Is God nonviolent?
The Nonviolent God
J. Denny Weaver
William B. Eerdmans
After watching Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film Noah, I came to see the classic biblical story in a new light. Images haunted me: people drowning, screaming for help, only to be lost in the deluge, as a result of God’s catastrophic judgment. Suddenly, it seemed terribly inappropriate to decorate our church nurseries with Noah, his family and the animals happily aboard the ark in the midst of such peril.
And I began to ask: Is God violent? And if he is, what does this do to my conviction of nonviolent discipleship?
Anabaptist scholar J. Denny Weaver has asked these same questions, and the result is The Nonviolent God.
A nonviolent lens
Weaver argues for a nonviolent God, based in his conviction of a nonviolent ethic. The premise of Weaver’s book is: Jesus lived a nonviolent life in first century Rome. Jesus is the fullest revelation of God. Therefore, God is nonviolent. But what do we do with biblical passages such as the flood (Genesis 6–7), the conquest of Canaan (Joshua 1–12) or the apocalyptic images in Revelation (Revelation 6:15–17; 19:11–16)?
For Weaver, whenever God appears violent, the biblical authors made a mistake in their portrayal of God. Weaver reminds us to look to the nonviolent Jesus as the fullest revelation of God, and put aside any violent images we may find in Scripture.
Weaver approaches his theology through a lens that focuses on the narrative of Jesus. This starting point drives him to shape Scripture to fit the conviction that God is nonviolent, in accordance with the nonviolent narrative of Jesus that we find in the Gospels. Thus, Weaver’s argument raises serious questions regarding his view of Scripture and biblical interpretation. Citing human error, how can we excise huge parts of the canon that do not align with the conviction of a nonviolent God? What does this say about our approach to Scripture? Which Jesus reveals God? How can we pick and choose what images of God and Jesus are true?
These echoing questions make it difficult to accept Weaver’s convictions. His sacrifice of large portions of the canon, repeated “pulling-apart” of the Trinity and selective reading of Jesus himself are too big of a price to reach his conclusions.
For example, Weaver focuses almost solely on Jesus’ nonviolent life in the Roman Empire. While this is true, Jesus also spoke a lot about sin (Mark 2:5), judgment (Matthew 25:31–46), repentance (Matthew 4:17) and the hard road that leads to the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13–14). How do these things inform our image of Jesus and his nonviolence? How do these themes of Jesus’ life further reveal who God is?
I certainly agree with Weaver about the importance of nonviolent discipleship, and I admire how, in Part II of the book, he addresses social and political issues, such as racism and wealth, with this conviction. He is to be applauded here!
Worth a read
I recommend reading Weaver’s book because it makes us ask important questions as a Mennonite Brethren community. How will we reconcile the tension between nonviolent discipleship and God’s violence that appears in Scripture? A good conversation partner for Weaver is Miroslav Volf, who takes a different approach to reconcile this question in his important work Exclusion and Embrace. Weaver and Volf are fascinating to read side by side!
The question of God acting violently is uncomfortable and makes us feel vulnerable. How can the God I love and serve also demand – even seem to need – violence?? I have not come to a conclusion yet, but I continue to love and trust this God while asking him these unsettling questions. I invite you to engage with the important question of God’s violence as we seek to understand and embody what it means to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile (Matthew 5:38–42) in a Roman Empire all of our own.
—Stephanie Chase is a graduate student at Briercrest Seminary, where she is comparatively studying Volf and Weaver for her thesis. She calls Regina and Parliament Community Church home.