I just finished reading Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld’s book Killing Enmity: Violence and the New Testament. It’s one of a couple of new books that sparked my attention, and that I’m reading over the break. (The other is Amos
Young’s Yong’s The Bible, Disability and The Church: A New Vision of the People of God.) Mostly because I’m intrigued by what others have to say about scripture, violence and how we who are God’s people understand God in, with and through violence.
Neufeld deals with what is for many good bourgeois Christians a difficult subject — the violence in scripture. Particularly, what appears to be God’s role in the violence of scripture. I qualify the term Christian with bourgeois because I have come to believe in bourgeois life there is an expectation that violence should not be normative*. And if ideals of progress are embraced, there is a notion that violence is neither becoming less normative or should (or could) become less normative. Regardless, for the bourgeois, violence is not a normal part of human existence, and it is not normative or ideal. It is an aberration. So, violence in scripture seems to be a moral puzzle — how could a loving and compassionate God do this or allow this? (A question I have heard over and over, including from my father.) How could God’s faithful people do these things and still be faithful or still be God’s people?
This is the question I believe Neufeld is dealing with as he examines New Testament parables, the crucifixion and atonement, hierarchy and subordination, and the images of divine warfare used in the some of the epistles and in John of Patmos’ Revelation. I don’t share these bourgeois concerns, mostly because I do see violence as a normative part of human existence — and an inevitable one. I do believe scripture is the product of a relationship with God in which God promises that God will act to save God’s people, and will do so in miracles rather than through human efforts (“The Lord helps those who help themselves” is definitely not a biblical principle, and is not part of our ongoing relationship with God). But God is present with human beings in all human actions — including our violence — and God saves human being through and in acts of violence (the crucifixion being the biggest example). So, Neufeld is right in his conclusion when he writes:
We will not often find violence-free rhetoric in the New Testament with which to express this wondrous mystery [the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the victory over violence, not the victory of violence], most especially when ‘violence’ is conceived of in broad terms … . Might that be because grace is encountered, received and enacted within a world marked by violence? The words of scripture participate in the incarnation, an enfleshment that takes place in a violent world. The Word always speaks to us in the Scriptures from within this world. Our wrestling with the issue of violence happens in a world in which violence resides not only in our social and political relationships but also in our minds and imaginations. Might that be why suffering, vulnerability and sacrifice are always both evidence of the reality of violence and, in the light of the cross, the scandalous means by which the violence that produces them is subverted and finally overcome?
In the end it is the ingenuity of God’s love, the compassion at the heart of grace and the persistent drive towards reconciliation and restoration that the writers of the New Testament wish to narrate. They do so with the consciousness that both they and their readers are participants in that story that is still unfolding. And they do so with words and images that are at hand. It would be tragic to be preoccupied with and dismissive of their means and to miss the story they are telling, the news they are announcing. With all its twists and turns and surprises, that story is always much bigger and mysterious than any ethical, theological or ideological distillations. It is in the nature of the ‘gospel’ — ‘news’ — that all such distillations are at their very best transitory. Scripture will, thankfully, always slip out of our firmest grasp. (p. 150-151)
We wrestle with violence in a violent world. We wrestle with God, and God wrestles with us, in a violent world. And even if God is not violent in God’s-self, human beings cannot help but understand or perceive the encounter with God in ways and shapes and forms that are violent or can only be understood as or in violence. Neufeld’s last metaphor is that of Jacob wrestling with the mysterious stranger at the ford of the Jabbock in Genesis 32, and he writes:
[W]hen struggling with question of violence in the New Testament we wrestle with the full humanity present in the pages of the New Testament, and the full humanity of the community of listeners and wrestlers. But in the morning, even if limping badly, we call the place ‘Peniel’. [“For I have seen God face to face, and I have been delivered,” ESV, Genesis 32:30.]
I do believe, I confess and I preach and I teach, that human violence is a reality. A reality in which God is present, and not absent. Scripture even tells us that God commands our murderous violence (Deuteronomy 7), but perhaps the lesson to draw from that is there are some things God commands us to that we should not do (as Israel does not). My great ethical concern is the morality of social violence, and state violence in particular, and I see no writ in scripture that God’s people are called to govern, rule or have any stake in the outcome of state or social violence. It is not a means to the end we seek, and I believe quite firmly that no understanding of “love of neighbor” can ever be grounded in violence.
At this point, I was going to have a snarky aside, but thought better of it.
* The essence of my snarky aside was going to focus on the nature of violence in bourgeois life. It has been impersonalized and exported. That is, made the result of bureaucratic and administrative processes, and then forced upon others. So the good bourgeois never has to deal with the reality that the world they depend upon — the order of state and state-managed markets — is inherently violent because they never see the actual violence or those upon whom the violence is done. This is not inherently snarky, accept that I was going to focus on the womanist, feminist and liberationist theologians Nuefeld cites throughout his book as being deeply opposed to the violence of hierarchy, patriarchy, oppression and domination. It has been my experience that most such theologians are also self-professed socialists (and very bourgeois, making them clerisy through and through!) and thus deeply committed to state violence to order the world.