Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Violence and the cross

Eloi, Eloi, lama Sabachthani?
(Ann Kim, 1998)

A version of this post was previously published on the ABPnews Blog.

Challenging the notion that some violent responses to violence are justified often seems to cause people to respond with greater vehemence than if their most deeply-cherished convictions about the nature of God had been questioned.

I suspect there are two reasons for that. First, if such people were to be convinced that the taking of human life by the state or its citizens is inherently unjust, they would lose the meaning of the national narrative that forms their identity as Americans. That may be too much for many American Christians to bear, but if so, it’s symptomatic of nothing short of idolatry.

A second reason became evident to me after I shared to my Facebook profile a link to Fisher Humphreys’ ABPnews Blog post “Should We Abolish the Death Penalty?” One comment in response objected, “It seems like the cross shows that God believes in the death penalty.”

While I disagree, I think the author of that comment was on to something.

Some common ways of understanding how the cross of Christ reconciles us to God portray God as one who engages in redemptive violence. Human virtue reflects the divine character, so if the cross reveals the justice of a violently redemptive God, it stands to reason that people are justified when they fight violence with violence.

The cross is undeniably violent. But who is responsible for the violence of the cross event?

People, of course, crucified Jesus. But there is a trajectory of Christian atonement theory—theological reflection on how it is that the cross of Christ makes God and humanity “at one”—that identifies God as the one that ultimately visits violence upon Jesus in the crucifixion through the instrumentality of those who crucified Jesus.

According to this perspective, God subjects Jesus to the penalty of death due humans as the punishment for their sin, a penalty we cannot sufficiently pay because of our sinfulness. The result is that the relationship between God and humanity is objectively changed from alienation to reconciliation.

That trajectory runs from certain medieval perspectives on why the cross was necessary for our salvation through John Calvin’s influential synthesis of the theological insights of the Reformation to widespread forms of contemporary evangelicalism.

In my judgment—and that of a great many other recent and contemporary theologians—that theology of the cross must be re-thought because of what it communicates about who God is in relation to us and who we ought to be in relation to others.

The root of my disagreement with that popular approach to atonement theory is a differing location of the ultimate source of the violence of the cross. If it is God, then the cross reveals God as violent and the endorser of violence. If it is humanity—as I think is the case—then the cross exposes humanity’s violence as sinful. It also reveals God’s solidarity with those who suffer violence and Jesus’ nonviolent way as that which triumphs over violence.

In the latter view there is still objectivity to what the cross of Christ changes about the relationship of God and humanity, but it is not the satisfaction of God’s wrath or the payment of a penalty required by God’s justice. Rather, it is the divinely-provided end of the universal human impulse to do something sacrificial to please the divine. While disclosed definitively by the cross, Abraham had glimpsed this truth about the relationship of God and humanity. His journey with Isaac to Mount Moriah reflects this universal human impulse to do something sacrificial to please the divine (perhaps with the practice of child sacrifice in the background?), but he learns there that God provides what is necessary for right relations with God.

The cross no more shows that God believes in the death penalty or other forms of “redemptive violence” than Jesus’ scourging suggests that God believes in torture. That’s my conviction, but others’ mileage may vary.

A version of this post was previously published on the ABPnews Blog.


  1. Hi Steven, when I read your comment in the final paragraph, "The cross no more shows that God believes in the death penalty or other forms of 'redemptive violence' than Jesus’ scourging suggests that God believes in torture," I thought it was a good line.

    But then it struck me (no pun intended) that the phrase "Jesus' scourging" is ambiguous--and that ambiguity seems to seriously undermine your wider argument.

    Of course, you clearly meant "Jesus' scourging" as a reference to the scourging that he received prior to his crucifixion. But "Jesus' scourging" could also be used used to refer to the scourging that Jesus meted out to others when he violently "cleansed" the Temple, scourge in hand.

    Surely this episode (and others) show that God-in-Christ believes that violence, even sometimes of a redemptive sort, is appropritate at times.

