Is God Nonviolent?

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #D.1

[Published in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-first Century (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 47-53.]

The importance of self-conscious theological reflection for Christians in the Anabaptist tradition may be illustrated by considering an issue at the heart of Christian ethics, the moral acceptability (or not) of the use of violence.[1] From its beginning in the 16th century, the Anabaptist movement has as a rule affirmed pacifism as the will of God. However, this affirmation has not generally stemmed from sustained theological reflection so much as from a more existential belief that Jesus’ commands to love enemies apply in all circumstances. What has sustained this belief has generally been the on-going existence of pacifist communities that have claimed a loyalty from its members higher than the loyalty given to nation-states that might ask involvement in warfare of its citizens.

However, in the 21st century, the close-knit, homogenous, rural communities that sustained Anabaptist pacifism in a way that did not require sustained theological reflection are disintegrating. If pacifism is to remain a central aspect of Anabaptist convictions, such theological reflection will become more important—including, at its heart, reflection on the character of God.

God and violence? The urgency of the question

In our day of heightening sensitivity to the role of religion in violent conflict—“terrorism,” “wars on terrorism,” retributive criminal justice practices, religious-supported nationalist movements—the question of how we understand God in relation to violence has never been more urgent.

Certainly, not only pacifists have a stake in this question.  And not only religious people have a stake.  The urgency of the question stems not so much from the need to “get it right” about how God actually is (as if human beings could actually nail this down).  Rather, the urgency stems from the reality that our view of what God is like greatly shapes our behavior.  How people act in relation to their view of God affects us all.

The connection between our view of God and our behavior in relation to violence may be understood in four possible ways.  Most people who believe in God believe God is violent and that human beings thus are also appropriately violent, at least in morally justifiable circumstances.  As human existence grows ever more precarious, though, this simple assumption grows more problematic—violence, it becomes increasingly clear, leads to more violence.  The spiral of violence is more clearly all the time becoming a threat to the very viability of human life itself.[2]  And, of course, for Anabaptist Christians, the assumption that human violence is appropriate has always been questioned.

As a second logical possibility, one could presumably believe that God is nonviolent but that human beings need not be, though I am not aware of anyone taking this stance.

A third view would be that God is not nonviolent – but human beings should be nonviolent. Some of those who believe human beings are called to nonviolence, understand this calling to stem more directly from the specific teaching of Jesus, not God’s own pacifism.[3]  Perhaps based on the biblical portrayal of the “warrior God,” perhaps based on the need to allow God freedom from anthropocentric moral restraints, perhaps based on the necessity of recognizing God’s need to use violence in effecting final justice in relation to a rebellious creation, perhaps based on an awareness of nature itself as “red in tooth and claw” – for these reasons many pacifist Christians answer our question, “is God nonviolent?” with a clear “No, but we should be.”

Other pacifist Christians hold a fourth view, that God is nonviolent (or, more precisely, that we should view God as nonviolent) and that human beings are called also to be nonviolent.  In this view, human nonviolence is both what God through Jesus commands us to embody and what has become a necessity for the sake of our survival in the contemporary world.  And, God’s nonviolence is the necessary grounding for human nonviolence.[4]  If nonviolence does not go with the grain of universe, if our deepest ethical imperative does not cohere with God’s very character, we are in the end hopeless romantics to think that nonviolence is a realistic human possibility.  And if nonviolence is not a realistic human possibility, pacifism is indeed parasitic idealism of the worst sort – calling us to live in ways that are impractical, irresponsible, counter-productive, needlessly guilt-inducing, and (ironically) conflict fostering.

The emergence of Anabaptist peace theology

Traditionally, Anabaptist pacifists have not concerned themselves with speculation of the sort implied by this question.  They have not worried a great deal about the logical ramifications of their pacifism in terms either of theological coherence or of the applicability of nonviolence to the wider world.

Various factors have contributed to the transition from what Mennonite sociologists Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill call “quietism” to “active peacemaking.”[5]  Some of these include (1) general acculturation that has pushed Anabaptist Christians to think more broadly, to identify more thoroughly with their wider culture and seek to apply their pacifist convictions as widely as possible; (2) increasing participation in social movements inspired by the transformative nonviolence of Mohandas Gandhi, with their optimism about the wide applicability of pacifism; and (3) growing engagement with philosophical and theological currents that may provide deeper intellectual grounding for a more positive view of human possibilities in the world (for example, Process thought, the I-Thou philosophy of Martin Buber, and liberation theology).

What follows is a sketch of an argument for the fourth option (God and human beings as nonviolent). Is God nonviolent?  Yes, I believe God is.  However, the evidence is ambiguous.  People from opposing points of view cite data from every area of consideration to support their views.  The debates continue without resolution.  We get mixed messages about everywhere we look.

