A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, March 04, 2019

The Warrior God and the Prince of Peace: Violence and the God of the Bible

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It's been perplexing the faithful for centuries. What do we do with the violence of the Old Testament texts, particularly the Scriptures where God commands God's people to slaughter the enemy including children? How do we square what appears to be a God with blood on his metaphorical hands with Jesus and the New Testament where we find that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? How do we resolve this tension? Do we simply say that God is God and therefore smooth over the difficulties with a theological harmony of our own making in order to ignore the problems? Or do we move toward the opposite end and reject passages that don't square with our view of the God of love and peace in the New Testament by throwing them in a bucket labeled, "Not God's Will?" Do we unhitch the Old Testament from the New in order to satisfy our troubled minds on the matter of God and violence?

In his book, The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith, Dan Hawk rejects both solutions. On the one hand, the tensions cannot and should not be smoothed over to protect Scripture; and on the other hand, Scriptures we don't like cannot simply be dismissed in order to protect God's character. We should not seek for easy answers, and we must take the entire canon of Scripture into account. That means, in part, that the Bible does not offer a clear "definitive template" to the dilemma of divine violence and how it "should inform Christian faith and practice" (p. xiv). That does not mean, however, Scripture has nothing to say to us on this question.

In the nine chapters of the book, Dan weaves a stunningly coherent narrative of God at work in the world from creation through the Gospels (particularly Luke) and how God works in the context of the human situation and where and why violence comes into play. In the Bible we see the story of a God who is determined to redeem a world that continues to rebel and reject God's ways; and because God so loves the world, God gets increasingly involved accommodating himself in the human context in order to redeem it. God begins by attempting to work with the world generally (Genesis 1-11) and seeing that effort to be fruitless moves to the particular calling of Abraham and Sarah-- and by lineage Israel-- to be a blessing to the nations of the world. God begins again in Genesis chapter 12 with particular persons and people for the sake of the universal-- the whole world.

The problem is that God's people who are to a be witness to the ways of God act as sinfully and shamefully as the nations to which they must witness. But God has made the decision to go all-in with Israel for the sake of the world, and he must therefore side with Israel and even fight for Israel in a violent world. In accommodating himself (How else can God be present with us and work among us?) God must resort to what he would prefer not to do in order to redeem even that which he is destroying. In this work of salvation history, God gets drawn into the fray by necessity. Here we see the interplay of a sovereign God who acts within the context of a world in freedom that attempts to make itself all too often in destructive ways.

One of the most important insights Dan brings to the biblical text is that as the story of God's people progresses, God moves from the inside to the outside. In the Old Testament, God works primarily in the ways of empires and rulers it seems by necessity. While there are plenty of Scriptures in the Old Testament that clearly reveal God's love for the marginalized and the responsibility of God's people to care for them, God primarily works through the instruments of empire that God's people have become and embodied.

But in Jesus, God moves to the outside. God does not necessarily rule out the possibility of working through empires and rulers (the insiders), but since that project has been a failure, God will now focus on the outsiders. "...the human partner that the Lord enlists, a young peasant woman, reveals that the Lord will not longer work within the system, but rather opposed to it.... The Lord's pivot to the outside indicate that the failed strategy of working within the system has been rejected" (p. 171). This is why Jesus will reject his disciples' willingness to resort to violence on his behalf; for his kingdom does not operate with the same methods as the earthly kingdoms. The cross and not the sword is now the way God redeems.

So, what do Christians in the twenty-first century West do with this? In Dan's last chapter, "Interpreting Divine Violence," he doesn't want to offer what he refers to as "absolutist claims," but he gives six interpretive parameters in thinking about the Bible and divine violence (pp. 203-208). I only list them. If you want more commentary on each, you will need to read the book.
First: Yahweh's acts of violence do not emanate from the caprice or anger of a petty deity who has taken personal offense and seeks satisfaction.
Second: In the narrative literature of the Old Testament, Yahweh rarely employs violence to judge other nations.
Third:  The narratives we have explored... are best taken as testimonies and not templates.
Fourth: ...biblical narratives cannot be rightly appropriated to justify wars that advance national or group agendas.
Fifth: The narrative thread we have explored offers no justification for retaliatory violence.
Sixth, Christian interpretation on biblical violence takes place within the context of a legacy that has looked to the Bible to legitimize wars and violence throughout the church's history.
If I might push back a little on one of Dan's conclusions-- I agree with him that this side of Jesus, God has not necessarily rejected working with the nations of the world, but given his reading that Yahweh's project of working within the confines of the methods of empires was such a failure, why would God's people desire to continue to go down that road? As Greg Boyd rightly states, "Instead of working together to do what Jesus did, we [the church] often waste time fighting each other over what Caesar should do." What I am suggesting here is that for American Christians in the twenty-first century we continue to see the nation as the primary agent for change in the world instead of the church. We have placed more faith in political activism than the church which is God's kingdom people. In so doing, we still side with the insiders. And while we may advocate for the outsiders in our activism, we still fail to identify with them in the way Jesus did. In other words, while not rejecting that some form of Christian political activism may be valid have the job descriptions for too many who follow Jesus become reversed? Yahweh has rejected the methods of the empire after resorting to them, but Christians are still trying to resurrect what their God in Jesus Christ rejected? What in Jesus' ministry gives us an out on this?

This book is an important contribution to the question of divine violence in the Bible and how God's people today understand it for their own faith and practice. It is a substantive and serious engagement with Scripture that neither seeks to smooth over the tensions nor dismiss the texts today's readers find scandalous. There will be those who disagree with him, but they will have to outdo him on the careful and rigorous reading of the texts he examines and the story he tells.

On the subject of violence and the Bible, The Violence of the Biblical God is now at the top of my list of recommended reading.
(Special Note: Eerdmans provided me with a copy of this book for review. I was not paid to review the book, and even though the author is a long-time friend, my review is my own and honestly reflects my views.

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