Category Archives: violence

Violence as a theological problem

Published in Justice Reflections: 2005, Issue 10

We live in a world where too many people “purposefully contribute to the harm of another human being, either by action or inaction” (my working definition of violence). In such a world, an unavoidable moral question arises, how do we respondto violence, or more generally, how do we respond to evil?

Despite widespread occurrences of inter-human violence, the case may be made that most human beings tend to want to avoid lethal violence toward other human beings. If this were not true, the human race could never have survived to evolve to the point it has. In human experience people need some overriding reason to go against the tendency to avoidlethal violence. To act violently, especially to kill, other human beings, is serious business, undertaken because some other value overrides the tendency not to be violent.

Almost all violence emerges with some kind of rationale that justifies its use. Psychiatrist James Gilligan, who worked in the criminal justice system for many years, argues, based on his extensive work with extremely violent offenders, that even the most seemingly pointless acts of violence usually nonetheless have some justification in the mind of the perpetrator.[i]

Other more obviously rational or self-conscious uses of violence (for example, warfare, capital punishment, corporal punishment of children) generally follow a self-conscious logic. At the core of this “logic” rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution. When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, “justice” requires retribution (that is, repayment of violence with violence, pain with pain).

The legitimacy of retribution is widely accepted in the United States. Where does this belief in retribution come from? One key source is Christian theology, the belief that retribution is God’s will, or that the need for retribution stems from the nature of the universe. That the nature of the universe requires retribution is a part of what most WesternChristiansbelieve, leading to strong support for retribution (that is, for justifying violence as the appropriate response to violence). Continue reading

Wrapping up Boyd’s CWG [chapter 25; Postscript; Appendices]

Ted Grimsrud—January 24, 2018

[This is the 27th (and last) in a long series of posts that have worked 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 26th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 25, “Mauling Bears and a Lethal Palladium” (pages 1195–1248), Boyd discusses his final category of violent divine portraits, what he calls “The Principle of Semiautonomous Power.” He then has a short “Postscript” (pages 1249–61), subtitled “Unlocking the Secret of the Scroll,” that is essentially a summary of the core argument of CWG as a whole. He concludes the book with a series of “Appendices” (pages 1263–1301) that elaborate on various issues that have arisen in the book.

Misusing God’s power

Boyd discusses several stories that tell of God giving someone superhuman powers—and then having those individuals use the powers to do violence. Examples are Samson and the prophets Elijah and Elisha. It what sense should we attribute such violence to God? Boyd coins the term “semiautonomous power” to describe how the violence should not be laid at God’s feet. “When God gives someone divine power, he … places [it] under the control of their own power” (1196).

These stories don’t seem particularly important to me, partly because they are rare and peripheral. More to the point, to me the question is why these stories were told. What contribution do they make to the Big Story? The story of Samson seems relatively easy to deal with since Samson is presented as a less than exemplary character and to a significant extent, his violent deeds illustrate the chaos that the book of Judges shows—“when there was no king in Israel.” The violence of Elijah and Elisha seems to make a less obvious contribution to the story. Certainly, though, the violence is not normative.

Boyd asserts, regarding Samson, that “the immature, immoral, and violent ways Samson used the power of [God’s] Spirit can only be understood as reflecting Samson’s will and character, not God’s” (1230). But I wonder—isn’t God the one who gave Samson this power? Doesn’t that make God in some sense responsible for the consequences of how it was used? Again, it seems that Boyd is too focused on keeping God’s hands clean. That focus seems to follow from Boyd’s problematic view of inspiration. In a move that may make things worse, Boyd wants to turn God’s seeming irresponsibility into a virtue: “We can only marvel at the humility of a God who, out of covenantal solidarity with his people, would stoop to work through legends of a man who was as infantile and degenerate as Samson” (1231). I’m not sure what I think we should learn from the Samson story, but I do think it shows God in a pretty bad light.

