Introduction: Healing From the Harm of Violent Christianity
How do we unlearn Violent Christianity?
The antidote to bad theology is better theology. The ongoing harm of violent Christianity will continue if we fail to question toxic interpretations and expressions of faith.
Our faith guides us in our quest not only to recognize the violence committed in the name of Christianity, but to understand how violent interpretations and expressions of faith come about and how to reinterpret scripture and reset our actions on the path of Love.
Some people find that the best way to heal themselves and others is to step outside of religion entirely. Yet others who believe in God need a God worth believing in and a nontoxic, loving and affirming faith community.
To detoxify Christianity there is much we must unlearn:
- Unlearning Violent Interpretations of Scripture
- Unlearning the Problematic Teachings of Jesus
- Unlearning Right Belief
- Unlearning Repentance.
Together we can face the forces of violence, injustice, marginalization, shame, and judgmentalism that have wrapped themselves around the cross. We can learn anew how to follow the life-giving path of Jesus to become our most wonderful selves in the shelter of Love.
Unlearning Violent Interpretations of Scripture
“Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so…”
Children who sing this song learn two things. First, Jesus loves us. This is wonderful, beautiful news. Second, that the Bible is the ultimate authority by which we know this. So, the Bible must be a Good Book indeed.
Actually, the Bible is a beautiful and profound book, but only when we read it critically, questioningly, and through eyes of compassion. Churches should be very careful about how they teach the authority of scripture, because violent interpretations of the Bible have caused terrible distress, damage, and destruction.
A quick glance through scripture shows a God who floods the world, rains down plagues, slays first-born babies, destroys cities, commands genocidal expeditions, and allows even “chosen nations” to be taken into captivity as punishment for sin. Psalms and hymns rejoice in God’s steadfast mercy and compassion, yet the Bible contains graphic depictions of brutal violence at the command or even hand of God. Is God a God of wrath or mercy? Trying to sort out that question has led to confusion, doubt, and insecurity.
“Yes, Jesus loves me,” the song tells us, but what does that mean? Many Christians learn that it means Jesus died to save us from God’s wrath. It’s a teaching that tries to have it both ways – God shows mercy only if Jesus’ suffers and dies a violent death. In other words, Jesus must be sacrificed as the condition for God’s mercy.
What are we to make of this love? How are we to understand ourselves and our value, if but for an innocent man’s brutal murder, we would burn forever? What about our friends and loved ones who don’t believe? What about our own doubts?
Fear, guilt and shame, both inflicted on others and internalized within, flow so naturally from these toxic understandings of scripture and exclusive theologies of salvation, heaven, and hell.
How do we even begin to unlearn violent Christianity or read scripture through a lens of mercy when the Bible that we are taught to revere portrays such a frightfully violent God?
Unlearning “The Word of God”
In churches and prominent Christian culture, we often hear the Bible referred to as “the Word of God.” This popular understanding is a source of confusion, especially when people take it to mean that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. Scripture carries weight and authority, but it is not the ultimate authority. God speaks through it, but it is not the “Word of God.”
The Word of God, the logos or logic of God, the character and nature and creative energy through which God creates all things, is Jesus. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The words of humans exploring their relationship with God – the stories and poems and Gospels that were evolving oral traditions, going through revision and re-examinations before and after they were written down – are best interpreted for Christians in the light of God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus.
This does not mean that the scriptures are not inspired by God. But inspiration is not divine dictation.
Inspiration is the life-breath of God that flows through humanity. Inspiration is the spirit of God that the Hebrew people perceived when it became clear to them that, though they were captives in Egypt, they were precious in the sight of their Creator. Inspiration is how the people recognized God’s presence in their liberation from slavery and their journey to a new land where they could plant roots and become a settled community. It’s in their understanding of the law that instructed them in how they cared for one another and sanctified daily life.
The Word of God — the love of God — was in the world from the beginning, and the people perceived it. But they could misunderstand it. They could mix it with their own prejudices and mistakes. And when they eventually wrote down their stories, they were not confining God’s Word to scrolls.
The Word never became a book. The Word became Jesus.
And Jesus reveals God to be tireless, fearless Love. God in flesh is born an outcast and becomes a refugee. He proclaims and delivers good news to the poor and feeds and heals the sick. He reorients the marginalized back into their community, changing the community dynamic itself in the process. He teaches and demonstrates love of enemies. He eats with sinners and tax collectors. He prioritizes concern for the “least”and emphasizes that the fate of the nations rests not on military power nor adherence to dogma, but on treatment of the vulnerable.
Anyone thought to be condemned or forsaken by God is shown particular love instead.
