If we are called to forsake violence and instead unconditionally love and forgive others, does God also do this or does God instead act to violently punish the unrepentant? What does the New Testament teach us about this? We are supposed to be like Jesus, but is God like Jesus?
In a recent interview with Brad Jersak
I explained that we see a clear movement in the NT towards an understanding of God's justice as acting to make things right, i.e. restorative justice, or as Paul calls it in Romans, "the justice of God" (dikaiosune theos
). At the some time, we also find some NT authors who retain an understanding of God's justice as violently punishing and harming evildoers. The term the NT uses here is not "justice" (which is understood throughout the NT as restorative rather than retributive) but "judgment," which is destructive.
I then said that I think we need to move away from the view of God as violent and punishing, recognizing that the trajectory the NT puts us on should move us to a more Christlike image of God who acts through goodness to overcome evil rather than using violence and harm as a means to bring about the good.
In response, a reader pushes back on that idea. Here's the comment:
"Loved the discussion...brought more stuff into focus and clarified and stabilized more that I read from your book. But I'm not on the same page with you when it comes to forgiveness. If we refuse to repent from un-forgive-ness how can God forgive us? The NT makes it clear that we who hear the good news need to repent and believe on Jesus if we want to be saved. The Lord's Prayer comes to mind on how we are forgiven as we forgive"
In other words, God will not forgive us if we do not forgive. If we do not repent of our unforgiveness, we can expect God's punishment and judgment.
Let's consider this. When we think about this today, it is often in the context of our suburban lives, and so forgiveness revolves around interpersonal conflict. So when we think of who we are forgiving, what typically comes to mind is forgiving someone for hurting our feelings, rather than forgiving a person for, say killing a loved one or for putting us in prison unjustly.
The context at the time of Jesus was quite different. This audience was of a persecuted minority suffering violence and oppression, and the consideration was how they should respond. Should they take up the sword and kill their oppressors? The message of Jesus is that instead they should seek to overcome evil and oppression with love.
So when the NT authors speak of the stakes involved, and frame it in life-and-death terms, this is quite literal. That's why many have suggested that when they speak of judgment, they are speaking of the very real here-and-now consequences for taking up the way of the sword. They also saw the oppression of Rome as ripe for judgment with all of its violence and oppression. It was about to implode.
I can see this increasingly in my own country. We are becoming more and more violent, more militaristic -- both in how we deal with conflict abroad through drone strikes, torture, assassinations, and so on, and also in how the police a home have become increasingly militarized -- frequently using SWAT teams for routine situations and quickly reaching for their guns when there are much better ways to deal with a situation. This has led to protests across the country, and one thing is clear to me, we have here a huge problem that stems from America's tendency to glorify and put their faith in violence.
If you are a minority today in America, you might feel like they did in the time of Jesus under Rome. The message of the gospel has then a relevance in that context of oppression and injustice that it simply does not for those living in a sheltered and privileged environment. We live in Rome, and just as was the case in Rome there are those who lived in relative comfort unaware of the suffering of those in the lower classes. Jesus calls us to open our eyes to their need, and to break away from our tendency to look down on those who are less fortunate -- the poor, those in prison, and so on. It's about empathy and compassion, and our country seems to be moving away from that.
When the New Testament calls for repentance it is calling for a repentance from the way of violence. It is not simply addressing the personal and individual spheres, but the social sphere. It is saying that if we want to see change we cannot take the way of Rome (or the way of America) and instead must take a different way characterized by restoration, forgiveness, and love of our oppressors and those who wrong us. If we instead stay on the path of violence, this will result in tears and hurt for us.
The point here is not to describe God's character, but to describe how we need to act in the world if we wish to end oppression and bring about justice. This is not a matter of God forgiving us. God has already loved us "while we were still sinners" in the incarnation (stooping down among us in our brokenness), the crucifixion (giving his life for sinners), and the resurrection (paving the way for us to overcome death and sin). God is willing to love us, and was before the cross. It's not about God being reconciled to us, but us needing to be reconciled to God, and that has to do with us being good, being loving, with us stopping the spiral of hurting and being hurt. Those who love as Jesus loved are the ones Jesus calls his "mother and brothers." Those who care for the poor are the ones Jesus says "well done" to.
So we absolutely do need to turn from having faith in violence. We have made an idol of our firepower, and trust in it instead of trusting in Jesus and his way. We need to repent of that. Especially those of us who are in positions of power and privilege. We call ourselves a "Christian nation," but we do not follow the way of Jesus and instead are the worst among Western countries when it comes to things like guns and prisons and money spent on war. If we want to look for sin in the land, this is it. This is our sin, and it is huge.
What I don't believe is that God calls us to seek the way of restorative justice, radical forgiveness, and enemy love while himself using the way of violent punishment and torture. After all, how else can you understand conscious eternal torment in hell other than as torture? This is to me an understanding of God that legitimizes the idea that those in authority can use harm and hurt to bring about justice. It is a very easy move to go from a picture of God punishing evil to a claim that those with the authority of the state can wield violence in God's name themselves, "For rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4). So we begin with the idea of God punishing, and it's a quick jump to "Christian" nations taking up the way of violence. That's where we are at now. This is our nation's sin. It is the sin of Rome.
At the time of the NT they believed, as did everyone else at the time, that beating people made them better. So they beat slaves, they beat children, they beat lawbreakers and rebels. Today we know that abuse does not make a person better, it makes them worse. Punishment, i.e. inflicting harm and suffering, is a way that simply does not work if our goal is reform and restoration, if our goal is to make things good and right. It does not work because it is based on an incorrect understanding of how humans function, and what leads us to repentance and reform. It makes things worse, not better. It does not bring about justice, it just perpetuates harm. Hurting people is not good, it is hurtful.
I can see how being hurt is the natural consequence of our hurting others. That's judgment, that's karma, that's sewing and reaping, but it is decidedly not the gospel. The gospel is about acting to reverse that course by the means of love and good. That is the way we are to follow in, and it is the way God demonstrates for us in Jesus.
So we do need to take up the way of forgiveness and love. We do need to repent. If we instead continue on the path of militarism and violence this will lead to hell on earth. However God in Jesus does not model that way of force and violence, but models for us the way of overcoming hurt with love. That is what God revealed in Christ looks like. God in Christ undoes the image of the God of war.
Labels: grace, violence