One of the most important subjects addressed in my recent book A New Kind of Christianity is the question of whether we believe God is violent. There is no question that Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others have been violent in God's name (although, happily, there are a few denominations and movements in each religion that oppose violence as a tenet of faith). The question is whether we believe violence is inherent to the character of God. A nonviolent God cannot be enlisted to sanction aggression, but a violent one is handy for that purpose.
It's strange and sad that this subject would come up during Holy Week.
This is the week we recall that Jesus was willing to be killed, but not to kill ... to be tortured, but not to torture. This is the week he told Peter to put away his sword, saying, "Those who live by the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). This is the week he contrasted his kingdom in this world with the kingdoms of this world by their opposite responses to the violence question (John 18:36 ff). (The prepositions in and not of are important.) Many of us believe that Jesus embodies the image of a nonviolent God, an image intended to transcend and correct violent images.
But others portray Jesus as a violent avenger with "a commitment to make someone bleed," reinforcing rather than overturning a violent image of God. To do so, groups like the militia group in today's news point to an anticipated second-coming Jesus, especially as portrayed in Revelation 19:11 ff. There, they suggest, Jesus is described with a sword, so even though he wasn't violent in his first coming, he will be violent when he returns. They fail to note one small detail in the text: that the sword is in Jesus' mouth (!), not his hand. Might this not be unveiling* for us a deeper truth ... that the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday upon a humble donkey with tears falling from his eyes and with a word of peace on his lips was in fact more powerful than Caesar, Herod, Pilate, and their violent colleagues -- who would ride proudly into town on chariots and white stallions, with one fist raised triumphantly in the air, and with the other holding a sword of violence? Might Revelation 19 be restating and reaffirming rather than contradicting and supplanting the Jesus of the gospels?
Here's how I say it in A New Kind of Christianity:
To repeat, Revelation is not portraying Jesus returning to earth in the future, having repented of his naive gospel ways and having converted to Caesar's "realistic" Greco-Roman methods instead. He hasn't gotten discouraged about Caesar seeming to get the upper hand after his resurrection and on that basis concluded that it's best to live by the sword after all (Matt. 26:52). Jesus hasn't abandoned the way of peace (Luke 19:42) and concluded that the way of Pilate is better, mandating that the disciples should fight after all (John 18:36). He hasn't had second thoughts about all that talk about forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22) and concluded that on the 78th offense you should pull out your sword and hack off your offender's head rather than turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). He hasn't given up on that "love your enemies" stuff (Matthew 5:44) and judged it naive and foolish after all (1 Cor. 1:25), concluding instead that God's strength is made manifest not in weakness but in crushing domination (2 Cor. 12:9). He hasn't had a change of heart, concluding that the weapons he needs are physical after all (2 Cor. 10:3-4), which would mean that the way to glory isn't actually by dying on a cross (Phil. 2:8-9) but rather by nailing others on it.
He hasn't sold the humble donkey (Luke 19:30-35) on eBay and purchased chariots, warhorses, tanks, land mines, and B-1s instead (Zech. 9:9-10).... He hasn't decided that the message of the cross is a little too foolish after all (1 Cor. 1:18) or that Christ killing his foes is way more exciting than that lame, absurd, "hippie" gospel of "Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2).
He hasn't decided that ... nobody can be expected to worship a king they can beat up (Matt. 27:27).... Jesus matters precisely because he provides us a living alternative to the confining [violent] narrative in which our world and our religions live, move, and have their being too much of the time.
Revelation celebrates not the love of power, but the power of love. It denies, with all due audacity, that God's anointed liberator is the Divine Termintaor, threatening revenge for all who refuse to honor him, growling, "I'll be back!" It asserts, instead, that God's anointed liberator is the one we beat up, who promises mercy to those who strike him, whispering, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
*The title of the "Book of Revelation" or "The Apocalypse" means unveiling. Increasing numbers of scholars suggest it is not intended as a prognostication about the end of the world, but rather as an unveiling of the real meaning behind events in the time of its original readers.
Brian McLaren is an author and speaker whose new book is A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.