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The Bible and the transition from a war culture to a peace culture - A Christian Perspective
1. Cultural Change and Hermeneutics
It is a hermeneutical law that whenever the human race passes through cultural change, there is a crisis in the way it understands the texts which are basic to its religious beliefs. In these critical periods the objectivity of the text is affected by the subjective crisis and it undergoes a reinterpretation which is more or less radical. This happened during the scientific revolution which forced humanity to abandon the old cosmology and the mythical image of its own history. After this radical break with the past we can now read the Bible without looking for an explanation of the creation of the cosmos and the origins of civilisation. In the Catholic Church traditional fundamentalism was overcome only during the second Vatican Council when the truth of Scripture was defined, not simply as truth, but "saving truth". Thus, three centuries too late, the case of Galileo was finally closed. But by this time there were other problems vis-a-vis the Biblical text.
From the Neolithic to the Atomic Age;
The discovery of the laws governing the atom, whether in the context of war or peace, has given rise to unprecedented change in the human condition. In other words, in crossing the atomic threshold, homo sapiens emerges from the neolithic culture which began about six thousand years ago. According to the well-known anthropologist, Carleton Coon, in The Story of Man published in 1954, the present epoch lies between the third phase of the history of the human race (the neolithic age) and a fourth phase, the outline of which is still barely visible. The first phase began about a million years ago and lasted until homo sapiens, by dint of using fire and making tools, emerged from among other animal species; the second phase began about fifty thousand years ago when humans began to cook their food, make clothes to wear and develop other activities such as hunting. The third, which is drawing to a close in these last decades of the millennium, began with the first forms of agriculture and craftsmanship and the building of cities. Its dominant characteristic has been the attempt to integrate violence (not to eliminate it) into the rules of rationality, whether within the city by means of legislation, or outside it by means of war. The city was secure because it was enclosed within walls and had at its centre a temple where, according to an Egyptian scribe, the gods of war were guarded and venerated. The modern state has simply rationalised this early model.
The Bible was born of this culture and the Jewish and Christian traditions have evolved within it. If this culture is really in process of dissolution it could be presumed that the Bible and the traditions derived therefrom would also definitively lose their value. Is this so?
2. Culture according to Contemporary Anthropology:
In order to answer this question, we can seek enlightenment from contemporary anthropology with its scientific study of the "cultural" phenomenon which is free from rationalist prejudice or hidden apologetics. Every culture, be it that of an aboriginal tribe or of twentieth century England, has a structure which is more or less systematised. The constituent elements (technical, ritual. juridical, aesthetic, moral etc.) condition each other according to a unifying dynamic which makes for both cohesiveness and distinctiveness. This dynamic constitutes the internal and external defence of the group against any disintegrating threat. it does not make sense to compare a given element in one culture, for instance religion, with a similar element in another, because when they are isolated from their respective systems the two elements under scrutiny lose their concrete identity. They have meaning only in the interplay of relationships within their respective systems. If the internal and external checks and balances disappear through the intervention of a new threat to the vital integrity of the group, the culture enters a crisis and must transform itself in order to perform its old functions in a new way. From the Stone age to that of the Atomic bomb these balances have been maintained by means of an integration between force in its destructive potential and reason. War is not purely and simply the unleashing of destructive force, it is its institutionalised form, governed by rules and limitations. The whole gamut of cultural elements, even religion, shares in these laws of systematisation. Religions have not abolished wars, they have assumed them into their symbolic universe, they have ritualised and absolutised them.
Nevertheless a human being is not able to be so totally integrated into the culture which shaped him/her that the culture bestows personal identity. There is in the human being a principle which cannot be reduced to the cultural system within which he/she has being and which tends to confine the individual within a specific historical horizon; this is an a priori principle which leads the human person to transcend this horizon and question the validity of its concrete reality. By virtue of this principle, the individual opens him/herself to the supracultural dimension which his/her complete fulfilment demands the realisation of all the possibilities which go to make up his/her "hidden face". Rationality which is the specific differentiating factor of a human being has, so to say, two faces, the first is developed within the tradition to which the individual belongs, the other functions according to possibilities as yet unverified by history. The first is a rationality tending towards ideology, the second produces utopias and finds its truesphere of action in the kingdom of the absolute. When institutionalised reason is in crisis, utopian reason rises up from the depth and is capable of constructing new projects on the ruins of the decaying culture.
