Ted Grimsrud—June 4, 2014
For Christians, our thinking about God should have at its core the life and teaching of Jesus. Obviously, what Christians think about God has to do with much more than what Jesus said and did, but part of the definition of “Christian” should be that we understand God in terms of Jesus’s teaching about God and how Jesus showed what God is like by his actions.
Sadly, due to what we could call a “christological evasion of Jesus,” the Christian tradition has all too often focused on doctrines about Jesus rather than on what he actually said and did. Thus, Jesus’s own life and teaching have not played a central role in the construction of the Christian doctrine of God.
As I discussed in my previous post introducing this four-part series of blog posts, Christianity is implicated in terrible spirals of violence characteristic of our culture here in the United States (imperialism, nationalism, militarism, punitive criminal justice, sexual violence, homophobia, et al). I believe one of our most important tasks is to rethink our theology in order to recover the deeply peaceable core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I believe that one important component of such a task is to cultivate an understanding of God as pacifist.
To cultivate such an understanding, we need to wrestle with the biblical materials—source both of evidence for seeing God as violent and of evidence for seeing God as pacifist. In working through the biblical portrayal of God, we must make a decision about how central Jesus’s life and teaching will be—and, of course, develop an interpretation of what we understand the content of the Jesus part of the story to be.
What follows is a brief account of why I see the Jesus material in the Bible as decisive in discerning the pacifism of God.
Jesus reveals God as pacifist
The New Testament presents Jesus as uniquely revelatory of God, so much so that in time the Christian tradition confessed Jesus as God Incarnate. As the story is told, Jesus reveals God to be loving and merciful toward all people (and the rest of creation)—both in terms of how Jesus himself talked about God and of how Jesus as a revelation of God practiced love and mercy himself.
Jesus’s God models love for enemies. “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-6). When Jesus tells what proves to be one of his most enduring parables, often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son and termed “the gospel in a nutshell,” he presents God as like a merciful father who welcomes his wayward son back to the family unconditionally (Luke 15:11-32).
We do have allusions and parables that communicate a more punitive sensibility, but it makes the most sense to interpret such allusions in ways that are compatible with these core teachings about God’s mercy. This is so in large part because the general tenor of Jesus’s own practices clearly was oriented toward mercy. The judgmental elements do not negate the merciful, but should be understood ultimately in service to the merciful.
Jesus revealed in his own actions a consistent commitment to mercy, forgiveness, and love of neighbor (defined expansively). Jesus practiced healing, not punishment. He forgave unconditionally. The recipients of his healings and his forgiveness included people from all sections of his society, from the poor to the wealthy, from those at the core of the religious institutions to those excluded as “unclean,” from synagogue leaders to Roman soldiers.
The God of Jesus, his “Abba,” clearly was consistently peaceable. If we understand “pacifism” as a term meant to convey the broad vision of biblical shalom, of healing creation’s brokenness, of blessing all the families of the earth, then it is a term that clearly characterizes Jesus’s God and Jesus himself, confessed as God’s Son and, in time, as God Incarnate.
Jesus’s own embodied politics were a politics of peace. He resisted the Powers of domination nonviolently but resolutely. He formed a community meant to embody his way of peace as an alternative to the Roman Empire’s politics of domination. He defined the heart of authentic faith in terms of loving God and loving neighbor (and in doing so defined the “neighbor” expansively enough to include enemies—see the Good Samaritan story, Luke 10:25-37).
Another way to characterize Jesus’s life is to see his radically pacifist politics as stemming directly from his life of prayer. He focused his life on an intimate relationship with his Abba—and this relationship found expression in a life of active peacemaking utterly free of violence and domination.
Jesus of course met with profound opposition in his life. His opponents, who ultimately had him executed by the Roman government, denied that he represented God—they condemned him as a blasphemer. God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. This vindication confirms Jesus’s way as God’s way. And it also confirms that the power politics in the name of God that portrayed God as a punisher and a god of emperors was itself blasphemous. Jesus’s revelation of a consistently loving (i.e., pacifist) God was not crushed or proved to be pure fantasy; Jesus’s revelation of a consistently loving (i.e., pacifist) God was proved to be profoundly truthful.
Jesus as basis for a pacifist reading strategy (Old Testament)
If we see the Jesus story as the heart of the overall biblical story, we will have a reading strategy for interpreting the parts of the overall story that precede Jesus and those that follow after his life, death, and resurrection.
