Wealthcare: Attacking the Weakest Among Us

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Our faith matters most in how it affects the way we treat others, especially the least. Jesus stressed this over an over. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the children. In other words, we need to care for the weakest among us, the vulnerable.

Alyssa Mastromonaco, former Deputy Chief of Staff for Obama, speaking on Pod Save America last Thursday (June 22, 2017), lays out who will be hurt by the Senate health care bill:
49% of all births
64% of all nursing home residents
30% of all adults with disabilities
40% of all poor adults
39% of children
76% of all poor children
60% of all children with disabilities 
She sums this up by saying "Way to go Republicans, literally attacking the weakest among us. If you want to find a purpose for government it should be protecting the weakest among us."

I think Jesus would agree, and I hope you do, too. But it's not just about caring for the weak among us. The fact is, there are things in this bill that will likely hurt you, including not covering for your preexisting conditions (or only at prohibitive cost), and caps on maximum spending for your medical expenses.

I'm sure that many Republican Senators are good people at heart who did not go into government to take away health care from children. But there is a lot of pressure on them right now to vote "yes" on this bill, and so they need to know that the people who voted for them don't want this, and that they will support them in having the moral courage to care for the weak, and to do what is right.

So if you live in a State with a Republican Senator, please call them this week and urge them to vote no. The Senate will likely vote on this bill this Thursday, so time is of the essence. You can call the the U.S. Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and a switchboard operator will connect you directly with the Senate office you request. If you don't live in a State with a Republican Senator, please urge your friends or family who do to call their Republican Senator.

I realize that many of you may want to avoid talking politics with your extended family in these polarized times. I know also that it can feel like a neverending stream of one horrible position after another, which can be almost numbing. But this bill tops it all. It would have far graver impact, harming more people, than anything else that has happened so far in this administration. So if there's one thing that is worth entering this awkward conversation with relatives for, this is it. This goes way beyond any particular political position, and comes down to our most basic humanity and morality.



Judge for Yourself

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Last time I discussed how to interpret Scripture like Jesus did, and concluded that unlike the way many of us learned to interpret Scripture in seminary (something called “exegesis,” consisting of discerning what the intended meaning or message of the passage is) the task of interpretation cannot stop there. Reading the Bible like Jesus requires going further, asking with Jesus whether a passage fulfills the intended telos of love.

Let’s consider the paradigm of exegetical interpretation. Here the paradigm is that of the objective scientist. The biblical scholar seeks to approach the biblical text the way an archeologist approaches a dig. Their aim is to uncover the meaning by examining the evidence. They do not offer any sort of evaluation of this, they simply reconstruct and report. In a sense it can be seen as a form of translating.

In other words, exegesis by definition does not involve making any evaluation at all about whether the content of a text is good or not, and instead simply focuses on what it says. Consequently, while biblical scholarship has helped us to understand how to read texts in their proper context, it has for the most part ignored— and in many ways, actively resisted— dealing with the ethical issues raised by these texts, doing so on academic grounds. To the extent that this is true (and there does seem to be some movement towards correcting this) it means that seminaries neglect one of their core missions, which is to equip future pastors to guide people in how to interpret and apply Scripture as a moral guide in their lives.

If the paradigm of exegetical interpretation is that of the lab scientist, I’d like to propose that we can understand the way Jesus and Paul interpret Scripture in the context of how our judiciary interprets the laws of our country. In our legal system, the role of the courts is to interpret the laws. On a very basic level this involves establishing guilt or innocence. But it does not stop here. The higher courts also evaluate the laws themselves, for example finding that a particular law is unconstitutional. In other words, the Constitution is seen as the telos or aim of the law, and thus laws can change and even be overturned if they are found to conflict with that aim.

Here the concept of interpreting the law is not simply a matter of rigidly applying what it says to do, but of evaluating it to see whether that law serves the purpose for which it is intended, and further to see whether it upholds the deeper intent of the Constitution. In the case of Jesus and Paul, the parallel to the Constitution is not the written Torah or even the ten commandments; their “Constitution” is love.

