Today we pay a return visit to Benjamin L. Corey who blogs at Patheos. This is really two articles in one. On the surface, it’s dealing with the issue of “just war theory” versus pacifism. On a deeper level, it deals with the complications that arise when we try to use particular Bible texts to justify a particular position. So… even if you’re not drawn to the particular issue — and I deliberately chose a neutral headline — consider this an A+ exercise in Biblical hermeneutics. Click the title below to read at source or leave a comment for Benjamin.
I’ve heard a lot of reasoning over the years regarding Christian support of things like war, violence, and gun slinging. I’ve seen the Bible bent into a giant pretzel, watched folks do theological gymnastics, and I’ve seen the teachings of Jesus on the matter outright dismissed– over, and over again.
I thought I had addressed all of the counter arguments over the years, but a new one is emerging and being used more and more frequently: the use of Ecclesiastes chapter 3 to justify the Christian’s support of war and violence.
Even the casual Bible reader probably knows this passage well, as it became the hit song, Turn, Turn, Turn, by the Byrds, which is still an iconic song of the 60’s. The biblical passage (and the song) goes like this:
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”
So, here’s how this is starting to be used in Christian discussions about guns, war, and violence: When Christian A puts forth the nonviolent teachings of Jesus, Christian B retorts by posting this passage in reply. The inferred argument is, “Jesus couldn’t have really meant that, because Ecclesiastes says there’s a time to kill and a time for war.”
Let me quickly outline the serious problems with this argument:
First, it ignores Jesus! The act of rebutting Jesus using other passages of Scripture should be a major red flag in the mind of any believer. If Jesus is the living Word of God and the Wisdom of God, then we begin with what Jesus taught us. This is what makes us Christians instead of Biblicists– we follow the teachings of our Lord and Savior. When one rejects the face value teaching and example of Christ in favor of other passages or people in Scripture, it’s a good indication that such a person may like Jesus the Savior but not Jesus the Lord– and unfortunately, this thing is a package deal.
Second, it ignores the poetic nature of the passage. This passage became a hit song because it’s actually quite beautiful and insightful as a piece of literature. The author poetically describes the many seasons of life he has observed, and invites us into his inner thought process as he reflects on these deep questions. The result is certainly beautiful.
Finally, using this passage to trump Jesus falls flat, as it ignores things the author of Ecclesiastics totally got wrong. Because the poem describes the extremes that exist in life, there’s something in the passage that everyone will likely find disagreement with, and stuff that I believe a Christian should flat out reject as being wrong.
For example, when I first went to Bible college 20+ years ago, I tried to make the argument that we should be allowed to dance because the Bible says, “there’s a time to dance.” Of course, they rejected this argument and reminded me that even Satan knows Scripture and how to twist it. (But strangely when they got to the lines about hating, killing, and war, the passage all of a sudden became the “final authority for faith and Christian living.”)
But let’s look at a few more serious examples:
Do you really think there’s a time to hate? If Jesus commanded us to love God, love our neighbors, and love our enemies, I can’t think of anyone we’re allowed to hate. Thus, this passage cannot be read as a prescriptive command from God as to how to live, because according to Jesus, there’s not a time to hate.
Or, if one reads beyond the more famous lines of this passage, we find a few other things I hope we’d reject. In verse 12 he says that there’s, “nothing better than for people to be happy” and as a Christian I would categorically deny that our existence here on this earth has the highest goal of our own happiness. Surely, Jesus promised not happiness– but that the consequences of following him would great, including poverty, jail, and death.
In addition, the author states in verses 19-21 that humans have “no advantage” over animals and that he doesn’t know if the human spirit “rises upwards” or if the animal spirit “goes down to the earth.” I would hope that as Christians we’d reject such shoulder shrugging as to wether or not our fate after death is any better or different than an animal.
Finally, in that same set of verses, the author says that “everything is meaningless.” But do we really believe that life is meaningless? That it has no point? I certainly don’t see how “everything is meaningless” can fit within a Christian narrative– the opposite would be far more likely to be true.
Thus, to use Ecclesiastes 3 to justify the Christian supporting war and violence is one of the weakest arguments one could make. It completely ignores what Jesus said about things. It also completely ignores the context of the passage– someone poetically thinking about loud in the 3rd Century BCE as to whether or not life has meaning, and who wonders if we will share the same fate as animals. Finally, it ignores things the author simply got wrong about life– it’s not meaningless, and surely for the Christian, the highest goal of life isn’t the pursuit of personal happiness.
Can we please stop using this passage as an American Christian go-to passage to justify our support of war and violence? Because the passage doesn’t actually work that way.