And rather than demand death to satisfy a violent God, God in flesh dies to satisfy a violent humanity. He forgives those who kill him – the violence of all people in all times and places – as he draws his last breath. His forgiveness from the cross reveals God’s unconditional mercy and love.
In Jesus, it is revealed that, rather than inflict suffering upon us, God suffers whenever someone inflicts suffering upon us… or when we inflict suffering upon someone else. And even when we condemn God through our violence, God meets us with mercy to ensure us that we are more than our worst impulses.
To best reflect the image of God as human beings, we are called to share and heal one another’s suffering through compassion – co-suffering through which suffering itself dissolves into joy. Following Jesus leads to salvation, not from a wrathful God, but from a violent world. By becoming instruments of God’s peace, we transform our world of violence into Beloved Community.
But if Jesus reveals that God is unconditional Love, what do we do with the violence in other parts of scripture?
Unlearning the Violence of God in Scripture
The Bible reveals the human tendency to mistake violence for ultimate power and to justify violence or mask it under a veneer of righteousness. It also reveals the way Love – God’s true essence – has worked throughout history to guide us into better ways of living and relating to one another.
This is the remarkable thing about scripture: it invites us to deconstruct our own violence. By inviting us to see where ancient people thought God’s hand was at work in acts of destruction or vengeance, we can reflect on why we might perceive God in acts of violence today. More importantly, we can reflect on why we find righteousness in our own violence, and perhaps even try to see our violence through the perspective of our victims.
But we miss this if we take every word of scripture to be divine authority to be accepted without question.
Interpreting the text of scripture itself to be God’s unquestionable “Word” imposes a lens upon it that the communities who told and wrote the stories found in scripture never used.
In Judaism, the multiple understandings of God, depicted through multiple genres in varying degrees of violence and mercy, are not meant to be taken at face value, but grappled with. Rather than accept scripture without question, in Judaism it is understood that the scriptures exist to be questioned and examined, to provoke thought and doubt and discomfort as well as to comfort and reassure.
The written words of scripture are not the end in themselves; rather, engaging with scripture is a process of discovering our relationship with God. Scripture gives us a window through which we can learn how ancient communities came to understand who they were in relationship with God and each other, but only when we look in and explore. What did God expect of them? How did they interpret God’s role in fortune and disaster? It invites us to reflect on similar questions in our own context.
Judaism acknowledges that humanity is always in the process of learning and refining our understanding, especially when it comes to God. It values discussion and debate, inviting readers into faithful engagement with the text. The term “Israel” means “wrestling with God.” Wrestling with the texts themselves and the understandings and histories and ethical questions behind them is integral to the character of Judaism, which is integral to the character of Jesus.
Jesus himself did not take the violence of God in scripture at face value. He contradicts it, and he is not the first to do so. There is a long line of prophets, whom Jesus quotes, who emphasize God’s steadfast compassion and slowness to anger.
Jesus was well within the prophetic tradition of Judaism when he preached God’s infinite love and mercy, even as he disavowed the violent understandings of God that could result in the suffering of the vulnerable. It’s a mistake to believe, that the Old Testament God is wrathful while Jesus is merciful. Jesus’s mercy always reflected the mercy of the same loving God who instructs care for widows, orphans and immigrants in the Old Testament.[i]
The violent passages in scripture (which are found in the New Testament as well as the Old) are important for understanding human violence and their misattribution to God. But Jesus, in his teachings and actions as well as death and resurrection, affirms that the full character of God is nonviolent Love. God heals rather than reciprocates hate. God establishes justice through mercy, not vengeance. That’s the image of God that Jesus reinforces, and that’s why Jesus is the crucial lens through which we are called to understand scripture.
The attribution of violence to God in scripture helps reveal how we still attribute violence to God today. Jesus completes this revelation by demonstrating that all violence attributed to God ultimately falls upon God.
Unlearning the Problematic Teachings of Jesus
Yet even the words of Jesus often seem harsh and exclusive, especially when filtered through centuries of violent Christian interpretation. So many people are hurt when Jesus’s words are ripped from their context and his name is invoked to cloak exploitation, oppression and marginalization under a veil of righteousness or moral superiority. Jesus came to reconcile and redeem, not condemn.
Jesus definitely uses blunt, even harsh, language sometimes. He is nonviolent but absolutely confrontational when speaking to authority figures who inflict or allow suffering. And he does warn about evil, corruption, and indeed “hell,” though we’ll soon see that what he meant by that word is not what many people think.
But he also spells out and lives out the interpretative key by which we are meant to understand his teachings. In the words of the prophet Hosea, Jesus challenges us to “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Twice.
So how do we interpret the harsh or exclusive words of Jesus in merciful ways?
