December 1, 2011

The Violent God of the Bible (Part 2)

Part Two in a series of guest posts from our Autumn Lectio writer, Dr. Nijay Gupta:

Part II: Justifying the Violent God?

Even as I write that we must admit the God of the Old Testament is violent, that hardly seems a comforting thought. Who wants to worship a violent God, especially in a post-Holocaust era? One conviction Christians must hold, though, is that we must be shaped by the world that Scripture creates and not the other way around. In the same way that people like Hitler distorted the Bible by militarizing it, so those who domesticate it of violence undermine its own revelatory power.

Still the question lingers on, even when we are humble enough to submit ourselves to Scripture’s message fully, could God have not avoided violence? This question leads into the first of three points I wish to make about the violent God of the Old Testament and understanding his purposes in taking forceful action.

The first point I wish to underscore is that, while we may idealize a quiet and placid God and heaven, warring gods were par-for-the-course in the Ancient Near East. In fact, in comparison to surrounding nations’ religious texts, the Old Testament seems rather PG-rated. Let me offer an example.

The creation scene we have in Genesis 1 and 2 is one of a single God creating a good world. Imagine the potter in his home studio, classical music playing in the background, and there is a sense of serenity and peace as he shapes clay in rhythmic fashion. Compare that to the Babylonians’ Enuma Elish myth of creation which involves, from quite early on, warring and raging gods that trick, plot against, and take revenge on each other. In these stories, the gods model hostile forms of evil for humans.

In the story of Genesis 1-11, we find a different conception. In seminary, we read a book with the apt title: Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Cornelius Plantinga). Sin invaded God’s good creation and was not a part of the original plan. Violence is not the way its supposed to be. The story of Cain is really the first act of violence in the Bible. To call God “violent” is not to say that he is that by nature and was just waiting for an opportunity for his personality to surface (as in when God judges Korah and his conspirators by having the earth swallow them up; see Num 26:10). Perhaps he is violent because we (as humans) started a pattern of destructive force and he needed to intervene.

There is another option that some take to “get God off the hook,” as it were. You could take the deist’s position that all violence is only human violence and God sits in peace up in heaven. However, then we don’t have the Christian (or Jewish) God anymore, because our God is deeply invested in matters on earth. The incarnation of Jesus is surely a sign of God’s involvement in this world, but so is his active approach to judgment and justice.

Could God not just snap his finger or wave his magic wand and make our violence go away? Entertaining these kinds of thoughts could lead into infinite absurdity. If God wanted to solve problems this way, he didn’t need Israel at all, or Jesus as a human on earth, or the cross, or the church, and on and on. He chose a redemptive plan that actively involved working together with humans (like Noah, or Abraham, or Moses, or David, etc.). I think of the decision in the Lord of the Rings of leaving the world’s fate in the hands of hobbits. It is a risk. They are small and weak. For all its benefits, it has its challenges as well.

This leads to a second point I want to offer. John Goldingay, another Old Testament scholar, puts forward the theory that God (in the OT) is willing to accommodate to the methods and manner of the times and culture, to work towards the progress of his redemptive plan. Goldingay puts it this way,

[Becoming a divine warrior] is a price Yhwh pays for being involved with Israel as an ordinary people in the world. Eventually Yhwh will give up being involved with Israel in that way…In that period [with Israel], how else can you live when Amalek attacks? What else is Israel supposed to do? Is it supposed to lie down and die, unless God intervenes miraculously? (Old Testament Theology: Israel's Gospel, 345)

That does not mean that God simply strikes out willy-nilly, in the kind of petty, self-seeking ways that humans so often do. Rather, even if we call it accommodation, it is never violence without cause. It is a violence that has purpose in the world after “The Fall.” Old Testament scholars tend to refer to this as counter-violence. Walter Brueggemann writes this:

[T]he violence undertaken by Yahweh as warrior is not characteristically blind or unbridled violence. It is rather an act of force that aims to defend and give life to the powerless against demonic power that aims to give life to none (Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, 79).