Boyd’s point with the principle of semiautonomous power is that “God is not implicated in the violent way his servants sometimes used his power” (1197). I find this argument to be unpersuasive—the stories themselves don’t seem to tell us this. They celebrate God’s involvement. The power for violence seems unambiguously attributed to God. So, Boyd’s principle seems like another convoluted effort to leave God with clean hands. Continue reading

Even more on Boyd and Spiritual Warfare [chapter 24]

Ted Grimsrud—January 15, 2018

[This is the 26th 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 25th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 24, “The Dragon-Swallowing Dragon: Examples of Cosmic-Level Aikido Warfare” (pages 1143-92), Boyd continues to make the case both for his understanding of the role of cosmic evil powers being responsible for most of the OT violence that is attributed to God and for centrality of the dynamic of God’s strategic withdrawal as God’s method of judgment.

The violence in Numbers 16

One of the most violent passages in the OT is Numbers 16, where God is said to judge rebellious Israelites by killing nearly 15,000 of them. Boyd uses this text to illustrate his crucicentric reading strategy. “There is no question but that this gruesome narrative presumes that it was Yahweh who performed these supernatural destructive acts” (1145)—but we cannot “theologically interpret this passage” as actually meaning that it truly was God who did the violence. We must “assess this portrait to be a literary crucifix, reflecting the same willingness of God to stoop as low as necessary to bear the limitations and sin of his people that is reflected on Calvary” (1145-6). That is, as I understand Boyd, God was willing to have this passage attribute the violence to God in order to “bear the limitations and sin of his people.” Presumably, then, God did not actually cause all these deaths.

It seems to me that in order to save his “commitment to treat all Scripture as ‘God-breathed’ as well as his commitment to the Conservative Hermeneutical Principle (1144), Boyd is compelled to read Numbers 16 as if the clear meaning the writer gives the story is wrong! I fail to see how his argument actually does save the infallibility of the text. One could say the story is wrong (and not directly inspired) and yet take it seriously as part of the Big Story (which is inspired in its overall message). People who affirm both the inspiration or truthfulness of the Bible and the normativity of the peaceable revelation of God in Jesus need not follow Boyd’s path. We may see the truthfulness as present in the Big Story as a whole, not in each element of that story.

I find it ironic that Boyd presumably affirms the validity of the need for punishment in this story. What he thinks is not true is simply the idea that God “himself” “pulls the trigger” and causes the deaths. I would respect his crucicentric method more if he would recognize that the cross simply is not about divinely needed punishing judgment (beyond the evil actions of Rome and the religious leaders). I wish he would recognize that the cross refutes the validity of punishment and shows it to be evil in relation to Jesus. Then Boyd could use his method to deconstruct the idea itself that God needs to punish. Continue reading

More on Boyd and Spiritual Warfare [chapter 23]

Ted Grimsrud—January 9, 2018

[This is the 25th 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 24th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 23, “When Hell Breaks Loose: Redemptive Withdrawal and Cosmic Conflict” (pages 1099-1142), Boyd reflects further on the implications of his cruciform hermeneutic for understanding OT violent portraits, focusing especially on the Genesis story of the Flood. A key element of his perspective is his emphasis on the cosmic evil powers who actually are the agents of the destruction, while God’s role is simply to withhold God’s protections and let the powers do their damage.

The way to justice: divine withdrawal or something else?

Boyd begins the chapter by summarizing his basic argument concerning spiritual warfare: “When God decides he must withdraw his protective presence to allow one form of evil to punish another form of evil…. Satan and other cosmic powers are … present, looking for every opportunity to kill, steal, and destroy” (1099–1100). I sense that in order to save his belief in God as in ultimate control, Boyd must project onto God a will to punish. Why “must” God “withdraw his protective presence”? I suspect that Boyd wants to hold on to the belief that God is in ultimate control of what happens in the world. The only way God can be in control and still be nonviolent is if God exercises “control” by “withdrawing” and letting Satan, et al, be the actual enforcers of the needed punishment that a “just” world requires.

