I was recently asked the question: "Why do you care so much about others’ belief about God?" As a Christian, I am sure the stock answer should have been, "So they can be saved." And sure, "being saved" is of eternal importance — but I knew that is not the direction the question was coming from. What this gentleman wanted to know was why I confronted others about their belief in a retributive God — an understanding of God that includes violence. Had he given me the chance to answer (which he did not), I would have hopefully come up with something similar to the remainder of this article.

I believe when the Bible is approached with the mindset that "God said it, I believe it, that settles it," you are going to run into a litany of troubling issues. The specific issue that triggered the question at the top was my insistence that the violence attributed to God in the Old Testament is not an accurate portrayal of the God revealed in Jesus. Because the particular Christians I was engaging believed everything attributed to God literally was enacted by God, their conclusion was that God can, at times, be violent. "Yes, he is merciful, but he is also vengeful. It plainly says that all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures."

This is what theologian Michael Hardin calls the Janus-faced (two-faced) god. 

What is the problem with this?

Mimetic theory teaches us that human beings will imitate the God they worship. If that god is believed to be violent, then violence, broadly speaking, will be more tolerated by his/her adherents.

For an extreme example, one could look at Pastor Steven Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church, who is quoted in USA Today as saying:

"Here’s what the Bible says, Leviticus 20:13, ‘If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.’ And that, my friend, is the cure for AIDS. It was right there in the Bible all along [ . . . ] Because if you executed the homos, like God recommends, you wouldn’t have all this AIDS running rampant." 

I am not for labeling others, but I am not sure how Pastor Anderson’s comments could ever be compatible with Jesus—whether in action or in lesson.

Then, on the extreme end of Islam, you have ISIS, whose members believe they are doing the will of god. The Raven Foundation’s Adam Ericksen aptly points out that not only is ISIS gravely mistaken, they are not even to be labeled "Muslim."

I realize both ISIS and Pastor Anderson are extreme examples, but my point is that it is their shared belief in a violent God, as well as their probable shared exegesis of their respective scriptures, that leads to such violence.

"God said it, they believe it, and that settles it."

Well, not so fast. What can Jesus, as our Rabbi, teach us?

First, doesn’t Jesus show us how to interpret Hebrew Scriptures in places like Matthew 5? He says on multiple occasions, "You have heard that it was said," yet follows that up with, "but I say to you."

In verses 38-39, he even makes a direct contradiction of Leviticus 24:20 when he states: "You have heard it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also."

Using the same interpretive lens — a bit of midrash — couldn’t we imagine Jesus interpreting Leviticus 20:13 in the following way?

"You have heard that it was said, ‘a man that lieth with a man shall be put to death,’ but I say to you, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’"

One should simply not read Scriptures without using Jesus as one's lens. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us clues into his hermeneutics: Quote Hebrew Scripture, then exegete with mercy and grace as the lens. In Luke 7:18 – 23, he does the same thing.

Jesus, in talking to John’s disciples, is talking to the disciples of a man who believed in a vengeful God. Luke 3:7 gives us insight into this. When Jesus says to John’s disciples, "Blessed is he who does not take offense at me," I believe he does so because it is Jesus’ commitment to non-violence and mercy that would cause a scandal — a stumbling block if you will.

For further evidence of this, look also at how Jesus references the Hebrew Scriptures in Luke 7.

Verse 22 reads (with OT references): "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight (Isaiah 29:28, 35:5, 61:1-2), the lame walk (Isaiah 35:6), the lepers are cleansed (1 Kings 17:24, 2 Kings 5:1-27), the deaf hear (Isaiah 29:18, 35:5), the dead are raised (1 Kings 17-24, 2 Kings 5:1-27), the poor have good news brought to them (Isaiah 29:19)."

In every reference Jesus makes to the book of Isaiah, there is an associated Isianic verse that includes divine vengeance. Yet, when Jesus quotes from it, he leaves off such vengeance. For John, this would have been a great offense. Thus, Jesus concludes his message with, "And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

Jesus is the fullness of God in bodily form. Too often this point is missed. Not only do Christians overlook Jesus’ hermeneutics, but so too do we miss just how merciful he is. It seems as if his mercy is tempered by our presupposed understanding of God’s wrath and vengeance. A "theology of the cross," as Martin Luther introduced us to, is rarely considered by many of us in the West. That is tragic.

So what do I say to those who hold to a theology that includes violence?

Start everything with Jesus. Read your Bible with Jesus. Approach the Father in the same way Jesus did — as Abba. Stop "searching the scriptures" prior to coming to Jesus. He is our model in all things — in how we engage the world with grace and mercy and compassion, and in how we read our Bibles.

I hope my answer to the gentleman who posed the original question would have resembled something like this article.

Grace be with you.

Matthew J. Distefano is a regular contributor for The Raven Foundation.

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"The God We Follow"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines and acknowledge that my comment may be published in the Letters to the Editor section of Sojourners magazine.

Must Reads

Subscribe