    How do you avoid the force of these passages in this context without just cherry-picking the biblical evidence that is congenial to your views while ignoring other passages that are inconvenient?

  2. Some thoughts on Mr. Curry's observation: See J.H. Yoder's address of the Temple cleansing in The Politics of Jesus. Good prima facie textual case, at least in Luke, for referring to driving out animals, at least primarily.
    And even if Jesus did strike money-lenders as he turned over tables and drove out livestock, this was non-lethal violence that didn't kill anyone.
    I don't attribute any of the following conclusions to Mr. Curry, but I raise these questions about where that line of thinking leads: Would redemptive-violence advocates seriously infer from this Temple event that Jesus wanted to justifiably kill the bankers whom he chose to redeem through suffering death a few days later? Do just-war and death penalty advocates expect others to be convinced, by extrapolation from Jesus' non-lethal street demonstration, that bombing hundreds of thousands of Asians in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan in the past 50 years was a moral option? Or sending 140 demonstrably innocent people to death row in recent decades who have now been exonerated by DNA evidence? How much blood of the wrongly convicted might we estimate was "justifiably" shed by capital punishment, just in the U.S., prior to DNA exonerations? And at what threshold would the distinction from human sacrifice disappear? How would such justifiers regard actions far more analogous to the Temple cleansing, such as anarchist demonstrators damaging property in Seattle and on Wall Street -- as criminal vandalism, but not justified like the bombing of women and children, or a 10% risk of executing an innocent person?

  3. Hi Spencer. I'm hoping to hear Steven's thoughts on this matter, but your thoughtful comments, prompted as they are by mine, are interesting on their own.

    I appreciate the cautiousness of your reply. I should say that I do *not* think that one can glibly conclude that carpet bombing cities is morally acceptable on the basis of Jesus's actions in the Temple. Such actions may (or may not) be acceptable, but this episode doesn't decide the issue one way or another.

    Further, I think that I should say that I don't want to be unfair to Steven. If he's not allowed to cherry-pick the biblical evidence in a pacifistic way, then neither can I cherry-pick the evidence in an anti-pacifistic way. I readily grant that the Bible contains statements that seriously call into question the acceptability of unlimited aggression: there are the obvious dominical utterances, but I personally think that 1 Chronicles 22:8 is the most arresting given its unexpectedness. Christians--especially those who find the case for Christian pacifism deeply unpersuasive ( take these passages to heart.

    So, to be sure, I think that the violence employed in our world by fallen men is often inappropriate and often not at all "redemptive". But that doesn't entail the belief that violence is simply *never* appropriate and *never* "redemptive".

    1. Eugene,
      You're correct that several scriptural texts offer significant challenges to Christian pacifism. I just thought it significant that the Temple cleansing shouldn't be one of them, especially as it's used consistently to justify state violence, and I have never heard state-violence-supporting ethicist or preacher use it to condone non-state violence (which it clearly was, if it is to be characterized as violence at all). In our current context, with present legislation in force and as non-state-sanctioned violence, Jesus' action might not only be characterized as criminal vandalism, but terrorism.
      So I'm trying to make the case that this text, at least, ought not to be in play on the issue of justifiable state violence/ military action.

      Use of that event in the gospels also seems to function as a way to mitigate or qualify the nonviolent reconciliation of Christ with his enemies, who (qua Romans 5) died for us while we were his enemies killing him, and according to Luke, forgave us from the cross rather than coming down from the cross to destroy us. If, contrary to Paul, John, and Peter, that is not to be the soteriological determinant of our moral interactions with others ("love as Jesus loved"), then that case ought to be made from other texts, not the Temple cleansing. The coherent consistency of Christ's reconciling nonviolence and rejection of the sword is of a piece with the Atonement. The argument ought to be then around how determinative Christology ought to be to theology and ethics (H.R. Niebuhr thought it not to be), and how determinative this gospel narrative of Christ's work is for the way we interpret other scriptures (clearly, many do not think it needs to be).