Paul proposes that there is a higher law than the written Torah, and that is the law of love. He uses various ways to describe this, saying “you are not under the law, but under grace” (Ro 6:15), and “Christ is the culmination of the law” (Rom 10:4), and “Whoever loves others has fulfilled the law… Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 13:8-10), and “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18). This all points to a common denominator of Spirit-led Christlike love and grace as Paul’s “Constitution” by which he then interprets the law. We might sum this all up by saying that the goal of love is the core of how Paul interprets and applies Scripture, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:14). The same can be said for Jesus, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mat 22:37-40).

You may recall that Brian McLaren has said that the Bible is “not a constitution but a library.” I agree that the Hebrew Scriptures are like a library in that they contain many conflicting visions of the good, rather than one guiding theme. We get it wrong therefore when we try to read the Old Testament as a way of interpreting Jesus, because it is simply not possible to synthesize these conflicting moral visions into one. However I would add to this that while the Hebrew Scriptures are not a “Constitution” for Jesus, love does function as his Constitution. That is, love is the guiding principle that drives how Jesus (and Paul) interprets and applies the law. Only to the extent that we apply Scripture in a way that leads to love can we claim to fulfill it.

That means that when Jesus overturns the way of an eye for an eye, repudiating that command along with the principle of retaliation behind it, replacing it with the way of reconciliation and redemption, he is in fact fulfilling the aim of Torah. In other words, he frequently seems to break commands (not following an eye for an eye, healing on the Sabbath, touching the unclean, not stoning the adulterous woman as the law commands) in order to fulfill the aim of Torah. It was for this reason that it was necessary for him to say “do not think that I have come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” because looking at how he broke the commands of the law (and yes, he did technically break them), one can see how those with a different understanding of what it means to apply the law could have gotten the wrong impression. Indeed, the Gospels tell us that Jesus was frequently accused by the “keepers of the law” of being a lawbreaker and blasphemer. Seen in the context of Jesus interpreting Scripture as our higher courts do, perhaps we should not say that Jesus “breaks” laws when he overturns them, just as we would not say that the Supreme Court breaks laws when it overturns them. Basically, the “keepers of the law” see Jesus as a criminal who either keeps or breaks the law, when the Gospel writers present Jesus instead as a judge who interprets the law, which includes the authority to overturn or repudiate. Doing so is what it means to fulfill it. Just as we are all called to be priests in Christ, we are also all called to be judges.

It may surprise and even threaten some readers that I say above that Jesus overturns commands. You may have been taught that Jesus perfectly kept the law and was thus sinless. However, the Gospels tell us that the way that Jesus in fact fulfilled the law was sinless, and demonstrated that God’s love involved “breaking” commands. Again, understood in our framework of higher courts interpreting laws, and at times overturning them, Jesus is showing us how to judge what is good. As Paul writes,

“The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor 2:15-16)

I want you to fully appreciate what Paul says above. Paul imagines an interlocutor’s objection who quotes from the Bible, thus challenging Paul “who are you to question God’s Word?!” Paul counters this objection by insisting that those of us who have the “mind of Christ” are qualified to make such judgments. That is, those of us who have learned to think like Jesus are the ones who are able to make these judgments about what is good.

This type of legal interpretation, just as is the case with our higher courts, involves an evaluation of the law itself in relation to its intended purpose of leading us to loving action. Just as a court may declare a law to be unconstitutional, we are in Christ likewise enabled to judge whether a law itself, or an interpretation of the law (i.e. how it is applied in our lives) is Christlike or not. Some may balk at our being empowered by Christ to act as judges over the written law, but I remind you of Paul’s words regarding believers involved in legal disputes,

“Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! (1 Cor 6:3)

That is of course a lot of responsibility, and is not something to be taken lightly. It is something we should do together in relationship and community, taking special care to listen to the voices of the least as we do, and it is something that calls for much wisdom, maturity, and perhaps especially humility. It is the task of developing an adult faith, the task of taking moral responsibility for our lives, including taking responsibility for how we interpret Scripture.

