A Violent World Comes from Faith In A Violent God
Our collective faith has the power to shape the world.
A world shaped by faith in compassion and love will be full of compassion and love. A world shaped by faith in punishment and violence will be full of punishment and violence.
And right now, our world bears the deep and lasting scars of faith in a violent God. Over the centuries, people have believed that God’s love for them is largely expressed in God’s punishment of – or blessing to punish – “others” – enemies, non-believers, those who look or think or act differently.
That wrathful God does not exist. But faith in that God has created a world of pain.
Of course, many people of faith have also shaped the world with compassion and mercy. But even those who believe wholeheartedly in God’s universal, unconditional love often have difficulty reconciling such love with the violence attributed to God in scripture.
And increasingly, people walk away from their religious traditions or reject God altogether because they can’t reconcile that violence with Love.
I believe it is better to reject God altogether than to accept a violent God.
But I also believe that a better understanding of the violence in scripture would do a world of good. In fact, I believe that a recognition that (1) the violence attributed to God is a human projection and (2) God is leading us out of our own violence through love, could be revolutionary.
The story of Adam, Eve, and the apple is not about God’s “cancel culture.” It is about ours.
God’s “Cancel Culture” And Ours
A humorous meme I saw on Facebook lamenting cancel culture helped me to reflect on how so much of our cultural violence can be traced back to dangerous interpretations of scripture. Before I get to it, though, it’s helpful to understand what “cancel culture” is.
“Cancel culture,” the boycotting of people, which can amount to a loss of platform or the downfall of a career, is a modern backlash against the many ways people have “canceled” the humanity of vulnerable communities. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of systemic injustice against marginalized peoples are the original forms of “cancel culture.”
The intention behind “cancel culture” is to hold people accountable to treating one-another with decency and respect, just as the intention behind the boycotts of the Civil Rights Movement was to hold businesses accountable to recognizing the humanity of African Americans. So, if we want to move beyond “cancel culture” to a culture of mutual respect and compassionate accountability, we must recognize the injustices in which “cancel culture” is born.
And these injustices can, in large part, be traced back to faith in a God who “cancels” large portions of humanity.
A new perspective on the violence attributed to God in scripture, one that neither denies nor justifies it but uses it to shine light on human violence, is therefore imperative.
Without further ado, here’s the meme:
I can’t blame anyone who interprets this story this way. The Church needs to do a much better job explaining the violence attributed to God.
The Bible records humanity’s evolving understanding of God’s self-revelation as Love. This is an ongoing process because humanity often gets God very wrong, perceiving ultimate power in violence. Throughout scripture, the truth of God’s love for the whole world is intertwined with the misunderstanding of God’s love for some expressed in violence against others.
The story of Adam, Eve, and the apple is not about God’s “cancel culture.”
It is about ours.
Adam and Eve were created in the image of perfect Love and pronounced “very good.” The serpent, the spirit of accusation and discord, planted seeds of distrust within them, making them doubt their true nature as reflections of Love. Suddenly, to be “like God,” they would have to “judge” between “good” and “evil” (never mind that nothing created had at this point been deemed “evil” at all).
This is not a story of God’s wrath. It’s the story of how the fear and dissatisfaction that we occasionally feel cause us to doubt our unconditional worth. Thus, we seek our value not where it is and always will be, in the everlasting embrace of God’s love, but over and against others. We claim to know good from evil, point the fingers of accusation, and set ourselves up against scapegoats and enemies.
And worst of all, we find a sense of righteousness, a false transcendence, in that accusation.
God never kicked Adam and Eve out of Paradise. God never banishes or shuns us. Rather, when we find false transcendence in violence, we confuse the violence that rebounds on us for God’s wrath. And we worship a God we perceive to be violent with violence. We exclude outcasts and kill enemies all in the name of God.
The story of Adam and Eve’s banishment from Paradise is the story of our distorted vision. And from that distorted vision, we have found power and righteousness in sacrifice rather than mercy.
Later, in Christ, it is revealed that “the Word,” God’s essence of perfect, merciful Love, was with us from the beginning but went unrecognized in our sight.
Conflating God with violence itself is the original tragedy from which humanity is emerging as God reveals God’s self to the world as Love. And all the attribution of violence to God in scripture is human projection. But God’s love continually breaks through, expanding our understanding of the depth and breadth of mercy until we can no longer leave anyone out.
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God doesn’t have a cancel culture. We do. And social media boycotts are the very tip of the iceberg.
God is leading us out of our violence into mercy. Love transforms our “cancel culture” in all its manifestations – from racism and sexism and homophobia, from all that denies humanity – into compassion culture. Love inspires us to find creative ways to hold ourselves and each other accountable so that we may live into our best selves and become the community we are meant to be.
Compassionate accountability is based on recognition, not denial, of our unlimited capacity for redemption.
While online cancel culture is a response to deeper cultural violence, navigating it with mercy is part of how we enact more profound structural change in our society. Meeting online cancel culture with mercy requires understanding the deep pain that underlies it.
Here are four steps for transforming cancel culture into compassion culture, online and everywhere else. They are rooted in the truth that Love, not violence, is the ultimate power that structures and invigorates the universe:
- Ground yourself in the knowledge that you – and everyone else – are unconditionally loved. From that knowledge, you can remember that any time you alert someone to problematic behavior or ideas, you are doing so with the intention of helping that person to be a better reflection of Love. Let your words reflect that hope and faith.
- Proactively work to transform the deeper violence. Remember that “cancel culture” is a reaction to insensitivity and ignorance. The best way to reduce it is to reduce the insensitivity to which it responds by listening to those who are marginalized and vulnerable. Remember that we are responsible to each other, and where we have privilege, we are responsible for learning and doing our part to turn that privilege into universal human rights.
- Receive criticism as a gesture of love and respect. Take critique as a sign that the person speaking to you believes you have room to grow. Even if you perceive the tone to be angry, try to set aside defensiveness and listen. And when this proves difficult…
- Remember, again, that you are loved. Love gives us the strength and courage to take a sobering look at ourselves and the ways in which we hurt others. We don’t have to resign ourselves to guilt or shame. We can just keep moving forward, learning and growing, secure in the knowledge that nothing we do can dull the reflection of Love that illuminates us from within.
Mercy will save the world. The salvation that comes from God’s mercy flows ever more freely when we reflect that mercy to each other. When injustice gives way to equity, mistakes are met with mercy, and faith in humanity inspires us to be the best we can be for one another, God’s kingdom will come “on earth as it is in heaven.“