An Anabaptist’s Thoughts on David Wood vs Shabir Ally Debate: “Is the Bible a Book of Peace?”

I found this debate fascinating from a Mennonite/Anabaptist-Christian perspective and glad to see Christians defending that the Bible calls for peace. As I was listening to the debate I wrote down some random thoughts, and after talking to a friend about the debate who wanted to see my scribbling’s, I decided to post them. Below is an outline of the debate and some commentary. Enjoy.

—David Wood’s Opening Statement—

David Wood’s opening statement is very powerful. It is powerful precisely because it emphasizes Jesus’ call to peace and does not attempt to justify violence of any sort. Wood gives his personal testimony of overcoming his own violent tendencies (2:14). He notes that apostles Peter, John & Paul were all also changed from having a willingness to be violent in the name nationalism or religion to calling for love to all men. (7:32)  Wood notes that “Jesus emphasized love as a core Christian virtue”, “violence leads to violence and causes a cycle of violence” (10:27), “when you see what God did there is no room for hating other people”, “the impact of Jesus on Stephen is that he did not want to see guilty people punished” (12:00), “Christians voluntarily give up their liberty to love others”, (12:40), and “for three centuries they never fought back…and shed no blood but their own” (13:25). Wood notes that the Bible has caused Christians to be involved in loving their fellowmen in innovative ways for their times: Ended gladiatorial games, condemned infanticide, help needy people, took care of orphans, built first hospitals, and created hospitals for the mentally ill. Wood wraps up with “Violence came to an end with the Gospel” (19:29) and a summarizing statement he used various times throughout the debate: “the final marching orders of the Bible are “love everyone”…and “live in peace with everyone“. (19:39).

If I was to summarize Wood’s points on why the Bible is a book of peace:

  1. Wood’s personal life testimony
  2. Historical life testimonies of apostles & many Christians since
  3. Jesus communicated love & peace as core virtue
  4. Christian influence on Roman society & acts of charity

I would note that as a nonresistant Mennonite Christian I could agree with nearly everything Wood said in his open statement as there was little mention of exceptions for justifying violence for the Christian.

—Shabir Ally’s Opening Statement—

Shabir Ally starts by noting he has 4 criteria for determining if a book is peaceful:

  1. How does the book present its hero’s? (21:35)
  2. Does the book command people to live in peace? (22:19)
  3. Does the book put together a legal system that allows people to live in peace? (22:42)
  4. Does the book outline a just war theory? (23:06)

I think Ally’s criteria are valid.

Criteria 1: He gives several points to attempt to argue his criteria 1, that the Bible presents it’s hero’s as violent: the NT in Hebrews 11 presents violent conquerors as hero’s (28:20): Samson killing Philistines, David killing 200 Philistines for their foreskins &Samuel tell Saul to kill all the Amalekites.

Criteria 2: Ally immediately grants that the Bible passes his criteria 2 & that the Bible commands people to live in peace.

Criteria 3: Ally argues that the Bible creates no “universal system to live in peace” (36:51) in our day because 1) Christians do not clearly envision the church as an alternative social order to modern nation-states, but envision their social order & vision of war & peace guided by nation-states in which they live [This is implied, then stated by Wood, then added as an argument by Ally in a response] (xx:xx) 2) the Bible gives title deed of land to Israel and Palestinians may not live there & Israeli’s coercively take Palestinian land (36:40) and 3) NT reaffirms the Biblical title deed to the land of Palestine (37:44).

Criteria 4: On just war, Ally argues that  1) the Bible “affirms genocide over & over” (38:00) and 2) the Bible does not lay out a rationale for just war.

Next Ally gives a rebuttal of Wood’s summarizing statement that “the final marching orders of the Bible are ‘love everyone'” by arguing 1) The final picture in Revelation is that when Jesus returns He will be violent (39:10), 2) In Isaiah 63 God is shown with bloody garments from dead enemies & in the end Jesus will be like this (39:40), and 3) In Psalm 110 Jesus will have his feet on His slain enemies (40:20)

Ally’s final summarizing statement is “The Bible is both a book of love and a book of war and dreadful violence.” (40:40) and one can pick and choose between love and violence.

