Nonviolent God

Weaver champions nonviolent God

Many people believe the Old Testament is a showcase of God’s wrath—from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the death of Egyptian firstborns and the seizure of Jericho, for example—but that is not the whole picture of the Old Testament, nor a proper view of God, says Dr. J. Denny Weaver, professor emeritus of religion at Bluffton University.

Instead, all of God’s actions are rooted in nonviolence, he told a Bluffton audience Feb. 11.

“There are claims that God has blessed the exercise of violence,” he said, citing, for instance, the medieval Crusades, a series of anti-Islam military campaigns that began in the 11th century.

He also recognized that some Christians believe God uses violence—including natural disasters and disease as well—to punish humankind for its sins. Even the death of a loved one is often explained as being part of a divine plan, he noted.

But Weaver doesn’t accept this view of God. “Is this God who causes such destruction and death a loving God?” he asked. “Is this a God you want to worship?”

Weaver has spent his time as a theologian attempting to make the nonviolence of Jesus visible in Christian theology. He believes that nonviolence is intrinsic to Christianity. His most recent book on the subject, “The Nonviolent God,” was published last year.

“How do we decide whether God is violent or nonviolent?” he asked the forum audience. He suggested examining the life of Jesus—a methodology that stems from the Christian belief that God is revealed in Jesus. “It’s obvious that Jesus did not use any violence,” he said. “It’s obvious that Jesus did not kill anyone.”

If Jesus was nonviolent, he added, it follows that God must be nonviolent as well. “If we really believe that when we see Jesus, we see God, that’s where we learn about God’s character.”

Weaver reasons that Jesus’ resurrection supports the idea that God is nonviolent. “The God who overcomes death is not a God made in the image of humankind,” he said. “Humans can destroy, but humans cannot restore life.”

But Jesus’ tendency toward mercy contrasts starkly with the wrathful or violent God that many people believe is the only image of God in the Old Testament.

As an example, Weaver recalled the story of the capture of Jericho. Children like to act out marching around the city and then falling down to mimic the walls falling down. From this story, he said, they are taught that good things happen when they obey God.

“That’s where the story stops for children,” however, Weaver said. They do not hear that when the walls fell down, the Israelites stormed into the city and started killing. He cited Joshua 6:21, which says that with swords, they killed “men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.”

So how can the nonviolent message of the New Testament be reconciled with the violent Old Testament? The answer, Weaver said, requires recognizing that the Old Testament also has stories that display images of a nonviolent God and nonviolent activity directed by God.

The two examples he mentioned were the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 and Elisha’s dealing with an Aramean invasion in 2 Kings 6. When creation in Genesis is compared with a violent Babylonian creation story, it is clear that the Bible begins with nonviolent images of God, Weaver said. And Elisha repelled an invasion, not with swords, but by having a feast prepared and sending the invading army home as friends.

Such stories that portray nonviolent images show that the Old Testament does not have a uniform picture of God. As a result, “you can’t put your finger on one story or the other and claim that story as ‘proof,’” Weaver said. “The Old Testament actually has a vivid conversation about the character of God, and what it means to be God’s people.”

To determine which is the better image of God, Weaver turned to the story of Jesus. Since Jesus is a continuation of the story of the Israelites that began in the Old Testament, it is obvious, he said, that the life of Jesus is a continuation of the nonviolent side of the contrasting images. The life of Jesus validates the nonviolent images as the true image of God, he added.

Weaver rejected any idea that this approach is to abandon part of the Old Testament. “I’m not throwing out part of it; in fact, it is all necessary in order to see the significance of continuing the Old Testament’s story in Jesus. I’m just showing you how to look at the Bible as a whole,” he told his listeners.

Tying in with the university’s 2013-14 civic engagement theme of race and diversity in America, Weaver spoke on the importance of diversity, calling it a gift from God. The Genesis accounts of creation show that diversity is of God, and it is good, he said.

Citing the story of the Good Samaritan, he pointed out that Samaritans were persecuted because of their mixed ethnicity. But in Jesus’ story, it was a Samaritan who aided a wounded man ignored by others. Weaver deemed this story significant because Jesus referred to a Samaritan as a good person and, in Luke 10:37, told his disciples to “go and do likewise.”

To embrace those who are different from us is to worship a nonviolent and loving God, Weaver asserted. “People who are different from us are not to be feared or excluded or shunned. They are to be embraced. Cherish that diversity.”

by Chay Reigle