Saturday, May 21, 2011

Is God Violent?

Sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Easter at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Psalm 23, John 10:1-10

I’m going to continue this morning with the questions that Brian McLaren has asked in his relatively new book, A New Kind of Christianity. The ten questions he asks in the book are questions he believes are being asked by both believers and seekers who long for a different kind of Christianity. He also believes that being able to answer them is vital to the survival of our churches and to Christian faith itself.

Last week’s first two questions were: “What is the overarching story of the Bible?” and “How should the Bible be understood?”[1]

McLaren’s third question is, “Is God violent?” It is, he says, the “God Question.” Just what is the character of the God of the Bible?

This is an extraordinarily difficult question, because, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says,

The Old Testament is saturated with violence…this violence constitutes an immense theological problem for faith communities that take the text seriously.[2]

The New Testament, it should be said, is not free from this saturation either. The Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament is, indeed, one of the most violent books in the whole of the Bible.

It is perhaps why the 23rd Psalm is so beloved among us. It is violence free. There is no wrath of the Lord here, only comfort and mercy. If we ask this psalm the question, “Is God violent?” the answer is easy. “No.”

So can we just leave it at that? No, unfortunately, because the whole of the Bible has been given to us and we cannot, like Thomas Jefferson, cut out all the bits we don’t like and make our own, nice Bible. No, as long as we have the Bible, we have a God who is deeply implicated in violence. That means there are a lot of people who are going to have a very difficult time relating to this God.

Now there are three simple ways we can deal with this violence. First of all, we can say that the violence attributed to God is a total projection. God is not violent, but we have long thought he was because after God created us in his image, we returned the favor and created him in ours. We are the ones who are violent. Teasing our projection out of God’s reality has taken, literally, thousands of years, and the project is not over yet. That’s one possibility.

This way of dealing with the problem leads us to paying as little attention to it as possible. We read as few violent texts as possible. And we do this avoidance in our lectionary. For example, probably the most violent book of the Bible is Joshua. In our three-year lectionary there are just three readings from it and none of them has anything directly to do with violence. We also heavily edit the Psalms, leaving out the bits about dashing the babies of our enemies against the rocks.

Now possibility number two: We could simply say, “Yes, this is what God is like.” Our God is a God of wrath and vengeance. He is, in fact, to be feared.

If you tend toward this way of understanding things, you will be wanting this week to get ready for the beginning of God’s final wrath this coming Saturday, May 21. A whole mess of Christians (pun intended) believe this Saturday is the day when the true Christians are going to be taken up to heaven so that the wrath of God can burn hot on the earth for five months, at the end of which he will just obliterate it. Personally, I suspect we’ll be seeing each other next Sunday like we always do.

A third possibility is to see development in the character of God through the Scriptures. A tribal God gives way to a “Christ-like” God. This is Brian McLaren’s preferred solution.[3] Jesus changes the character of God for ever. “In this way of reading, the Bible [is] an ongoing conversation about the character of God.”

The problem with this way of dealing with the violence of God is that it can be a kind of what is called “supersessionism.”[4] Supersessionism is when Christianity is taken to be the “good” replacement of a “bad” Judaism. Christians often talk this way, and it is simply wrong.

So, there is no easy solution. There is some truth in each of these ways, but they are each also deeply problematic. Brueggemann says,

If we take the text with…seriousness, we must entertain the testimony that deep in God’s character are powerful residues of violence that are not readily overcome.[5]

Personally, I think that some of the violence and wrath in the Bible is necessary because it is real. If the Bible is saturated with violence, so is the world around us, as much or more as it has ever been. Outbursts of rage in the Psalms, for instance, are very unpleasant, but they can help us deal with our own moments of rage. The message is a good one: there is no emotion, no desire that God cannot deal with. The trouble is, of course, when we read those texts as an approval.

Ultimately, I believe, God calls us to be a people of peace, of compassion and mercy, often beyond our ability to make those things real. I believe that is what I see when I look at the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. And I don’t mean that in a supersessionist way. Jesus helps me see that the way of peace has deep roots in the Old Testament. If the way of violence was the majority way in the faith of his ancestors, there was also always a strong minority way, the way of peace.

I do believe as well that we must be absolutely honest about how we have used the Bible and God for our own ends. We have used the violence of the Bible as an excuse for wars fought in the name of religion that were about anything but religion. We have allowed religious belief to prop up violence against women and anyone who is different from us.

So, “Is God violent?” I wish I could just say “no.” I can say that I believe that God wills a violence-free world. The vision of God is a vision of shalom, salaam, peace. This is the vision we pray for. This is the vision we work for. Let us build a world together, where all may say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

[1] The questions are introduced on p. 19, Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (HarperCollins, 2010).

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Westminster John Know, 2002), p. 225.

[3] A New Kind of Christianity, p. 108ff.

[4] Brueggemann speaks of this theory and supersessionism in Reverberations of Faith, p. 226.

[5] Ibid.

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