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.
Thanks for the review. I’ve often heard it said that the Anabaptists (and by extension, us MB’s) view scripture with a Jesus centred lens, though I often lack avenues to explore precisely what that looks like in a theological sense, and to even understand some of the pitfalls of that view of scripture. Thanks for thoughtfully pointing us towards the particular avenue that Weaver explores.
Crestwood MB Church – Medicine Hat, AB
Hi Kevin! Good to hear from you.
Yes, the Anabaptist Christocentric lens is very interesting to consider in conversation with Weaver. Reading Weaver opens up new hermeneutical questions that are important to weigh and consider carefully.
I think to take the stance that God is non-violent may be the reason it is hard to reconcile that with your beliefs. Our God is a jealous God. (his words). He gets very upset with sin and sinful actions. In the OT He many times waited for peoples to repent or for their sin to become “full” before telling the Israelites to destroy them completely (or in some cases, doing it Himself through natural (or supernatural) means). Ask Pharoah’s son if God is violent.
Jesus did not show quite that extent of God’s personality but if you really picture Him in the temple, he was chasing the cattle out with a whip (of sorts) and throwing tables around. Yet, His anger was in perfect control, as one notes that He did not overthrow the tables of the bird sellers as that would have hurt/killed some of His birds who had no chance to get away.
Yes, my God can be violent. My God (Jesus) is not some wimp in a white nightie, like much of the world thinks, and which many of the MB churches depict to the rest of the world.
Thanks for taking the time to respond.
In the review, I mentioned reading Weaver and Volf side by side. Volf speaks about the necessity of God’s judgment–how God’s judgment against evil is good–that we could not worship a God that does not judge evil. I think he raises important points here. The question is if/how/in what way is this judgment is violent. And how we are defining violence. A big conversation!
Stephanie thanks for highlighting one of the central tensions in this discussion, specifically the definition of violence. I imagine Volf’s work is quite helpful on that front. I’ve come to understand that the assumption is often made that violence is the highest form of power. I’m borrowing from Andy Crouch’s book Playing God on this front. Regarding Jesus on the cross, Crouch states, “And what is revealed at the cross is true power, the power that willingly bears the pain of wounds and thorns, the power the gives up even an only Son in order to bring life.” (P. 206)
Christ crucified is the working of a power deeper than violence in the face of violence. That sounds like an Anabaptist conviction!
Thanks for this alternate view of power
For an exploration of how to define violence, you might check Jonathan Janzen’s 1998 master’s thesis (Regent College) “The Problem of Passivism in Canadian Anabaptist-Mennonite Peacemaking.”
please watch for the forthcoming book by greg boyd this spring “crucifixion of the warrior God” it will be a seminal work in this field – i liked derek floods “Disarming Scripture” Boyd is more concerned with an inerrent view yet holds ti Non violent image of God.
The title of your review caught my eye and the snipit in the mb herald lead me to look online. I would like to say that I appreciate your review of Weaver’s book (which I have not read) and the balanced approach you bring to it, esp. in mentioning another book that seems to take a very different approach to the same subject.
Having said that I would like to offer some thoughts:
When I have come to passages of Scripture I do not fully understand, or in this case, an aspect of God’s character we have a hard time grasping, I find it helpful to remind myself of a couple of things:
1. God is good, and what He does is good (Psalm 119:68)
2. God’s Word is perfect, flawless (theologically speaking, infallible and inerrant) Psalm 18:30
These truths may not seem to bring an immediate answer to all of our questions, but I do believe it keeps the believer grounded. Our faith is anchored to Christ and His Word.
I fear that Weaver has falled into a trap of the devil, by questioning (and even coming to the conclusion that some authors of Scripture were wrong?!) the veracity of the Word of God. When we start down that road, the foundation of our faith begins to crumble. This is one issue (God and violence) that Weaver tackles, but I would like to ask you, where does this stop? If we do not believe what is written in the Bible to be actullay true, that it is actually inspired by the Spirit of God, where does that leave us? How can we trust ours (or others) conclusions taken from Scripture when our own beliefs about the Scriptures are erroneous and false?
Anyways, blessings on further reviews and your graduate work.