God Without Violence: Following A Nonviolent God in a Violent World
J. Denny Weaver
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2016
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Reviewed by: Michelle Wilbert
In the wake of the recent election, the topics of nonviolence and nonviolent direct action have seen renewed interest in the liberal Christian community—and for good reason as divisions deepen and rage and rancor dominate our civil discourse. What is also occurring is a broader conversation about systemic violence, verbal and emotional abuse and coercion and a long overdue examination of the violence inherent in our religious historical narrative and its impact on culture and society. Religious violence is on the upswing and a new ways of understanding and living out our inherited religious and theological story is necessary.
No one could seriously argue against the seeming preponderance of violent retribution evidenced by the God of the Old Testament in which God routinely causes floods, plagues of various sorts, sides with this or that army towards the goal of someone’s destruction and wields power by threat of punishment, even unto death. The ancient people of Israel believed in a powerful God who offered rewards and punishments that were sometimes mystifyingly random but the decisions were accepted as the prerogative of a creator God who knew what was ultimately best for everyone. While there is no question that for many of us, these stories of what sometimes seem to be irrationally violent responses to what we might view as rather small beer in terms of infractions can be hard to read and to make sense of—I frequently stop reading favorite Psalms that are going along just beautifully until the writer starts imploring God to destroy enemies in some rather gory fashion or those that offer thanks to God for having lopped off a head or two—those passages are stunning in their acceptance and glorification of violence. Most of us raised in the last half century or so of mainstream Christianity have been taught to amble past those verses and, depending on denominational differences, chalk them up to an ancient people’s understand of God and God’s ways or to “Mystery” in terms of God’s creative power and potential—what the Creator makes, he can destroy or alter and it’s not for us to question–throughout the Old Testament, God makes clear that “I am what I am” and for most of us, that’s more or less ended our inquiry—we let the Mystery be.
As we go on with our story into the New Testament, we meet the Jesus who pulls back the veil on the deeper meaning of the “law and the prophets” to fulfill and complete the ancient Scriptures with the law of love—of forgiveness, of solidarity and compassion with suffering; of nonviolence. In this, too, we are asked to accept and follow a nonviolent Jesus—turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile– as reflecting the ultimate will of God for us. Jesus death and resurrection are viewed in traditional theology and the scriptural record as the atoning gift to a world of sinners forgiven and restored to wholeness. This is our story—this is what most of us have been taught with a few variations on the theme. On the whole, we accept the mysterious violence of a loving God in tension with our own understanding of the failure of violence and its wholly destructive potential in the human race; we do not, on the whole, ease the tension by dismissing what the Anglican Communion refers to as the “three legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition and Reason.
It is into this tension that a challenge to the idea of a “violent God”– including an act of “atoning violence” as part of the salvation narrative–becomes the center of J. Denny Weaver’s second book on the topic, God Without Violence: Following a Nonviolent God in a Violent World. Weaver—Professor Emeritus of Religion at Bluffton University in Ohio—contradicts the idea of a violent God, largely by making vigorous and well intended attempt to cut the scriptural coat to fit a new—and not convincing—theological cloth. While he makes valid and supportable claims as to a representation of God in Jesus Christ as nonviolent, he fails to give a credible scholarly treatment to the Old Testament record, largely by simply applying what he terms an alternative “motif” to various—and carefully chosen–passages of scripture that almost cross the line into a sort of theological gas-lighting, such is his insistence that words don’t actually mean what they say which I found unsettling, to say the least.
The book reads like so much wishful thinking in long stretches of explanation about why God simply cannot be violent because Jesus was nonviolent—this seems to be the centerpiece of his argument but in it lie assumptions and his alternative theology that holds that as Jesus and God are One, then there could be no difference in their expression of being God: e.g., if Jesus is nonviolent—his most convincing narrative—then God must be nonviolent too. It becomes really problematic when we get to atonement theology: in Weaver’s “motif”, God had no hand in Jesus’ death—he didn’t will or demand it. It was not required in any way by a nonviolent God. The atonement comes through the expression of God’s love by using God’s creative power to overcome death—to raise Jesus from the dead. In attempting to connect the scriptural dots, Weaver entirely glosses over the narrative of “The Fall” of creation–of sin coming into the world through human consciousness– and the necessity, then, of Jesus coming among us to offer salvation from a sinful nature by agreeing to offer himself as a sacrifice for the whole world, largely in keeping with Jewish tradition going back to Abraham and Isaac and then show God’s ultimate glory by being risen by the creative power that can overcome all nature, including death.
Throughout this book, Weaver deftly avoids a deeper conversation about Judaism and the prophetic tradition Jesus inherited and sought to live out. He never alludes to the numerous scriptural passages in which Jesus discusses all that must happen to “fulfill the Scriptures”. He discusses—and dismisses– Anselm’s atonement theology but never deals with the many Pauline passages—central to Christian theology– that make clear that Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead was, in fact, God’s plan for the salvation of humanity. The God of scripture and tradition is not easily defined or understood but neither is it easily set aside without real theological conundrums to deal with and sadly, Prof. Weaver’s well intended book doesn’t succeed in laying those conundrums to rest.
This is a challenging and controversial book that is well-written and organized with some strong points: the chapter on “New Testament Teaching and Nonviolence” is extraordinarily worthwhile—it was sensible and to my mind, would do well to be expanded into a book in its own right. Where the book fails is in what can only be called the “cherry picking” of scripture and the complete lack of attention paid to aspects of the scriptural, theological and historical narrative that fail to support his thesis. He makes some effort to deal with fairly routine controversies that the average reader might catch but he doesn’t even name those that anyone with an academic or scholarly background in scripture and theology would concern themselves with and in that lapse, the book fails to convince. God Without Violence is an important book to explore at a time when we need new, peaceful models of understanding in our churches and communities but it should be read with some caution in terms of its implied renunciation of “traditional” theology in support of a new “motif” that does not as yet support itself.
Michelle Wilbert is a writer, spiritual director, farmwife and poemcatcher. She offers spiritual direction and retreats in the contemplative traditions through her practice, “Taproot: Spiritual Direction for Contemplative Activists” She is an Anglican with Quaker moorings, active in her parish, Old Christ Church-Detroit, where she serves as a Eucharistic Minister, Lector, homeless shelter volunteer, and in any “odd jobs” God sees fit to offer her.