How, for example, should teachings like these be understood: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”? What about the parables that seem to depict God as a merciless ruler casting the foolish or disobedient into outer darkness? What about those strange verses that say it is better to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye and go maimed into heaven than it is to leave your body intact and go uninjured into hell? Or verses that have tragically been used to justify disowning one’s children, like, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple”?
Taken together and viewed through a lens of sacrifice, these verses seem to warn of a devastating hell, with Jesus as the only way out of it. And while Jesus may be loving, if you don’t love him at the expense of everything else, even your own family, you are not “worthy.” But, understood through the lens of mercy and in the context of Jesus’s mission of healing and transforming the world, they are still good news. They are compatible with universal redemption and reconciliation, and they cannot legitimately be used to violently exclude anyone.
Unlearning: Hate Our Families
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Did Jesus really want us to “hate” our families?
Jesus is not talking about shunning those who don’t believe in him the same way. He is certainly not talking about punishing or turning people out due to “sin.”
But he wants us to live into our fullest selves and love to our fullest capacities, even if that means risking our family’s approval or acceptance.
Jesus wants us to expand our love and our sense of self beyond the boundaries our families may draw. Instead of taking identity primarily from our families and conforming to their expectations and desires for us, Jesus wants us to take our identities from unconditional love that allows us to love unconditionally.
It’s unconditional love, without fear of how embracing the outcast or healing in defiance of authority would affect him or his family, that eventually takes Jesus to the cross. On the cross, Jesus shows his love for his mother by placing her in the care of a beloved disciple. (“Woman, behold your son!”) But… despite, or because of, his love for her, he still goes to the cross.
Throughout history, taking a stand for love has been risky. Abolition, civil rights, women’s suffrage… all of these have pushed the boundaries of law and social acceptability. Today, for example, giving food and drink to people waiting in line to vote is, in some places, considered a crime. Love may call us beyond boundaries of law… and how we answer Love’s call will inevitably affect those closest to us.
When we honestly assess how far we would go to be who we are and how much compassion (co-suffering) we can give, are we willing to risk the strange glances of our families? Are we willing to speak truth not only to power, but to loved one who might not want to hear it? And even if we have all the familial support we desire, are we willing to risk hurting them by putting ourselves at the risk for the sake of love? Are we willing to let our loved ones take those risks?
Following Jesus never means excluding or disowning our family members. But it might mean daring to live in ways that our families or churches might not understand or approve, such as being open about same-gender attraction or transgender identity. And it might mean taking risks with our reputations or safety that our family might try to protect us from.
Living into our fullest selves and our greatest capacity for compassion may strain some relationships while forging others. The more we are willing to risk unconditional love, the more unconditional love is released into the world. And that means that the more we follow the example of Jesus’s love, the more we become family to each other, beyond boundaries of blood or nationality or anything else.
Jesus deconstructs the traditional family, with its exclusive boundaries, and rebuilds a family around unconditional love that reaches out to include all of humanity. Risking our relationships with our family to follow Jesus will eventually bring us back to them as we expand our definition of “family” from our immediate loved ones to the children of God – that is, the whole world.
Unlearning: Divine Violence in Parables
“Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
In many parables, Jesus presents an authority figure who is ruthless and wrathful. We find this particular type of master in the parable of the wedding banquet and the parable of the talents, among others. Jesus builds up a human understanding of equating violent power with divinity.
Yet some who heard the Gospel after Jesus’s resurrection would have recognized Jesus himself in the seemingly condemned figures of his own parables, upending violent understandings of God’s power and wrath but upholding merciful prophetic traditions from Judaism such as the suffering servant of Isaiah.
Parables, after all, are meant to surprise, to transform our perspective. To do that, Jesus presents familiar or expected imagery with a twist, something to catch us off-guard. If Jesus begins with an image of a ruthless authority figure, maybe it’s to bring us face-to-face with our assumptions about the ruthlessness of authority. And if Jesus presents someone who is “tossed into outer darkness,” someone deemed “foolish” or “worthless” by the Powers that Be, are we meant to agree with those powers? Is that what mercy guides us to do?
Do we become complicit in condemnation, or does something within us reach out to the outcast? Does a dominant worldview of a violent authority figure remain intact? Or do the parables of Jesus turn ideas of violent power upside-down?
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”
Jesus never advocates self-mutilation. But some take this extreme metaphor as evidence that Jesus has extraordinarily high standards for humanity, and then they use it to shame people who don’t live up to their standards.
Jesus definitely has very high standards. But his standards revolve around how we treat our fellow human beings. To use Jesus’s standards to shame others and thus cause harm is to miss the point entirely.