—Wood’s Response—

Critieria 1 (hero representation) Response: Wood spends most of his time arguing that in the OT “hagiographic hyperbole” (49:43) was being used and that genocide was not being carried out. I think Wood does a persuasive job of arguing this, but the challenge is that in Wood’s success he seems to prove Ally’s point that the Bible is presenting a people that brag & boast about their violence.

Criteria 2 (peace command) Response: Heb 12:14 commands to “pursue peace with all men”. Success.

Criteria 3 (universal system of peace) Response: 1) Wood agrees that “Christianity is not about creating a legal system”. (50:30This seems to indicate Wood is granting Ally is correct that Bible does not create a universal system for creating peace. But then he notes 2) “Love your neighbor as yourself will work regardless of government” (50:30). 3) Next Wood seems to agree with Ally that the Bible doesn’t have a peaceful resolution to land dispute and attempts to resolve this by saying Koran also supports this non peaceful solution.  Arguing that the Bible does not give a peaceful solution by saying some other book agrees with a non peaceful solution is not an argument for the Bible being a book of peace, but just that everyone is agreeing peace is not needed in this scenario.

Criteria 4 (just war) Response: 1) Wood argues the Bible gave rise to just war theory, although he acknowledges Cicero came up with just war theory before Christians. (51:50) An objection to this response might be: If Cicero was Roman, why do the Romans not get credit for just war theory? 2) The way Wood says the Bible gave rise to just war theory is that “Christians needed to run Roman Empire and …wanted to reconcile Romans 13 curbing evil with loving neighbor and enemy”. Some questions that might weaken this response:  Did Christians “need to run the Roman Empire”? Does the “reconciling” above change Jesus’ call to “love everyone” into something more like “love some”? Does it change/modify Jesus’ “final marching orders”? This argument could make it appear that “love everyone” was not a final marching, but just an unequivocal marching order until “needing to run the Roman Empire”, and after that “love All” became “love your neighbor & fight your enemy”. 3) Romans 13 plus Acts 25, you have just war theory right there. (1:23:13)

Wood does not deal with Ally’s comments about how Revelation seems to end Bible violently.

Some of my conclusions:

Criteria 1/Hero Representation-Failed: I think that this debate is a bit awkward because the question should probably be “Does Jesus Create of People of Peace?”. Is the OT violent? Yes. As Wood argues persuasively to salvage the OT from genocide he clearly demonstrates that the OT warriors boasted about their violence. He may have delivered them from genocide, but not a lot of violence.  What could be an alternative approach to this challenge? 1) The Jewish self understanding was that they needed to look to God to defend them and God minimized the escalation of violence by calling His people to not multiply military machinery like “chariots & horses”. The Jewish self understanding was that faith in God, not a strong military was what preserved them. This is demonstrated by battles clearly unwinnable by traditional armies. (Jericho, Midianites, Red Sea, etc) 2) Wood could have noted that Jesus himself noted that “you used to be commanded to love your neighbors and hate your enemies but I say unto you something new… love.” When God came to earth, His conquering was done using love.

Criteria 2/Peace Command-Succeeded: This was never much of a point in the debate but it was well demonstrated in Wood’s opening.

