God Hates Violence

Swords into Plowshares

It was early in the story of humanity that we read, “In God’s sight the earth had become corrupt and was filled in violence.” (Gen 6:11) That idea is repeated two verses later. After the Deluge story there is the statement that human beings are still evil (the violence of the Deluge did not solve the problem), but that God will not again try to solve the problem with violence (Gen 8:21). As a result there is permission given to human beings for limited violence against the animal world, with the exception of not eating blood and not engaging in violence against human beings (Gen 9:2-6). That is the background of the rest of the story.

The narrative of Scripture continues through many complexities and twists and turns. I do not want to pretend that it is not problematic, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. However this theme of God’s hatred of violence continues. Yes, there is the conquest of Canaan and God’s use of the Assyrians and the like to punish Israel, but even there one sees, among other things, (1) the denial that military ability has anything to do with victory, (2) the ideal in the conquest of Canaan that God would do the driving out (sometimes translated as his sending “the hornet” before the people), which is seen in part in Jericho in which a religious ceremony rather than military might destroys the city, (3) the statements that God will punish the nations that he used to punish Israel precisely because they did what they did violently, and (4) the insistence that a “man of peace” build the temple, not a man whose hands were stained with blood (and while this is a statement of Chronicles, not Samuel, it is made with reference to a time before that time when David would have stained his hands with Uriah’s blood). God’s future goal and ideal is presented in Isaiah as a time in which there will be no violence, when “the lion will lie down with the lamb.” Whether this is meant as a literal statement or as the absence of human violence and a return of human beings to the creation care that was entrusted to them in Gen 1 – 2 may be a matter of debate, but it is at least the latter.

The New Testament story takes this further. Jesus teaches people not just to deal with their violence, but also with their angry words and actions that come before violence. Jesus himself is non-violent, his one apparently “violent” action being his demonstration in the temple in which he acts out the destruction of the temple that will come if the people continue to plot revolution in the temple rather than turning to him, the true temple. It is theater, political theater, in which Jesus is the actor and the others are either bystanders or unwilling props. Jesus ultimately brings the kingdom of God by absorbing human violence, through his own death breaking the power of the ultimate threat of violence, which is death. And this starts the reversal of the powers of death and violence that will ultimately find their fulfillment in the resurrection and the renewal of heaven and earth. Even in Revelation, one notes, Jesus conquers with a word, the sword of his mouth, not the sword of violence. And in the New Testament Jesus leaves a community, the new people of God, that spreads the new allegiance via non-violent means, those of preaching and, especially, those of suffering. The reality of kingdom life within is seen more in the willingness of the followers of Jesus to suffer and die rather than compromise their commitment to Jesus and his kingdom than in the miracles that they performed (although it was also seen in those miracles, which were life-giving).

The church through the ages did not always hold to this view of the kingdom, for there was the violent suppression of heresy (once the church had access to the power of the state), the crusades, the wars of religion during the Reformation (in which both sides were guilty of atrocities) and the like down through the ages. But that does not make the ethics of Scripture go away, a fact that the church has tacitly recognized. You see this when you read the names and biographies of those declared to be saints: one finds monks and martyrs and former warriors (Francis of Assisi and Ignatius Loyola), but rarely warriors who did not renounce their life of violence. The people of God are called to be signs that the coming age is already at work within this age, not agents of the principalities and powers that control this age.

That, I believe, is still the believer’s calling now, despite living in a world that is more violent than ever. We are to be signs of what God loves rather than of what God hates. And that applies to all aspects of life.

