Ted Grimsrud—June 3, 2014
Christianity for too long has been too implicated in violence. Wars, rumors of war, preparation for war, violently punitive criminal justice practices, violent child discipline practices, violence toward women, sexual minorities, and other vulnerable people, the exploitation of non-human animals and the natural world. There may be no issue as pressing for the viability of the Christian tradition than breaking the spiral of violence that Christians have been all too active in sustaining.
We may easily think of various components of a violence-overcoming expression of Christian faith—including growth in skills of nonviolent conflict resolution, cultivating love for our neighbors (and expanding the definition of neighbor to include even enemies), cultivating peaceable ways of raising children, enhancing the celebration of biblical bases for peace in our congregations, growing in abilities to deny the violence-empowering dynamics of “othering,” and so on.
In a series of four blog posts, I want to reflect on an underlying issue: how might the ways we think of God contribute to overcoming the curse of violence? I will start with a bold hypothesis. We should actually think of God as pacifist. One way we might define how we use the word “God” is that God is what we worship, what constitutes the core of our sense of what matters most in life, what is most essential to our existence, and what empowers us to feel at home in the universe. Thinking of God as pacifist, then, would be a pretty big deal.
Why use the term “pacifist”?
My friend J. Denny Weaver has recently published a groundbreaking book, The Nonviolent God (Eerdmans, 2013). Weaver’s book makes an argument that in many ways complements what I will be saying. However, he mostly avoids using “pacifist” in his account of understanding God in peaceable ways. I, in contrast, want to affirm this word because I think it is much more appropriate to use of God than “nonviolent.”
Of course, we need to define “pacifism” carefully. I use it roughly synonymously with “biblical shalom,” meaning an expansive vision of wholeness and flourishing for all humanity living in harmony with the rest of creation. An essential component to this vision is the conviction that inter-human violence can never serve life’s flourishing.
Thus understood, pacifism speaks mainly of a positive vision for how we might live, not simply pointing to what it is we are not to do (which is the connotation of “nonviolence”). “Pacifism” gives guidance for how we might live whole lives, not mainly guidance for how we might avoid adding to brokenness. It is certainly the case that the term pacifism, like any other term, has its weaknesses.
Nonetheless, I’ll just say here that “pacifism” serves as the best single word I know of to capture a sense of the positive peaceable vision while also intimating certain prohibitions—we hope for shalom and also recognize that violence will not achieve that hope. However, I would add that we do live in a messy world that doesn’t always cohere with our core convictions and moral vocabulary. Hence, we can’t hope for utter precision and consistency. The point of the discussion I initiate here is mostly about vision and hopes, not about moral absolutes or total certainties. I believe that “pacifism” serves the vision and hopes better than “nonviolence” or “peaceableness” or “nonretaliation” or “nonresistance” or any other term I can think of.
Why what we think about God matters
What we say about “God” matters greatly for our moral lives. God—defined above as that which we “worship” (and I believe we all “worship” something, whether we think of ourselves as theists, agnostics, pantheists, or atheists)—shapes our priorities, our sense of our own identity, our ideals, and the direction toward which we orient our lives.
I want to suggest that we either think of God (or, maybe we could say, the moral universe) as affirming the use of violence or not. Because we are naturally inclined not to use violence (admittedly a controversial assumption), we must have some kind of rationale to go against that inclination should we decide to do so. I believe that rationale is best seen as an expression of what we think of God. That is, in some sense we must believe that it is God’s will for us to use violence when we do—or we would not have sufficient reason to overcome our natural reluctance to use violence.
So, if we believe that God is a pacifist, we will have a strong basis to resist the call to use violence. Or, to say it differently, if we are deeply committed to pacifism we are inferring something central about God. It thus seems to me that the position that affirms pacifism for human beings but not for God is untenable in the long run.
We should also recognize that all of our thinking about God is human thinking. We do not have the ability to state objective, transcendent, absolute facts about God. This is partly, of course, because by definition God is beyond our full comprehension (God is mystery, in the terms of Gordon Kaufman). But it is also because all our thought is perspectival, filtered through our particularities, and interpretive. Whatever we say about God takes the form (even if we don’t admit it) of “this is how I/we perceive God” not “this is how God certainly is.”
The humanness of our language about God means, on the one hand, that what we say is relative, subjective, and limited, while, on the other hand, it also means that we are ourselves responsible for this language. What we say (and believe) about God is extremely important because it shapes how we will live. I will only assert here without justifying my point that even those who claim not to believe in God cannot evade responsibility for the importance of what they say and believe about ultimate reality. They also have constructed a sense of what matters most and what determines their path through life—and, hence, have convictions that do or don’t allow them to overcome the natural reluctance to use violence.
We can’t be neutral
A few Christians try to combine a commitment to pacifism as a human imperative with “neutrality” about God’s willingness to use violence. They claim that because God is beyond our understanding, we must acknowledge that God indeed may use violence. Others are more willing to affirm that God can and does use violence (it’s God’s “prerogative”) while at the same time calling upon human beings to be pacifists.