We should not kid ourselves in thinking that we will be able to do this perfectly. We will make mistakes and get things wrong, even with the best of intentions, even with the aim of love. That is why the process of interpretation as ethical evaluation is an ongoing task.

Here I think it is instructive to understand how Jewish interpretation has developed. While Christians look to the New Testament as the guide to how to understand the Hebrew Scriptures, Jews look to the Talmud. A big part of the Talmud consists of records of rabbis debating how to interpret various parts of the Torah. There is a saying “ask two Jews a question and you will get three answers” and this reflects the nature of how these debates are presented in the Talmud. Each argument is placed side by side, and the reader needs to evaluate them all. Meaning that while the Talmud has the role of interpreting the Torah, it does not do so by giving a definitive answer, so much as it invites the readers into the process of thinking through these issues.

We have as Christians, to a large extent, been taught not to think, told that it is wrong to think for ourselves, and that we instead must simply submit ourselves to God’s written word (often meaning to submit to what our morally underdeveloped authoritarian pastor says the Bible says). Jesus and Paul, along with the prophets, and later the rabbinical debates recorded in the Talmud, all invite us instead to learn how to think morally. That is hard work, but it is the work of a mature, responsible, adult faith.

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How to Read the Bible like Jesus and Paul (Your Seminary Prof Wont Like It)

Monday, May 29, 2017

In seminary one learns to interpret Scripture in order to best arrive at the authorial intent. This is known as exegesis. So we look at all the evidence, including cultural background, understanding the original languages, and so on, to arrive at what Isaiah or Moses or Paul meant. We are taught to avoid what is called "eisegesis" which is where you read your own values and agendas into the text.

As Richard Hays and many other scholars have noted however, this is not what Paul or Jesus are doing when they interpret the Hebrew Scriptures. This conclusion is frankly inescapable. Both Jesus and Paul frequently interpret Scripture in ways that so obviously override the clear intent of the original author that it is impossible to imagine this is accidental.

The question then is, what is driving their interpretation? How would we evaluate whether it is a "good" or "right" interpretation if they are not trying to follow authorial intent? If we wanted to read the same way they do, how would we similarly evaluate whether we are arriving at a good or right interpretation?

This is the kind of question that gets scholars like Richard Longenecker confused. He recognizes that Paul is doing this, but suggests that we cannot do it ourselves. In part, his argument is that Paul has a sort of apostolic "free pass" to do whatever he wants when he reads the Bible, but we do not. A second part is that Longenecker sees that this type of reading was regarded as compelling at the time, but he claims it would not be compelling to people in our time. 

I'd like to propose that the problem is that scholars like Longenecker don't really get what Jesus and Paul are doing, and so the interpretive methods of Jesus and Paul just seem -- to use the term famously employed by E.P. Sanders -- "weird." It appears to be a sort of random just-make-it-up-as-you-go-along kind of approach. Understandably, he does not want us to read like that. Nor do I. But again I think the problem is not that what Jesus and Paul are doing is actually random, but that it looks that way to Longenecker.

Richard Hays argues against Longenecker that we should adopt this "creative" reading of Paul and Jesus. The problem is that Hays does not really ever identify what they are doing, other than that it is "imaginative" and "creative," which sounds great, but does not provide us with the means to follow them in this. Even if we are thinking of this as a form of art (as the terms "imaginative" and "creative" imply), as any practicing artist can tell you, art is not random. You need to understand what you are trying to accomplish, and how you will use your medium to achieve that.

To get to this, I find the work of James Dunn helpful. Dunn identifies the baseline interpretive approach (i.e. the hermeneutic) of Jesus as interpreting so as to lead us deeper into love. I think it can be argued that this telos (aim) of love is equally the baseline hermeneutic of Paul as well. 

So how does this love-telos work into Jesus and Paul's approach to interpreting Scripture? What we can observe is that they both read Scripture so that the result will be that the way it is interpreted leads us into more compassion, more goodness, more reflection, more mercy. At times this leads them to take an idea in a new direction, and at other times this leads them to take it in the opposite direction of the original author. Sometimes it even seems that they take it in a direction that appears to completely ignore what the original author had in mind. 

