Is God violent? Naming the questions

 Ted Grimsrud—February 29, 2012

This question (“Is God Violent?”) seems to me to be one of those great questions that challenges us to wide-ranging theological reflection. And it triggers a bunch of further questions that are worth thinking about in order to get at our main one. I will raise nine here. I owe a debt of gratitude to Brian McLaren’s short but thoughtful and provocative article in the January 2011 issues of Sojourners (also titled “Is God Violent?”).

What are our options?

McLaren offers a helpful fourfold typology of the different options for how Christians might answer our question: (1) God is violent and human violence is okay, sometimes even good. (2) God is violent and only in limited cases might human violence be morally acceptable. (3) God is not violent, so human violence is always a violation of our being created in God’s image—hence it is always tragic and regrettable; it is never justified. (4) God is not violent, so human violence in any form is always absolutely forbidden.

I had to read this list several times before I could figure out what the difference between #3 and #4 is. There must be a difference, since McLaren says, regretfully, that he holds #3 and not #4—though he aspires to #4. Finally I figured out that he had left out an additional sentence in his description of the third view that would have made him more clear: “Sometimes violence happens in ways that are the lesser evil; it’s not morally good but it may be the most realistic and least bad possibility.” To this clarification, McLaren might also have wanted to add a thought borrowed from Reinhold Niebuhr that in such cases we rely on God’s pardon; we don’t claim we are doing something that is not sinful.

Unfortunately, McLaren leaves out another option that probably is the most common option for Mennonite pacifists who have thought about these issues. At least it’s a very common option among Mennonite intellectuals. This would be the belief that God is violent but that human beings are called not to be. On the one hand, it is “God’s prerogative to exercise God’s sovereign power however God sees the need to;” on the other hand, God forbids human beings to take this expression of governance into their own hands. They interpret “vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Romans 12:21) as a call to leave the violence to God. Willard Swartley, Miroslav Volf, Mary Schertz, and Millard Lind  all have published various versions of this view—as did John Howard Yoder (see John Nugent’s account of Yoder’s Old Testament interpretation, The Politics of Yahweh). Continue reading “Is God violent? Naming the questions”