One way this notion ends up being deeply problematic is the extraordinary imprecision of this punishment with its enormous collateral damage. The “killing, stealing, and destroying” that Satan, et al, do in this scenario catches up everyone in its path, just and unjust, innocent and guilty. And it is not only human beings that are crushed but also the rest of creation. Not only does God actually remain complicit in the violence if God could stop it, but God’s means of punishing sin are extraordinarily unjust toward those who don’t deserve to be punished.

I tend to think that the only moral alternative to Boyd’s scenario (because I agree with him that a violent God who actively punishes contradicts the truthfulness of the definitive picture of God we have in Jesus) is a weak God who is not all-powerful. God does not exercise brute power to destroy God’s enemies. For example, Satan (i.e., the Dragon) is not punished in Revelation but defeated and robbed of existence simply through disbelief—disbelief that emerges from the self-sacrificial, persevering love of the Lamb and those who follow him wherever he goes. The power of the Powers rests solely on the power given them through idolatry, through people’s consent. Continue reading

Boyd and Old Testament Spiritual Warfare [chapter 21]

Ted Grimsrud—December 21, 2017

[This is the 22nd 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 21st post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 21, “The Battle of the Gods: Cosmic Conflict and the Old Testament” (pages 1005-40), Boyd turns to the next major theme in his cruciform hermeneutic—analyses of the third key type of actor in the stories that contain the violent portraits of God, the powers of evil (the first two types of actors being God and human beings). Boyd attributes much of the violence in the OT to these powers, who certainly were not acting directly as God’s agents for good but nonetheless were used by God.

An engaging parable

Boyd began volume 2 of CWG with a fictional story about how, from a distance, he saw his wife, Shelley, acting violently toward a seemingly defenseless panhandler—that is, acting in a way that seems totally out of character (629-30). Because he knows her so well, Boyd assumes that rather than taking what he saw her do at face value, he should assume that “something else is going on.” This is an engaging parable that he uses to illustrate his approach to the violent portraits in the Old Testament. Because he knows God’s character so well, Boyd cannot believe that the stories in the OT that portray God as acting violently actually tell us what they seem, at face value, to be saying. “Something else is going on.”

Boyd leaves the story unresolved when he first brings it up. Now, as he begins Part IV of CWG (“The Principle of Cosmic Conflict”), Boyd returns to his fictional story. He comes to find out that indeed “something else was going on” with Shelley. She was working for the Department of Homeland Security, and the seemingly defenseless panhandler was actually a terrorist. Shelley, in her violent acts, helped thwart the terrorist plot—and was indeed acting totally consistently with her character (1006-7).

I have two points to make in relation to this story. First, while I give Boyd credit for creating an arresting metaphor to help illumine his book’s main argument, I am troubled that he would present the Department of Homeland Security in such a positive light and would further the “terrorism paranoia” that so fuels American militarism. Boyd himself obviously is a committed pacifist who does make some negative allusions to our militarism elsewhere, so it’s too bad he couldn’t have come up with a story that could make his point in another way.

More importantly, as I have discussed earlier, I think Boyd’s “something else must be going on” motif gives the wrong kind of message regarding the violent portrait texts. In his story about his wife, nothing in the scene he observed indicated anything morally positive about his wife—all he could possibly know contributed to a negative perception. It took some totally unobservable information to help him see the actual reality. Likewise, with the violent portraits Boyd’s reading strategy leaves intact a totally negative perception based on the observable content of the portraits and requires some totally unobservable information (the message of Jesus’s cross) to help us see the actual reality. I want, in contrast, to argue against the truthfulness of the violent portraits based on looking at the stories themselves in the context of the role they play in the Bible’s peaceable Big Story. Continue reading

Boyd on judgment and “divine withdrawal” [chapters 17 and 18]

Ted Grimsrud—December 7, 2017

[This is the 19th 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 18th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 17, “Doing and Allowing: The Crucicentric Significance of Scripture’s Dual Speech Pattern” (pages 851-890) and Chapter 18, “A Question of Divine Culpability: Responding to Objections to the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal” (pages 891-916), Boyd develops further his arguments about how God exercises punitive judgment in ways that are compatible with how the nonviolent God is revealed in the cross of Jesus.