    2. Okay, Eugene. I read the post you cited on your church's website, and - wow - maybe more of the critique of "American deuteronomism" I offered earlier does address some of your assumptions. What can I say? I've done the academic studies of the ancient Mediterranean, and did biblical studies in seminary (including Wright's work, with Allison, Sanders, Horsley, Meier, etc.). And Jesus' apocalyptic pacifism for an eschatologically pacifist discipleship community seems exactly the most convincing read of the gospels and epistles from that historical context to me. For decades, it's seemed to me, precisely, that a hermeneutic justifying state violence forces "Jesus into a preexisting ideological mould—a process which, once again, leads us away from the real Jesus and towards an idol of our own construction." I think that constitutes diametrically opposed interpretations between us.
      But I am glad that you preached against torture by the U.S. government. I just wish more American preachers would recognize that such "excesses" are prepared for by default, "benefit-of-the-doubt" justification of state violence from pulpits, by the failure of the pulpit that ignores or excuses bombing Afghan and Iraqi homes with women and children in them, or the years-long practice of destroying any civilian vehicles in those countries not stopping for road-blocks (in their own countries, because American occupying troops didn't speak their language) as "tragically necessary to fight terrorism". When wars of invasion and occupation are justified, as Mark Twain explained a century ago, and as Chris Hedges has painfully demonstrated since 9/11, such atrocities are necessarily justified also. How many preachers do you know who have called the U.S. military to account from the pulpit for war crimes you could read about in any news magazine for the past decade, under our current or past president? Wouldn't that be something that a government authority acting as an agent for God should be summoned by God's people to change? I suspect that we don't preach on that, though, because of the "American deuteronomism" toward power and authority I described earlier. Not to mention the deeper spiritual failure pervading our churches, that we really don't think that Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi children matter as much in God's eyes as ours do. Why else would they be as expendable as they apparently are? And why else would we compel our children (and brothers and sisters) to carry out such campaigns?
      From your church posting, Eugene, we clearly have very different understandings of Jesus' work, the shape of the scriptures, and the call of the church in a world of war. Probably has something to with why Southern Baptist congregations (among whom I grew up and was schooled) didn't call me to minister, but the Mennonites did. Time to go.

    3. Spencer, it may be that we simply have divergent views of Jesus's ministy that are irreconcilible (though I wonder how you deal with Luke 19:27). If so then this dialogue probably won't amount to much. Still, I'm enjoying it (as I hope you are).

      You asked, "How many preachers do you know who have called the U.S. military to account from the pulpit for war crimes you could read about in any news magazine for the past decade, under our current or past president?" I can recall that, under the previous president at least, sizeable numbers of politically liberal ministers loudly denounced the US involvement in Iraq.

      Throughout this discussion you've consistently referred to the US's military actions in Iraq, Afganistan, and Pakistan. I suppose that's reasonable since those wars (and near-wars) are the most recent in our country's history. But I wonder if using such examples doesn't perhaps let pacificism off the hook a little too easily. Consider other conflicts, ones that involved great destruction--to be sure--but which nevertheless were more justified, led to more decisive and lasting victories, and were directed against more obviously sinister enemies. For example, consider America's war against Germany in the 1940s.

      Do you sincerely believe that such an engagement on our part was evil--even in principle? That even the bare idea of going to war against Hitler was an affront to God and that, really, the Lord would have prefered the US not to have fought, leaving the Nazis to take more and more territory and exterminating the Jews (and gays, and gypsies, etc) at their leisure?

      Or, as you're advocating for thorough-going pacifism it seems, what about police? Is God grieved by the fact that police carry pistols? It is a grave sin every time that a police officer shoots a criminal in order to protect the innocent? Do you really believe that God would have prefered the LAPD not to have violently engaged Phillips and Mătăsăreanu during the North Hollywood shootout?