There is actually very little difference between these two views. I believe that if we don’t affirm that God is pacifist, we are leaving the door open for divinely initiated violence. Once the door is open, violence almost always does enter (at least in our imaginations). Neutrality is not actually an option. In the end, we must either affirm that God is violent or that God is pacifist. Allowing for the possibility of violence through “neutrality” inevitably leads to allowing for actual violence.
My point here is, again, about how we think about God. I don’t mean to be making definitive statements about what God, as a fact, is like. Rather, I am referring to the images we have of God—which are the images that shape our deepest values and our own decisions about whether or not to acquiesce to supposedly necessary violence. However, one of the tasks of theology is to help our images of God be as truthful as possible—so it is a crucial exercise to think together about how best to think of God. This will be my focus in the rest of this series of blog posts. Before turning to articulating elements of a pacifist understanding of God, though, I want to reflect briefly on why understanding God as violent (or open to violence) is problematic.
Problems with a violent God
A key issue is simply, what does the Bible teach? Is the belief in a violent God consistent with the picture the Bible gives? This is, of course, a big issue for debate. I believe, though, that the pro-biblical-God-as-violent view is too easily assumed. We must acknowledge that the God-as-violent view does indeed have biblical support. The question is whether this is the only, or even more, the best, reading of the overall presentation of the biblical God. I do not deny that violent elements are there, but I do argue that the divine violence motif should be de-centered.
To see the biblical God as fundamentally violent contradicts the main story line of the Old Testament that portrays God ultimately as merciful and peaceable. Even more obviously, for the Christian Bible such a view of God as violent contradicts the message Jesus gives about God both in his teaching and in his own ministry as the Son of God. As well, the message of the book of Revelation is denied if we accept that the biblical God is violent.
This is to say, the material in the Bible gives mixed messages about whether God is violent or not. To think about this carefully, we must reflect on our reading strategy. I practice a reading strategy that places the highest priority on our sense of the overall plot of the story the Bible tells (with the assumption that even with all its diversity of materials the Bible may indeed be read a providing a coherent plot). The overall plot (more clearly in the Christian version perhaps than the Jewish version) presents a pacifist God, I believe (see the next post in this series for more elaboration on this statement).
There is also a major practical problem with seeing God as violent. Since our concept of God is directly related to our sense of God as the ultimate source of our values, if we see God as violent we almost inevitably will be more likely to see human violence as necessary or least an inevitable part of human life. One example of this dynamic as traced by Timothy Gorringe in his book God’s Just Vengeance—the story of dynamics in Western culture related to criminal justice. Seeing God as a punisher has led to punitive criminal justice practices.
While it is true that a venerable tradition within Christian pacifism has held that violence is only God’s prerogative and is not acceptable for human beings, the vast majority of Christians who have believed in a violent God have also affirmed justifiable human violence and used God’s violence as a justification for human violence.
Another practical problem with seeing God as violent is the difficulty we have in answering the question of who specifically deserves violence. The Bible makes it clear with both stories and commands that God is merciful toward all, and in particular merciful toward many human beings who have themselves done evil. To then say that God is nonetheless violent toward some people presents God as inconsistent, contradictory, and oblivious to God’s own message of mercy. It is possible to say, as many do, that God is beyond our understanding and hence free to kill some while showing mercy toward others. But such an arbitrary God would seem to be difficult to trust—plus, it hardly seems accidental that this notion of God as beyond our understanding leads in the direction of accepting divine (and ultimately human) violence. Wouldn’t it be more humane and life enhancing to see God’s “beyondness” in terms of God being even more merciful than we can explain?
Affirming a violent God also leads to a problem in relation to how we approach the Bible. It leads to a kind of mystification where we tend to see the biblical world as in some fundamental way different than the world we live in—though we act as if they are the same world. In the Bible, God acts directly and kills people and overtly commands people to kill other people. If that kind of thing actually happened, then something major changed in how the world works between then and now because few of us understand God to work this way now. Or, as an alternative, we could understand the Bible not as giving us the literal events but as a record of the stories, legends, myths, and the like that an ancient people used to make sense of their world. In that case, that those stories present God as violent need not be taken as the basis for our likewise seeing God as violent. We could say the violence is a plot device, not a historical fact—and, hence, not definitive for how we understand God.
It is true that affirming a pacifist God is a difficult position to justify. The Bible gives us plenty of counter evidence. The Christian tradition even more thoroughly has tended to oppose such a view. And, we do live in a world full of violence—how can we imagine a pacifist God as the Lord of such a world?
Nonetheless, I believe that we need to affirm God as pacifist if we are to have a humane future and if we are to find ways to redirect our culture’s mad dash toward self-destruction. And, I also believe that careful consideration of all the evidence we can gather from the Bible, theological reflection, experience, and nature shows that affirming a violent God is even more difficult to justify. I’ll say more about these points in the posts to come.