1. This applies to the abortion debate. It is not just that abortion is violent, although it is, whether one thinks of the developing fetus as a person from conception or as a developing person. It is that the means to oppose such violence also needs to be non-violent. Law is the threat of force, the threat of violence, but that is often what is desired by “Pro-Life” crusaders. What is needed is a response of costly love that bears the sins of the world, so to speak. What is needed is a response that offers to care during pregnancy for the woman or parents considering abortion and then continues the care after pregnancy and through the raising of the child. This becomes even more important if the reason for considering abortion is the handicap of the child. It is only as woman or parents know, ”You will be wrapped in love, unconditionally cared for, and fully supported emotionally and financially to the degree needed; you will not be considered second class or lesser because of this care,” that the option of abortion becomes unnecessary. There is more to the costly love than that, of course, for the love needs to invade the social conditions that led to the person or couple being in a position to consider abortion. There is also a need to communicate that the woman will continue to be loved if the lesser evil turns out to be abortion (e.g. if the pregnancy is truly life-threatening). There is a need to demonstrate this love also in embracing those women who spontaneously abort. None of this love comes cheap. However, while the legal route, the violent route, appears so much cheaper, in the end it results in much higher costs, in particular the social costs. It is the quick fix, not the renewing of the earth.
2. This applies to how we treat the creatures around us. While I recognize that there is permission to eat animals, including fish, I also recognize that this is due to the human tendency to violence, a curbing of it rather than an endorsing of it. I do not wish to say that the eating of animals is morally impermissible, although I doubt that followers of Jesus would do it if they grasped that they were really to be a sign of the future. (My wife and I differ on this point.) However, I do believe that how we usually do it is evil. First, we have increasingly learned that at least mammals have a significant emotional life, including showing love, loyalty, and altruism. Many, from rabbits up to apes show significant grieving behavior over the loss of a member of the group. Furthermore, we are learning that there are fewer and fewer species that we eat that do not suffer from pain and discomfort. Even fish experience pain and can learn from pain. Thus our treatment of any animal that we might eat needs to take their experiences into consideration. Second, modern methods of “factory farming” in which animals are kept in confined quarters, often fed both significant amounts of antibiotics (they combat the spread of disease that the confined quarters leads to and also to lessen the chance of disease slowing the growth of the animal) and growth hormones, fed a diet that is often both unnatural and unhealthy if the animal were to live a normal lifespan, and slaughtered in massive assembly lines (usually by an underclass of society) needs to be rejected. This is violence to the creation on a massive scale. It is not just that it can be unhealthy for humans (for it produces meat that is fat rich with traces of antibiotic and with a propensity for causing human infections, such as e. coli infections), but it is a denial of the human responsibility for creation care by the creation of an animal concentration camp of sorts, that would be decried as cruelty if it were known to be applied to dogs and cats, much less to human beings. Third, the use of large quantities of grain in such animal feed operations is also violence against other human beings, since it drives up the cost of grain and makes it less available to the poor masses. So, fourth, we would, then, at least limit ourselves to animal products produced in a humane and sustainable manner – grass fed mammals, free-range chickens, etc. We would also demand that fishing not be done in a manner that does violence to the marine environment. These together would raise the cost of eating animal products for those engaging in such practices and so reduce consumption. Some will go farther and wish to be signs of the coming age by eschewing animal consumption altogether.
3. Believers in Jesus should reject war in all of its forms. This would take us back to such early Christian positions as those enunciated in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. It would also recognize that even if Augustine’s rules for just war were right-hearted, and even if they are in some way defensible (which I doubt, but am willing to admit for sake of argument), they have rarely if ever been consistently applied in actual conflict and in modern war are totally inapplicable. I say, “believers in Jesus” should do this because without embracing the cross one cannot advocate this position. One can show that one war leads to another, so one has not really solved anything with war, but one cannot argue for the abolition of war as public policy without at the same time embracing that this could mean a cross for the body politic. Followers of Jesus, of course, have embraced the cross.
4. This would also mean a rejection of the death penalty. While the reference to the retaliation for murder with murder in Gen 9 is poetic, so perhaps descriptive rather than prescriptive, it is clear that if John 7:53 – 8:11 is genuine Jesus rejected the application of the death penalty in a clear case mandating it in the Hebrew Scriptures. [We try to weasel around this implication by asking where the man was, as if in catching only one of two murderers one cannot deal with the one until the other is caught. The fact is that narratively we do not know the man is. He could have jumped out the window and run; he could have been killed in the initial attack in which the woman is seized. Jesus makes no point of his absence. The narrator makes no point of it. The whole discussion is about whether Jesus will uphold the Mosaic commandment of the death penalty.] Jesus also takes murderers into his community (e.g. Paul). This argument is not a practical rejection of the death penalty in that by some estimates as many as 40% of those on death row are innocent or in that the Innocence Project has cleared many condemned people on the basis of forensic evidence. (Most were convicted on the basis of eyewitness evidence that is increasingly proving to be unreliable.) This is an in-principle rejection because (1) only God, not us, is the judge, (2) the infliction of violence because of violence only perpetrates the cycle, and (3) the believer is called to be a witness to the coming age, not an agent of the dying age.
5. This also has implications for how we discipline our children. This is not a case of discipline versus non-discipline, but how to carry out appropriate discipline with little (since restraint is a form of violence one must say “little”) or no violence. This takes more time, but is less likely to be done in anger. However, this subject is far too big to discuss in detail here.
6. This also has implications for the willingness of followers of Jesus to own and use weapons (other than for hunting, which raises its own questions, such as the fact that hunting tends to kill the best specimens of the species and thus weakens the gene pool, which may be countered with the fact that proper culling of animals, especially in environments in which they do not have natural predators, may be less violent to the animal than, say, starvation). Despite the fact that most owners of such weapons are more likely to injure themselves or a bystander (such as a child) than a criminal, that even police are only about 50% effective in their use of weapons, that the chances of having a weapon ready when the need arises is slim, and that the knowledge that people are armed raises the level of violence in society and the likelihood that the criminal will use violence as a first rather than a last resort, the real issue that such ownership is it signals that our purpose is to confront evil with violence rather than the cross.

