One of the biggest questions 21st century Christians have to deal with is this: Is God violent?
This is the most important theological question of our time because we tend to become like what we worship. If we worship a violent God, we are more likely to become like the violent God we worship.
On one level, many Christians might answer that God is clearly violent. Just look at the Bible! From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is full of divine violence. To paraphrase an old adage, the Bible says God is violent, I believe God is violent, that settles it – God is violent.
But what if I told you that many Christians have claimed for the last 2,000 years that God has nothing to do with violence?
From the time the New Testament was written, followers of Jesus believed that the truth about God was not primarily revealed in the Bible. The Bible was secondary. Rather, they believed the truth about God was finally revealed in the flesh and blood of Jesus.
Interpreting the Bible through Jesus
For Christians, the key to the question about the Bible, God, and violence is Jesus. There are many who claim that the Bible doesn’t need to be interpreted because it says what it says.
There is one main problem with this idea – Jesus.
There’s a story about Jesus walking on a road with two disciples to a city called Emmaus. Jesus was just killed and now resurrected. The disciples didn’t recognize him, so that talked with him as if he were a stranger. They talked about how sad they were that Jesus was killed. How did Jesus respond to their grief? The story says that he “interpreted to them the things about himself in all of the scriptures.”
“Wait a minute, Jesus!” you might be thinking. “The scriptures say what they say. They don’t need to be interpreted. In fact, interpreting them just brings confusion, and God is not the author of confusion!”
Apparently, Jesus disagrees. God in Jesus is not the author of confusion. We are the authors of confusion, and we have confused God with violence. But Christian confusion of God and violence washes away once we read Scripture through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
God in Jesus is not the author of confusion. We are the authors of confusion, and we have confused God with violence.
Toward a Nonviolent Understanding of God
During the next few months, we at the Raven Foundation will be exploring this question about God and violence to reveal the utter nonviolent love of God. But we wanted to provide some guidelines here at the beginning of this exploration.
The story about Jesus on the Road to Emmaus is crucial. Jesus had just been murdered a few days prior and was now resurrected.
If you had just been murdered and found yourself resurrected with all kinds of God-like powers, how would you be feeling? If you are like me, you might be feeling a little desire for revenge. Okay, a lot of desire for revenge. And who could blame you? You were innocent and murdered on a cross, one of the worst acts of torture people have ever come up with. You might quote some scriptures about divine wrath and call some fire down from heaven to consume the bastards who killed you.
But Jesus does none of that.
Instead of seeking revenge against those who killed him or betrayed him, Jesus conducted a Bible study.
The disciples continued to interpret the Bible in ways that missed the point, so Jesus had to interpret “to them the things about himself in all of scripture.”
Unfortunately, we aren’t told how Jesus interpreted the Bible to them, but I’m pretty sure we already know what Jesus taught them.
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How Jesus Interpreted Scripture
We don’t get the inside scoop on the specifics of what Jesus said to the disciples as he interpreted scripture to them as they walked the road to Emmaus, but according to James Alison in his book series, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, Jesus didn’t leave us without any clues. In fact, Jesus gave us specific reading instructions for the Bible.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 twice in response to certain Pharisees who challenge his penchant toward eating with people who were deemed unworthy. That verse says this about God, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
When the Pharisees grumble against Jesus because of the company he keeps, Jesus says to them, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
Alison claims that this verse is much more a commandment. It’s an interpretive principle that will guide us as we discover that God has nothing to do with sacrifice or violence, but everything to do with nonviolent love. According to Alison, Jesus is essentially saying,
You all know that what God says in the Prophets is “I want mercy and not sacrifice.” But this is not just a particular commandment. It is a reading instruction, a hermeneutical key. Whenever you interpret anything, you can read it in two ways: in such a way that your interpretation creates mercy, and in such a way that it creates sacrifice. Whenever you interpret anything morally, whenever you engage in any act of religious discrimination, as in your disapproval of the people I hang out with, are you obeying the word “I want mercy, and not sacrifice”? It is perfectly possible to interpret the law in such a way that it demands sacrifice, creates a group of the good and casts someone out. As also it is perfectly possible to interpret the law as something always to be made flexible for the benefit of those who need reaching and bringing in to richer life, leaving the good to look after themselves and going after the lost sheep. But only one of these two is acting in obedience to the word of Hosea. (pg. 380)
Join Us For Our Next Steps
During the next few months, we invite you to join us with your comments and questions as we unpack the violence within scripture through the lens of Jesus. Because for Christian, Jesus makes all the difference. He gives us reading instructions and models for us how to live into the Spirit of the nonviolent God while living in a violent world. And as a war between the US and Iran looms on the horizon, the world may need this work now more than ever.