Ted Grimsrud—December 1, 2017
[This is the 18th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 17h post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
Chapter 16, “Crime and Punishment: Divine Withdrawal and the Self-Destructive Nature of Sin” (pages 805-50) develops more of Boyd’s thinking on the second key point in his Cruciform Hermeneutic, which is “the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal.”
Does God, in effect, grant Israel’s “wish” when Rome destroys Jerusalem?
Boyd explains Jesus’s teaching in Luke 19 that seems to prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in 70 CE: “For centuries, God’s covenant people had been pushing him away, and they were now about to push him away in a definitive way by participating in Jesus’s crucifixion. By 70 CE, the time had come when God did, in essence, grant them their wish. And in doing so, God was leaving them vulnerable to the Roman military, who would inflict on them the death-consequences of their sin” (809).
I believe that there are a number of problems with Boyd’s statement. First of all, his statement that “God’s covenant people” (by which he surely means “the Jews” as a people) for centuries “had been pushing [God] away” needs to be challenged. Certainly, the community, as always before and since (and as has always been the case for Christian communities at least as much), struggled with faithfully following God’s will. However, it seems deeply problematic to say they were “pushing God away” in any sense differently than God’s people ever have.
The leadership of Israel in the generations prior to Jesus’s birth, indeed, seems to have been quite corrupt with its use of the temple to exploit the people and in its collaboration with Rome. Again, though, the leadership of Christian communities has over the centuries been just as corrupt. “The [common] people of the covenant” (as always) surely struggled to get by in life and to live as best they could in harmony with God.
Second, to say that “God’s covenant people” would push God away in a “definitive way” by participating in Jesus’s crucifixion seems like a fundamental misreading of the story. It was only the Jewish leaders who collaborated with Rome in killing Jesus, not “God’s covenant people.” Jesus’s execution as a political criminal was not an act of “the covenant people” against God. It was an act by the power elite of the temple structure collaborating with the power elite of the Empire to defy God. That is, the killing of Jesus was most of all about the political dynamics of the power elite versus the efforts of Jesus to minister to the common people, not about Judaism as a religion versus emergent Christianity.
Third, it was never in any sense the “wish” of the “covenant people” to be alienated from God. They struggled, as always before and since, to be faithful to the light as they saw it—with some success and some failure. Boyd’s idea that God, in effect, grants the people “their wish” by allowing them to suffer the “death-consequences of their sin” seems extraordinarily insensitive to the social dynamics of Jesus’s time.
Boyd seems to be saying that God—in effect—devastatingly punished the common people (who would die by the tens of thousands at the hands of the Romans in the two generations after Jesus’s death) for the injustices and idolatries of their power elite, injustices and idolatries that had already devastatingly victimized the common people. Boyd does present this “punishment” as indirect; it was visited upon the people by the admittedly anti-God powers of the Roman Empire. But Boyd’s God had the power to prevent that devastation and only allowed it because of the sins of the people. It is almost as if he is saying that God punished “the people of the covenant” because of their “sin” in crucifying Jesus—even though the story in the gospels makes it clear that the execution of Jesus was solely due to the corruption of the leaders, not the “people.”
Fourth, the mass murders performed by the Roman military in the years following their execution of Jesus surely should not be seen as “the death consequences [of the covenant people’s] sin.” Suggesting that they were makes God into a vindictive monster who practices collective punishment due to the idolatries of an illegitimate power elite.
Boyd is not very clear in what he means by “sin” in this context. Partly, he seems to have Jesus’s crucifixion in mind, with the idea that this crucifixion was due to the rejection of Jesus by “the covenant people.” He also seems to have in mind the centuries-long efforts of “the covenant people” to “push God away.” Perhaps, most of all, he has in mind “sin” as a kind of general impurity or failure perfectly to follow God’s commands. He does not seem to link “sin” with specific people and unjust structure and the dynamics of idolatry in the way key OT prophets do.
Finally, I conclude that when Boyd portrays the crucifixion of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem and of Jewish life in general in Roman Palestine in the way he does, he lets the true “sinners” off the hook. And in doing so, he keeps us from learning the right lessens from those events. It was the Roman Empire out of its lust for domination, disregard for human life, and hostility toward any community that tried to resist its hegemony that killed Jesus and destroyed the Judean Jewish community. Rome did these things as acts of rebellion versus God, not in any way as tools of God’s vindictive wrath. And in collaboration with Rome, Jewish religious leaders also contributed to Jesus’s death.
From these events, we should learn not to trust in the power elite and its idolatrous structures in any environment, no matter how vociferously such elites claim to act on God’s behalf. We also learn from the on-going presence of God amidst the devastation, seen especially in the witness to genuine peace that we see in Jesus himself and in his followers. And we learn that God cannot prevent such things but does offer a healing path through them.
Who is “Jerusalem, Jerusalem”?
Boyd continues his reflections with some thoughts about Matthew 23:37-38 where Jesus laments the fall of “Jerusalem, Jerusalem”—“Look, your house is left you desolate.” He writes: “Since Jesus reveals exactly what God is like, his lament makes it clear that God desperately wanted to protect his people, like a hen protects her chicks under her wings. Unfortunately, they were not willing. And since God refuses to coerce people, he had no choice but to withdraw his protection and deliver them over to the death-consequences of their rebellious choices” (810).