3. The End of the War-based Culture:
The situation of homo atomicus is such that the cultural system which gave birth to him and of which he is usually proud, is breaking down because of the increasingly obvious non-functioning of its systematic principle. In a war culture the bid to integrate destructive force with human reason can succeed, since even the most ferocious wars do not endanger the species as such; they will inflict serious wounds upon it but these will heal, quickly forgotten, even advantageous from a global view of history. In this view wars seem like "interventions of a higher rationality" which govern the birth and death of the hegemony of this or that people in view of a supreme good, that of humanity as a whole. Not only that, but nature itself will continue beyond the vicissitudes of the human race, as the life-giving context within which the individual will recover from the bloody enterprises and which, with its cycle of seasons, its mysterious fecundity, seems to be circumscribed by eternal laws, unable to be touched by human destructiveness, whether wrought by individuals or peoples. Mother Nature assuages in her bosom the baneful ire of her children. But the laws which governed progress no longer operate, now that the lust for power has introduced humanity into the very sanctuary where energy is no longer a docile instrument but rather a primary principle, a principle predating matter, standing at the crossroads between the being and non-being of things. Nuclear energy is not an effect but a cause. We have seen that the distinction between the atom for warfare and the atom used for peaceful purpose is a vain one, because even the commercial use of the atom, in the framework of rivalry between states, can easily become deadly, endangering the very biological existence of the human race.
Towards the Peace Epoch:
This evolution in the material sphere gives rise to the "messianic" idea that only a peace-loving humanity is capable of using the atom safely. But there cannot be such a humanity unless two conditions are fulfilled, conditions which are in no way guaranteed by the existing culture. These conditions are: the birth of a world community, which would renounce plurality of states and classes as relics of the past; and the birth of a peace-loving humanity which would renounce physical force as a way of resolving conflict situations. To wish for this kind of humanity is to wish for an anthropological change. In the present phase of human history we still use moral laws enforced by a cultural system which came to birth at the beginning of the neolithic age; the first of these laws is a dichotomy between the ideal order and the real order. In the ideal order it has always been recognised that it is not legitimate for human beings to kill each other. In the real order, however, it has always been recognised that killing becomes legitimate in case of necessity, when for example, it is demanded by self-defence or the survival of the group. This dichotomy between utopia and reality is fundamental to our culture. The atomic situation is its crisis point because it removes war from the realm of rationality which up until now had humanised it to a certain extent, giving it a function of conservation and growth for the social group. Atomic war is no longer simply a figment of the imagination; to think of it means thinking of "the day after", of the annihilation of creation. War having become unthinkable, all types of physical and ideological coercion, which made war an integral part of society and the climax of a mode of action which was in itself warlike, become ever more irrational. This is the source of the cultural "vacuum" in which we find ourselves — this takeover bid by the principle of Thanatos which governs the inner and outer lives of peoples in these last decades of the millennium. The great World Religions (including Christianity and Judaism) responded to this critical situation when they met at Assisi to confront the "transcendent challenge of peace" on 27th October 1986.