This is the third point. The kind of counter-violence indicative of God’s activity never stands independently, but always in relationship to a world out of control. When God acts in violence it is, in Brueggemann's words, “to undermine and destabilize other violence.” (OT Theology, 244)

What Brueggemann and others are getting at is that God’s purposes involve bringing a chaotic world to order. Some might use the word “judgment” here, but we could also refer to this as “justice.” God wants to set things right — to be “just,” and he desires for his world to be “just” (read Jeremiah 7:1–7). We may wince when we read in Deuteronomy 32:35 that God says “Vengeance is mine,” but the apostle Paul takes this to mean that we should leave the “righting of wrongs through force” to God alone and not retaliate against our enemies. Paul was not trying to “trump” the OT with pacifistic love. I am sure that he would have seen this as to heart of the Mosaic covenant of Israel “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the Lord, and he will help you” (Prov 20:22).

If we can admit that the God of the OT is violent (without malice), and that his heart is only for justice and for fulfilling his wider plan of redemption to restore the kind of peace indicative of pre-fall creation, what about the New Testament? After all, doesn’t Jesus say “turn the other cheek”? How might the cross re-imagine the problem of violence in the world and God’s own violent approach to justice? Could it be that the cross is the end of God’s forceful mode of justice? Does the cross eliminate counter-violence? How?

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December 1, 2011

The Violent God of the Bible (Part 3)

Part Three in a series of guest posts from our Autumn Lectio writer, Dr. Nijay Gupta:

What About Jesus and the New Testament?

When we look at the God of the OT and we compare it to the life of Jesus, Jesus comes out as a peace-loving hippie preaching community and goodwill on the hills of Galilee. Sure, he turned over some tables and made a whip, but he did not resist arrest and went to his death a martyr. I think we project on Jesus, in a modern perception of him, what Stephen Prothero calls a “Gumbylike” quality. We simply do not think of Jesus as “violent” in any sense of the word. OK, I am definitely on board with seeing Jesus as radically moving his disciples towards a new vision of shalom. He is not like the murderous thief — he gives life (John 10:10). But to say we cannot associate force, harm, and death with Jesus would be to erase a good amount of the New Testament. Jesus will say to the wicked in judgment “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:32). According to Paul, when Jesus returns he will confront the “lawless one” and destroy him with the breath of his mouth (2 Thess 2:8).

Wait. Wait. Wait. [I can hear the naysayers] We are talking about end-of-the-world judgment in these texts. Not “right here, right now” forms of violence.

My point, though, is that we cannot sidestep the issue of violence by making Jesus himself into a pacifist. Jesus used force when he cast out demons and will use force at the time of judgment. Jesus was and is violent. Two questions, though, arise out of this matter. First, is his violence cast off into a “spiritual realm” where he is peaceful on earth towards humans, but violent towards supernatural forms of evil? Secondly, does he bring about a certain kind of change in how God approaches injustice and violence in the world? First question to start with.

This is a good question (about moving the battle to the “spiritual realm”) but in the ancient world, it would have been understood that you cannot neatly separate the physical world and the realm of the spirits and gods. They interpenetrate. So, if you have a headache, you might go to the doctor and the cultic priest for help. When a calamity struck your town, you would attribute natural and divine causes.

What about “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39)? This is where the second matter comes in. Certainly this “advances” in some way upon the notion of “eye for eye,”  but even the Old Testament lex talionis (law of retaliation) was originally a violence-limiting not violence encouraging code. In any case, this command to accept the force of an “evildoer” fits into a series of principles that involve avoidance of retaliation. You must treat well and love your own enemies. This is not about self-defense per se, nor about defending the other. It is about the problem of seeking justice for yourself through harm. That does not make Jesus a pacifist, despite scholarly opinion to the contrary. Or, put another way, if it makes him a pacifist, it only does so in a particular (limited) way.

All this is not to say that things don’t change with Jesus. I do think the cross ushers in a new phase of history. Every Jew was expecting a military messiah who would fight and purify and re-claim on behalf of the underdog Israel. The Greeks would see jail time for their mockery. The Romans would be held accountable for their crimes against Israel.

When Peter began a violent resistance in the garden, Jesus demanded his brash disciple to “go quietly into the night,” so to speak. Why? Why let the Roman and Jewish authorities win in making a fool out of the Messiah?

