Why I agree with Brian McLaren’s answer (and why it matters that more of us do the same)

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.

Me too.

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.

Comments (3)

  1. SteveK

    I appreciate the desire to have a theology that is consistently Anabaptist and non-violent. I want to do the same thing. However, I think this is the wrong approach.

    a. The Bible DOES present God as being violent. Not just people being violent in God’s name but God Himself enacting violence. Thus, to deny God’s violence is to say that there are different gods presented in Scripture, and to chose one over the other is to affirm that. I believe that God is one.

    b. I affirm that God’s violence is part of what allows me to be non-violent. Human “justice” is filled with unjust violence. This does not mean that all violence is wrong, but that humans cannot correctly dispense justice when violence is involved (surgery is an exception to this). Thus, I refuse to participate in violence, because I will use that judgment wrongly. However, God can use violence and knows how to use violence correctly, whether that be in the plagues against Egypt or the death of Ananias or punishing the rich man in flames.

    c. Jesus affirmed God’s violence as the result of the cross. In the parable of the vineyard, those who killed the owner’s son are violently killed as a just punishment. Even so, God punished the priests and temple system by destroying it in 70AD. Non violent martyrdom results in God’s taking firm and often violent action due to our nonviolent surrender.

    d. We are to be like God in all his qualities of mercy, but not in His judgment. We are to be slow to anger, compassionate, merciful,forgiveness, full of lovingkindness, but we are not to take vengeance for “vengeance is mine” says the Lord (Rom 12). Thus, vengeance/judgment is a quality of the Lord, but the only one we are not to imitate.

    Many people won’t agree with my position, but I believe that it does less damage to the text of Scripture while still insisting upon seeking peace.

  2. BrianP (Post author)

    Steve, thanks for your engagement in this conversation.

    I understand where you’re coming from in your reading of the OT narrative. We do read about a God that appears extremely violent. But I recognize that we’re likely reading scripture from different perspectives…

    My one question for you about Jesus is this: if he is indeed God’s son, and he knows full well how to exact violence, why does he refuse to use force and violence?

    I have to believe that he was doing more than modeling the way. He was the embodiment of God in flesh. The vineyard parable and his statement about coming bearing a sword don’t line up with the life he lived here on earth (and, as a result, the life to which I believe God calls us).

  3. SteveK

    Jesus is the representation of the will and nature of God. But God’s will is also judgment, or karma (complete justice) and violence is a reflection of that. Jesus’ way isn’t necessarily the way of non-violence, but of opportunity and long-suffering. Jesus, more than anyone else in Scripture, speaks of hell in violent terms. Thus, he is modeling the human life of faith, the perfect example of living out God’s will as a human being. This does not mean that God the Father isn’t violent, but God the Son, in modeling human perfection, hands all judgment and violence over to the Father.

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