My question is this: How do Christian theologians deal with the fact that God is portrayed sometimes as a “man of war” who approves genocide and taking of women as war prizes, among other atrocities and sometimes as the “righteous judge” standing up for widows, orphans, and the strangers among us? I consider this a vital question because it seems to me that many people gravitate to one or the other of these ideas of God, and the actions in the world of these different groups are very distinct! I don’t know if you require a background, but I’m a Buddhist of Jewish background.
Thanks to all who commented. Here’s my response:
Shira, yours is an excellent question that has provoked intense discussion, and I am profoundly grateful for your involvement in that conversation. I am particularly motivated to give the best answer that I can due to your participation in the commentary, which is why my answer is a few days late. My apologies.
I think there are three questions to be addressed. I will take each in turn, from what I consider to be the least important to the most important.
First, you are interested in the behavior of theists. Particularly, I assume, you are interested in the behavior of Christians, since you’ve posed this question to a Christian theologian. Based on the behavior of Christians, is God a God of peace or a God of war?
Honestly, I don’t think this is a very important angle in answering your question. As a Buddhist, you’re surely aware of something that most Christians are not: there are numerous examples of violence that Buddhists have perpetrated on persons of other religions, and all in the name of Buddhism.
Earlier this year I visited Sri Lanka, a country in which the Buddhist government recently quashed a long-standing rebellion by the Tamil Tigers. Those Buddhists—adherents of what many uninformed persons consider to be the world’s most peaceful religion—used extraordinary violence to defeat the Tigers. And that same government is now bent on impeaching the chief justice of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court in order to further galvanize their power and repress dissent. When I was in Sri Lanka, I was asked by my (Christian) hosts to not blog or even speak in public about the (Buddhist) government, for fear of reprisals.
I say this not to criticize your religion, but to claim that it is never fair to judge a religion based on the often odious behavior of that religion’s adherents. I’m not proud of many aspects of Christian history, just as you surely repudiate some of your fellow Buddhists. While the followers of a religion do sometimes exemplify the root strangeness a religion (viz, Tom Cruise), the histories of both your religion and mine are deeply ambivalent, full of both saints and sinners.
Second, and more important, is what to do with the Christian sacred text, the Bible. Therein, we seem to find both a God of War and a God of Peace.
I was recently on the phone with a friend of mine—another Christian leader/author/pastor. He said to me, “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m basically a supersessionist.” Supersessionism is the theological name for Christians who for all intents and purposes ignore the Hebrew Scriptures (aka, the “Old” Testament). The reasoning goes that Jesus—who said, “I came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it”—basically did abolish the Law. It’s a common view among Anabaptists and some Lutherans.
I am not a supersessionist, and here’s why: the Hebrew Scripture was very significant to Jesus and Paul, each of whom quoted it a lot, and to the early church. If they unanimously considered it important, who am I to throw it out?
That being said, I can relativize the texts of the Hebrew Scripture, just as I do the Christian Scripture. Jesus found a man who was chained up in cemetery, foaming at the mouth and screaming obscenities. Jesus looked at that man and saw demons. I see schizophrenia. Tomato, tomato. Jesus understood and spoke in the idioms of his time, and I do in mine. I think it’s quite like that in another millennium, our descendants will think that schizophrenia is a very naïve and archaic understanding of that condition.
The Israelites who first told and ultimately wrote down the stories and genealogies and laws that we know as the Hebrew Scriptures lived a long time ago. Thousands of years ago. They were a primitive, tribal, warring people, and it’s no surprise to me that their depiction of God reflects primitive, tribal, warlike characteristics. In other words, I have no trouble relativizing their written claims about who Yahweh is and how Yahweh acts.
The ancient Israelites’ depictions of God are no more (or less) normative to me than Jesus’ conversation with the 10,000(!) demons who plagued the man in the cemetery.
However, that does not release me from taking those biblical accounts seriously—indeed, I think I am required to take them even more seriously: since I cannot take them at face value, I must do hard hermeneutical work to discover their value for me today. The normativity of those texts of a warlike God lies at a deeper level than the surface.
I will also say that my rabbi, Joseph Edelheit, and other Jews I know love the Hebrew Scriptures more than anyone I know, and they seem completely untroubled by the warlike God. I’m still trying to figure out how they get there.
Finally, third and most important, is the heart of your question: Is the very nature of God warlike, or peaceful?
Questioners asked Jesus questions like this all the time—multiple choice questions with only two, bipolar options as answers. For example, the Pharisees and Herodians teamed up on Jesus to ask whether or not Jews should pay taxes. Jesus responded not by answering “Yes, we should,” or “No, we shouldn’t.” Instead, he deconstructed their question, asking for a coin, pointing to it, and asking, “Whose ikon is on this coin?” (He presumably asked in Aramaic, not Greek, but you get the point.) His questioners responded, “Caesar’s,” but they knew they’d been one-upped, because every Torah-believing Jew knows that every human being is created in the ikon of God.
I take Jesus’ answer to be basically this, “You’re asking the wrong question.”
Now it would seem supremely arrogant of me to respond to your earnest and sincere question like this. But I will say this much, at least: as a Christian theologian, if there is one tenet to which I am committed, it’s this: God is never one thing or the other. A while back, I did a series of posts on What God Is Not. I came to the unorthodox conclusion that God Is Not on the Side of the Poor, for example. Because when I hear my colleagues say that God has a preference for the poor, or that God is more evidently at work in the lives of the marginalized, I don’t buy it.
To a fault, I continue to hold to a semi-platonic view that God is all. Not in a pantheistic sense, but in a panentheistic sense — God embraces all of creation, and all dichotomies under the weight of that embrace.
Therefore, God is not either war or peace.
God is war, and God is peace.
Or God is neither war nor peace.