I think this has something to do with what Paul refers to as the “fullness of time” that saw the birth of the unique man Jesus. At the right time, he “let” evil win because evil is hell-bent on mocking the slave-state of the very humans who once ruled the world. However, this Jesus, man but also very God, took on the identity of the slave by becoming mortal (see Phil 2:5-11), but entered this prison-cell of the likeness of sinful nature to humiliate the forces of evil in the world. His suffering and death shows his dedication to God despite human machinations. The cross of Jesus, a symbol of shame in the Roman world, demonstrates its own reversal of power because he rose from the grave. If the cross was Caesar’s stamp of disapproval of Jesus, the empty tomb was the counter-seal of the Sovereign. Might does not make right.

What does the cross change? Anything? It changes everything. The promise  in Jeremiah of a new covenant (31:31-34) involves the changing of hearts. In this new era of history, thanks to the sin-bondage breaking act of God in Christ through the cross, and the rehabilitative work of the Spirit, we can see people change at their core. We can move violent people, like Saul the Pharisee, to a position of self-sacrificial love. There is new potential.

Does that mean that the New Testament “trumps” the Old? I don’t think it works in quite that way. But, again, there is a kind of change that can happen in the person who is transformative and can lead him/her down a path of restoration from evil violent ways. This is a sign of hope for a more peaceful world. However, I think Gordon Wenham is right in urging that, while Jesus “changes things,” we live in a time-between-the-times where the full consummation of God’s plan of peace is not realized. Wenham writes,

Jesus declared that with his coming the reign of God was beginning and the world was being recreated, an age in which all violence is out of place. This is why his followers must eschew revenge. But if violence of any sort is out of place in the new creation, does this mean that the Church may quietly jettison all the OT narratives which are so full of conflict? Had the kingdom fully come or the new creation been completed with his first coming, we could doubtless do so. But…the new creation was far from complete…[The Church today] still has to live in a world distorted by hardness of heart and not as it was in the beginning (Story as Torah, 153-4).

What Wenham seems to be admitting is that, while we live in the new creation inaugurated by Christ’s appearance, death, and resurrection, the birthing of this new age is not complete, so while the ideal of nonviolence is announced clearly and loudly at the cross, we must continue to live in a world stuck between old and new.

So, what am I advocating in the here and now? Am I merely justifying the use of violence and retaliative force? No, but we will get to that in a moment. First, I want to address in more detail how the “tree of shame” has shattered the “edge of the sword.”

Violence is usually justified by a value system and a legitimating authority. When the world witnessed the cruelty and violence in South Africa under apartheid, the value system favored the “white” and the government (and the Church) gave power to this. When a bully pushes a child on the playground, the value system is, essentially, “might makes right,” and the authority is usually the older bully who did the same thing to someone else yesterday.

Rome, in Jesus’ time, was the great bully and the political authority. To usher in pax (peace), it raised up the sword time and time again. When trouble makers were found in the Roman Empire, they were “handled” strategically. The worst fate was to die on a cross. It was a painful death, no doubt about that, but more so it was intentionally shameful — and in this time and place, honor was everything. Everyone did what they could to gain some honor in life (for themselves and their families/clans), but the cross was the mark of death — not only to life, but to honor. It was a forfeiting of honor itself, by order of Caesar. Cicero referred to the cross as the “tree of shame” and found it so humiliating that Roman citizens dare not even mention the word (Pro Rabirio 16).

We know, from Matthew’s Gospel (26:53) that Jesus had great power at his disposal — at least 12,000 warrior-angels waiting for his call. Yet he remained silent. He did not give in to what would have been the great temptation to vindicate his identity, role, and value using force. Did he cringe on the cross when the mockers cried, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (Luke 23:35)? But Jesus knew, I think, that by giving in to the cross, the tree of shame, as an innocent man (that is crucial here), he could demonstrate once and for all that the strength of the world is feebly weak (1 Cor 1:25), that the “wisdom” of the world is pure foolishness, and that the “shame” of the cross could be disregarded. Jesus himself taught us to “despise” the shame of the cross (Heb 12:2).

