The Common Good

What Does Violence in the Bible Tell Us About God?

soj1101I recently received a note from a pastor and missionary we'll call Pete. It went like this: "I have read most of what you have written, including A New Kind of Christianity ... I would say I am in agreement with [much of what you write], but I do think you bring disservice to this argument in the evangelical world when you shun the 'violence' of God and the subsequent need for the cross' justification, which was also quite violent."

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He continued: "You have a lot to say to the church, but when you make these kind of statements that don't really appear to hold weight under the plethora of biblical examples, it mutes your voice. The fact is the Old Testament is a God-ordained bloody mess, and the cross is the ultimate expression of it. This only highlights God's holiness, and when we try to mitigate this reality to save him from a secular mind, we mitigate the power of the cross as well, and end up with a less powerful narrative."

I don't know which shocks you more -- that I would question God's violence, or that Pete would defend it. My guess is that nearly all of us would be shocked one way or the other.

If you ask why this question is so important, I think "Sept. 11" is a good answer. Since then, we've been marinating in the issue of religious violence, day after day. One day we see a shaky video from the Middle East featuring terrorists blowing up a humvee, with shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" ("God is great!") in the background. Another day we hear a famous Christian televangelist say, "Blow them all away in the name of the Lord." Another day we read about Israel Defense Forces destroying the homes of Palestinians, defending their actions on the grounds that God promised them the land 4,000 years ago. And the day after that, we hear another Christian televangelist defending their actions, and urging the U.S. to join Israel in a war against Iran.
A lot is at stake.

A book-length treatment of this question would require us to engage with a number of preliminary and ancillary questions. For example, what do we mean by the term violence? Can there be force without violence, or is all coercion inherently violent? Can there be "surgical" violence, with no cruelty involved, or does violence by its very definition include the intention to violate? Is there a moral difference between defensive and offensive violence, and, if so, where is the line between them drawn?

Let's define violence simply: force with the intent of inflicting injury, damage, or death. I think believers in God have four primary responses to the question of God's violence defined in this way:

1. God is violent, and since we human beings are made in God's image, we're free to use violence as one valid form of political communication (to borrow a famous phrase from Carl von Clausewitz), and in fact we are commanded to use it in some cases.

2. God is violent, but in a holy way that sinful humans are incapable of. That's why violence is generally prohibited for humans except in certain limited cases. In those cases, only those designated as God's chosen/elect/ordained, acting under God's explicit direction, are justified in using violence.

3. God is not violent, so human violence is always a violation of our creation in God's image -- both for the perpetrator and the victim. If it is ever employed, it is always tragic and regrettable, never justified.

4. God is not violent, so violence in any form is absolutely forbidden, no exceptions.

Some of my friends choose Option 4, and they're disappointed that while I aspire to live by Option 4, I can accept Option 3 as well. Pete, I think, would be almost my mirror image. He would personally affirm Option 2 and would be tolerant of Option 1 in friends and colleagues. He would do so for the two primary reasons he mentioned: the "plethora of biblical examples" and the "quite violent" cross.

How would someone like me -- who cannot say "God is violent" without feeling like I'm blaspheming -- respond? Do I deny the Bible? Do I seek to minimize the cross, or diminish its power, as Pete suggests? Am I just trying to "save God" to make God more palatable to a "secular mind"?

[Read the rest of Brian McLaren's article, "Is God Violent?" in the January 2011 issue of Sojourners magazine.]


Brian McLarenBrian McLaren is an author and speaker whose new book is A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.

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