Ted Grimsrud—May 8, 2018
I have read with great appreciation many of the books John Dominic Crossan has written over the years and have heard him speak several times. A few years ago he published a book I found pretty helpful and relevant to my interests, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015). I don’t know for sure whether Crossan, who is Catholic, shares my pacifist convictions, but he clearly cares deeply about peace on earth.
The right agenda
I believe that Crossan has exactly the correct agenda for this book. He argues, “escalatory violence now directly threatens the future of our species and indirectly undermines solutions to other survival problems such as global warming, overpopulation, and resource management” (p. 244). He writes this book in order to address that problem, to show how the Bible can be used in ways that contribute to violence, and to suggest ways the Bible might be read that will actually help us move toward peace.
Crossan’s book may be read alongside Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). Boyd and Crossan happily share deep convictions about helping Christians deal with the violence in the Bible in way that will empower Christians to be peaceable today. They approach the issues quite differently, though. The differences are significant, for sure. I would recommend reading both works as a way of getting a sense of the breadth of possibilities for Bible-centered peace theologies.
One big difference between these two thinkers is how they think of biblical inspiration. Boyd affirms what he understands to be a very high view of inspiration, and as a consequence he undertakes to construct a quite detailed and elaborate argument for how he can see the Bible as truthful throughout and yet also argue that the Bible is consistently a book of peace. I have written a lengthy critique of Boyd’s argument. I see it as way too convoluted. But I find his work enormously instructive.
Crossan, on the other hand, has no trouble with asserting that parts of the Bible simply are untrue. This makes his argument much simpler and more straightforward than Boyd’s—though not without problems of its own. I am not fully happy with Crossan’s approach, either. I think he too quickly accepts the presence of major internal contradictions within the Bible and thus misses some insights that an attempt to read the Bible’s overall message as largely coherent might provide. However, in this blog post I want to focus my criticisms of Crossan elsewhere.
Crossan’s main argument
Very briefly, I would summarize his main argument in this way: The Bible’s teaching can be understood as combining (and not harmonizing) two distinct views of justice—retributive and distributive. These two views stand in deep tension with one another. The presence of them both leads to the Bible’s internal contradictions between a violent, punitively judgmental God and a merciful, healing God. The Bible itself does not resolve this tension—in fact, the final book of the Bible (Revelation) is perhaps the most retributive book in the entire canon. However, Christians today can and must resolve the tension in their own lives. We may do so, Crossan argues, by centering our reading strategy on the life and teaching of the historical Jesus.
Jesus as he truly was gives us clarity about the way God truly is—characterized by distributive justice and ultimately a healing and not punitive God. Now, this understanding of Jesus requires some careful discernment since the gospel writers at times may smuggle in some retributive thinking into how they tell the story. But for Crossan, the historical Jesus, the Jesus that we may discern behind the gospels, rejected the retributive view of God that is present in much of the Old Testament and certainly was characteristic of many of his contemporaries.
I find this argument helpful. I certainly agree that Jesus provides us with the clarity we need for unshakeable convictions about nonviolence—and the warrant we need to reject the pro-violence materials in the Bible as in any way normative for Christian ethics. However, there are a couple of problems I have with Crossan’s approach that I’d like to reflect on.
First, I think that “restorative” works better than “distributive” as the alternative to “retributive” justice. And, second, I think it is better to read the Bible as having a more coherent, pro-peace message than Crossan does. I am bothered by his dialectal reading, especially by how this reading requires an understanding of the book of Revelation that I believe is unhelpful and inaccurate.
The alternative to “retributive” justice?
I am pretty attracted to Crossan’s analysis about the two kinds of justice, especially his characterization and critique of “retributive justice.” I would tend to read some of the texts he cites with a little more nuance, but I agree that there are two different kinds of voices in the Bible and that we must reject any tendency to let the retributive voice override the peaceable voice.
However, I am uncomfortable with his use of “distributive” as his alternative notion of justice in the Bible. I do agree that the vision for life among the Hebrew people reflected in the teaching of Torah, had at its center a commitment to the appropriate distribution of the materials necessary for a good life to all the people in the community. But underlying this vision was a notion of justice as wholeness, as healthy relationships—what I would call the grounding for “restorative” justice.
So, we do have a sense of “distributive” justice in the biblical ideal. But what about when there is injustice and oppression, when the vulnerable are exploited and left out? Or, when there are other incidents of injustice and brokenness? Crossan suggests, “retributive justice is secondary and derivative” in relation to “distributive” justice and “comes in only when that idea is violated” (pp. 17-18). However, I think what actually happens is that when there is violation, the community faces choices about how to respond—one approach is more punitive and retributive, the other is more reconciliatory and restorative.
The roots to the latter approach, though, are found in the vision for the community. The deepest sense of community is not based on equality and fairness, but on a relational ideal. God’s agenda, according to the Bible, in creating this people is wholeness in relationships between people and other people, people and the natural world, and people and God. The hope when there is brokenness is that these relationships might be restored. Punishment as an end in itself (the motivation with retributive justice) does not lead to restored relationships. Hence, as Crossan rightly states, “there are no divine punishments” (p. 244).
In recent years, “restorative” justice has emerged as a strategy for dealing with brokenness that provides an alternative to retributive dynamics. To some degree, this movement has theological roots based on a reading of the Bible that highlights the notion of justice as being concerned with setting right damaged relationships. To think of the Bible’s core notion of justice as “restorative” rather than “distributive” can help link contemporary concerns with the concerns of the people of the Bible—and ground them in a relational context (as I have written about elsewhere).