This is ratified by the resurrection, but we will miss the point if the resurrection only proves that Jesus is God. He is God the Son, but the resurrection demonstrates much more than this, or the significance of his God-ness must be fleshed out (pun intended!). The resurrection not only establishes who Jesus is, but re-directs the value system of the world that was far off track from creation. In being “appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4), he takes a royal seat higher than the murderous lords and governors and leaders who thought the cross was a good idea. Jesus confirmed, in his new life given by God, that the “way of the cross” (suffering shame for the sake of loving and helping others) is the most excellent way. This is the furthest extent of love (John 13:1).

So what does all this mean for us today? That is the subject for the next post.

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December 1, 2011

The Violent God of the Bible (Part 4)

Part Four of a series of guest posts from our Autumn Lectio writer, Dr. Nijay Gupta:

Eschatological, Vicarious Counter-Violence

You may have gathered by now that I am not a pacifist. That should not mean that I don’t respect pacifists — I deeply respect many pacifists who have really thought through their stance scripturally, theologically, ethically, and socially. What I think is unfortunate are those who check a box called “pacifist” or “soldier/fighter” as if it were just a “position” to hold. The best kinds of pacifists are not passive, but active. They are non-violent aggressors. The best kinds of soldiers or fighters are ones that you will never see fighting or harming. Theologians are not list-makers or list-checkers, but missional agents in the world.

I would suggest that the cross marked the end of violence in so far as the cancerous power of sin in the world has found its antidote in the life-giving death of Jesus. The world can see the Church (at her best) and her groom, Christ, and some people will awake from the coma of power-hunger and hatred induced by sin, shocked by the smell-salts of Christ’s cross — the true image of God’s reality that can de-stabilize any so-called permanent worldview (just ask the former slave trader John Newton).

But, while we have the hope and model of the cross to carry out into the world, and with great effect, people are still dying and hurting. If violence still has a justifiable place in this time-between-the-times, for good of any kind, it must be understood properly. The model I would propose is an “Eschatological, Vicarious, Counter-Violence.”

  • First, to say it is “eschatological” means that it is “fit” for this special time between the Christ event and the return of Christ. It is a temporary measure that recognizes that our first efforts need to be non-violent negotiation and passive resistance. However, we may still need to act defensively, and as a last resort.
  • Second, it is “vicarious” in that it should be “counter-violence” instigated only for the protection of the other – to love and help the weak, vulnerable, or undeserved. It can never be for personal pride, tribal “honor,” national “reputation,” or revenge/retaliation.
  • Finally, to call it “counter-violence” is to be reminded that it is not the first blow. It is only for the sake of protection and preservation of the weak. It counters the violence already in place.

All of this should be understood within the conception that the world should be a less violent place than it was before the cross, precisely because the power of sin and death and evil was ruined at the death of the innocent man Jesus. The masquerade of evil was unveiled and the people of God invigorated to take back this world for God and his shalom.

When the world does not seem less violent, and the Church even participates in violence, it is a sad sign that she has forgotten the past, forsaken the cross-way, and given up on her present mission. When she does stand strong in the world, she will be a “city on a hill” that is lit so brightly by the radiance of the cross of Christ that it will blind many murderers, gangsters, weapons smugglers, street thieves, and battlefield enthusiasts and set into swift motion the vision of the new kingdom where swords become cultivators; guns become social networks;  tanks, hospitals; and bombs, bridges.

I would like to conclude with two examples. The first is from someone who does not articulate a faith-based position, but has his head in the right place. His name is Eric Greitens and he is the author of the book The Heart and the Fist. You see, Eric, even from a young age, took an interest in public welfare and studied ethics and public policy as an undergraduate student at Duke. Later, he was selected as a Rhodes and Truman Scholar so he could earn his M.A. and Ph.D. from Oxford with an interest in international humanitarianism. For years he worked as an aid worker in Rwanda, Cambodia, Mexico, India, Croatia, and Bolivia. He was deeply committed to world peace. On one of his trips in the Balkans, he was confronted by a local who encouraged him to help stop the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. What good are food rations if people are being shot in the streets? Eric Greitens decided to do something. He joined the Navy Seals. This might seem extreme, but he felt that sometimes you must, as a last resort, involve both the heart and the fist.

