Is God violent? This is one of the most important questions raised in my recent book A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith. Although there are a few denominations or movements in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religions that oppose violence as a tenet of faith, there is no question that the majority report is that God permits and even mandates violence. It's little surprise, then, that Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others have been violent across history -- and have enlisted God as a soldier (or commander-in-chief) in their cause. Faithful believers continue to struggle with how to reconcile violent and nonviolent passages in their sacred texts.
Yesterday's news story about a so-called Christian militia highlights the need for Christians to grapple with the question of God's violence or nonviolence. Federal agents arrested nine suspects with connections to Hutaree, an explicitly Christian anti-government group led by David Brian Stone. According to their website, the group trains its members to use weapons in preparation for a battle against the Antichrist. According to federal prosecutors, the arrests came in response to evidence that the group was planning a reconnaissance mission in a few days. The group planned to kill an officer, and then when other officers gathered for the funeral, they would kill more officers using home-made bombs. The group would then retreat for a violent standoff with government agents, which they hoped would trigger more violent uprisings against the government.
It's strange and sad -- but perhaps highly opportune for engendering needed conversation -- that this story would come up during Holy Week. This is the week Christians recall that Jesus was willing to be killed, but not to kill ... to be tortured, but not to torture. This is the week, according to the gospel narratives, that Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, saying, "Those who live by the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). This is the week Jesus contrasted his kingdom in this world with the kingdoms of this world by their opposite responses to the violence question (John 18:36 ff). (The prepositions in and not of are important.) Many of us believe that Jesus embodies the image of a nonviolent God, an image intended to transcend and correct violent images. As a recent NPR story reported, such a proposal meets with strong resistance. Many Christians portray two sides to Jesus. Yes, they acknowledge, the Jesus of the gospels was nonviolent. But there's another side to Jesus -- the violent avenger with "a commitment to make someone bleed" -- which reinforces rather than overturns a violent image of God. To prove their point, groups like the Hutaree militia group point to an anticipated second-coming Jesus, especially as portrayed in Revelation 19:11 ff. There, they suggest, Jesus is described with a sword, so even though he wasn't violent in his first coming, he will be violent when he returns.
They fail to note one small detail in the text: that the sword is in Jesus' mouth (!), not his hand. Might this not be unveiling for us a deeper truth, that the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday upon a humble donkey with tears in his eyes and with a word of peace on his lips was in fact more powerful than Caesar, Herod, Pilate, and their violent colleagues -- who would ride proudly into town on chariots and white stallions, with one fist raised triumphantly in the air, and with the other holding a sword of violence? Might Revelation 19 be restating and reaffirming rather than contradicting and supplanting the Jesus of the gospels?
Those of us who believe that the nonviolent Jesus of the gospels presents a nonviolent image of God note that the term "Revelation" or "Apocalypse" means unveiling. We side with increasing numbers of biblical scholars who suggest that Revelation, as an example of Jewish apocalyptic literature, was not intended as a prognostication about the end of the world but rather as an unveiling of the real meaning behind events in the time of its original readers. The apocalyptic genre functioned more like science fiction often does in our day: creating stories about the future as commentary on the present. Here's how I say it in A New Kind of Christianity (pp. 124-126):
To repeat, Revelation is not portraying Jesus returning to earth in the future, having repented of his naive gospel ways and having converted to Caesar's "realistic" Greco-Roman methods instead. He hasn't gotten discouraged about Caesar seeming to get the upper hand after his resurrection and on that basis concluded that it's best to live by the sword after all (Matt. 26:52). Jesus hasn't abandoned the way of peace (Luke 19:42) and concluded that the way of Pilate is better, mandating that the disciples should fight after all (John 18:36). He hasn't had second thoughts about all that talk about forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22) and concluded that on the 78th offense you should pull out your sword and hack off your offender's head rather than turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39).
He hasn't given up on that "love your enemies" stuff (Matthew 5:44) and judged it naive and foolish after all (1 Cor. 1:25), concluding instead that God's strength is made manifest not in weakness but in crushing domination (2 Cor. 12:9). He hasn't had a change of heart, concluding that the weapons he needs are physical after all (2 Cor. 10:3-4), which would mean that the way to glory isn't actually by dying on a cross (Phil. 2:8-9) but rather by nailing others on it.
He hasn't sold the humble donkey (Luke 19:30-35) on eBay and purchased chariots, warhorses, tanks, land mines, and B-1s instead (Zech. 9:9-10) ... He hasn't decided that the message of the cross is a little too foolish after all (1 Cor. 1:18) or that Christ killing his foes is way more exciting than that lame, absurd, "hippie" gospel of "Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2).
He hasn't decided that ... nobody can be expected to worship a king they can beat up (Matt. 27:27) ... Jesus matters precisely because he provides us a living alternative to the confining [violent] narrative in which our world and our religions live, move, and have their being too much of the time.
Revelation celebrates not the love of power, but the power of love. It denies, with all due audacity, that God's anointed liberator is the Divine Terminator, threatening revenge for all who refuse to honor him, growling, "I'll be back!" It asserts, instead, that God's anointed liberator is the one we beat up, who promises mercy to those who strike him, whispering, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
One would think that after 2,000 years of theological reflection -- during which uncounted gallons of ink have been spilled to debate thousands of religious controversies -- the question of the violence of God would have attracted more attention. Perhaps now is finally the time.
Brian McLaren, a former pastor, is the author of a dozen books, most recently A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (HarperOne). He blogs at brianmclaren.net.