He spoke about plucking out the eye or cutting off the hand, for example, metaphorically, as the preferable alternative to sexual exploitation and abuse. It is better to stop yourself from committing harm by any means necessary than it is to harm another person and thus enter into the hellish cycles of violence.
Furthermore, Jesus’s words subvert the concept of sacrifice – or thriving at the expense of others – altogether. Animals offered in sacrifice had to be without blemish; a mutilated body was considered unworthy of God. Yet Jesus says you can go maimed into heaven. True “purity” is about the way you treat others, not guarding your own condition.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This verse, so often used to exclude, may actually be one of the most inclusive in scripture. When Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he is speaking of his embodied solidarity with the most marginalized; his willingness to be cast into the margins himself. The only route to Love is the route Jesus takes, the route which heals the division that comes from living against others.
Many seek belonging or self-actualization at the expense of others, but that path slowly (or quickly) leads to destruction. But Jesus comes to turn us from that path.
No one comes to Love except through Love’s own Self, who leaves no one out. It is Jesus’ faith in all of us that “saves” us, not the other way around.
But what is Jesus saving us from, exactly? If Jesus spoke of hell, that certainly implies that there is one, right? And doesn’t that mean some people go there?
Yes, Jesus does speak of hell. In fact, Jesus calls us to follow him into it.
The word Jesus used that is so often translated as “hell” is a literal place on earth, not a supernatural realm of eternal torment. Jesus spoke of “Gehenna,” a valley outside of Jerusalem where in ancient times, the people had sacrificed their children to the violent god Moloch.
When Jesus spoke of hell, he was warning us that our worship of violence would lead to unending cycles of violent destruction. Violence begets violence begets violence. Neglect begets suffering and torment that burrows inward or lashes outward. Jesus spoke of the hell of unjust economic systems that entrap people in poverty, the hell of exclusion and marginalization that isolates people from community and resources. He spoke of the hell we put ourselves and others into.
And he came among us to walk the path of solidarity, going deep into the hells we have created, to lead us out. We are meant to follow him into the hells of poverty, homelessness, hunger, disease, animosity, and cruelty… so that we may help each other come through and out of them. We do this by sharing, welcoming, feeding, healing, forgiving, loving.
This is how we follow Jesus to bring abundant life out of death, to transform the violence of hell into the peace of the Beloved Community.
Tragically and appallingly, Jesus’s words have been detached both from their historical context and from the Jewish cultural context that never recognized “hell” as a place of eternal conscious torment. They’ve even been divorced from his own life of revolutionary, nonviolent love that culminated in the forgiveness of the humanity that killed him and the triumph – in the resurrection – of Love over the ways of violence and death.
Jesus warns us that the hell we throw others into will come back to us – with the measure we measure, we shall be measured. Again, this is a warning about human violence. Sadly, without understanding warnings against violent and destructive judgment, Christians have judged and tormented and killed.
The very words of Jesus used to warn us against the hells we create have been weaponized to condemn others into hells of shame, self-loathing, and fear.
There are many more difficult teachings of Jesus, and their difficulty should not be glossed over or explained away. But they are difficult because they are meant to bring out the best within us. They are not meant to make us fear the worst about God, for when we fear the worst, we do our worst to ourselves and each other.
Jesus doesn’t want us to fear. He wants us to know that he has faith in us, and therefore we can have faith in ourselves and one another. We can live in the kind of trust and service and generosity and creativity that is only possible when we recognize that we, and everyone else around us, are infinitely and unconditionally loved.
Unlearning “Right Belief”
It is so important to unlearn the weaponization of scripture. It is so important to interpret the Bible through a lens of mercy, not sacrifice, so that the actions that flow from the faith communities that look to scripture are acts of love and compassion for everyone rather than acts of exclusion and condemnation for “others.”
But the tool, the map, is not Love itself. Our interpretations of scripture and our theologies are not God. This is so important for people or churches who claim salvation is a matter of getting our beliefs right. “Salvation” isn’t about right belief.
We don’t have to worry about wrapping our heads around mysterious doctrines or dogmas. We don’t have to say a sinner’s prayer to get past heaven’s gate. We don’t have to suspend our belief in science where scripture speaks of miracles, or worry whether or not we understand exactly what a particular teaching means, or wonder what the right balance is between God’s power and our free will.
And especially when churches claim that certain identities or orientations are sinful because they look at certain verses of scripture through a lens of sacrifice, we don’t have to live in fear or shame because of those erroneous claims.
Because God’s Kingdom, the Beloved Community for which we are all destined, is not accessed by “right belief,” and it is definitely not accessed by beliefs that exclude others.