The second example is my hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer lived during the terrors of Nazi leadership in the early part of the 20th century. He recognized, much earlier than many other Christians in Germany, that Hitler would destroy the country before he would save it. Bonhoeffer spent many months and years, as a pastoral leader and theologian, challenging the Reich itself, mobilizing church leaders, and writing and speaking publicly against the wretched discrimination against Jews. Bonhoeffer was not a violent man (passionate, but not violent). Yet, there came a point where he felt that words were not getting far enough to stem the tide of Hitler’s murderous flood. Bonhoeffer knew he had to join with conspirators to put an end to Hitler’s power, for the saving of many lives. It is important to know that Bonhoeffer did not feel his participation in an assassination plot to be morally justifiable, but he did find it to be necessary. He wrote this:

The meaning of free responsibility rests on a God who demands the free witness of faith of responsible action and who promises forgiveness and comfort to him who becomes a sinner in the process (LPP, 6)

Elsewhere he wrote this

If we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered (LPP, 14).

This is, in a nutshell, eschatological, vicarious, counter-violence. It must be for the brethren, in defense of the “other,” rather than for oneself, and an act that seeks to end violence, not perpetuate counter-response. Ultimately, it must be “eschatological,” as it seeks a vision of God’s future kingdom where Christ is not like the Hitler-like conquerors, but we lift up the image of the lamb who was slain. With the holy men and women of Revelation, we seek to dip our robes, not in the blood of our enemies, but in the blood of this innocent, other-loving Lamb. Counter-violence is not about fighting fire with fire, but rather about stopping fire from spreading and burning everything down, and extinguishing the flame if it proves to be hopelessly uncontrollable.

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January 11, 2011

“From sin and death he saves us, and lightens every load….”

The message of the ancient Christmas carol “Lo, How a Rose ‘Eer Blooming” rang out this morning in SPU chapel. No, we aren’t in Christmas withdrawal here on campus.  Rather, at the beginning of winter quarter we are privileged to enter together into reading Matthew’s gospel and in so doing, to consider Jesus, this Rose of whom “men of old have sung.”

I am struck by Dave Nienhuis’ chapel reflection drawn from the third chapter of Matthew:  Jesus’ first public act is to identify with humanity’s brokenness, sinfulness, and with the “least of these” as he stepped forward to be baptized by John, a baptism of repentance for sinners.   When questioned by John, Jesus’ explanation of this puzzling action (Jesus wasn’t a sinner!)  is that His baptism by John will “fulfill all righteousness.” (3:15)

So what does this kind of righteousness look like?  One answer lies in the next passage,  Jesus’ wilderness temptation.  By considering how Jesus was tempted, we may conversely understand the nature of his righteousness.  Henri Nouwen, in In the Name of Jesus:  Reflections on Christian Leadership outlines Jesus’ temptations:

  • Temptation to be relevant. “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (4:3) For someone fasting, nothing is more relevant than bread.  Likewise we can all too easily feed off of a perceived relevance we think we can offer.  But as Nouwen suggests, “The leader of the future will be the one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there.”  p. 22
  • Temptation to be spectacular. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” (4: 6)  The stardom and individual heroism of our competitive society easily shapes our thinking, deceiving with the idea that we are to be self-made, strong individuals who spectacularly can do it all on our own.  “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.  Therefore, true ministry must be mutual….it is servant leadership in which the leader is a vulnerable servant….” p. 44-45
  • Temptation to be powerful. “I will give you all the kingdoms of this world in their splendor….” (4: 9)  Nouwen describes this as the temptation to replace love with power, as it offers an easy substitute.  “…the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat.  Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.  Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.”  p. 60

Lord – thank you that you lead us not into temptation, but save us from sin and death.  May we seek your kingdom and your righteousness.

Celeste Cranston, Director of the Center for Biblical and Theological Education

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December 16, 2010

Grad Student Project on Biblical Literacy

I was glad to recently meet with two SPU School of Theology graduate students, Sophia Agtarap and Aaron Willett, who are doing a practicum on biblical literacy.  Check out the fruit of some of their labor – very interesting!

Reverend Celeste M. Cranston, Director of the Center for Biblical and Theological Education

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