But this confrontation will become an interior event, a true assumption of responsibility before God and the human race, only when through a process of metanoia, remembrance of the past destroys the tranquillity of an apologetic interpretation of history and brings to light the responsibility of the Religions for perpetuating war. Each World Religion must face up to the demands of this period of transition in the light of the original message to which it is heir and of which it is the custodian. This teaching includes principles which can promote the anthropological change described above and clarify the issues involved
4. The Bible and the Atomic Age
At this point we must face up to the main question: Is the Bible a help or a hindrance in the irrevocable transition from a war culture to a peace culture? Is it a code necessarily linked to the epoch which gave it birth or does it contain a message capable of bridging the gap between the two cultures (the third and fourth phase spoken of by Coon) and thus prefigure a universal anthropological condition which is free from violence? In answering this question I adopt a Christian position, in which the Old and New Testaments form an indivisible unity, the sensus plenissimus of which is Jesus the Christ, and precisely the Christ of the Paschal event. As we know the first generations of 'Christians had difficulty in accepting this unity. in the first and second centuries, communities which followed the teaching of Marcion were found in every corner of the Roman empire. The core of his teaching was to set the God of the Old Testament, a cruel God, upholder of war and acts of violence, (the last of which was the crucifixion of Jesus) over against a transcendent and good God who sent his son, Jesus of Nazareth, to reveal the law of love: at the end of time this God will triumph over the wicked one. The early Church succeeded with some difficulty in establishing the indivisibility of the two Testaments and the common identity of the God of the Jews and the God of the Christians. During this period, the Church, seeing itself as the "new Israel" according to the Spirit, began to consider itself the fulfilment of the ancient Israel "according to the flesh" and Jesus as the Messiah in whom the promises are fulfilled. He becomes the point of reference without which the Old Testament is considered to be like an eye without a pupil, a drawing without perspective. To this way of thinking, if it is impossible to understand Jesus without reference to the entire economy of salvation beginning with the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, it is equally impossible to understand the entire economy of salvation without the key, which is Christ. This is the traditional Christian position which, nevertheless, only apparently succeeded in solving the question we are addressing. In reality throughout the centuries Christians have often justified their conduct by taking as model the "holy war" of the Old Testament, as if Christ had never preached the Beatitudes. They used the "Good News" of peace solely for interior edification, emptying it of its messianic significance, which makes it the joyful announcement of the fulfilment of the promises of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Inadequate Methods of Exegesis:
Schematically it can be said that there have been three traditional ways of reading the Bible in Christianity — the ideological. the moralistic and the spiritual. Not one of these is capable on its own of reflecting the fulness of the prophetic-messianic quality of the message in its total expression from the Exodus to Easter.
Ideological reading seeks to find in Sacred Scripture examples and precepts to justify current behaviour, those homogeneous to a war culture, typified by the dual categories of friend and foe. For example mediaeval Christianity found itself reflected in the books of the Pentateuch. Joshuaand Judges, which recount the struggles of the people of Israel before they established themselves in the land of Canaan. What war could be more just than one which had for its objective the conquest of Christ's sepulchre? It is this ideological reading which fed the disastrous presumption of those "chosen people" whose lust for power is always camouflaged under the typically biblical axiom: "No God is like unto our God".
Moralistic reading is similar to the ideological in that it reduces the Bible to a series of precepts and examples applicable in their literal sense to private or public life without any hermeneutical interpretation; it is the lex talonis and the saying of Christ: "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." The outcome of this reading is an uncritical fanaticism which isolates the individual or group from the society in which they live, rendering them incapable of reading the "signs of the times", or of opening themselves to the global meaning of history, a meaning illuminated by the "messianic truth" of the Bible.