Over and over, Jesus makes the point that his ministry, his understanding of God and of God’s will for humanity, and his critique of the political/religious dynamics of his day were based on Israel’s story contained in his Bible (the Old Testament of our Christian Bible). Jesus himself prohibits the common Christian view that posits a contradiction between the so-called violent God of the Old Testament and the peaceable God of Jesus. The only way this prohibition makes sense is to recognize that Jesus’s way of talking about and displaying God (which we have seen was thoroughly pacifist) is actually the same as the Old Testament’s way.
Clearly, it is a challenge for us to read the Old Testament as a pacifist document. But is it not disregarding the message of Jesus to conclude that such a reading is impossible? I believe that when we read the Old Testament as a coherent story (not as a series of discrete, self-contained factual incidents), we can find a pacifist thread there. Jesus seems to see that thread as well and to assume it to be the core of the story.
We have a peaceable creation story featuring a peaceable God, overtly contrasting with other, violent accounts of where we come from. We have a God of almost infinite patience who allows humanity many choices and options for expressing the innate power to affect their surroundings. There is indeed judgment and even violent punishment attributed to God in the story, but the deeper and longer lasting picture is a God of mercy and persevering love (see, most directly, Hosea 11:1-9).
As I argued in a previous post, the core story of the Old Testament actually does not work if God is a violent punisher. We can’t excise or ignore the violent parts of the story, but we can de-center that violence. And we can interpret Old Testament violence in the context of the pacifism of the story as a whole—pacifism that does not begin with Jesus but rather pacifism that produces Jesus.
Jesus as basis for a pacifist reading strategy (New Testament)
With Jesus at the heart of the story, we may also see how the earliest interpreters of his life and teaching reinforce his message of the pacifism of God. Early Christianity’s most important interpreter, the Apostle Paul, has at the center of his own story a profound conversion from belief in a violent God (in whose service Paul himself violently persecuted Jesus’s followers) to belief in a pacifist God (whose law is summarized by love of neighbor [Romans 13:8-10] and who models love of enemies [Romans 5:6-11]).
The book of Revelation has often been read to portray a violent God who harshly punishes God’s human enemies. Such a reading, as I have argued in a 1987 book and in a recent series of sermons, is actually a misreading of Revelation. More than any other New Testament writing, Revelation closely links Jesus and God—both are worshiped together. The central image Revelation uses of Jesus is that of a Lamb, an image of persevering love, not punitive judgment.
What Revelation actually tells us is that God “conquers” the Powers of evil in only one way: the suffering love of the Lamb and those human beings who follow him wherever he goes. Jesus’s followers, we are told, conquer the Dragon (Satan) “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev 12:11). In fact, throughout the book, the metaphor of “blood” is used only of Jesus and his followers. “Blood” is the means for gaining victory—but it’s never the blood of God’s enemies but only the self-sacrificial love of the Lamb and his followers. The Lamb who is worshiped as God and inextricably linked with “the One on the Throne is thoroughly a pacifist and conquers only as a pacifist.
The Bible’s pacifist God
My claim, only sketched here, is that if we understand Jesus as the culmination of the biblical story we should affirm that the God of the Bible is pacifist. Though such an affirmation flies in the face of 1700 years of Christian tradition, it provides the best resolution to the challenge of trying to hold together all the pieces of the Bible’s various references to God. Certainly, many of those references are not pacifist—but, crucially, many are.
To affirm that the God of the Bible is violent actually contradicts numerous elements of the Bible’s message—for example, the peaceable creation story, the portrayal of God’s persevering love in face of human brokenness, the Bible’s sharp critique of trust in empires and weapons of war, the ultimate rejection of the idea that God’s promise will be channeled through territorial human kingdoms, the message of Jesus, and the vision of Revelation of a nonviolent resolution of the brokenness of human history.
As I suggested in my previous post, the notion that the Bible’s mixed messages guide present day Christian readers to a position of “neutrality” regarding God’s violence is actually a choice for violence. I believe that we either have to reject violence all the way down, or we will inevitably come to accept violence. A God who may or may not be violent would be quite different from the God of Jesus and the “One on the throne” who is worshiped alongside the Lamb in Revelation. That God in unequivocally committed to healing only through persevering love—that is, only as a pacifist.