Drew G.I. Hart is Professor of Theology at Messiah College, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Drew is the author of Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. He blogs for The Mennonite.
While humanity frequently experiences God’s goodness, including good creation, we also experience waves of devastating violence and brutal oppression. And when we consider the complicated ways that our own lives are directly and indirectly intertwined and implicated in systemic violence, it is hard for me to understand what it means to call oneself a pacifist.
Of course, people have defined pacifism in a range of ways, many which are much more complicated than my own definition. In doing so, there are ways of considering pacifism without it being purist and doctrinaire. Yet still, the term has never been helpful for me, especially given its common usage.
Even more challenging than considering my own participation in a violent world is to consider our frameworks for understanding God’s character, presence and activity among us.
I’m grateful to have been in dialogue with Anabaptists over the past decade, particularly because they have helped me consider, and reconsider, God’s relationship to violence. I’ve deeply appreciated the long emphasis on privileging Jesus’ life and words as a lens for reading all of Scripture. At this point it is practically cliché in Anabaptist circles to say this, though true nonetheless; Jesus is the clearest revelation of God in bodily form. He dwelt among us and embodied the Way.
The implications for such a confession are endlessly significant. Ethically it gestures us towards seeking what a Christ-ian life is really all about. Furthermore, it leads us to say something substantial about God. If Jesus was committed to enemy love, forgiveness, healing and the resurrection of life, then we simultaneously have our most significant peek into the character and commitments of God.
With all that said, I have not always been satisfied with the final conclusions that have been made by many of my Mennonite and Brethren friends. For example, I have seen one common approach to discussing God and violence which problematizes the Old Testament as a violent text and upholds the New Testament as the peacemaking scriptures and our true scriptural authority. This is problematic, because it unknowingly is participating in a long history of supersessionism that arose in Western Christendom logics.
In this paradigm, the Old Testament is equated with Judaism which we have supposedly moved beyond, and the New Testament is synonymous with a post-Old Testament Christianity. This framework ignores the reality that most members of the early church saw themselves as fully Jewish. Likewise, the New Testament itself is primarily arguing for continuity with these texts.
For example, peace as a theme doesn’t randomly show up in the New Testament. If you read a biblical book like Isaiah and do not see the core elements of Jesus’ own commitments to peace, well, you are not reading the Bible very well. From Genesis to revelation there is an ongoing conversation around peace and peacemaking. It is too simplistic to think that the Old Testament God is violent and the New Testament God is peaceful.
Of course there are other reading approaches that ignore very troubling passages about God’s involvement with violence altogether. My sense is that those BIC and Mennonite congregations that have assimilated deeply into evangelical culture are most likely to fall into this camp. I won’t spend much time on this point other than to say that the church needs to have more intellectually honest conversations about God in our communities that struggle with who God is in the text, and more importantly with what that means about who God is in our neighborhoods.
A counter-reading to this approach has been expressed by some Mennonites who have argued for a “nonviolent-God hermeneutic.” This seems to be a growing trend in the Mennonite Church, but it also seems to be an equally controversial position for many. The position is probably best seen in the work of my friend, J. Denny Weaver, a retired Mennonite professor. To oversimplify the position, the nonviolent Jesus is held up as a hermeneutical lens to determine authentic representations of God throughout Scripture. Since Jesus is the clearest revelation of God, violent depictions that diverge from this revelation ought to be questioned and scrutinized. In doing so, Jesus is centralized, and there is a consistent approach to engaging, and struggling with, both the Old and New Testament.
I can’t lie. I think there is a lot of good in this approach. I have read a few of Weaver’s books, I have taught one of his books in a seminary course, and I have drawn from his work in my dissertation. However, I am still not completely satisfied with this framework either. For me, it boils down to using labels like pacifist and nonviolent to describe Jesus as our starting point. I’m left wondering if nonviolent (which is a negation) is the right word to describe God’s active participation in a world of crucifixion.
What if God is not a pacifist? We assume in Anabaptist communities that to believe in peace and peacemaking we must say that God is never a participant or implicated in any violence at all. While that sounds great, I’m not convinced God always engages in the world like that in the midst of death-dealing circumstances.
What if God is dynamically engaged in creating, promoting and sustaining true peace in very precarious circumstances? If God is not a puppeteer or blueprint God, which most Anabaptists insist on, than why are we so sure that God is never implicated in violence?
My reservoir of possible answers extends beyond Anabaptist hermeneutics, confession, and experience. I’m also deeply shaped and committed to dialoguing with black theology and the African-American Christian tradition and experiences over centuries in this land. I care about how the Bible has been read, or how God has been spoken of, within black Christian tradition. And I’ve had to wrestle with a God that is not only making peace and for life but is also actively present and committed to the lives of oppressed and vulnerable people in fragile and risky moments.
God’s commitment in Scripture to sustaining and liberating oppressed people complicates any claims of peacemaking that aren’t understanding God as active in unideal situations. By this I mean those places where God’s will and kingdom have not come and where God is seeking to rectify circumstances where things have gone terribly wrong. If our understanding of God is to include a divine prioritizing of those most crushed or marginalized as God is repeatedly depicted as doing throughout Scripture, then I just don’t know that I can—with any sense of confidence—claim that God is nonviolent.
Maybe God is not always nonviolent, but God is always peacemaking. What if our presumptive labels, whether nonviolent or pacifist, throw us off the trail. Might considering God as dynamically present, active and committed to those experiencing violence throughout the scriptures open us up to the possibility that sometimes God has been implicated in actions that might not be deemed pacifist by our purist standards? Might such commitments point to times where God’s commitments to peace and commitments to vulnerable people clash because of the height and depth of devastation and violence?
These are questions I’m struggling with. At this point I’m not settled on anything, but I know that I don’t want to put God into an oversimplified box either. I look forward to continuing the dialogue with many of you.
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