What About the Violent God of the Old Testament?

In all this thinking I’ve been doing about returning violence with love, one contrary thought continues to nag at me: What about the violence we encounter at the hand of God in the Old Testament?

The way of nonviolence would take the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the example of Jesus in his loving assumption of the cross as its authority for living nonviolently. In the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus blessing the peacemakers, saying that they will be the ones who inherit the earth. In this sermon, we also receive Jesus’s teachings to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to not return an eye for an eye, and to not only give our shirts and cloaks to those who ask for them, but to also walk an extra mile with someone who compels us to walk a mile on their behalf. And on the road to the cross, we see Jesus bearing the load in silence, not arguing with Pilate, and even asking God to forgive those who crucify him because they know not what they are doing.

In all of this, Ronald Rolheiser sees that Jesus teaches us a way to overcome injustice and hatred with love:

“We too often think of God as someone who will use violence to overthrow evil and bring about justice and peace. We conceive of God as a force for redemptive violence … We must be careful, particularly in trying to create justice and peace, not to confuse the Christian story of redemption with the myth of redemptive violence. We must try to bring about justice and peace as Jesus did, recognizing that the God whom Jesus called ‘Father’ beats up no one. He does not vanquish the bad and vindicate the good through superior muscle-power, speed, or sharpshooting with a gun.” (From chapter 8 of The Holy Longing)

I can appreciate what Rolheiser is saying from the perspective of the New Testament and the example and teachings of Jesus I just outlined above. Where I run into trouble is reconciling his words with the God of violence I do find in the Old Testament.

For example, just this last week I’ve been meditating on Psalm 44, which says:

“You with your own hand drove out the nations, but them [Israel] you planted; you afflicted the people, but them [Israel] you set free … Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down our assailants. For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. But you have saved us from our foes, and have put to confusion those who hate us.”

We can’t hide from the fact that God used violence to overturn the foes of Israel. Clearly, he was for Israel and against others, and he used violence to accomplish his ends. This happened over and over in the Old Testament, so how can Rolheiser talk about “the God whom Jesus called ‘Father’” as one who “beats up no one”?

I’ve been bringing this question to my classmates at Spring Arbor, and they’ve been offering me some really new ways to think about this. Granted, they are ways of thinking that scare me because they run contrary to any way I’ve thought about the redemptive work that was accomplished on the cross before, but they must be considered as potential ways to reconcile the activity of God in the Old Testament with the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.

Two thoughts in particular have been helpful in my processing of this question. First, one classmate responded to what Rolheiser calls the “myth of redemptive violence” by saying that redemptive violence itself is just a myth. It’s not that the attempt to bring redemption through violent ends has not been attempted, only that violence can never accomplish redemption like we think it will. In this way, redemptive violence is a myth, and this is because violence only perpetuates more violence. Those being assaulted by the violence become even more hardened toward their oppressors and want to seek revenge themselves, and those bringing the violence to bear on others in the first place either walk away self-satisfied in what they’ve accomplished (having no love or humility in their hearts) or seeking more violence if their initial violent acts don’t accomplish what they set out to do.

Here is where the second thought offered by my classmates has been pivotal: it is only in Christ that the cycle can end. Not only is Christ’s death and resurrection the only living example of violence brought to bear on someone (namely, Christ) resulting in new life (namely, the resurrection), so that life now becomes more powerful than death, but also in Christ do we find the satisfaction of all of God’s justice.

This last thought — that in Christ is God’s justice fully, once and for all, truly satisified — is the most mind-boggling of all. I have consciously assented to this idea for years, knowing that in Christ all my sins have been atoned and I am enabled to come before the Father without shame or atoning sacrifices myself. It has always been an intensely personal application of the idea for me — how Christ’s atonement affects my own personal ability to come into relationship with God.

But what if I broadened my thinking to realize that it is the sin of the whole world that Christ bore on his shoulders? It isn’t that God became less interested in justice in the New Testament, as one of my classmates said, it’s that he essentially took the violence that exacts justice out on himself, through Jesus.

If that is the case, then what room is there for us to bring violence against one another in the exacting of justice anymore? I’m not sure there is room for it. And now I’m only left with troubling questions, like what we do in a situation when someone like Hitler is bringing horrific violence against millions of people who have done nothing wrong. Are we, as Christians, really expected to not partake in the exacting of justice, trusting that vengeance is the Lord God’s alone? Is our aim to be the bringing about of repentance in the life of those who oppress in these horrible ways? At this point, all I can say is that I don’t know.