A key problem I see is that Boyd seems to equate “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” with “the covenant people” rather than with the corrupt and idolatrous power elite who were in cahoots with Rome—a power elite whose spiritual forebears in ancient Israel always hated the prophets who emerged from and spoke on behalf of “the covenant people” in face of the elites’ injustices.
It seems that what actually happened in the time of Jesus (as so often happens) is that a small handful of corrupt leaders set “the people” up to be slaughtered—in this case, both those who ran the temple in collaboration with Rome and the “freedom fighters” who pushed the conflict. Boyd also treats the temple here as a benign structure, “closely associated with Yahweh’s presence” (810), rather than as a problematic magnet for corruption. His idea seems to be that Jesus is saying that God has been present in the Temple and is now withdrawing that presence in order to leave the temple vulnerable to the Romans—and that this is due “the covenant people’s” sin against God.
Boyd writes, “God’s role in expressing his ‘wrath’ involved no violence on God’s part. God’s role in bringing this judgment about was simply to withdraw and allow the seed of destruction that is inherent in people’s rebellious choices to grow and bear its fruit” (811). I am uncomfortable with these thoughts. I would say that if God could have prevented the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and did not, then God is a moral monster. That would be a terrible way to do judgment in its inefficiency, where thousands of children and other innocent people are killed in order to judge a few corrupt leaders who have unjustly led the community.
I think that the OT prophets do talk about “judgment” in terms of the consequences of injustice. But it is rhetorical overreach to imagine that God is in any sense actually involved in causing or refusing to prevent the events that happen. That is, the prophets in effect ask what can we learn about our community from this catastrophe that the evil Babylonians (or, in Jesus’s time, the Romans) have visited upon us. We know that it was the actions of the Babylonians that killed our people. However, we also may discern that our injustices and idolatries left us vulnerable to being taken over in such a way. So we may speak in a general sense of God’s judgment being visited—but it is not a direct consequence, really. And God was not actually punishing us by failing to stop something God could have stopped. To call the events God’s “judgment” is mainly to say that God would have us learn from them and resolve to eliminate the injustices and idolatries in the future.
How does God’s “wrath” work?
I agree with Boyd when he writes of God’s “wrath” mainly being a matter of people reaping the consequences of their choices (830). Though it is also important to note, as A. T. Hanson did many years ago in his book The Wrath of the Lamb, that quite often the Bible leaves the “God’s” off of the formula and simply refers to “the wrath” in a more impersonal sense. Then, “wrath” is more simply a dynamic of historical life and not directly linked with God at all.
Boyd’s approach offers a good way to help protect those of us who believe in a loving God from a belief that God actively punishes. However, his approach does strike me as a bit of a backhanded way to retain a punitive universe and an interventionist God. A God who overtly withholds protection seems little better, morally, than a God who actively punishes.
I think we are better off to affirm a weak God who does not “withhold” protection but simply can’t protect. The reality is that no matter how we understand God to be in relation to power, the universe is morally problematic. Bad things do happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Evil all too often seems all too unrestrained. I think we are better off to look for some feeble meaning in brokenness that can be cultivated to lead to good than to figure out how brokenness can be part of any kind of “plan” of God’s. The best sense of “meaning” in face of brokenness is simply some kind of empowerment to continue on after the brokenness and to hope to do better next time (maybe we can think of the actual history of Israel following the two times Jerusalem was destroyed, first by Babylon and then by Rome).
I agree that Boyd’s point about the “organic nature” (831) of the consequences of breaking “moral laws” (my term) is pretty good. But I don’t agree it should be called “punishment.” And it should not be seen to involve God “removing” God’s “merciful protection … for his ‘wrath’ to be expressed” (836). I think God always wants healing and never wants to “punish.” The true God is weak but good and loving all the way down.
Is God’s mercy “interventionist”?
I have been challenging Boyd’s notion that God is all-powerful but at times chooses to withdraw God’s “protection” in order to punish evildoers. I do agree with his sense that God does not directly intervene to punish, but not that God “indirectly” punishes. The following statement is a milder statement of Boyd’s argument than some of his others that I have earlier noted. But there is something else in what he writes that also strikes me. Note these words: “God judges sin and defeats evil simply by withdrawing his merciful hand, thereby allowing sinners to suffer the consequences of their sin and wisely causing evil to self-destruct” (849).
I wonder if part of my problem with Boyd’s position is that seems to me that he might have too interventionist a view of “mercy” as well. Does God have an all-powerful “merciful hand”? Isn’t it more the case that the sun shines equally on the just and the unjust? I think the dynamics of mercy and compassion that we experience in life do come from God, but I don’t know that God’s mercy exerts any more control than that. God’s mercy, as is love in general, actually seems supremely non-interventionist and non-controlling.
As well, this “withdrawing his merciful hand” dynamic is extraordinarily inefficient. The “suffering of consequences” has enormous collateral damage that hardly seem compatible with a God who is fundamentally loving and exercises the sovereign power that Boyd seems to attribute to God. Plus, again the idea that God gives up on sinners is deeply problematic—even Hitler was deeply damaged and deserving of compassion (cf. Alice Miller’s treatment in her book, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence).
I think it is clear that the message of Jesus to us includes a strong sense that the “destruction” caused by human sin that is not prevented by God is due to the depths of our damage as fallen human beings and is always in some deep sense to be grieved. Boyd alludes to a sense of God’s grief at the devastation that follows from “removing his hand of protection;” however I get the strong sense that he remains pretty sanguine at these dynamics. He seems to me to be a bit too quick to see the “positive” elements of the outworking of God’s “wrath.”