The Bible’s God cannot be pacifist! His people can be, must be, but only because he is not. This startling counterintuitive claim is true for at least the following reasons.
1. Unless God has forfeited his role as the Ruler of human history in a world rebelling against him (Psa.2) and using nations as agents of his judgments against one another (Isa.10), he must be continuing to employ violence. Though God “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (Lam.3:33), he will do what is necessary for justice to prevail.
2. We, followers of Christ, can only be non-violent, unless God enacts the vengeance justice demands (Rom.12:19). Miroslav Volf is required reading here.
“One could object that it is not worthy of God to wield the sword. Is God not love, long-suffering and all-powerful love? A counter-question could go something like this: Is it not a bit too arrogant to presume that our contemporary sensibilities about what is compatible with God’s love are so much healthier than those of the people of God throughout the whole history of Judaism and Christianity? . . . one could . . . argue that in a world of violence it would not be worthy of God not to wield the sword; if God were not angry at the injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship . . . in a world of violence we are faced with an inescapable alternative: either God’s violence or human violence. Most people who insist on God’s ‘nonviolence’ cannot resist using violent themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges! That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1:51-52) seems responsible; that God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary virgin explicitly states, seems crude.
“My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and levelled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.” (Exclusion and Embrace, 303-04)
3. God as Creator and Ruler of the world has certain responsibilities that he alone executes. Humans are not to imitate everything God does, only what he instructs us to do. And that is what we see Jesus of Nazareth doing and hear Jesus of Nazareth teaching us (become non-violent peacemakers, Mt.5:9).
4. Divine wrath is an expression of God’s love, just not a nonviolent love. Like the discipline a parent gives to a child who has cheated and bullied his or her friends, God’s wrath stops or restrains evil from proceeding and offers relief and justice to evil’s victims. Indifference to such evil is the opposite of love.
5. As followers of Jesus, living between the time of his resurrection and return when sin and evil, though defeated lash out violently in their death throes against God and his people, we are called to live the life of the future now in the risk and vulnerability of loving others, even our enemies. The hope that energizes such radical openness to others is grounded in the certainty that God is in control, ruling and guiding history to his eschaton when love will be received and returned by all.
So, three pacifist cheers for our non-Pacifist God!