Revelation as the culmination of the Bible’s peaceable story
Crossan uses an image of two distinct trains that symbolize the Bible’s two notions of justice. This image requires a dialectal reading of the Bible, where we have these two relatively equal impulses interacting with each other throughout—and never resolved. So in the Old Testament we do have the original vision of distributive justice, but it is joined by the strong sense of punitive, retributive justice that is attributed to God in many places. And both, according to Crossan, are present in the New Testament as well—Jesus embodying one, the book of Revelation the other.
Recognizing that we need some sense of resolution of this dialectic if we are to live lives committed to breaking the spiral of violence, Crossan advocates making central a reconstruction of the actual message of the historical Jesus who guides us on how to read the Bible in a way that helps us find a clarity that will empower peaceable living.
Along with the polarity between the two kinds of justice, Crossan also suggests we recognize a polarity between two kinds of power, what he calls “nonviolent power” and “violent power.” He sees what he calls the “Normalcy of Civilization” as being present when retributive justice and violent power are combined. It’s opposite is the “Radicality of God,” where distributive justice and nonviolent power are combined.
This analysis is helpful (especially if we substitute “restorative” for “distributive” justice. However, I don’t agree with Crossan’s reading of the Bible as leaving us with an unresolved dialectic among these options. I think the Bible actually does give us a more coherent picture on the side of the “Radicality of God” if we read it as a whole. We may do this in part because the New Testament does provide a lens with which we may read the Old Testament in line with nonviolent power and restorative justice. That is, I think Crossan fundamentally misreads Revelation and hence projects his dialectic too deeply into that part of the Bible.
I have argued in my lengthy writings about Revelation that it does present us with a sense of God’s power as nonviolent power and God’s justice as restorative justice. I will sketch very briefly some of my main reasons for saying this.
Revelation begins with a statement that what follows is “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1) and makes clear that this is the gospel’s Jesus Christ when it describes him in 1:5 as the “faithful witness” (who lived a life of resistance to the Powers that be that led to his martyrdom), the “first born of the dead” (who had this life vindicated through resurrection), and “ruler of the kings of the earth” (the ultimate “conqueror” whose politics of healing will rule the world).
The key moment in the book comes in chapter 5 when we are told of a great scroll that contains the message of the victory of God. However, initially, no one can be found to open this scroll. Then the one who can open the scroll is found—the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” who turns out to be a Lamb, slain and standing (5:6). This Lamb, the Jesus who Revelation reveals, has already won the victory and is worshiped as worthy. The only victory needed in Revelation is won not through the power of violence but through the power of persevering love, embodied in the faithful witness of Jesus.
The sufficiency of this victory is stated in 12:11 (the “comrades … have conquered [the Dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”). Then the victory is envisioned in 19:11-21, where Jesus rides forth victorious, with his rob already “dipped in blood” (the blood of his faithful witness) before his encounter with the Powers of evil, who he simply captures and throws into the lake of fire—no “Battle of Armageddon” needed. The outcome of the conquering efforts of the Lamb is the destruction of the Powers of evil and the healing of the nations and their kings who had formerly aligned themselves with the Powers. And the means of the conquering was Jesus’s self-sacrificial love joined with the self-sacrificial love of his followers.
Though Revelation is often read as portraying God as directly intervening with punitive violence toward rebellious human beings, the actual text presents God as directly active only in the witness of the Lamb and his followers. And the message of the book challenges its readers to join this witness. Jesus’s followers are to be active in the conquering work. But this call to action is not a call to be warriors doing battle in inter-human warfare where they shed the blood of their enemies. Rather, the call to action is a call to follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4).
This message of Revelation, a message of the transforming power of Jesus’s faithful witness to the ways of persevering love, is about the opposite of how Crossan reads Revelation. Crossan reads the violent imagery in Revelation quite literally and seems to miss entirely the way Revelation’s symbolism works. He writes: “Revelation’s promise of a bloodthirsty God and a blood-drenched Christ represents for me the creation of a second ‘coming’ to negate the first and only ‘coming’ of Christ; the fabrication of violent apocalypse to deny nonviolent incarnation; and the invention of Christ on a warhorse to erase the historical Jesus on a peace donkey. Jesus’s nonviolent resistance to evil is replaced by Christ’s violent slaughter of evildoers” (How to Read the Bible, p. 181).
Crossan needs a retributive Revelation to sustain how he imposes his unresolved dialectic on the Bible. While his method of resolving the dialectic with the scholarly recovery of the historical Jesus as our contemporary ethical norm does indeed lead him to a strong affirmation of the path of nonviolence, I think he greatly weakens the Bible’s own peaceable message.
I think the dialectic between retributive and restorative justice is resolved within the Bible itself. And the way the Bible resolves it helps us to find a powerful peace witness in the final, canonical text read as a whole—not in an extra-biblical scholarly construct. Jesus himself brings together the message of Torah, the prophetic witness to that message, and his own embodied shalom that resisted empire (and the retributive dynamics that slipped into the biblical text) and incarnated in history transformative compassion and healing. And this embodied shalom actually is what is revealed in the book of Revelation—a wonderful coda to the Bible’s coherent message about God’s healing strategy.