We need to define violent before saying yes or no to this question. Some synonyms of violent are – fierce, vehement, vicious, forceful, powerful, aggressive, brutal, cruel and sadistic. The more positive synonyms are – intense, strong and passionate.
Is God violent? Was Jesus, Gandhi, or any other godly person, violent? Were your parents, your peers, your enemies, people who held sway over you, ever aggressive, forceful or brutal towards you? How do we feel about violence against children, the aged, the ill, the weak, the defenseless, the oppressed, the prisoner, the poor? Do we think violence is permissible in certain situations or circumstances?
Throughout the ages violence has been abhorred and practiced.
Even in our scriptures and celebrated histories, violence explodes everywhere either perpetrated by “God” or the gods and their adherents; by people like us. We cloak our violence in word, thought and deed as permissible because we were provoked, or attacked without provocation, or feel impelled to do so to maintain justice, compassion, rights, cultures, inheritances, even doing so in the name of God!
For the last while I have been unable to accept that it was God’s plan that Jesus die on a cross and suffer so terribly in order that he could bear the punishment meant for us for our disobedience against God. What kind of God would impose this kind of cruelty upon a son when he has so many other options available to him, like unconditional love, grace and forgiveness? Surely this kind of human sacrifice is to be condemned even as we righteously denounce the heathens of old who sacrificed people – or animals, to appease their gods’ anger?
Even as vulnerable and imperfect people we would never contemplate let alone arrange for the gruesome death of one of our own beloved children no matter how good the cause maybe? We would rather die ourselves than impose that on our beloved child. I used to explain Jesus’ awful death planned by God to myself saying Jesus being God in human flesh was God killing himself in the first person and not really to a secondary figure. But whichever way one may choose to see this plan it is an act of violence. We believe that we are called to imitate God and maybe this act of violence has given countless generations the ‘right’ to do the same to others in the name of God for this or that righteous reason?
I believe for what it is worth that we have invented a God in our own image with values and actions like ours albeit it our best. As people that are finite, we don’t have the words or imagination to describe the infinite God or his ways. Jesus and others who have lived Godly, spirit-inspired lives, have helped us to “see” God more clearly, but even to explain their essence, motivation and inspiration is limited to our own cultural language and experience. As many people as this world has known, as many are the explanations of God and his ways.
Back to the question: Is God violent? Reading of the experiences of the Jewish people from their scriptures, I would say that from the viewpoint of the Israelite’s enemies, God was extremely violent destroying their men, women, children and life stock and taking their land. God even obliterated the Israelites if they encroached upon things sacred in an unclean state, or if they in any way defied or defiled God.
In Christian scriptures there is also violence. We have God offering up his son as a sacrifice. In the life of Jesus there is an account of Jesus being violent when he overturned the tables and even used a whip to drive the traders out of the temple. Jesus is also depicted as having had harsh words for the hypocrites, the uncompassionate, those that abused their power and influence, those that chased away children, etc. They were shown up but never brutally dispensed with. They were not set upon by his followers, frightened by them into silence or conversion to Jesus’ teachings. When Jesus was tortured and sentenced to death unjustly, he did not fight or call for protection. He turned the other cheek showing not only that he would not fight evil with evil or violence with violence but rather set an example for mankind that there are other ways of winning over evil and living more victoriously even in the face of death. But what does this say about Jesus’ heavenly Father – shouldn’t it be saying the same thing – “don’t retaliate against the unholy, the spiritually blind, the unholy, the unbeliever, the infidel” with violence and further evil? If God speaks a language other than this, what was Jesus on about, why was he preaching a different gospel to his followers to that of his Father? Is Jesus more compassionate and forgiving than God his father?
