Why does violence happen? How can we make sense of it? How can we prevent it? These questions are by no means particular to Christians. A leading reason people distance themselves from Christianity is it apparently condones violence.
With a heart for people who resist belief in God because they’re repelled by the God of the Old Testament, Minnesota scholar and pastor Greg Boyd has written Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence. Over the past decade, Boyd has distinguished himself as a rising Anabaptist through speaking engagements at Mennonite and Church of the Brethren conferences and colleges.
The book’s guiding question is: How does one reconcile Jesus’ life of peace and nonviolence with violent texts of the Old Testament, many of which portray God as generating violence? It’s a fair question, one that people often ask as they try to make sense of the relationship between religion and violence.
When Boyd started a 10-year journey of studying the subject, he attempted to explain the Bible’s violent passages by putting the best hermeneutical spin on them. In other words, he set out to justify the violence. But how, he finally asked, do these texts point to Jesus?
After wrestling with this question, he came upon a compelling hypothesis: Perhaps these texts, in all their ugliness, do point to Christ — indeed, to the crucified Christ — thus illuminating God’s amazing, loving, sin-bearing character.
Boyd employs a host of analogies to help readers make a mental shift from justifying violence to reframing violence as a negative image of God’s revelation. One of these is Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland. The world Alice enters by passing through a mirror contains strange reversals: Opposites appear, and time runs backward. Boyd uses this analogy to show how a text about Israelites massacring the inhabitants of a town — women and children included — could, indirectly, reveal God’s compassionate, accommodating love.
How can something so ugly reveal something beautiful? It starts with God’s “accommodating love.” Just as a missionary might accommodate to some violent social norms while building initial trust with a group, God accommodated to a society steeped in vengefulness: “It doesn’t reflect God acting toward people; it rather reflects God humbly stooping to allow the fallen and culturally conditioned state of his people to act upon him.”
This sin-mirroring is played out in the crucifixion of Jesus. God did not act to kill God’s Son. Dark forces and human beings killed him, and thus the sin-bearing God was revealed, paradoxically, in this ugliness. But as Paul makes clear in Philippians 2, God raised up this nonretaliating Jesus. The cross became the fulcrum of victory over all dark powers and human evil. Violence itself, as a means of redemption, was overturned.
Boyd leaves no biblical corner unexplored to help his readers view the Old Testament through a new lens. He tackles a wide variety of texts dealing with violence, emphasizing how they point toward God’s revelation through the crucified Christ.
One of Boyd’s favorite lines is, “Something else is going on here.” A text may attribute violence to God, but Boyd affirms that human violence can never be justified, and thus a higher, theological interpretation is needed. Since Jesus is the supreme revelation of God’s unchanging character, that interpretation is informed by the cruciform witness of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
I agree that this theological “something else” is a key to bridging the Old and New Testaments. Boyd has made a huge contribution to the field of hermeneutics. At the same time, I think he fails to engage the “something else” that happens on a social level. A universal view of violence cannot overlook issues of victimization and trauma, especially since the lack of healing and resolution is endemic to cycles of violence.
The same could be said for sacrifices that operate both institutionally through rituals and spontaneously through the scapegoating of “dangerous” people. The Old Testament is filled with anecdotes of these sorts of social violence, all of which present the needed backdrop for the death of Jesus, not only theologically but sociologically. This attention to social dynamics fits well with God’s empowering solidarity with victims of oppression and violence.
Fortunately, this engagement with victimization and harm can only complement Boyd’s view of making sense of Old Testament violence through the crucifixion of Jesus. The sin-bearing dimensions of the cross involve God’s solidarity with offending humanity and victimized humanity. Salvation addresses our sin no less than our pain.
This book would work well for a church study group and also for folks who have left the church. Intellectually, they may trip over the contradiction between Joshua’s holy wars and Jesus’ “love your enemies.” Or, experientially, they may struggle with backstories of abuse as offenders or survivors. Perhaps they mistrust a God who has a “dark side.” If you have such a friend, get a copy to share, and for yourself.
Ted Lewis works as a restorative justice trainer and consultant and runs the Agapé Peace Center in Duluth, Minn.