Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Some Reflections of God and Violence

Old Testament scholar Stephen Chapman from Duke writes in the book Holy War and the Bible:

“Warfare in the Old Testament, as indeed all killing in the Old Testament needs to be recognized within Christian theology as a strictly circumscribed divine concession to the brutal reality of human sin (Gen.9:3-6). However, someone still might ask, ‘Couldn’t God design a world in which war wasn’t necessary?’' The appropriate theological response is that God in fact did so (Gen.1-2), but human sinfulness spoiled it precisely by generating violence (Gen. 6:11-13). Someone might push further and say 'Even with the advent of human violence, couldn’t God have devised a strictly nonviolent method for dealing with it?" Here again the theological response is that God did just that in Jesus Christ, but in order for Christ to appear in the fullness of time (Gal.4:4) it was necessary for God to elect and preserve the people of Israel. And apparently - this is the hard part - God was not able, given the violence of the world, to preserve Israel purely nonviolently although, even so, Israel's history witnesses to and moves toward nonviolence as it moves toward Christ.” (63-64)

Yes, that “hard part” is where many stumble today. They prefer to believe the authors of these kinds of texts got God wrong erroneously painting him after the style of the deities of the surrounding cultures. Thus, knowingly or unknowingly, they painted their “genocidal”[1] wars of aggression into Canaan as carried out at God’s behest and with his support. But God, whatever he was doing in and with the people at this point (which is not clear), was not involved in these wars and did not approve of them. Others take the same tack but actually accuse God of perpetrating these “atrocities” and is thus himself morally in the wrong.

Yes, this is a “hard part.” Simple answers here usually play us false. One such answer, we might call “justifying” says “The stories are true. God did what they say he did. And if he did it, it is alright because God after all can do whatever God wants.” I hope none of you readers want to take that line! Another too simple answer, the “suspicious” one faults God or the narrators for doing wrong or falsifying the story to justify the nation’s nefarious, self-serving acts.

I don’t believe either answer suffices. It seems inadequate to me justify God by appealing to a dubious “God can do whatever he wants” principle or because these stories are in the Bible they’re true. Equally, the “suspicious” answer seems inadequate too. Vindicating God by removing him from the stories is too easy in my judgment. As is blaming him for involvement in these wars. How else could God show himself a faithful king able to guide and direct his people in that time but by so acting. If God incurs guilt thereby, so be it. That seems part and parcel of the incarnational movement from God to humanity. Jesus incurred guilt through his baptism into full solidarity with his people and the world and so too we as his people incarnating him in our world are to bear sin and incur the guilt of responsible action in the world (Bonhoeffer). If that’s the price incarnation costs, that’s a price God is willing to play. And it seems to me a cost we as readers must pay to keep God ever-increasingly involved in the life of the church and the world.

This we might call an “incarnational” approach. Miroslav Volf offers another in which human pacifism is based on God’s non-pacifism.
“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 not 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) 

Further,

.        -Has 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)? Must God, then, not be continuing to employ violence or violent agents to achieve his will? Though God “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (Lam.3:33), will he not do what is necessary for justice to prevail?

-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). 

-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. 

-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.

I realize these brief comments require much further discussion to establish them as full arguments. But I want to register them here as a warning against a too easy acceptance of what I deem inadequate answers. Especially the “suspicious” answer because it is widely trumpeted on the internet. More and better thinking on the matter from all of us can only be a good thing!



[1]I wonder about the appropriateness of using the term “genocide” to describe God’s action in and through Israel here. Can the Creator and Lord of all be guilty of genocide? Can he not do with his creation what he wills (Rom.9:19ff.) without being regarded by those creatures as “unjust” or “unfair”?

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