J. Denny Weaver’s latest book is popular theology written in response to a question asked by a child: Why did God kill his own son? The target audience for God Without Violence is those troubled by a filicidal god who spills blood across the pages of the Bible.
Weaver, a Mennonite theologian who is retired from teaching at Bluffton University in Ohio, offers a view of God and Scripture that might be especially helpful to those who have left the church or are on their way out. He presents a nonviolent reading of atonement and Scripture as encouragement to reconsider the church as a place where peace can flourish.
Weaver explores alternative atonement theories and offers ways that New and Old Testament interpretations can problematize narratives of violence. His strength is in calling our attention to voices and theologies that are frequently pushed to the margins of the church. Rather than focusing narrowly on war or combat, Weaver expands nonviolence into God’s confrontation with and redemption of structural violence, which includes economics, racism and misogyny.
As I read the book I was reminded of a worship service years ago. A man raised his hand to make a comment after the sermon. Taking the microphone, he announced, “This sermon reminds me why I don’t read the Old Testament anymore.”
Yet the theme of the preaching had nothing to do with the Israelite conquest mentioned in the Old Testament reading. This man was so focused on the violent part of the story that there was nothing else he could hear.
In the same way, as I read Weaver’s alternative interpretations of Scripture, I found it strange that the most pressing concern on the minds of Bible readers would be the violent aspects of texts. Is it really the case that the Book of Revelation and the stories of Noah’s ark and the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea are all narratives whose primary purpose is to portray divine violence? Is that the point they are trying to make?
What does it say about readers who are only willing to give these stories a chance if Weaver can prove to us that they fit within our ethical framework? When we read biblical narratives with our own moral template laid over them, we hide from ourselves all the meanings that don’t fit what we are looking for.
What does it say about the church that a reader’s first reaction to the story of crossing the Red Sea is to be concerned about a genocidal God rather than to draw inspiration from its blueprint for survival, its roadmap for liberation? The latter was the response of Harriet Tubman — “the Moses of her people” — who, in a life patterned after the Exodus story, guided the deliverance of countless African-Americans from slavery.
As I read Weaver’s book I also happened to be reading theologian Delores Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness. Williams’ theology emanates from black oppression. Her reading of the Bible is birthed out of the struggles of black women who have learned how to survive in racist, misogynist America. She uses the character of Hagar (Genesis 16) to cultivate a community built on the persistent belief that there is a way to survive.
Williams has taught me to ask where theology comes from. Which community is this theology for? What story, what experiences, produced the questions we ask? Those questions determine everything else we learn from Scripture.
Maybe we feel that we need interpretive guidelines and hermeneutical rules to make us comfortable with discomforting Scripture. But I am convinced these rules will not keep the Bible safe from us — from the terrors Christians visit upon one another and the world in the name of our Scriptures.
What has always mattered is not how but who. With whom do we read Scripture? To which community do we entrust the interpretation of the Bible?
Maybe what we need are matriarchs like Williams and Tubman, who, out of their flesh-and- blood struggles, can teach us how to read for liberation. Who can teach us how to see how the Bible has been used to perpetuate sexism, racism and colonialism. Who can teach us how to confront the violence within ourselves.
Maybe what we need are embodied minds, enfleshed interpreters who read not from a distance but from within, from inside the story, because that story has become their own. The story has meant life for them, and it has also meant death.
When we read from within these communities, perhaps our encounters with violence in the Bible will be transformed. Perhaps we will remember theologian Karl Barth’s observation that “at certain crucial points the Bible amazes us by its remarkable indifference to our conception of good and evil.”
Melissa Florer-Bixler is pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina.