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Fall 2008 · Vol. 37 No. 2 · pp. 249–51 

Book Review

War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century

ed. Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008. 155 pages.

Reviewed by Richard S. Rawls

War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century stems from Denver Seminary’s 2004 Biblical Studies Symposium, which explored the teachings of biblical ethics regarding modern war. Richard Hess summarizes the book in the editor’s preface, reporting that the editors “sought a relatively small group of representative Christians from all perspectives who would come together to debate and discuss from the standpoint of their individual heritages and biblical roots the questions of war with regard to ethical dilemmas.” The book indeed draws upon numerous denominational backgrounds and professors, from an emeritus president of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (Elmer Martens) to a professor of philosophy at West Point to a retired Major General of the British Army.

The opening three articles are particularly interesting. The first, by Yale professor Miroslav Volf, explores well the “Christianity and Violence” of its title. Volf challenges claims from the last decades that Christianity causes violence. To the assertion that monotheism is inherently violent because it divides people into us (believers) and them (non-believers), Volf responds that monotheism creates a situation where “everyone is ‘in’ on precisely the same terms” (8). Furthermore, eliminating monotheism hardly reduces the division and violence between “us and them.” Volf admits that Christians remain capable of violence, but contends that this has less to do with the inherent violence of Christianity than with the fact “that the Christian faith has not been taken seriously enough” (9). In asking why the notion of monotheism as violent has persisted, Volf suggests, “If we were more self-critical about our own hidden violent proclivities and more suspicious about the presentation of violence in media, we might observe on the religious landscape not only eruptions of violence but also a widespread and steady flow of work that religious people do to make our world into a more peaceful place” (17).

The second article, by Denver Seminary’s Richard S. Hess, examines “War in the Hebrew Bible” as an overview. Many scholars, theists and non-theists alike, view the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) as the Achilles’ heel of peace traditions claiming inspiration from the Bible. Hess proposes three levels on which warfare must be examined: 1) Yahweh as warrior; 2) an analysis of different types of war described in the Bible; and 3) a critical investigation of the purpose behind the text’s presentation of battles. Hess’s levels, despite helping to understand war in the Hebrew Bible, prove unsatisfactory not because Hess does an inadequate job, but because divine warfare and vengeance are seemingly irreconcilable with a God of justice, mercy, and peace.

Elmer Martens provides the third and very intriguing article, “Toward Shalom: Absorbing the Violence.” Martens seeks to avoid sifting through contrasting interpretations in order to draw upon the Christian gospel to find not a God of violence but a God of reconciliation, peace, and shalom. While relying upon biblical theology, Martens also borrows the insights of Rene Girard to counter those of Regina Schwartz, whose book, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, lurks in the background of most articles in the book. Martens shows biblical instances where God intercepts and seeks to prevent violence. He claims that God, in order to restore shalom, offers Christ Jesus as the scapegoat (Girard’s influence) who will absorb human violence (43). From this insight he further suggests that, “Believers cannot participate in precipitating violence,” because “their calling is to absorb violence” (50).

The topics of the remaining articles include distinguishing just war from crusade (79ff.), establishing types of immunity in the war on terrorism (93ff.), defining terrorism and suggesting how it ought to be dealt with (113ff.), just peacemaking (127ff.), and others.

The strength of this book also signifies a weakness. Namely, its articles on several interrelated topics prove thought provoking at the same time that they lack a coherent focus. Another weakness relates to what its authors do not address: the overarching problem of evil and why a good God would permit warfare and terrorism. To be fair, this topic has consumed myriad volumes without resolution, but one cannot help but wish that the authors would state how their views on this topic influence their hermeneutics. Elmer Martens’ article provides the most coherent proposal suggesting why and how Christians are supposed to respond to violence.

Minor quibbles notwithstanding, the authors should be congratulated for their prescience in anticipating the difficulties in waging war on terrorism. Many of these difficulties were only nascent in 2004 but have emerged in sharper relief since then. A final strength of this book is its versatility. It could well be used in theology, political science, and even (though not on Mennonite campuses!) military studies courses.

Richard S. Rawls, Associate Professor of History
Georgia Gwinnett College
Lawrenceville, Georgia

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