Is God Violent? (by Mark Longhurst)
Two weeks ago in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik set off a car bomb in front of government buildings in Oslo. Then about two hours later he went to a youth camp for young leaders founded by Norway’s Labour Party. He dressed up as a policeman and methodically began shooting both kids and adults point blank. He killed at least 76 people and wounded about 96 others. Anders Breivik was an anti-Islamic, right wing extremist. He thought his shootings would help save Europe from what he saw as Muslim and Marxist colonization. Anders Breivik also identified himself as a Christian, which should be sobering to us. This tragedy reminds us that terrorist violence can happen in any faith, when a hyper-conservative theology meets a xenophobic right-wing political agenda.
Everywhere we look religion seems to be used for violent ends. The horrifying attacks in Norway. Affiliates of Al Qaeda springing up in Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. US military leaders are not immune from using religious rhetoric either: early on in the Afghanistan war a top US general named William Boykin sparked controversy when he said the war on terror is a war against Satan.
Is God violent? I believe the question of whether God is violent or not is one of the crucial questions of our time. Since 2008 there has been a 242% increase in militant groups nationwide. When such groups wed their political beliefs with religious fervor, we are in trouble. Anders Breivik, Osama Bin Laden, and William Boykin—they all seemed to think that yes, God is violent and wants us to kill our enemies.
Even though most of us rightly want to respond immediately that “God is Love,” the Bible does characterize God frequently as violent. I think this is something that we as Christians need to be upfront about. It’s no use pretending terrible passages aren’t in the Bible. In Genesis, even the character named God very nearly commits both genocide and geocide—destruction of the earth— by wiping out most of humanity and living things. Genesis 6 says, “the Lord was sorry he had made humankind on the earth…so the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in sight of the Lord.” From here you know the story: God tells Noah to build an ark of cypress wood, to gather two of every kind of animal, to gather his family, and to remain in the ark while flood waters devastated the earth.
How do we make sense of violent images of God in the Bible? How do we read them alongside other images of God as compassionate, merciful, and Love itself? The way that Brian Mclaren in A New Kind of Christianity makes sense of this, and I agree with him, is to recognize that the picture of God evolves in the biblical narrative. People’s understanding and descriptions of God change from violent and petty to loving and inclusive throughout the Bible. At the beginning of the biblical story God is capable of mercy but also murderous violence. God floods the whole earth. God wages holy war on behalf of the Israelites, and they accordingly attack the Canaanites and seize the promised land by force. Gradually, though, particularly in the Prophets, Wisdom writings, and then in the Gospels, a different picture of God emerges more fully. As Mclaren points out, in Hosea 2:16, the prophet says that Israel will call God ‘husband’ instead of master. Instead of God pictured as a dominating ruler, God is described as a lover. In John 15, Jesus says that his disciples are no longer to understand themselves as his servants but as his friends. The picture changes from a God who is terrifying and “out there” to a God who is compassionate and near to us as a friend, or even as close as our lover’s touch.
One way that a subtle form of violence shows up is when Christians think our God is superior to all other gods. Throughout the Bible, though, the picture of God’s uniqueness evolves. In early parts of the Bible, other gods are depicted as competitors to be vanquished by our one true God. For instance, in 1 Kings Elijah has a miracle contest with the 450 prophets of Baal. The God who answers by fire and burns up the animal sacrifice is the true God. Predictably, the 450 Baal prophets spend all day calling out to their God, who does not answer. The Scripture is quite graphic: they “cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them” (1 Kings 18:28) but God’s fire does not come. Elijah prays to God, however, and fire rains down from heaven, consuming the animal offering on the altar. After God’s victorious revelation, Elijah then has all the prophets of Baal rounded up and executed (18:40). Viewing God as superior in this way is like saying, “My God can kick your God’s ass.” It certainly is not a good platform for inter-religious relationships. Most Christians do not have violent intentions towards other religious practitioners with whom they disagree. At the same time, this view of God’s superior uniqueness in relation to all other gods is prevalent today and subtly dangerous. It leads to an implicit violence that refuses to recognize truth in the “other,” in what is different from what we already believe.
Eventually in the Bible a monotheism develops that is quite expansive. There is only one God, one ultimate reality, rather than one god competing among many. Centuries later when the apostle Paul preaches to the Greek intellectuals in Acts 17, he can acknowledge that they too are seeking this one Truth, even though he has some disagreements with them. This is a far cry from killing the prophets of Baal.
Christians see the ultimate evolution of God’s image in the Scriptures through Jesus himself. For Christians, Jesus Christ reveals the full nature of what God is like. Colossians 1 says Christ is “the image of the invisible God…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” The fundamental question that Christians must ask, then, is what is Christ like? Instead of letting the more disturbing pictures of God in the Bible form our understanding of what God is like, we must interpret the more difficult descriptions of God through Christ. The Quakers and Anabaptists have been reading the Bible in this way for quite some time. Mclaren quotes the Quaker scholar Elton Trueblood said, “the historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.” (By the way, this evolution of how people have understood God in the Bible is not at all a subtle way of saying the New Testament God is ‘good and loving’ and the Old Testament God is ‘immature and violent.’ This same evolution of how God is characterized from violent to compassionate takes place throughout the Old Testament).
What is Jesus like, then? This is another article in itself, but in short: Jesus is perhaps the most renowned teacher and practitioner of nonviolence and love that the world has seen. He is the antithesis of violence, and turns our frameworks of violence completely on their heads. Jesus says not only is murder condemned, but also ‘you will be liable for judgment if you harbor anger toward your brother or sister.’ Then there is that most difficult of teachings: “You have heard it said ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.’” Jesus’ love is counter-intuitive, risky, and utterly undeserved. Thank God that it is—because that means that God loves me just as I am, and you just as you are.
But beware—because when we encounter this love, this God, we evolve. We are changed. We start to realize that violence isn’t just out there in the world, but it’s in here, in my heart. We can’t project our own inner violence anymore onto gays and lesbians, immigrants, terrorists, Republicans, Democrats, or our spouse. We can’t even project it onto how we think of God. Our violence becomes love in the crucible of Christ’s presence. The world desperately needs people whose violence has been turned into love, whose swords have been turned into ploughshares, as the prophet Isaiah says. May we be peacemakers reflecting the nonviolent, living God who never fails to love.
Mark Longhurst is a United Church of Christ pastor in Canaan, NY. He teaches yoga, is passionate about contemplative spirituality, and has worked as a community organizer on numerous social justice campaigns. Mark posts his sermons, from which this article is adapted, at http://liminalpreacher.blogspot.com.