Why we should think of God as pacifist—(4) Experience and history

Ted Grimsrud—June 24, 2014

I believe that we should think of God as pacifist. By the nature of the case, though, this is not something we can prove decisively. This is a kind of value judgment or choice—to see God and the world in a certain way. However, I would not call such a conviction a simple leap of faith that flies in the face of the evidence. In fact, I think we have good reasons for such a belief.

I wrote in a previous post why I believe the Bible, ultimately, teaches that God is pacifist, even if the evidence is decidedly mixed. I would say the same thing about creation. The world we live in and our experience as human beings over time in this world, when seen as a whole, does offer support for thinking of God as pacifist—although, again, the evidence is decidedly mixed.

What kind of connection do we see between God and the world around us? One way to think of this is in terms of God as creator whose creation reflects the character of its source. If the world comes from God, we should expect to see evidence to support the idea that a loving, even pacifist, creator made what is. I think we should expect that as we look ever deeper into the world we live in, we will find signs of the presence of our God there since our God is inextricably linked with the deepest truths that we can perceive.

The way my thinking has evolved has been a kind of moving back and forth between the biblical portrayal of Jesus and God and the call to pacifism on the one side and seeing reality as pacifist on the other. In terms of my conscious thought, when I became a pacifist at age 21 and begin to think about other things in light of that pacifism, I started with the biblical message and in light of that began consciously think of the world differently. But in time I realized that my life had been shaped from its beginning by the experience of love in a fundamental way, experience that surely helped prepare me to see Jesus’s message the way I did.

The Fragility of Love

If we think of the creator as pacifist, what kind of creation would we expect to be part of? If we understand God to be, most fundamentally, love, what implications might that have for how we see the world around us?

A God of love, a God who is pacifist, will not be a God in control of everything. That creation contains elements that are violent, that go against the reality of love, should not be a surprise. A God of vulnerable, patient love, we would expect, is a God whose creation allows for freedom and, even, brokenness. The brokenness does not reflect the character of God as violent but rather shows God to be non-violent.

It seems that we need to choose between understanding God as love and understanding God as omnipotent. Or, maybe better, we need to choose between understanding God’s power in terms of love or in terms of control and domination. A God of love will not be a God in control—love by its nature is respectful of the others freedom. So such a God will not intervene to prevent “bad things” so much as be present when “bad things” happen to comfort, strengthen, and encourage. This God will fit Bruce Cockburn’s lyrics: “Around every evil there gathers love, bombs aren’t the only things that fall from above” (from “Where the Death Squad Lives”).

A creator who is pacifist does not respond with punishing justice when the laws of creation are violated. There is a fragility with a God of love.

Harmony with our environment

For me, experience confirms pacifism and a pacifist Creator/animating Spirit in various ways. When I say “experience” here I am thinking quite broadly—my own personal experience in my years of life and the personal experiences of other human beings, but also our perception of the natural world based on observation and our history as human beings.

It has been interesting for me to think about nature, human nature, and the world as it seems to be. Growing up, I absorbed the general message of our American culture that the fundamental reality of life is one of struggle, violence, selfishness, competitiveness, nature as “red in tooth and claw.” Survival of the fittest. Scarcity. Even though my own life did not fit very well with this message, I still tended to accept it without question—until I started wondering how compatible the pacifism that had enlivened my soul fit with a natural and social world that was inherently violent and conflictual.

In a dynamic that was parallel to how the Bible appeared to me once I started questioning the pro-violence standard account, so also once I started questioning the standard account of our natural and social worlds, I began to see quite a bit of evidence that actually supports pacifism.

We evolved to be at harmony with our environment. There certainly is violence in this environment, but it is violence that usually serves life (recognizing a dimension of freedom, randomness, and counter-veiling experiences—we’re talking about evolutionary processes that at most fit with a God whose providential care is quite indirect). This kind of violence generally is limited and leads to greater harmony. The violence that is characteristic of only humans and that emerged only with the advent of civilization is unnatural, destructive, and an aberration. We would never have survived our evolution if we were not most fundamentally cooperative and nonviolent.

War as unnatural

War comes late to human evolution and war itself evolved very slowly. Only in the past two centuries have we moved toward total war and developed weapons of mass destruction. It is a very intentional and involved process to create such weapons and institutions—war as fought today is not a product of our instincts. In fact, as the training of soldiers to overcome their natural reluctance to kill other human beings shows, modern war is in part based on overcoming human instincts.

The rationality that goes into creating and using weapons of war—and overcoming our natural inclination to live at harmony with creation and other human beings—is perverted rationality. It is the consequence of social evolution where we have become increasingly alienated from the natural world and more susceptible to being manipulated by life-repressing structures (the “Powers”) that actually operate contrary to our nature and have exceeded our ability to control them (such as, capitalism, militarism, and nationalism).

Happiness and cooperation

Humans simply are happier and more at home in the world when we are collaborative, cooperative, treat nature with respect, and resolve conflicts nonviolently in a win-win manner. Less “civilized” human communities (i.e., various indigenous groups) often have tended to live this way and to be more at home in the world that God made and enlivens.

Theologically, we could say that a world created by a God who is pacifist and human beings who are created in the image of this kind of God reflect the character of God most accurately when there is harmony. Collaborative, cooperative, respectful, and nonviolent ways of existing are ways that help humanity and creation to thrive—and hence reveal what God is like.


Post 1 (Introduction)Post 2 (The Bible)Post 3 (Addendum)

3 thoughts on “Why we should think of God as pacifist—(4) Experience and history

  1. Ted, I’m really fascinated by your series of posts here. I should say that I gave up reading theology almost thirty years ago after leaving AMBS. (Not that I read much theology then — I was interested in more practical topics like Bible and missions.)

    But I’m surprised you’ve made no reference here to Millard Lind’s “Yahweh is a Warrior.” Lind’s thesis, if I can recall after all these years, is that Yahweh as understood in the Old Testament was indeed a warrior, and that his actions were epitomized in the deliverance from Egypt at the Red Sea. That is, in many instances Israel was commanded to stand and await deliverance, rather than to take up arms and accomplish military victory on its own.

    Thus Yahweh delivered Israel from Egypt with no help from the band of slaves — it was his mighty arm that rendered justice and freedom. Similarly, in the stories of the conquest of Jericho, to mention just one, an absurdly impotent band of guerillas triumphed over the mightiest armies of the day.

    The prophetic message was that Israel was not to build chariots (ie, engage in the latest military technology), but to depend on Yahweh. Their insistence on having a king like the nations was judged to be a movement in the direction away from total dependence on Yahweh.

    As I say, it’s been a long time since I read Lind, but it has always stayed with me as a theological, or biblical, explanation of the origins of “pacifism” in the experience of ancient Israel, which has otherwise seemed to be just a horrible bloody saga.

    I haven’t read Gordon Kaufman and don’t intend to, but surely you or others on this list have read Lind, so I’m curious what you make of his argument.

    Just BTW I have no problem with being a staunch pacifist, and yet willing to understand that God is ineffable, and even an agent of justice and judgment on this world. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; I shall repay.”

    Ross Lynn Bender
    Philadelphia, PA
    West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship

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