Let’s think in terms of the standard sources for theology: scripture, history or tradition, and present experience.

Scripture

On the one hand, the Bible seems clearly to present God as directly involved in violent acts as well as commanding human beings to commit violence.  The evidence is so well known and so massive that we really don’t need to say much about it.  If we draw our conclusions from the perspectives of the many specific biblical references, we have to say that the God of the Bible is violent.  If we go from the particular to the general, from individual stories of violence to general conclusions, and give equal weight to all these individual stories, then we have to conclude that the Bible clearly teaches that God is violent.

This is the God who brought the overwhelming flood down upon Noah’s generation, who rained fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah, who brought death to all of Egypt’s young children, who massacred hundreds of Hebrews when they idolized golden calves, who ordered the massacre of every man, woman, and child in various areas of Canaan in the time of Joshua – and I could go on.  If I were to do so it would likely become clear that I was proving too much.  That is, this violence of God in the Bible becomes too much to believe.

We need to recognize that the biblical materials contain other evidence.[6]  The God of the Genesis one creation account – in contrast to other gods – does not create in the context of violence but in peace.  The God of the Hebrew people from the calling of Abraham and Sarah down through the exile and beyond is a God in many ways who barks more than bites.  The God of the actual story is mostly characterized by patience and persevering love, a God whose saving intentions toward the Hebrews find expression, time after time, in acts of unearned love and mercy.  The story gives the impression that God has determined to work within the framework of historical processes, bringing salvation ultimately through mercy, not through coercive power.

This is how God is shown in the life and teaching of Jesus and the first Christians: the merciful father of the wayward son in Jesus’ parable, the one who brings rain on the just and unjust alike, that one who – in Paul’s words – loves us even while we are God’s enemies.

The ambiguity of the Bible’s portrayal of God in relation to violence can be seen in a paradigmatic way in the Book of Revelation.  One way of reading the book, focusing first of all on the specifics, concludes that Revelation portrays God as profoundly violent.  Another way, focusing more on the overall message of the book, concludes that Revelation actually portrays a God who through persevering love ends up healing even God’s enemies – the kings of the earth and the nations (Revelation 21).

Tradition

Christian tradition certainly continues this ambiguity.  Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin portray God as having a dark, violent side.  Not surprisingly, such theologians also accepted the Constantinian accommodation with its assumption that Christians at times are called upon to imitate God’s retributive style of justice.

Yet there have always been dissenters.  Many of these voices have been silenced (often violently, in the name of God), labeled heretical, dismissed as irrelevant and worse.  But they keep springing up, in large part because they can draw pretty directly on the life and teaching of Jesus as the basis of critiquing the pro-violence viewpoint.

If we see upper-case T Tradition as normative for our understanding of God, we probably would be bound to conclude that God is violent.  But if we look at the entire tradition, we will recognize some diversity.  If we look at the consequences of traditional beliefs about God, we will see ambiguity in the Christian legacy.  Many Christians indeed have understood that God is violent, but that understanding has fostered behavior that has undercut the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Stephen Toulmin argues that we find in the 16th-century wars among Christians (fought in the name of a violent God) the roots of modern atheism.[7]  Another consequence of the Christian tradition’s portrayal of God as violent, according to Timothy Gorringe,[8] is that we can see a direct connection between traditional theologies of God and the soul-destroying criminal justice practices in present-day America.

So, history and tradition are also ambiguous, depending upon how one weighs the evidence.  We have clear evidence of beliefs that God is violent and minority dissent from those beliefs.  We also see problematic consequences to belief in God as violent that have jeopardized witness to Jesus.  These problematic consequences are not themselves evidence that God is nonviolent, but they at least challenge us to question the utility of the belief that God is violent.

Experience

Present-day experience also offers ambiguous evidence.  If we include our perceptions of nature under this rubric, assuming that in some sense the natural order reflects the character of its Creator, we easily find evidence of this ambiguity.  The sociobiology perspective of writers such as Edward O. Wilson[9] tends to assume that nature is inherently violent.  Wilson is an atheist, but many Christians are sympathetic to the understandings of the sociobiologists and use their arguments as evidence for the creator also being violent.

On the other hand, anthropologist Ashley Montagu[10] argues that human beings and nature are not violent by nature.  International scientists issued “The Seville Statement on Violence” in 1986 stating, it is scientifically incorrect to say “that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors…that war or any other violent behavior is genetically programmed into our human nature…that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behavior more than for other kinds of behavior… that humans have a violent brain.”[11]

Criminal justice theorist Robert Q. Wilson argues that experience proves that human beings are innately violent; whereas James Gilligan, a long-time prison psychiatrist, argues that violence is something we are socialized for.  Those who believe human begins are created in God’s image could use Wilson’s argument as support for seeing God as violent, or Gilligan’s for the opposite conclusion.