To the question of "Is this what was originally intended when this was written?" their answer would be "Who cares?" (that is, this was not something they were focused on at all, contrary to those doing exegesis today, hence their indignant confusion at the question). Instead, they are asking "If we did this, would it result in abundant life? Would doing this lead to goodness and restoration? Will this lead to compassion and justice and wholeness in my life and the lives of others?" If the answer to these questions is "Yes!" then that is what makes the interpretation right. Here right interpretation and right-eousness become synonymous. It is however not exegesis. It requires, as Hays says, creativity and imagination because we need to know how to understand and build upon something, taking it higher. For that we need to know what the aim is (the aim is love) and we need to know how to take things a step further in that direction. 

This is something that needs to be evaluated in conversation, and in lived community. I say here "lived community" because it is not simply theoretical, but practical. The question is, "when we walk this out, can we observe that this leads to love and flourishing? Or does this in fact lead to harm?" We can only observe that by living it out in relationship, not simply as an abstract theory. That goes for how we interpret the words of Jesus and Paul, and it goes for how we evaluate their reading of Scripture as well. 

For example, when Jesus asks, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" and then a bit more broadly asks "Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or evil, to save a life or destroy it?” (Mk 3:4) we can see Jesus applying this approach. The question is not so much "What does the command say?" nor is it "What is the tradition of interpretation here?" In this case the answer would have been that unless this was a life-threatening situation (which it was not) one must wait until after the Sabbath to heal. Jesus argued instead that the way we honor this command is to do all the good we can. That is the right interpretation because it leads us to right-eousness which is another way of saying towards good-ness. You might say the way Jesus and Paul read Scripture is to ask "Does this way of interpreting lead to doing good or evil, does it save life or destroy it?"

So with this example of how Jesus used this love-telos approach to interpret Scripture in mind, let's see how we might apply that love-telos approach with how we interpret the teachings of Jesus. I frequently hear people make the argument that since Jesus got mad and used a whip once, therefore we can just ignore all that stuff about nonviolence and love of enemies he taught. If we evaluate this approach using the criteria of the love-telos approach, we would need to ask: does reading in this way serve to challenge me to go deeper into the way of Jesus, or does it simply serve to let me find a way to side-step the hard teachings of Jesus and feel justified in doing so? I'd say that the latter is the case and that this is an example of what Bonhoeffer might have called "cheap discipleship." It's a reading that gets us off cheap, that does not challenge us, does not change us, does not move us towards love.

To ask the question slightly differently, we might ask whether there is a better way to read Jesus besides this "cheap" way? Is there a way to interpret the words of Jesus that will lead me to a more costly following of Jesus and his way? Is there a way to read this that would do a better job at challenging me to move deeper into the way of compassion and forgiveness, and moving me closer to justice and making things right in the world? If so, then that is the right interpretation, or perhaps I should say, it is the righter interpretation. We evaluate the rightness of an interpretation on the fruit it bears. That is not a static process where we find, once and for all, the one right way of reading. Rather it is something that needs to grow and develop, just like a living thing does. So if in practice I find that I need to modulate that righter interpretation a bit in order to make it more loving, then we arrive at an even righter-er interpretation -- each time developing it further, expanding and growing towards love. That's what I see Jesus and Paul doing as they interpret and apply Scripture, and that's how I plan to read them, too. Jesus says, "Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these." That work, my friends, is the work of love. So let's get to work.

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The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

Saturday, May 13, 2017

This is part four of a series I have been doing on Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Here are links to the other parts: Part1, Part2, Part3. Greg has also responded to these.

Volume I of Greg’s book lays out the foundation of his “Cruciform Hermeneutic,” and Volume II proposes how to apply that hermeneutic in a four-part “Cruciform Thesis.” The first part of Greg’s four part thesis is the principle of Cruciform Accommodation, which I discussed in my previous post. I noted there that I saw some issues with how Greg is understanding the cross that I did not really unpack there. My aim is to address that in this post now, focusing on the second part of Greg’s thesis, which he terms Redemptive Withdrawal.