But the most widespread deformation of the biblical message derives from a spiritualised reading, which transposes the events of the history of salvation onto an entirely interior plane: the Christian people is thus "'Israel according to the Spirit" which Jesus Christ has substituted definitively for "Israel according to the flesh". All that the Old Testament has to say about the wanderings of the Jewish people, including the wars, becomes a figure of the conflict between Light and Darkness which every Christian lives within him/herself as a conflict between grace and sin. It was in this way that the Alexandrian school, under the powerful authority of Origen, understood the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, thus freeing Christians from all preoccupation with the earthly lot of the human race. This is the remote origin of a type of spirituality still extant, which has permitted Christians to live with the most inhuman political realities, such as Nazism. The Lutheran doctrine of the two powers set the pattern, to a certain extent, for the resignation of believers in the face of history dominated by the law of violence. The sword of the spirit and that of the prince have two distinct spheres which can never become one. Recently the German and French Catholic hierarchies have justified the "balance of power" in the name of political prudence, warning Christians against applying to public life the teaching given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
5. A New Hermeneutic:
The overriding importance of the historical situation:
Now we must ask ourselves if a different reading of the Bible is possible, one which would both conform to its objective meaning and therefore to the "saving truth" it conveys and also furnish an answer to the new problems which express humanity's perennial need for salvation? To tackle the question correctly we must first rediscover the importance of the historical situation for hermeneutics. The events of human history which take place on the space/time continuum are not external to the economy of salvation, are not, to speak analogically, "formless matter" on which the mould of the "salvific message", of which the people of God is both bearer and witness, must be imprinted. The historical events are all written into the dynamic of creation and thus bring to light an objective intenzionalità the novelty of which must be perceived. The divine election which runs from Adam to Christ is certainly a unique and unrepeatable event in the economy of things, but the fulness of its meaning is not already contained a priori in "sacred history". This meaning unfolds in the course of human history as events come to pass which, so to speak, have an in-built reference to the messianic promises. I would like to give a very simple example of what I mean. Biblical prophecy, as it is formulated both in Genesis and Paul, postulates full equality between man and woman. However, in a male-dominated society such as the neolithic, (there are visible signs of this both in Genesis and Paul), prophecy is in the perspective of the future, that is to say an object of hope. Equality is real but impossible in practical terms, given the division of labour, the system of remuneration and the biological functions by which woman is still shackled. If in the course of history however, new technological discoveries can liberate woman from these biological and labour constraints, then equality becomes a political and ethical imperative. Think of how matrimonial rights have changed in recent years! The emancipation of woman, made possible primarily through scientific discovery, becomes a kairos of prophecy, an "acceptable time" to give flesh and blood to one aspect of the Kingdom. The vision glimpsed by prophetic truth becomes a reality when the right conditions appear in history.
The discovery of atomic energy has put the human race in direct contact with the sources of the universe; it has introduced it into the inner sanctum where it may use its freedom to decide in favour of one of two alternatives: destruction of all life or the opening of a new chapter in human history. For the first time in the human story war, as Teilhard de Chardin pointed out in 1947, can be destroyed once and for all and in two distinct ways. It can be killed first of all in its practice for the excess of destructive force makes our conflict unthinkable. But it can be destroyed in its very roots in our hearts for compared to the possibilities for conquest offered by science, battles and warlike heroics will seem supremely tedious and outmoded. In other words, the atomic event has irrevocably thrown the whole culture based on war into crisis because it makes it impossible to control the weapons of warlike aggression. Now a peace culture is the very condition for the survival of the human species.
The new situation - the end of War:
A hitherto unpublished anthropological event now obliges us to interpret biblical prophecy in a new way. The results depend upon our understanding of this new twist in history. If this new turn of events is, I do not say denied, but reduced to a mere variation of the historical continuity of humanity, the evangelical kerygma of the Beatitudes will be seen as a personal way of life, concerned only with private relationships. The political reality and the relationships of nation-states to each other will remain within the unchanged circle of the law of competition. On the other hand, if the new reality is understood in all its implications, the messianic kerygma, which runs through the entire Bible, will reveal itself as never before as convergent with the historical expectations of the human race. The atomic age will be seen as a real opportunity to give flesh and blood to the messianic times, certainly not in an exhaustive way, as is the case with a kind of enduring millenarianism, but also without minimising the possibility of a marriage between prophecy and history just because of faint-heartedness.
6. The Prophetic Message and the Reign of Peace:
There is no sense in wishing (as Mercian did) to eliminate all that belongs to a war culture from the Bible to support this new understanding. The uniqueness of the history of Israel is that it is shot through with the "live current" of messianic prophecy, which shifts the meaning of events from the axis of their real actuality (in which they are identical with every other type of history), to the eschatological axis where they reveal their truth by reaching out towards the future to which they are ordained. The heroes of Israel are not like those of Plutarch, because their full truth lies in their imaging what is to come. To wrench them out of this future-oriented pattern would be to empty them, in the name of scientific criticism, of the significance they have in the collective memory as it has transmitted and shaped them. It is a memory fed by expectation, weighed down certainly by human weakness, national frustration and a self-satisfied apologetic.