It appears that we cannot draw decisive evidence from the realm of nature or of human experience to prove that God is violent or that God is not violent.  This is true as well, as we have seen, of scripture and Christian tradition.  We will never find resolution simply based on these three central sources of guidance.  Nonetheless, we do not actually live as if all we have are uncertainty and ambiguity.  We do make choices, and they are theological choices.

To use violence, I believe, is ultimately to assume that it is God’s will that we do so.  Or, truly to reject the use of violence is to make certain assumptions about the nature of the universe and, hence, about the nature of God.

Vision

So, which view of God should we affirm?  I suggest that we need to add a fourth source along with scripture, tradition, and experience.  This source I will call “vision.”  By “vision” I mean our convictions about both where we are going and about what we believe we are called to do.  We must ask, what concept of God best fits with our vision for our lives?  Where do we believe we are meant to go?  What kind of concept of God will help get us there?

I believe, for the sake of the flourishing of human life, that we need to understand God as a God who seeks healing, not retribution, as a God who defeats evil not through redemptive violence but through persevering love.  We need to understand God as a God who empowers us to respond to our enemies with love and not with hostility.  These “needs” might be pipe-dreams if the universe clearly went the other way.  These “needs” might be heretical if the Bible and tradition clearly went the other way.  But they do not.

As Christians, we confess Jesus as our normative revelation of God.  This confession apparently means different things to different people.  Some theologians argue that our Trinitarian confession of three distinct members means we ought not move from the revelation of God in Jesus to drawing conclusions about “God the Creator.”[12]  However, following John Howard Yoder,[13] I believe that only by understanding Jesus as revelatory of God can we be protected from making God a projection of human power politics.  Following Gordon Kaufman, I believe that what distinguishes Christian understandings of God is seeing Christ as paradigm for God.  Kaufman writes, “To worship the God-revealed-in-Christ—the God defined and constructed with Jesus and the new order of human relationships surrounding him as the model—is to worship the true God.”[14]

This is to say that, although even in the story of Jesus we find some ambiguity regarding God and nonviolence, Jesus ultimately pulls us toward a view of reality that reveals nonviolence to be with the grain of universe.  We are not simply whistling in the dark when we say that we need a vision of a nonviolent God.  This vision will best foster the flourishing of life.  It is possible to understand such a vision as coherent with the vision we are given in the life and teaching of Jesus and in the community that arose around him.

To have the conviction that God is nonviolent is therefore not arbitrary, nor does it impose extra-biblical thinking onto the Bible.  It simply affirms that we read Scripture and life through the lens of Jesus’ life and teaching.  With his way as central, the ambiguity of some of the biblical materials, of the message of the Christian tradition, and of present-day experience shrinks.  Not that we do not still get mixed messages.  Rather, we have an interpretive key allowing us to see the consistent nonviolence of God being expressed amidst these mixed signals of history and present experience.  This key comes to us from Jesus, and it gains clarity when we realize that Jesus teaches us what it is that we are meant to be (and will become).

[Master list of Peace Essays]


[1] This essay originated as a presentation to the Mennonite Scholars and Friends forum at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual convention, November 2001, Denver, Colorado. A shorter version was published in The Conrad Grebel Review 21.1 (Winter 2003), 13-17.

[2] For analyses of problematic connections between assumptions about God as violence and retributive criminal justice practices see Ted Grimsrud and Howard Zehr, “Rethinking God, Justice, and the Treatment of Offenders” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 34 (2002) and Ted Grimsrud, “Violence as a Theological Problem,” Justice Reflections (December 2005).

[3] See, for example, A. James Reimer, “God is Love but Not a Pacifist,” in Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2001), 486-492, and Scott Holland, “The Gospel of Peace and the Violence of God,” in Fernando Enns, Scott Holland, and Ann K. Riggs, eds., Seeking Cultures of Peace: A Peace Church Conversation (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2004), 132-46.

[4] For two examples, see Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) and Ray C. Gingerich, “Theological Foundations for an Ethic of Nonviolence: Was Yoder’s God a Warrior?” Mennonite Quarterly Review 77.3 (July 2003).

[5] Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994).

[6] See Ted Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Main Themes of the Bible (Telford, PA: Pandora Press US, 2000) for an attempt to show that the overall message of the Bible supports nonviolence.

[7] Stephen Toulmin.  Cosmopolis:  The Hidden Agenda of Modernity  (New York:  Free Press, 1990).

[8] Timothy Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[9] See, for example, Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Knopf, 1998).

[10] Ashley Montagu, The Nature of Human Aggression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

[11] Cited in Alfie Kohn, The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 1990), 269-270.

[12] See Reimer, “God is Love.”

[13] Stated most thoroughly in John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, second edition  (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1994).

[14] Gordon D. Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 388.

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