Q & R: A Violent God?

Rather than list the question first, and then a reply, I’ll reply in stages to this question about my new book.
Here’s the Q;

Brian, thank you for taking the time to respond to my question.

As a Mennonite, I join you in rejecting Christendom’s historical favouring of violence, and choose rather with you Jesus’ call to a way of peace and love. I agree with you that the gospel calls us to set trends rather than follow them. I also hear, in some mainline circles, a turn away from the fusion of church and state.

But does this mean that God is no longer violent in judgement? Can we disarm the violent passages in Jesus’ teaching? Aren’t they tied right into His teaching of grace and love? For example:- in weeping in love over Jerusalem in Luke 19:41-44, Jesus speaks of coming violence in language reminiscent of Psalm 137: …your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls NIV). Loving welcoming grace and violent judgment in one story.

This is an important question. I wonder why we would assume Jesus’ words in any way implicate God in this horrific violence? I think Jesus is saying, “If you refuse my way, the way of peace and nonviolent resistance, then you will enter into violent rebellion against Rome, and that won’t end well.” It isn’t God who will bring this violence, but Rome, and it will be another case of violence begetting violence.

Frankly, I think America faces a similar warning today. If we don’t discern what makes for peace, we will find ourselves in violent conflict. It won’t be God who brings it upon us; it is God calling us to find a better way (a narrow way as opposed to a broad and easy path to self-destruction). We will bring it upon ourselves.

Here’s more of the Q:

– in the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22:1-14, in which everyone is graciously welcomed to the king’s banquet, the man who refused to wear wedding clothes is tied hand and foot and thrown outside into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (v. 13). The parable concludes, For many are invited, but few are chosen. Grace, violence and exclusion all in one story.

I’d encourage you to read “Parables as Subversive Speech” by Wm. Herzog. He offers a challenging alternative reading of the parables. In short, when you see a violent king, don’t let that represent God as your first choice. Let it represent Caesar. And when you see someone punished, don’t assume that’s the bad guy. Assume that’s Jesus and those who follow his way.

The question continues:

– there are numerous other examples of God’s violence and exclusion mixed with gracious acceptance in the passages I cited earlier, namely Matthew 5-7 and 21-25.
Are these stories readily disarmed?

I would just say please don’t assume that exclusion equals eternal conscious torment! If I say, “The violent will not share in the kingdom of God,” I’m saying that the kingdom of God excludes violence. Also remember that “kingdom of God” does not equal heaven (as is commonly assumed). If I say, “Those who eat unhealthy food and get no exercise will not be among the healthy and fit,” this is about cause and effect, not punishment.
The question continues:

Isn’t the key in Romans 12 where, in the midst of a call to love one’s enemies, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35: Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge: I will repay,’ says the Lord (12:19, NIV). In other words, we don’t have to worry about revenge because God avenges. God is God, and as such His briefcase of responses to human wrongdoing includes both suffering at Calvary and violence. F.F. Bruce boils this theme in Romans 12 and 13 (Tyndale Commentary series) down to this: God works in two ways in the world, and His Church is authorized to participate in only one of those ways. God is God, and humans have no right to mimic Him in actions He reserves for Himself.

That is the best way to read the text from a traditional viewpoint. If you need to keep God violent to urge people to be nonviolent, OK. But I think ultimately, the question is this: can God, who is love, will harm to creatures God has made? Is that a God “in whom there is light and no darkness at all?”

The question concludes:

Isn’t there a danger in making God fit into our box? What if God is both gracious and violent, exclusionary and welcoming, as Jesus described?

Yes, there is a danger of making God fit into our box. But just remember – our box as humans has traditionally been violent. So the danger goes both ways. To see where I’ve addressed this in more detail, I’d recommend The Secret Message of Jesus and The Last Word and the Word After That. There and elsewhere I suggest that “judgment” means “setting things right” rather than “inflicting vengeance upon people who do wrong.” They lead, I think, in the direction I’m advocating more clearly and urgently in The Great Spiritual Migration.

In short, I do not believe violent men (especially men, but all people, of course) can be trusted with a vision of a violent God. I believe the prophets and ultimately Jesus came to lead us away from that violent vision, toward a vision that ultimately worships God as nonviolent love, pure of any malice or desire to harm – love that heals, forgives, and saves. That, I believe, is the depth of the goodness of the good news.