And yet there is a break in this memory, the break between a fidelity celebrating the deeds of the fathers and a presentiment of a Kingdom as vast as creation, enlightened by a God who loves foreignors more than those of the household, who is victorious in the discomfiture of his faithful and defeated in their victories and who will fulfil his promises through a messiah quite different from the images transmitted by a war culture. This messiah is a "suffering servant" who will not answer violence with violence, but will deliver himself up like a Iamb into the hands of the violent; one who according to the judgment of the prevailing culture, will be despised as a worm and buried for ever in his defeat. The prophecy of Isaiah is not a "foreign body" in the context of the Bible. The divine intent permeates the passage, occurs throughout the Bible and will find plenitude of fulfilment in the servus patients. Jesus of Nazareth. If we read the passion of Jesus with this criterion in mind, we will find there a head-on clash between a violent culture and the alternative of peace inaugurated by God in Jesus. The crucifixion of the Just one is the last act of the violent culture, its final unmasking; the resurrection of the Crucified is God's response to the wicked strategies of the human race. (1)
So far we have trodden the customary beaten track of exegesis. Now we have to ask ourselves, without reducing prophecy to anthropology, if the alternative way opened up by Jesus, crucified and risen, meets the yearning for a new mediation in history, and if it coincides precisely with the one proposed by the theory and practice of nonviolence. This latter, because it is implanted in the vital instincts of the species, has become the unforeseen threshold to any future development of the creation, Concern lest the Bible fails to become the vademecum of the new culture is more than justified, but it is not by emptying prophecy of its intrinsic need to be translated into history that this risk is avoided. It is avoided only by raising prophecy above all its possible concrete realisations, in its inborn openness to the "Day of God" in its entirety. This certainly has its impact on the "today" of humanity but also transcends all the confines of history.
Masters of the peace culture are to be found in every place and in every age; the newness of Jesus is that the peace announced and inaugurated by him is not simply a product of the rational morality of humanity, but rather the reflection of a new covenant between the human race and God. This means that peace will be both an achievement of humanity and a gift of God. Achievement and gift are not mutually exclusive as they would be in a purely conceptual understanding of them, but are so closely linked that the two statements "Peace is an achievement of the human race" and "Peace is a gift of God" are equally true. Now that humanity has brought its evil lordship over the world to the point where it risks annihilation, it can be said that the self-centred monologue of the individual "architect of his own destiny" has reached an impasse from which it can emerge only through acknowledging the fragile nature of its creature-hood and, at the same time, the destructive power that lies concealed in the attempt "to play God". For me, as a Christian, the very meaning of the mystery of Christ, the God for humanity and the man for God, lies in the reciprocity between the human essence and the divine essence, of the homo absconditus and the Deus absconditus. The secret of the reconciliation of all things lies hidden in this mystery.
The kairos of this hour can be described thus: The universal deluge threatens to overwhelm the human race — the inevitable outcome of a culture with violence at its heart. There is only one escape route — a total rejection of violence. If this path is followed the rainbow, which joyfully sealed the covenant between God and Noah, will once again be seen on our planet. Synagogue and Church have a single task: to prefigure this wholly unified humanity as the living symbol of the new alliance and to bring forth its first fruits. Reading the Bible by the light of this rainbow we discover that. despite apparent contradictions and denials, at its heart lies the choice formulated in Deuteronomy:
death or life — as humanity chooses, so it will be. This is not simply an eschatological decision, it concerns the organic life of the species. Herein lies the disconcerting actuality of the Bible: prophecy through anthropology.
• Ernesto Balducci is a priest of the Scolopi Order, a professor of Philosophy and History in Florence, formerly director of the periodical Testimomanze. He is a well-known author of many articles and books in Italy.
This article has been translated from the Italian
1. There are other valid interpretations of this text of Isaiah. In the Jewish tradition the Servant is the Jewish People. We refer our readers to SIDIC Vol. XIX, No, 1, 1986 "The last Servant Song of Isaiah and its Interpretations", see p. 20 (Editor's note).