  4. Regarding Steve's posting, he raises a good question. But he doesn't get at the deeper theological root and assumption underlying this. That is the affirmation that God primarily works through power, force and success, ought to be assumed to be the Power at work in such, that such are signs of God's favor and support, and that those with power and wealth are to be presumed by default to be serving God's purposes in their accumulation and use of force, power and wealth (though exceptions to this occasionally arise). The poor and suffering are such by their own fault or divine will, as the presumed,general natural order of things. Under that assumption and conviction, the nature and purpose of the Incarnation and Atonement will continually elude its adherents. The kenotic Incarnation and Atonement are precisely God's active resistance to and overcoming of our violence and greed by divine love and grace. A strong Trinitarian doctrine, asserting the eternal unity of the Son with the Father in the Spirit, ought to conclude that Christ's suffering death at the hands of the authorities (a path chosen by Jesus instead of violent retaliation with legions behind him) was no temporary or ancillary expression of divine purpose, but is the very Word, the identity and character, of the Godhead. To dilute Christ's kenotic work as something less than divine rejection of violence is to fall -- whatever the temporizing qualifications -- into a form of Arianism or Adoptionism qualifying the Incarnate Christ's full divinity.

    Some take this question as potentially challenging a condemning or destructive eschatological judgment by God, but I see that as a separate matter to be assessed apart from this question. The question of whether God is violent ought primarily to be about whether God chooses the agency of human violence as his elective instrument in history, or is providentially at work to overcome it as the Enemy (even if using its own activity against it as a sort of divine apocalyptic judo).
    God's violence apart from human agency is a different set of questions. God makes us mortal, and in that sense at least, kills us all in the end. God has brought into being and ended entire species, entire star systems, presumably as part of a providential purpose. As God is God, on that count I'm not sure "violence" is the accurate description. But the gospel clearly shows God's judgment on human violence.
    Gotta go.

  5. Spencer, I'm not sure any mainstream Christian theology believes that "those with power and wealth are to be presumed by default to be serving God's purposes in their accumulation and use of force, power and wealth". Even the most pugnacious pro-military fundamentalists would grant that the Bible clearly presents such empires as Assyria, Babylon, and Rome as both profoundly powerful and also profoundly evil in the Deuteronomic history, Daniel, and Revelation. So much so that human power (given our fallenness) is itself highly suspect. It seems like you're attacking a strawman at this point.

    "The question of whether God is violent ought primarily to be about whether God chooses the agency of human violence as his elective instrument in history". Surely God's call to Israel to be his divine judgement on the Philistines answers this question.

    1. Re: Strawman -- exaggerated somewhat to illumine perhaps, and not meant to summarize any theologian but framing assumptions at work in popular religiosity. One testing question is that of how many preachers challenge the violence of their OWN governments as corrupt? Other governments' wars are often corrupt, criminal, or misguided; how many pulpits consider their own governments' as such? How many preachers have indicted the North Carolina court system and laws for putting innocent people on death row (and what of God's judgment toward the prosecutors and judges involved in those cases), compared to how many have declared the state's executions as divinely ordained?

      Your second point is an excellent case summoning hermeneutical reflection and the working of textual priorities. Do we regard wars against Philistines as expressing the divine character and mode of acting, as exemplary for the apostolic church as it was for Bronze Age Israel? Or - to offer one interpretive path off the cuff - does David's victory over Goliath, as paradigm of judgment on Philistines, by rejecting sword as weapon and using "weak" weapon of sling, point to God's ultimate messianic strategy of overcoming evil with "weakness" of reconciling love (Rom.12)? One test of that path might be -- did the apostolic church preach the Philistines narrative to justify organized war against the Romans (or by the Romans against others)? Or did they preach more what I suggest? See for yourself in the epistles and early Fathers before Constantine (and even for a century or so after).