The Beloved Community is about opening our hearts to see the imprint of Love in ourselves, in all people, and in all creation.
“Right belief” doesn’t get us to heaven, because heaven is within us. We affirm this truth when we live in love.
And living in love is not about policing our behaviors, but relaxing into who we truly are.
When we are free from worry, guilt, and shame, when we are secure in Love, we naturally see the love – the reflection of God – in others. Love seeks out love.
Looking through the eyes of love, we see the needs of the vulnerable. Listening with the ears of love, we humbly let others tell us how to help rather than assume we know what is best. Speaking with the voice of love, we find the courage to confront injustice with determination to right wrongs without returning hate for hate. Thinking with the mind of love, we find the creativity and wisdom necessary to follow Jesus’s compassion in our own unique ways.
And with the heart of love, we forgive ourselves and others whenever we fall short.
The mysteries of faith shining through the doctrines and creeds can be beautiful to explore as long as they are not weaponized or invoked to induce fear or shame. They may help us to follow Jesus, but if they are stumbling blocks, we can faithfully set them aside.
Following Jesus isn’t about right belief at all. It’s about living into love, which Jesus’s faith in all of us empowers us to do.
The last thing we need to unlearn, as we shed the dead skin of violent theology and grow into the new and abundant life that the Spirit calls us to live, is repentance. We need to shake off all our anxieties associated with this word, anxieties that have no place in a theology where we are committed to transforming our violence into understanding, our heartache into healing.
Repentance isn’t about being ashamed. Repentance is about remembering that you are loved.
The Greek word, metanoia, literally means “change your mind.” And we need to change our minds from revolving around fear. We need to see God, ourselves, and each other in the light of Love which shines ever new, for each time we look upon this Light, we open ourselves to new discoveries.
We need to keep returning, keep turning our minds again and again to the Source of Love.
Repentance is unlearning. It’s the process we’ve been undergoing this whole time – shaking off the shackles of violent theology that hurt ourselves and others.
Repentance is both personal and communal. In both cases, it involves releasing ourselves from the pressure to measure our worth by power or prestige or success or anything at all that we do… because our worth is immeasurable to begin with. As individuals and communities, repentance calls us to know ourselves not over and against others, but within the embrace of Love that connects us to all others.
And because love connects us to all others, even when repentance is an individual process, we do not go through it alone. Even when we wrestle with pain or remorse, repentance reminds us that there are many undergoing the same process of unlearning, the same process of recognizing mistakes, of seeing through fogs of misunderstanding as they lift and melt away. We are loved not just by a perfect God, but by imperfect people who embrace us as we embrace them. We’re all in this messy, broken-but-gradually-being-repaired humanity together.
To the extent that we have internalized violence and shame, repentance calls us to let go without fear or guilt. To the extent that we have participated in violent systems, repentance assures us that we are forgiven and empowers us to work for healing.
Repentance takes us around and around again on the labyrinthine journey of our lives. We revisit the same scene from new angles, bringing new perspective and new depth. And when we turn around the bend, we see where we have been before and recognize that Love was there all along. We turn again, and Love is straight ahead.
Repentance may involve apology. It may involve recognition of ways we have hurt others. It may reveal to us ways we have been hurt, because it may bring us to the self-love necessary to admit we have sometimes deserved better than we have received. But through the pain along the journey, through the humble stumbling through our mistakes, Love picks us back up.
Repentance may shed protective layers and leave us vulnerable. But the embrace of repentance is warm and kind, for it reassures us that we are always safe in the security of love.
Repentance is the gentle calling whenever we are tempted to find our identity over and against others, whenever we almost forget that we belong in Love.
“Turn around,” Love whispers. “Turn around,” Love whispers again and again and again. “I AM wherever you are. If you ever lose sight of me, if you ever fall again into the ways of violence, insecurity, or harm, turn and see that I AM with you always.”
Repent, believe the good news. God’s whole message to you is that you are loved.
[i] Please note: According to Jewish New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine, the use of the term “Old Testament” is the most accurate way to describe the books of the Bible shared by Christians and Jews when looking at them from a Christian perspective. The term “Hebrew Bible” seems more inclusive but is problematic because the scriptures are not all originally in Hebrew; some are in Aramaic. The term “Jewish Bible” is also inaccurate, as for Jewish people that refers to Jewish sacred text that includes post-biblical commentaries. The “Tanakh” is an acronym for Torah, Nevi’im (prophets) and Ketuvim(writings), and it contains the books that Christians call the Old Testament but in a different order and with different emphases. Thus, “Old Testament” is used for accuracy and is not meant to be insensitive toward our Jewish siblings.