Throughout the centuries, unbelievers have been told that unless they believe in what is being taught, they will be heading for a place of excruciating pain, suffering and darkness if they don’t timeously respond to God’s gift of grace that asks nothing in return except acceptance. How much violence has been committed throughout history by God’s followers be they Israelites, Christians, Muslims or any other group? Do God-reverencing people get their orders or example from God, Jesus, and Mohamed or any other leader – to go out on their behalf and slaughter the unbeliever or infidel? Isn’t that what God did to the Canaanites’ and neighbouring tribes using the Israelites to uphold his honour. Isn’t that what he would have done to the gentiles if Jesus hadn’t died on their behalf? Do we see God’s act of grace towards Christians justifying his violence against Jesus? If the goal is reached is the method condoned? Does Jesus teach us to love our enemies and subvert God’s actions of violence? Or have we got it wrong? Wasn’t it mankind’s violence against Jesus, against the infidel, the communists, the capitalists, the children, the poor, the outcast, the refugee, the prisoner, the defiled, the untouchable – and not God’s violence?
Can a truth be truth for us but not for God? Can God perpetuate or allow terrible things to happen and then tell us we mustn’t do likewise? Can we honour and obey a God who kills his beloved son however well intentioned? What kind of example is God setting for us to emulate? Isn’t there a great big mistake in this kind of thinking, in this kind of love, in believing this is possible of a God who created such beauty in nature, in the gurgle of a baby, the love of a child, of a parent, of a grandparent for their offspring?
My mother was brought up as a Quaker by her Quaker parents. I have an old book on Quakers which tells of their peaceful ways, of their ‘non-violence’ beliefs, of their respect for the dignity of God and his people. I remember my grandfather’s lovely ‘Quaker’ nature. He never got angry with us. I remember once when we stole peanuts out of his pantry when visiting him on holiday. He just quietly walk past our bedroom that night when we were ‘asleep’ muttering loud enough for us to hear “Now I wonder how the peanut bottle got to be so empty”. Towards the end of his life he had a nasty fall on the rocks when fishing one day and landed up with a hump back. When we walked with him into the town, he would tell us to hurry on ahead, wanting to protect us from being identified with him. Thinking about violence and whether my mother ever hit any of us or even any animal, on checking with my siblings, none of us can ever remember her doing so. Though my father was an abusive man when drunk which was often as he suffered from alcoholism, and though my mother and us five kids had to flee often to get out of his way, she never reacted in violence or with evil intent. She instead continually cared for us no matter what. In her nursing career she exhibited the same quiet love and support for all who came her way.
My mother was an example to me of God’s love and how we should live in the face of violence and/or abuse. The God of violence I read of, even the violence of a hell, of due punishment we heap upon our heads, of a calamitous end-times, makes my mother far more lovable than God and a far better example! The image of God we have inherited must be wrong.
The many teachings and threats passed down through the centuries of God’s violence however it may be justified or explained, just don’t add up for me of an unconditionally loving, gracious and good God. There are scriptures to support many contrary views. I choose to believe those that speak of God having loved us even before he created us. I believe in a God who knew we would rebel against him and all the good he is and stands for but who nonetheless created us knowing that we would through the journey of life discover his ways of love, grace and forgiveness to be real for us … and equally real and true for everyone else.
It is in the knowledge of God’s unconditional love and goodness that I am able to continue to want to live so that in time I may become fully one with him in thought, word and deed. The journey may well be long and hard, but of this I am sure that he does not practice or advocate violence in any form, that he needs no protection from foe or even my own sinfulness. He loves me and draws me with cords of love and integrity.
Jesus was not a weakling. He stood firm in his belief that God’s love and goodness is towards everyone not least of all the poor, the weak, the suffering, abused or dominated. He was so convicted of God’s non-violence, non-manipulation, non-fearful, non-discriminatory, unconditional, imperative, unending love, that he chose not to oppose his death with violence but rather accept it with love and forgiveness towards any with ill will towards him.
“Father, forgive us for any violence we may bear towards another in thought, word or deed. Help us to love and forgive any who may in any way offend us or our beliefs. May we instead be like Jesus in facing our many deaths and to do so with love and dignity. May the Quaker heart of my mother and my grandfather before her also be a constant reminder to me of the spirit of Jesus I experienced in them.”