      What you open with your second point is the proper argument about which texts are determinative for how we read others, and the shape of their authority. Would we cite Psalm 137 as justification for infanticide in Afghanistan? Are we to take Ezekiel 16 to mean that God uses military troops as his agents when they use rape as a weapon, as was done in Bosnia? Could Serbian priests preach that as justified during the Bosnian war? Of course not. But the hermeneutics of answering why not are relevant to the question of why the atonement narrative might be morally determinative for our renouncing violence, even in light of divine authorization of violence in the Old Testament. At the very least, I'd suggest the gospel narrative moves the burden of proof from "prove to me that the Old Testament stories don't support modern military action" to the burden of "prove to me that an Old Testament story should support modern military action in spite Christ's mission to redeem our enemies with his love."
      Gotta go.

    2. "One testing question is that of how many preachers challenge the violence of their OWN governments as corrupt?"

      Surely man's willingness to believe the best about his "side" and the worst about his opponents is more a function of human nature generally and not any particular theology. But, in any event, American ministers condemn the violence done by their own government all the time. Even more politically conservative ministers can generally reflect upon the US's disreputable treatment of the American Indians with a degree of shame and sadness now that there's some historical distance between the events and the present.

      "Your second point is an excellent case summoning hermeneutical reflection and the working of textual priorities."

      No, it isn't. I'm not claiming that the Israelites' actions are normative for the people of God today or anything like that. I merely put them forward as a specific example that definitively answers a question you posed. Does God use human violence as an instrument? Yes, given the data point that is his use of the Israelites' violence, he clearly does. One could additionally point to the prophetic works (e.g. Habbakkuk) which make a similar claim. Whether such a phenomenon is common or normative is perhaps a separate issue.

  6. "does David's victory over Goliath, as paradigm of judgment on Philistines, by rejecting sword as weapon and using 'weak' weapon of sling, point to God's ultimate messianic strategy of overcoming evil with 'weakness' of reconciling love"

    Again, no, it doesn't. David's actions with Goliath are part of a wider thematic emphasis that runs throughout the Deuteronomic history, that God's favor is the primary determinant in Israel's fortune--not its own skill or self-made strength. The same point made in the supernatural (and highly violent) overthrow of Goliath is made through the supernatural overthrow (and subsequent slaughter) of Jericho, the supernatural (and highly violent) overthrow of the Philistines at the death of Samson, the supernatural overthrow (and subsequent slaughter) of the Midianites under Gideon, etc., etc., etc. And, in any event, it seems rather bizarre to invoke David's victory over Goliath--achieved by willfully shattering the latter's skull and then, subsequently, cutting his head off--as part of a larger argument for a pacifistic hermeneutic.

    "I'd suggest the gospel narrative moves the burden of proof... to ...prove to me that an Old Testament story should support modern military action in spite Christ's mission to redeem our enemies with his love."

    Well, I might agree with such a shift. But I think that you misconstrue Jesus's ministry by framing it as you have. Certainly Jesus's earthly ministry was characterized by a desire for reconciliation and forgiveness, extended even to enemies. But, as people who take the idea of the Parousia seriously, we can agree, I think, that that isn't the whole story. While Jesus seeks reconciliation first, those who resist it to the bitter end are, we're told, subject to Jesus's violent response. If Christ's enemies will not accept reconciliation, there is only righeous violence that awaits them at Christ's coming, as is proclaimed in Revelation and in the gospels too (e.g. Luke 19:27). So it seems that pointing to Jesus's own actions doesn't help the would-be Christian pacifist regardless of the approach: either Jesus's example is normative for Christians--in whch case violence is apparently a legitimate option at a certain point once more gracious alternatives have been exhausted, or else Jesus's example is not normative--in which case there is no shifting of the burden of proof as you've claimed.

    I'm personally inclined to embrace the former horn of this dillemma and see our Christian duty being informed by Jesus's example, only that such an example, when taken in it's entirety, doesn't lead to pacifism but only patient graciousness. Sure, one ought to seek some sort of diplomatic solution to Hitler's aggression. But if the Reich is utterly resistant to such overtures, then there is nothing left to the righteous but the application of violent force in pursuit of noble ends.