The Cross as Punitive Violence

The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal is grounded in an understanding of the cross where “the Son bore the judgment of the sin we deserved” (768). This reflects a penal substitutionary understanding of the cross, the key term here being “penal,” meaning punishment. I should note that Greg does not like the term penal substitution, and does make a point of stating that he rejects the popular form of this doctrine where “the Father had to vent his wrath against sin in order to embrace sinners” (796), arguing instead that “God’s punishments are always redemptive in intent” (785). In other words, he still holds to an understanding of the atonement rooted in punitive justice (the idea that things are made right through violent punishment), but sees the intent of the violence as restorative (or as Greg calls it, "redemptive"), rather than as retributive.

I'll return to the idea of violence being “restorative” later, but for now let's simply focus on the notion of the cross being understood in terms of punitive justice, and what this understanding looks like when it is applied as the lens to interpret OT passages which view natural disasters, genocide, and cannibalism as acts of God's judgment. Despite having earlier declared such depictions to be “sinful” and false representations of God, using this punitive understanding of the cross Greg now declares that a cruciform reading of these violent accounts does see them as ultimately good and just. For example, speaking of the biblical flood, he states, “this flood reflects a genuine judgment of God. The only thing that conflicts with God’s revelation on the cross is the manner in which this author ascribes the violence in the judgment directly to God” (526).

This focus constitutes the “withdrawal” element in Greg’s principle of Redemptive Withdrawal. Greg affirms that the violent accounts are correctly seen as God’s just judgment for sin, as the texts claim. He only denies the claim of the text that God was directly involved in committing the violence. Instead, he maintains that God simply “withdraws” his protection, allowing other “agents” to commit the violence, thereby enacting God’s judgment for sin. Speaking of the Canaanite genocide he writes,

“God decided, with a grieving heart, to withdraw his protective presence... Reflecting the same Aikido-like strategy that was employed on the cross, God would now use the evil of the Israelite’s disobedient reliance on the sword to punish the evil of the Canaanites wickedness and idolatry” (982).

Note that Greg refers to using other agents (in this case humans) to carry out God’s violent judgment in the form of genocide as “Aikido-like” here. What does he mean by this? Greg clarifies that while Aikido practitioners have the goal “of bringing as little harm to their opponent as possible” this minimizing of harm is apparently not something that God is concerned with. Greg explains, in contrast to these Aikido practitioners, “God is not adverse to allowing evil-doers to suffer the full destructive consequences of their own sin.” He further clarifies “The point of the Aikido analogy is that God himself never needs to actively engage in violence” (769, n6).

At this point one may be wondering how any of this can possibly be seen as congruent with the nonviolent understanding of God that Boyd laid out so carefully as the foundation of his Cruciform Hermeneutic throughout volume I of this work. Greg explains that based on his understanding of the cross as an act of divine punishment, “it becomes evident that not only can a nonviolent God judge sin, but the ‘wrath’ of this nonviolent God against sin is no less severe than it would be if God did engage in violence. It is just that whatever violence is involved... is carried out by created agents” (782).

What we can observe here is that when a cruciform reading is shaped by a punitive understanding of the cross, the result is to affirm the most extreme violence (global flood, genocide) as being just and good judgments. The resulting “nonviolent” God is therefore just as violent as the warrior god. The only substantive difference is that Greg apparently believes that God is absolved from any moral responsibility by not directly committing the violence entailed in these acts of divine judgment. As he puts it, “the distinction between what God does and what he merely allows removes culpability from God” (720, n29).

I disagree. Mob bosses and war lords commonly have people assassinated and slaughtered without directly participating in the killing. We would certainly not consider them innocent. Anticipating this type of objection, Boyd imagines that someone might compare these “indirect” judgments of God to a person unleashing “a rabid pit bull” on someone (902). That person would be responsible for the harm inflicted by the dog, even though they were not personally involved in the attack. Likewise, “if God unleashed violent nations for the purpose of having them afflict another nation, one could argue that he is responsible for the suffering that the violent nation brings about” (902).

