Brian McLaren recently published an article addressing the question, “Is God Violent?” In it he makes a case for God’s nonviolent nature that merits a response—both internal and external—from those of us who desire to follow Jesus.
To read McLaren’s article, click here (NOTE: you will be prompted to register in order to view it).
I’ve wanted to respond to McLaren’s essay for a while.
So when the March 2011 issue of Sojourners showed up in my mailbox, I determined it was time to slow down and reflect on his propositions and the nature of God as I understand it.
McLaren frames his essay in response to the notion that God is violent, as is reflected in the Old Testament narrative and which culminates in Christ’s crucifixion at Calvary.
It’s an idea that many Christians (and Jews, and Muslims) hold true, but McLaren identifies how this profoundly impacts how we interact with one another on multiple levels.
He references 9/11, Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, and Christian preachers calling for war on Islam—just to name a few (I’m sure we could quickly name a few more, both on the macro-scale—think Afghanistan, northern Ireland, the Sudan—and on a much smaller, interpersonal level).
It makes sense, doesn’t it?
Throughout the Old Testament, we journey through stories of homicide, infanticide, genocide…the narrative is, at times, a horrific bloodbath. Observed is a God who doesn’t just stand by and watch violence occur; we encounter a God that often actually enacts this violence.
So if we espouse to follow this God, it’s only logical that we would justify violence by our faith in a God that utilizes these actions and occurrences to achieve his will.
McLaren confesses that he long held this assumption.
But there is another lens through which we can see God. McLaren cites the “plethora of verses that present God as kind, reconciling, and compassionate, and against favoritism and violence.” He suggests that we can observe a God who causes the lion to lay with the lamb, who sets the captives free, who turns the other cheek.
And this is where the dilemma comes in:
Do we follow a God who is violent, justifying violent means by the end—in this case, salvation, or redemption, or victory? Or, in response to this other lens, do we follow a God who is wholly opposed to violence?
I appreciate McLaren’s reply, and I think this is how many of us who call ourselves Anabaptist Christians would wish to respond:
[I]f I see a tension in scripture, rather than appealing to Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Scofield, or the pope to resolve it, I should first turn to Jesus. If Jesus truly was the highest and fullest revelation of God, if Jesus was truly the logos, the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of God’s nature, the fullness of the godhead in bodily form, and in very nature God, then his life and teaching mattered in tensions like this. And if the Bible was intended, as Jesus said, to bear witness to Christ, or as Martin Luther said, to be the manger on which Christ was presented to the world, then “when in doubt, consult Jesus” seemed like good advice.
In Jesus we find the way, the truth, and the life. We find a messiah that calls us out of darkness and into the light. We find a savior whose reign was not established by violence or force but rather by love and through humble service. We find a friend who forgives and does not condemn, who turns the other cheek, walks the extra mile, gives away the tunic.
As I continue turning from my long-held assumptions about God and violence to embrace the Anabaptist way of living, I recognize that I do so largely as a result of Jesus’ life and teaching, all of which seem to witness to peacemaking.
Jesus embodies the love and non-violent nature of God. And if we are to truly follow Christ, we must find creative ways to go and do likewise.
I realize this isn’t the way all followers of Jesus will live. And I do not wish to condemn those who reject this proposition (or place myself above them for my accepting it).
I don’t think McLaren would, either.
But the challenge for us as Christians is to view God—in McLaren’s words—as “first and foremost present with the Crucified one” rather than with the authorities and crowds on Good Friday. Because this radically changes our orientation toward the world, toward our enemies, toward those in need.
Then—and only then—are we able to participate fully in the Resurrection.
May it be so.
Brian Paff is Director of Communications at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center. This post originally appeared at BeyondLaurelville.org; Brian will be presenting an intergenerational workshop entitled “Confessions of a Converted Mennonite” addressing this and other ideas at Pittsburgh 2011, the Mennonite Church USA convention.