Criteria 3/Universal system for peace-Not a Strong Response: Wood started out great, saying that Jesus calls Christians to love ALL. That sounds like a “universal system of peace” to me, but unfortunately in Wood’s subsequent responses he whittles away at the idea of a “universal system for peace” and the “ALL”. Wood himself seems to not envision that Jesus organized a people into a new social order, a kingdom of peace, but rather that Christian’s defer to governments they live in on the matter of which enemies are loved or fought and killed. but, he adds, personally “loving all”. He further weakens the “universal system for peace” by defending that the Bible (& thus Jesus?) supports taking Palestinian land and/or the right to defend it by violent means if necessary. Ally rightly calls out that if the Bible says this, then it does not have a solution for peace today. Finally, since Wood feels compelled to support just war theory he needs to support sometimes having enemies that you violently resist, which seems to take the sharp edge on his point that Jesus’ final word is to love everyone. Wood seems to be (once again) inadvertently making one of Shabir Ally’s main points: That the Bible supports both violence AND peace. What might be an alternative response to the challenge that the Bible creates a “universal system for peace”? Intriguingly Wood gave a powerful argument for Christianity as a “universal system for peace” when he noted that “for three centuries they [Christians] never fought back…and shed no blood but their own” (13:25). When early Christians did not envision themselves as needing to run the Roman Empire they envisioned and were a people who embodied a way of life that was a “universal system for peace”. During this period no Christian violently defended their property rights which would answer Ally’s question about land & peace. In short, Christians viewed themselves as a people & kingdom organized in a totally new way, that is, solely around love and peace and a willingness to die as a martyr rather than kill those who would wrong them. This was in sharp contrast to every empire that has existed.

Criteria 4/Just War-Not a Strong Response: I think Ally is correct that the Bible supports holy war (violent holy war in the OT) but does not build a case for just war theory in the OT or NT. Wood himself notes that just war theory was an idea borrowed from prior Greek/Roman thinkers like Cicero. (51:50). In the NT Jesus builds a case for love that seemed to leave the early church under the impression there was no need for justifying war of any sort, which is exactly how the church lived for several centuries, according to Wood. (13:25). It seems that the way an early Christian might have answered criteria 4 & 5 is that Christians (that is those that live like Christ) are a people who have faith that love, peace and blessing enemies is the #1 “weapon” in overcoming the world and a people so ordered clearly have a system that if adopted by all will bring peace and have no need of justifying war.

Point that Revelation ends the Bible in violence: -MORE COMING-

Point that peace and violence are found in the Bible: In short, many Christian have a view that seems to validates this perception.  -MORE COMING-

IMHO, the discussions on the Koran do not seem to be relevant to this debate, both when Ally and Wood bring it up. (they may be relevant to the larger Christian/Muslim discussion, but they should not be needed to prove the Bible is a book of peace)

Yes, the Bible is a book of Peace! Sadly too often we have interpreted it into a book of violence because our faith in the overcoming power of the Cross of the slain Lamb has wavered. It is hard to have one hand on a weapon to kill our enemies while witnessing to the power of Cross to overcome our enemies with love. But the Christian church’s failings do not change that God is, as the Apostle Paul repeatedly reminded us, a “God of Peace”. A God who came to bring not only bring peace “in hearts”, but peace among those who are not reconciled to one another, that is, peace “on earth”! Let us have faith and let us have hope! The Slain Lamb has conquered! Let us follow Him!

3 Comments

  1. Did you ever write a followup to this article? Specifically, there at the last two points where you say MORE COMING. I would be interested to read that. Thanks

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    1. Hello Chad, I suppose your request is about hearing more on the question: “does Revelation end the Bible in violence”?

      What would your thoughts be on the subject? (both “does Revelation say that God destroys the world in a blood bath?” and “What are the ramifications of Shabir Ally’s argument that the Bible ends in violence?”)

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  2. I am still learning Revelation, and I understand there is a lot of symbolism in Revelation, but I find it a little hard to believe chapters 19 and 20 are completely symbolic.
    One of the differences between Islam and real Christianity, is, Islam asks its followers to fight and kill the infidels themselves, while followers of Jesus patiently endure persecution and maintain a clear witness for him and in the end He fights for them. Notice in Revelation 19 and 20 none of His followers kill anyone.
    As far as the ramifications of that… I’m still mulling it over

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