A New Kind of Christianity: on God and Violence

A friend wrote:

Q: As you know from earlier communications, I’m enjoying your new book immensely. I’m wondering if you can help me a little with a question that keeps bouncing around in my head. In fact it kept me up most of the night last night. [My wife] tells me to stop reading certain material before I sleep…. The question has to do with our progressive understanding of God. I think you did a nice job with the math analogy when relating our understanding of God to the Order of Operations in math or learning math. I’m with you on that. What I struggle with is the idea that our added insight and mature understanding of God has done little to help us experience less violence in the world. If you look at the 20th century you’ll find more atrocities done, both in the name of God and in the name of the State than all centuries combined. Is this, in your opinion, the rebellious teenager going through her normal maturation, or is it perhaps a last ditch effort to exercise a form of fundamentalism control in some subconscious way? Or maybe it’s both and more. It troubles me that we seem to be progressing while failing miserably in the world of violence.
I understand you’re in London or on your way. When you get a moment I’d really appreciate any insight you can offer.

Reply after the jump …

R: Great questions … It’s been disturbing to me (just as I’m sure my book is to them) to read how some people are responding to the book in online reviews, saying, in effect, “Yeah, God is violent. The Bible says so. What’s the big deal? Men, women, children killed for the wrong-doing of others, or simply because they weren’t born into the right ethnic group, eternal conscious torment … what’s the big deal? God is God, so God can kill or torture anybody God wants to.”
Sheesh. It makes my skin crawl to think what people, fueled by that understanding of God, might do in God’s name. Have done. God save us from that version of God!
So I’m grateful that you’re grappling with this. Even if my proposals are totally wrong, something’s wrong with us if we can glibly say God is violent. Would we equally glibly substitute “cruel” for violent?
I think that both of your proposals make sense.
Plus I’d add this – that we haven’t really taken seriously enough what it means to call Jesus the Word of God. We’ve made the revelation of God in Jesus less formative than Deuteronomy 7, a bad reading of Rev 19, etc. (I’m thinking of my little diagrams in Chapter 11.)
If we turn the corner on that understanding of the relation between Jesus and the Bible this time around, all our struggles will be worth it.
So (paraphrasing Chesterton) it’s not that this understanding has tried and failed for 2000 years, it’s that – apart from a few groups (early Christians, Celts, Desert Fathers and Mothers, Franciscans, Mennonites, Quakers, New Monastics) it hasn’t been tried that much!
I’m glad you’re enjoying the book. Hope that helps a bit, and that you’ll get a better night’s sleep tonight!