Acknowledging that this is a “formidable objection,” Greg offers a four-point response. First, he argues, since sin is a matter of “pushing God away,” God’s withdrawal must be seen as “a decision to give people what they want” (903), and one does not ask to be attacked by the pit bull. The second point Greg makes is “this is what they deserve” (903) so it is a just punishment (think genocide as you read that). Third, God inflicts his violent judgments “in the hope that their suffering will teach them what God’s mercy will not” (904), although in the context of God’s judgment consisting of the “slaughter of entire populations” (983) it’s hard to imagine how that teaching moment is supposed to work exactly when they are all dead. Forth, he argues that “since God’s very being is unsurpassable love, the pain he experiences when people are afflicted, even when they deserve it, is unfathomably greater than the pain experienced by others who love these people, or by the people themselves” (904).

So in sum: (1) You asked for it. (2) You had it coming. (3) This will teach you, and (4) This hurts me more that it hurts you. While this may sound like some people’s fathers, it sounds nothing like the one to whom Jesus prayed “Our Father who art in heaven.” Note, too, that all of these points involve arguing that the violence is justified, and none address whatsoever the issue of moral responsibility.

The analogy of the pit bull is apt because, as Greg notes, the nations in their blood lust often went overboard in their violence, much like a “rabid pit bull” is completely out of control once you “withdraw” your hand from its leash. Far from being absolved from responsibility, I think it is pretty clear that were a parent to unleash a rabid pit bull on a disobedient child, this would be morally exponentially worse than it would be for them to beat the child with their own hand (which is of course also bad). So I must reject this concept of “withdrawal” as a means of avoiding responsibility. It simply does not hold water. God is morally responsible for what God does, whether directly or indirectly, just as we are.

Moreover, I maintain that the picture of God in Christ crucified is not one of withdrawal because of our sin, but just the opposite. It is a picture of "God with us," God in Christ entering into all of our brokenness and darkness and hurt. It is God in Christ “becoming sin” so that we can become “the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). It is God stooping down to us in our depths. As David says, “Even if I make my bed in the depths of hell, you are with me” (Ps 139:8). We should therefore not be talking about “redemptive withdrawal” with Christ as our image of God, indeed with Christ crucified. The cross, understood as an expression of restorative rather than punitive justice, is a picture of redemptive union with humanity in the very depths of our sin and wretchedness. It is God entering into our abandonment like the father finding the prodigal son among the pig slop and embracing him there. At the moment Christ called out “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!” God was in Christ on the cross, and likewise when we most feel abandoned, God is there. As Paul writes,

"I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom 8:38-39)

You've heard it said, “God can’t be where there is sin,” but I say in Christ crucified we see that this is exactly where God is, and where God has always been.

“Redemptive” Violence

Let’s turn to focus on the “redemptive” aspect of Redemptive Withdrawal. To illustrate this, Greg cites Lev 26:16-45. This passage consists of God repeatedly threatening escalations of violence and terror if the Israelites do not repent. Here’s a sample,

“I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength...
‘If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over… I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children, destroy your cattle and make you so few in number that your roads will be deserted.
If in spite of these things you do not accept my correction but continue to be hostile toward me, I will send a plague among you, and you will be given into enemy hands.
If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me... I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters.” (Lev 26:16-27)

While he does mention certain “aspects of these judgments to reflect the pre-Christian perspective of the author,” mentioning cannibalism specifically as an example, Greg nevertheless declares, “I believe the motivation this passage ascribes to God... is a direct revelation. For what drives the escalating judgment is God’s hope to restore his people” (791).

I do not doubt that this was the ancient author’s motivation behind these threats of horrifying violence. However, we should seriously question the notion that inflicting violent physical harm and emotional trauma is “redemptive” in any way. Greg is certainly correct that these stories reflect the “pre-Christian perspective of the author” in regards to cannibalism, but he is apparently missing that it also reflects the ancient perspective of people who commonly practiced what we would today regard as criminal child abuse, seeing this violence as redemptive. As William Webb has outlined in his study of corporal punishment and the Bible, the Old Testament calls for striking a child with a whip or rod on the back or sides. Because this is where the internal organs are located, this would likely result in internal bleeding as well as welts and bruises. While leaving such marks on a child’s body would be legal grounds for charges of child abuse today, people at the time believed that inflicting such wounds was healing and redemptive. As Proverbs puts it, “Blows and wounds scrub away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being” (Prov 20:30). This reflects the common understanding of people at the time, and here this abusive understanding is being projected onto God unknowingly by this biblical author. They did not know any better. We, however, living in the 21st century, really should.

