’s theology is not so much historically inaccurate as historically ignorant. Less than two hundred years before Jesus, the Hebrews waged an indigenous nationalist war of independence against the Hellenic empire and won – the Maccabees revolution, told in the old testament. The sword/knife was the cultural symbol of this revolution. Faithful Hebrews abandoned the cities to the Greeks and camped in the wilderness and waged a guerrilla war of independence. They assassinated, with knives, Greek soldiers and merchants and any Hebrews who collaborated with them. Jesus celebrated this victory in his participation in Hanukkah, celebrating the rededication of the temple after Greek defilement – John 10. He declared himself to be messiah at this festival, directly identifying with the war of the sicarri just as he did when he said he had not come to bring peace but a sword.
In this context, a history as fresh as the invasion of Australia is to Aboriginal people today, it is historically inaccurate and apolitically fanciful to suggest that Jesus’ reference to the symbol of swords could be anything other than an identification with Sicarri and the indigenous nationalist revolution.
Within three decades of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Hebrew people again rose up against imperial domination and evicted Rome from the Holy land. How and why this rebellion failed is another story for another time, except to say that if the rebellion had followed Jesus instructions to unite the tribes, abandon the cities and head for the wilderness just as the Maccabees revolt had done, the outcome would have been very different. The significant point is that this rebellion occurred before the writing of the new testament and the writers were fully aware of it as well as the Maccabees revolt when writing their texts. It is apolitically fanciful and historically inaccurate to assume that Jesus’ long march from Galilee, attack on the temple, execution and resurrection and establishment of the “Acts” community, that included the loyalty of the whole Samaritan nation, was not a major catalyst to the rebellion three decades later and directly relevant to first century commentary of the Roman genocide and occupation of the land of Abraham’s covenant that was unfolding during the writing of the new testament. Dave’s assertion that “The counter cultural communities Jesus developed never smashed the political economy to which their society was captive” is simply wrong, this is exactly what happened in the sixth decade where even new Hebrew currency was minted and Roman coins boycotted – which is key to understanding Jesus commentary on the coin with Caesar’s head on it.
Jesus’ metaphorical identification with the Maccabees war for indigenous sovereignty does not indicate or imply that Jesus engaged in political violence (except his temple whipping) or called for an armed conflict on the night he was betrayed or at any other time. The bible certainly does not say this and nor does Reza Aslan. However Jesus’ repeated identification with the violent revolution cannot be construed in any way to represent any notion of sacred non-violence. A contemporary similarity to Jesus’ use of sword symbolism would be Aboriginal leaders calling for people to carry spears and boomerangs at street demonstrations. That happens often. These symbols identify with the guerrilla war of resistance to invasion of their land but does not necessarily mean they intend to have an armed conflict at the demonstration. The fact that they choose not to use their weapons at demonstrations does not mean they are pacifists either.
In saying all this, my intention is not to disprove Dave’s theory or prove Aslan’s. It is simply to identify that Dave’s theory is debatable, that Dave too can be labeled biblically defective just as he has labeled Aslan. In fact Dave’s theory is much more debatable than Aslan’s simply because it is more convoluted with more methodological elements to debate about. However Dave has ascribed sacredness to his ideology, “sacred nonviolence” is even in the subtitle of the book. It is this false division between Dave’s sacred ideology and Aslan’s defective, fanciful misrepresentation that I consider to be dishonest and manipulative. It is cultish. It does not help us understand the story of Jesus.
Jesus whipped people in the temple – political violence. The whip was not just a piece of rope to chase animals away, it was a “scourge”, the Greek word “phragellion” which was a common weapon of the time. Jesus carried a weapon into the temple and used it! Jesus also said he had not come to bring peace but a sword and instructed his disciples to carry swords. Dave’s attempt to invert the story of Jesus and claim him as a justification for “sacred nonviolence” is absurd.
Jesus said nothing of violence and nonviolence, not an iota. It just wasn’t on his agenda. He did speak repeatedly, emphatically, explicitly and implicitly about wealth and power. I would urge radical Christians to abandon the cult of nonviolence and embrace Jesus’ focus on wealth and power as a basis for both their biblical hermeneutics and social analysis of war and conflict.
In the chapter “A Struggle for Love and Justice”, Dave properly describes the economic oppression that was the context of the new testament. He also properly identifies Jesus’ recital of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 61) as a framework of his ministry . However he selectively edits the prophecy. Dave paraphrases (very poorly) and references Luke 4:18 -The spirit of the lord is upon me etc. but omits Luke 4:19 which is the point and focus of Isaiah and Jesus’ words – to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord – the Jubilee festival of restoration outlined in Leviticus 25. It was at the Jubilee festival that slaves were freed and debts were cancelled etc. as per the matters of Luke 4:18. The Jubilee festival also restored all Abraham’s land to its original tribal custodians as apportioned by Joshua and Moses. The Jubilee year is land redistribution – Aboriginal land rights. The Jubilee is Jesus and Isaiah’s mechanism for liberation.
Dave’s accurate identification of new testament poverty and suffering while omitting the good news of Jesus and Isaiah that the Jubilee land restoration will end the oppression, is a good metaphor for the problem with naive Christian moralism.
Index and links to other essays – here