Overcoming Violence: is it possible to distance God from all violence in the Bible?

1331567925I’ve been reading and reviewing Johnston McMaster, Overcoming Violence: Dismantling an Irish History and Theology: an alternative vision. Columba Press: Dublin, 2012.

McMaster is Assistant Professor and Co-ordinator of the Education for Reconciliation Programme within the Irish School of Ecumenics. This is an ambitious and passionate work of Irish political theology emerging out of years of reflection and active participation in reconciliation programmes.

I can’t reproduce the formal review but before I lose more brain cells and forget the details, I’d like to explore what I think is his central theme (and what follows is my take on McMaster’s overall argument not his own words unless in quotes):

It is possible, indeed absolutely essential, to distance God from all violence in the Bible. And therefore, God’s people are to renounce and be utterly opposed to violence.

Violence is always an evil. There is nothing redemptive about violence. Any idea that violence is redemptive is heresy and owes more to Babylonian religious militarism than the Bible. The myth of redemptive violence has been a curse in Western history and within the church. It is something we need to be delivered from for good.

And there have been few places more negatively impacted by the myth of redemptive violence than Ireland. Our blood-soaked religious history testifies to the poison it injects within a culture. Our love of violence reveals the corrosive effects of the ‘Constantinian mistake’ where violence has been exalted and justified in the name of God and of nation. What is required is ‘a whole new vision of what it means to live the faith’ (185).The best way the decade of centenaries of 1912-22 can be remembered is to remember the past dead is as ‘victims to our shared inhumanity and acquiescence in violence’ (190).

God is good. Jesus is the climax of the biblical revelation of who God is, is manifestly against violence. He is the king of the peaceable kingdom. He rejects the way of the sword. He calls his disciples to peace and, if necessary to suffering. McMaster says that ‘this inherent ethos of the kingdom is far removed from the ambivalence towards and even collusion with war and violence in Irish and Western history’ (184-5).

A theology that endorses violence is due to a massive mis-reading of the OT and the NT.  If you read the OT ‘literally’, says McMaster, you end up with all sorts of ‘texts of terror’ that appear to glory in images of a pathological warrior God who divinely sanctions brutal violence against children, humanity in general, the enemies of Israel and women.  You end up with ‘violent zealot’ like King Josiah being seen as a good guy. You end up  with the ‘divine right of kings’ being supported from the OT and being used a pretext for empire building and destruction of enemies by any means possible. To bring it closer to home, you end up with Cromwell in Drogheda.Cromwell in Drogheda

So how else can the violent ‘texts of terror’ in the OT be read? McMaster uses a pretty radical heremeneutic. Following a critical strand of OT scholarship (he doesn’t name him but Martin Noth was a forerunner) he argues that these ‘texts of terror’ need to be read through the lens of exile and judgement. In other words, Deuteronomy to 2 Kings needs to be understood as a theological history (McMaster calls it theo-mythical imagination) compiled in exile and re-interpreting Israel’s earlier history (the details of which are lost in time).

And this revisioning of history is actually anti-violence. The story of exodus, Canaan, Israel’s taking of a king and all the violence than ensued, was a tragic departure from her true calling. And the stories we have in the Bible are best read as a critique of Israel and her violence and lack of trust in YHWH. Underneath the narratives is the call to faith, to powerlessness, to rest in God being their God rather than take up arms. Violence, in this reading, is a lack of faith, a moral failure, a warning to future generations not to repeat their mistakes. And you see this counter narrative of non-violence all through the OT, which culminates in the coming of the Messiah.

McMaster doesn’t go into lots of examples, but presumably every time God is portrayed as commanding violence or as a victorious warrior, it is part of this anti-violent critique of the failure of Israel during this mythological history. Now, that’s quite a lot of re-interpretation going on.

OK, that’s the OT. When it comes to the NT, McMaster doesn’t tone down the radical arguments. He claims that Christians (and especially evangelicals since their close association with penal substitution) have deeply distorted the atonement. Those who believe in substitutionary atonement are responsible for propagating an inherently violent and immoral image of God that is flat contradiction with the teaching of Jesus himself. He says it is

‘baffling to know why Christians have allowed a violent God’s blood sacrifice of “his only Son” as a substitute for sinful humanity to dominate theology and liturgy for the last 1,000 years’ (116)

Without considering other models, or offering a fair view of penal substitution, he chooses the Christus Victor theory of the atonement instead of substitution. The violence in Christus Victor is that of the state, not of God. To believe in substitution (he does not add the word penal) is to ‘traumatise children’ with the immoral image of God as a father murdering his son at the cross (116). Strong, even violent, opinions.

Now, if you read this blog from time to time you may know that I happen to agree with McMaster that following Jesus means a life committed to active non-violence. I happen to agree that violence justified in the name of God has characterised and disfigured much of Irish (and church) history and that narrative needs replaced with an alternative story to that of power and coercion. It is only within such a narrative that the church can begin to recover its integrity as well as its ability to speak authentically of Jesus’ kingdom vision of peace, forgiveness, mercy, love of enemies and of self-giving non-violence.

But it seems to me that McMaster’s theological goal of distancing God from any involvement in violence leads to a critically debatable view of the OT narratives that still fails to deal convincingly with the numerous times God is very directly involved in violence.  And his passionate anti-violence framework leads to a caricature of penal substitution. Revelation is also read primarily as an anti-Empire text rather than a vision of God’s ultimate judgement. I’m not sure if there is a place for judgement in McMaster’s framework but I could be wrong.

While there are not easy answers, I found Chris Wright helpful on the OT and violence, here, here and here.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


Reading this over, I should add that lots in this book is very helpful and I haven’t made that clear in the narrower focus on hermeneutics. There are 4 chapters of history and 2 on putting active non-violence into practice within church communities – all good stuff.

2 thoughts on “Overcoming Violence: is it possible to distance God from all violence in the Bible?

  1. Thanks for this post and the links to the other posts. The Canaanite genocide is something I eventually want to blog about…as I tackle issues that make people doubt the faith.

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