So what do we do with the violent judgments of God found throughout the Old Testament? We do what Greg proposed in volume I, we repudiate them as incongruent with Christ crucified, “Any conception that characterizes God’s power in terms of coercive control rather than self-sacrificial love must be identified as an all too common anthropomorphic projection onto God” (196). As Greg writes in his reply to me,
“My entire thesis is predicated on the insistence that the violent judgments of God cannot be justified, let alone made to look ‘loving and just’! Indeed, I argue that it is only when we abandon all attempts to justify them that we can see how these violent portraits bear witness to the cross.”
Precisely. We will not find God behind the violent judgments portrayed in the Old Testament. These reflect the image of a punitive warrior god. If we want to find Christ in these passages, we must look for the victims, the scapegoats in these texts. That is where you will find Christ crucified, deeply buried.


What began as a project to interpret Scripture through a cruciform lens is undermined by a punitive understanding of the cross. This is not a Girardian view of the atonement which seeks to unmask sacred violence, rather the principle of Redemptive Withdrawal makes the case for sacred violence. The principle of Redemptive Withdrawal is quite literally a perpetuation of what Walter Wink called the myth of redemptive violence

At the root of all of this is an understanding of the cross based on punitive justice. As we have seen here, this leads to calling horrific violence just and restorative. What is needed is a non-punitive understanding of the cross resulting in a truly nonviolent cruciform hermeneutic. I have attempted to work out such a non-punitive understanding of the cross in my book Healing the Gospel.

In the end, there is simply no room for violence in the economy of God. But I do not need to appeal here to Wink or Girard to make this claim. I can look directly to the work of Greg Boyd, and in fact I can look to this very work, volume I. 

“The indiscriminate love and unconditional nonviolence reflects the essence of who God is, and thus reflects the character of all God does. God can therefore no more act violently than God can lie or deny himself” (226).

“If we understand God completely in light of what happened on the cross... we can only conclude it is contrary to God’s very nature to engage in violence.” (225).
That means that we can look at God's actions and have them model how we should act. 

“On the cross, Jesus fully displayed God’s self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing, nonviolent character, and the church is called and empowered to embody this same character” (205).

To understand God correctly is to understand that God looks like Jesus. If we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father. Both are equally examples of enemy love.

“Jesus predicates his command to love indiscriminately and to refrain from all violence... on the fact that this alone reflects the character of the Father.” (224-225)
So when we see images of a god who punisheseven if this is done with “redemptive intent”—we must recognize that this is not a cruciform Jesus-shaped understanding of God, and must therefore be repudiated as the false warrior god, a god made in our own image. In the cross we see that God does not overcome evil with evil, God overcomes evil with good.

In conclusion, let me stress that the issues I have laid out here have to do with the specific punitive understanding of the cross that Greg set forth with his principle of Redemptive Withdrawal. As I have outlined here, I see severe problems with that principle and believe it should be abandoned. However, I very much agree with the idea of reading all of Scripture through a cruciform lens.

On a personal note, Greg had wondered in his response to my reviews whether I was upset with him for his criticism of my work which he laid out in chapter 8 of his book. Greg, let me assure you that I am not. On the contrary, I appreciate you pushing me to not stop at repudiation of these violent portraits, but to go further from there, digging deeper to find Christ. I hear you, and I believe your principle of Cruciform Accommodation is a viable approach to doing this, so long as it is disentangled from a punitive understanding of the cross. I hope that what I have said here can be taken constructively, and ultimately serve to strengthen Greg's wider project of reading all of Scripture with cruciform eyes.

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