I have named some ways of applying a commitment to non-violence. All of them have the cross as a price to be paid. None of them have been fully discussed. And likely none of them will be embraced by society at large, only by believers who are committed to following the way of the cross.

I live in a country was created by violence, first the violence of the genocide of the Native Americans and then the violence of the Revolutionary War, a war that would not fit even Augustine’s rules of just war. Violence has been endemic in this society, from the violence of slavery to the violence of the Civil War to the violence of Pinkerton’s suppression of the unions in Pittsburgh to the World Wars to the 70 plus wars that the USA has been involved in since World War II (often by proxy). We are so steeped in the culture of violence that our response to a school massacre is, at least in some states, to arm teachers. Our response to crime and the fear it produces is to arm ourselves with our own miniature images of Mars. Unless there were a massive outpouring of the Spirit, one cannot expect this society to embrace the idea that since God is against violence they should be. This is not a Christian country in any meaningful sense; it worships Mammon and other deities rather than embraces the cross of Jesus.

But followers of Jesus are “not of this world.” They are “born again” and so “immigrants” here in this world, although we believe that our Lord will return to take over this world and that we will return with him. We do not believe that the threat of death is anything to be worried about, since our Lord will raise the dead, having been raised himself. We are called to be signs of the future. It is we who are to show the values of the kingdom. And we are called to this because it is only those who have embraced the cross that can be signs of the resurrection. Within this age this is not a policy that “works,” for that would be to accept the definitions of success of this age to be true success, but within the context of a vision of God’s kingdom it is the only policy that “works,” for true success is measured by his “well-done” in the resurrection, a “well-done” said before the assembled saints and martyrs who also did well. And once he pronounces those words to all who deserve them, we will then proceed to follow his leadership in banishing violence from this earth and producing the type of creation that he intended from the beginning.

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About Peter H. Davids

I am Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology, and a Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years). I am also a husband, father, and grandfather.
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3 Responses to God Hates Violence

  1. Pingback: Anxious Debate and a Thinking Response « School of Christian Thought

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  3. Pingback: The Trap of Fear When Tragedy Happens | Dylan Raines

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