The Common Good
January 2011

Is God Violent?

by Brian McLaren | January 2011

What does the violence in the Bible tell us about the nature of God?

I 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"?

Before responding, I first would want to affirm how important this conversation is. If we Christians can have a civil, respectful conversation -- avoiding physical and verbal violence (!), achieving understanding whether or not we come closer to agreement -- I think we’re already on a good track.

But such a conversation is not only good practice in nonviolent communication for us as Christians; we need to know that our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, and other neighbors are interested bystanders. Based on our answers, they'll have an idea of what to expect from us. If we say, "Only Christians and Jews are justified in using violence, under these conditions," they'll expect certain behavior from us. If we say, "All violence is to us a tragedy and a violation of God's character of kindness and love," they'll expect other behavior from us. Our good news, similarly, will be judged better or worse because of our answer. (For example, people who are under physical threat and want to forcefully defend themselves and their children might see an absolutely nonviolent gospel as bad news. Those who risk their lives in the cause of violence reduction and elimination would see a violence-defending gospel as bad news.)

I grew up not thinking twice about violence. I was taught that the Bible was about forgiveness, so that was my focus: getting forgiven. Hitting was a sin, as were lying and stealing. I wanted to avoid sins, obviously. When it came to wars and such, I figured that was God's business, and the president's. I just wanted to go to heaven when the rapture came and leave all that "wars and rumors of wars" stuff behind on earth. I remember the first time I heard of something called pacifism: My response was that it sounded terribly impractical and dangerous.

As I came of age and grew into adulthood, of course, I gave these matters the second thoughts they deserved. But it wasn't until the last decade that I began struggling to put "God" and "violent" into the same sentence. I've come to a place where I would address Pete's main concerns along these lines.

A Plethora of Biblical Examples

Pete is right about the Bible having a lot of violence. Most of us were raised reading the Noah story, for example, as a cute story about furry animals on a boat ride. But stop for a second and imagine a mother climbing a tree to escape the rising waters, trying to hold her newborn infant in one arm and her toddler child in the other. One drops, and she watches him drown. Then she drops the other, and she watches her drown. And eventually she drowns too. Imagine that story being repeated millions of times. It’s not a pretty picture, and in the story, it's not a "natural disaster." It's an act of God. Every person on earth -- every man, woman, child, and grandparent -- is wiped out the same horrible way, excepting Noah's family. If you're ambivalent about the story, take heart (a little, anyway): So is God, who seems to have immediate second thoughts of God's own and promises never to do that again.

If that were the only problematic story, it would be one thing. But stories like this pile one upon another, like the collapsed floors of a high-rise in the tragic Haitian earthquake, and similarly unthinkable death tolls mount. The Canaanite genocide would have landed Joshua in a war crimes tribunal. We would call Samson a Middle Eastern terrorist and David a corrupt warlord if they were alive today. And don't even mention that psalm about children and stones.

Many good Christians have found ways that satisfy them to deal with such texts. For example, some say, "We're all sinners, so we deserve even worse than whatever we get." That satisfied me too, for a decade or two, but eventually it stopped working -- especially when I studied church history and got an idea of the social consequences of that kind of logic.

And it wasn't my desire to appease "a secular mind" that forced me to rethink all this -- the problem was my own mind as a Christian and pastor. Was God's eye really on the sparrow? Was the Lord truly good to all, having compassion on all God has made? Did God want us to trust in horses and chariots or not? Did the Lord really want us to move beyond spears and swords to plowshares and pruning hooks, and if so when, or was that just impractical and unrealistic poetry? Was God serious about a day coming when we would study war no more, or was that just heavenly talk?

Gradually I realized that there was another plethora of verses that present God as kind, reconciling, and compassionate, and against favoritism and violence. I realized that I was going to have to choose one plethora over another, or subordinate one to another. How would I choose? Eventually, this dilemma forced me to question some of my assumptions about what the Bible was for, and how it was to be read. This meant I stopped reading the Bible as an inspired and authoritative constitution and started reading it as an inspired and authoritative library.

But that deconstruction and reconstruction took a lot of time and struggle. Before reaching that conclusion, I reached another: that if I see a tension in scripture, rather than appealing to Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Scofield, or the pope to resolve it, I should first turn to Jesus. If Jesus truly was the highest and fullest revelation of God, if Jesus was truly the logos, the radiance of God's glory, the exact representation of God's nature, the fullness of the godhead in bodily form, and in very nature God, then his life and teaching mattered in tensions like this. And if the Bible was intended, as Jesus said, to bear witness to Christ, or as Martin Luther said, to be the manger on which Christ was presented to the world, then "when in doubt, consult Jesus" seemed like good advice.

And the staggering reality is that Jesus didn’t kill anybody -- something that can't be said about Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, or Mohammed (no disrespect intended to any of them). He didn't hit anybody. He didn't hate anybody. He practiced as he preached: Reconciliation, not retaliation. Kindness, not cruelty. A willingness to be violated, not violation. Creative conflict transformation through love, not decisive conflict termination through superior weapons. Courageous and compassionate resistance, not violence. Outstretched arms on a cross, not stockpiles of arms, nuclear or otherwise.

The Cross

This brings us to the cross and the subject of atonement, which has become a theological war zone these days. Many claim that the theory of penal substitutionary atonement presents an inescapably violent view of God as the one who punishes Jesus in our place. To deny that view is to surrender your status as an orthodox Christian, some say. Others question whether that theory -- especially as popularly preached -- is biblical at all, while still others retain the word substitution but reject the word penal, and so on.

In my own grappling with this subject, a single question has brought things into focus for me: Where do you primarily find God on Good Friday?

If God is primarily identified with the Romans, torturing and killing Jesus, then, yes, the case is closed: God must be seen as violent on Good Friday. The cross is an instrument of God's violence.

But if God is located first and foremost with the crucified one, identifying with humanity and bearing and forgiving people's sin, then a very different picture of God and the cross emerges.

Both locations present a scandal. The former, it seems to me, subverts the entire biblical narrative. God is not then identified with the slaves seeking freedom, but with Pharoah keeping them in their place. God is not with the woman caught in adultery, but with those who want to stone her. God is not with Paul, accepting Gentiles as sisters and brothers, but with the Judaizers, upholding the Law. And God is not hanging on the cross, but stooping over it, pounding in the nail. That's scandalous in one way.

The latter understanding subverts violence and all those who depend on it for their security, affluence, and happiness. God is with the slaves, not with the slave-drivers. God is found in the one being tortured, not the ones torturing. God is found among the displaced refugees, not those stealing their lands. And God is found in the one being spat upon, not in the one spitting. A very different scandal indeed -- and a very different cross, with a very different, but no less profound, meaning.

I probably agreed with Pete when I was his age. Now my journey has taken me to a place to which Pete may never come, or even want to come. I certainly can't force or threaten him into capitulation. So to all who, like Pete, can’t embrace a nonviolent God imaged in a man on a cross, I can only say this: Please consider what extremist Christians, Muslims, and Jews are doing and planning today, as we speak, in the name of a violent God. And please, look back in history and see what has already been done. And please -- if you can't change your view, at least protect it from its ugliest potential consequences.

Brian 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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