by Charlotte O
Violent, loving God
A lot of people think of Christianity as a violent religion, and it certainly does have a violent history. This is a topic I normally wouldn’t tackle with a 10-foot pole because it is way too controversial for my normally people-pleasing self. But we’ll see where this takes us.
A lot of people I know here in Taiwan are Buddhists. In fact, I visited a Buddhist temple last week and it was a very peaceful (if solemn) place. Most Buddhists I know can’t really understand a God who would order his people to kill others. And increasingly, neither can I. When I look at what ISIS is doing, I pray that Christians will not be painted with the same brush. But I also wonder what the response must be.
After watching The Imitation Game, (slight spoilers ahead) I was pondering the grave responsibility that fell on the team once they made a major breakthrough. They became directly responsible for saving one group of people and sacrificing another. All for the greater good of winning a war. Later, Benedict Cumberbatch muses: am I a war hero, or a criminal? Soon after we learn that their actions actually did shorten the war by at least 2 years, which saved more than 14 million lives. But it came at a cost.
In some ways, I wonder if human history is God’s response to cracking Enigma. Did using the means he has until now ensure the highest possible rate of salvation, despite what looks like thousands of years of needless suffering? Does the only way to save a lot of people while preserving free will require sacrificing some? I’m not sure if I totally accept this premise, but I do believe that God’s ultimate goal is most certainly the redemption of humanity and not its destruction. Maybe we just need to see the big picture. But what does that mean? Does the end justify the means? If the violence displayed by Christians was only limited to post-biblical actions like the Crusades or Westboro Baptist it would be a lot easier to simply blame flawed human interpretation of God for it all, and that is the default I tend to find myself in.
Of course I don’t have all the answers, but for me, looking at the big picture is helpful.
But there is the slight problem of the Bible. In the Old Testament, we have a seemingly severe God ordering complete destruction of entire races, the killing of innocents in a worldwide flood, and so much more. In the gospels we see God’s wrath being poured out on his Son as he suffers the most violent death possible. How does all this fit with the God who says in Jeremiah, during a time of horrific destruction, “I have loved you with an everlasting love”?
Of course I don’t have all the answers, but for me, looking at the big picture is helpful. What is the purpose of the Bible? It is a record of God’s interaction with humans, as told through the human lens. A lot of things in the Bible are valuable more for the principle behind them rather than the direct application. An example of this is something I read in the Old Testament that must be very important, because a similar commandment occurs up to five times in two books:
Don’t cook a calf/goat in its mother’s milk.
Being a curious person, I actually Googled it because it just seemed so random to me (plus I have a taste for milk-flavored hot pot which is quite popular in Taiwan). The ideas behind it seemed to be showing that God wanted to honor the sanctity of life and the bond between mother and child, and to show some respect for the animals that gave their life to feed us. And also, as is so often the case, to set his people apart from the practices of the neighboring nations. Those very people whom God would soon order the Israelites to kill: man, woman and child.
So what about Jesus? He seemed like such a nice, turn-the-other-cheek kind of guy. What are we to think?
The first explanation I ever heard for this is that these people were in fact, far from innocent. The Canaanites weren’t just hanging out at home watching Netflix and posting cat pictures on Instagram. They were a brutal people with brutal gods who would sacrifice their own children in order to get favor. And that was something God could not abide by. As I recall a professor in Bible college saying, after 400+ years, it was enough and they had to be stopped. It was actually a judgment on their wickedness and Israel was the instrument, and the ‘People of God’ got to learn valuable lessons in the process. The comfort I gain from this lies in the fact that this was a very different time in history, a time of wars and tribes and scarce resources, and that there are so many provisions made for the ‘foreigner living among you’ which is both a foreshadowing to the New Testament and a reminder that God was actually quick to forgive those who were willing to choose Him. There are other explanations and a LOT more that could be said, but maybe I should save that for the scholars.
So what about Jesus? He seemed like such a nice, turn-the-other-cheek kind of guy. What are we to think? Is it just too bad, as others have said, that his dad was such a meanie? A lot of times people say that the God of the Old and New Testaments seems like a totally different entity, though I tend to disagree as I see examples of love and wrath in both. I was listening to a podcast called Ask Science Mike who discussed both of these issues. (He also approaches the above Old Testament problem in a very different way if you’re interested). And he said something very profound about the cross. So profound that I had to keep rewinding the podcast so I could write it down. It reminded me of the days before searching for lyrics on the Internet when I would listen to CDs (or even cassette tapes) over and over to write down the words to my favorite songs. He said:
The cross was not God’s invention – it was ours. In all our need for an eye for an eye, I have to wonder sometimes if God listened to us cry for blood and offered his own – If Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was not to sate God’s wrath, but to show God’s response to ours.
As we stumble toward Easter, this idea gives me great pause. This could change everything. Maybe it already has. It seems as though we have a God who is willing to suffer violence in order to make sure there can be a day when no one will ever have to experience violence again. As Cumberbatch said in The Imitation Game, “Humans like violence because it feels good. For a brief moment, we carry out justice, regardless of the consequences.” I don’t think God likes violence any more than He likes injustice. But he is willing to suffer right alongside of us in order to show us a higher way.
Where in my world, can I be an instrument for peace instead of violence?
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