What does the Bible mean when it speaks of God’s actions?

Boyd makes a good point in his discussion of what he calls “Scripture’s ‘dual speech’ pattern.” He suggests we recognize that the Bible’s authors acknowledge “that God merely allowed the actions they elsewhere directly ascribe to God.” The language of God directly acting to bring about judgment thus should not be read overly literally. It is God’s universe and everything that happens in some sense happens under God’s directing providence. But that does not mean that God directly acts every time God is mentioned.

Boyd links this “dual speech pattern” with his belief that “God merely withdraws protection when he brings about judgment” (852). I would rather say that to note this “dual speech pattern” is simply to note that we have in the text a rhetorical projection of God’s agency onto the events. Boyd takes an additional step that I cannot accept, that the biblical writers implicitly recognize “that their violent depictions of God are divine accommodations to their own fallen and culturally conditioned hearts and minds” (852). I would rather say that this “dual speech pattern” is simply a reflection of the human nature of the Bible’s books.

Boyd seems to claim that the Bible is still “inspired” and even “infallible” when it reflects such “divine accommodation.” It is not that the Bible is a human book that cannot help but reflect its human sources and in fact could not be otherwise. Rather, for Boyd it is that the Bible is still a divine book where God chooses to allow the human limitations to be evident even though God could fashion the Bible otherwise if God wanted to.

It strikes me that Boyd wants to retain a view of a profoundly powerful God who could control things and chooses not to. In face of the evidence that the Bible indeed does reflect human limitations, Boyd argues for this “divine accommodation” without any clear evidence to support such a move beyond the need to hold on to his understanding of the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible. Continue reading

Boyd’s critique of the “synthesis solution” [CWG chapter nine]

Ted Grimsrud—July 13, 2017

[This is the tenth in a long series of posts that will work through an important new book, Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). The ninth post may be found here—and an index of the series here.] 

The “synthesis solution”

In chapter nine, “Wrestling with Yahweh’s Violence, Part 2: The Synthesis Solution,” (pages 379-414), Boyd critiques and rejects what he sees as the most common view in Christian history concerning the violent portraits of God in the OT. He calls this the “synthesis solution” because it solves the apparent tension between how God is presented in much of the OT and how God is presented in the story of Jesus by positing a “synthesis” where “the OT’s violent portraits of God must be accepted as accurate revelations alongside of Christ” (p. 379).

Boyd writes, “the church’s major theologians over the last sixteen hundred years” have believed that “the only logical alternative to dismissing or reinterpreting violent divine portraits in the light of the revelation of God in the crucified Christ is to synthesize these portraits with this revelation.” For most, this “synthesis” meant defending the violent portraits as truthful about the character of God with the consequence that Jesus’s message of nonviolence has been marginalized, and most Christians have concluded that God affirms their going to war when called upon to do so.

In his critique of the synthesis solution, Boyd focuses on four ways the violent depictions of God have been defended. [1] “We fallen humans are in no position to question God’s actions. In this view, the transcendent and all-holy God is not subject to our fallen ethical intentions…. We must simply accept that everything God is said to have done and commanded in Scripture is perfectly good, regardless of how immoral it may appear to us” (381-2).

[2] “Throughout church history, the single most common defense of God’s apparent violence in the OT has been that it expresses God’s holy wrath against sin. In this view, if God sometimes commanded or engaged in violence against people, as we find throughout the OT, it was because they deserved it. Indeed, in this view, God would be unjust if he did not punish wrongdoers” (392).

[3] “The ‘Greater Good Defense’ [argues that] when God sanctions or engages in violent behavior, … it is to promote some greater good, or to at least prevent some greater evil” (395).

[4] “God has always had to accommodate his revelation to the limitations and fallen state of his people. His strategy was to gradually increase his people’s capacity to know him as he truly is. The revelation of God within the ‘God-breathed’ written witness to God’s covenantal faithfulness thus unfolds gradually” (399). Continue reading