Here’s the question:
A friend quoted you recently as saying a) that you see a shift in society from a view of God that’s violent and judgmental to one of grace and acceptance, and b) that this shift is a good thing.
Why should we celebrate another swing of the pendulum? Did Jesus call us to choose between a God of gracious acceptance and a God of judgment? For example, is it responsible to focus on the wonderful words of gracious acceptance in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew chapters 21-25 and ignore the many words of exclusion and judgment (and not just for religious leaders) in the same passages?
Here’s the response:
Thanks for this question. The best reply is to encourage you to read my new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, the middle third of which is an extended exploration of these issues.
But here are a couple of short responses to your important question.
1. To say God is violent is not the same as saying that God passes judgment. In fact, it takes judgment to say that violence is wrong. Many Christians seem to think that judgment means violent retribution. But that isn’t necessarily the case. N. T. Wright and many others have proposed that judgment is less about inflicting vengeance upon wrongdoers and more about setting wrongs right – for the benefit of both the wronged and the wrong-doers.
2. Yes, it is true that there are many biblical passages that can be used to justify the idea of a vengeful deity (and they are not only in the Old Testament). One of the main points of my book is that these passages have done so much harm in the past that we have a moral responsibility to “disarm” them as we go forward. Sadly, many Christians are largely unaware of the harm done by these passages, so they are largely insensitive to the moral summons to protect future generations from their weaponization. Part 2 of my book addresses this with passion – and more detail, and so I hope you will investigate it.
3. I believe that Jesus sets an example by turning violent passages on their heads. In other words, it is the violent and compassionless who face judgment (of whatever sort) in his teaching. Most important, in Christ’s cross we see God imaged not in those who do the crucifying, but in the one being crucified. God is revealed in Christ as utterly nonviolent, even to the point of dying rather than killing. I don’t think we Christians have taken this obvious truth seriously enough.
4. In terms of a swinging pendulum, the fact is, since the first three centuries, the pendulum of Christendom has not been swinging; it has favored violence, more following the way of Caesar than of Christ. So I am not interested in a reactionary swinging pendulum. I am interested in a great spiritual migration … moving toward the prime directive of love taught and embodied by Jesus. I believe God desires mercy and compassion, not bloodshed or sacrifice, and so should we.
5. Just to clarify: I do not see a “shift in society” that I am seeking to emulate. The American presidential election shows that we still have a lot of people who are happy to vote for a candidate who says he loves war and advocates violence. It is true that politics may swing between left and right, but I believe the gospel calls us to set trends rather than follow them, and I believe the call of God is unwavering: to be blessed, Jesus said, is to be peacemakers. That’s not a swing to the right or left, but rather, a migration forward.
Even if you disagree with me after reading the book, I at least hope you will take the concerns I raise seriously and find a response to them that will not be as subject to violence as the conventional understanding has been over the last 1600 years or so. Again, I believe this is a moral obligation, especially for those who have inherited so much privilege at the expense of others who have suffered so much harm.