Archive for July 17th, 2009

Paul and Violence?

Friday, July 17th, 2009

In my new book on Paul, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, I have a chapter arguing against the idea that Paul had a violent personality and for Paul as peacemaker and practitioner of nonviolence—which, I argue, is rooted in Paul’s gospel and especially in the resurrection.

A sympathetic and astute reader of the book, Brad, posed some very interesting and important questions.

One particular question keeps coming to mind and I was wondering if you would mind giving me your thoughts on it. You do a really nice job of showing in a succinct and compelling way how the kenotic view of God (and its non-violent implications) does not necessarily conflict with eschatological wrath/judgment, but I am left wondering what exactly Paul might have thought about the images of God as “Divine Warrior” in the OT, especially as this image is used for the sanctioning of nationalistic war (e.g. Joshua and Judges). How do you think Paul would have related these two images of God, kenotic and Warrior? A somewhat related point is that, while Paul does seem to leave the Phinehas understanding of zeal aside in favor of the model of Abraham, Genesis seems to think that a climactic expression of Abraham’s faith was in his willingness to sacrifice his own son (the “Akedah”). Paul apparently is comfortable appropriating the Akedah as a prototype of Christ’s obedience, but how do you think he would have thought about this act of violence as an expression of faith?

[More specifically,] I’m wondering is what Paul would have thought when, so to speak, he picked up Judges and read it: given its Scriptural status I don’t think Paul would have thought that God as Warrior who authorized and even demanded nationalistic military engagement was “not the same” as the God of Jesus Christ (as, e.g. Marcion) or that God had previously acted contrary to his character. So the question I’m thinking through is how would Paul have put together his view of God as fundamentally kenotic with the prior revelations of God as a (nationalistic, militaristic) Warrior who leads his people in battle. Or to put it another way, if God now approaches his enemies in restorative love, it seems that Paul also would have been compelled to acknowledge that in previous times and perhaps also in the future at the eschaton, God had acted on the principle of retributive justice (so sapiential literature, the Deuteronomistic History, etc.) and through the mode of military conquest.

Some of my response to these questions follows:

1. It is clear that Paul (and perhaps also the Pauline tradition, if Ephesians is not by Paul) can occasionally use various forms of military language and images for both God’s and (especially) believers’ life and activity. This language comes from the Scriptures, other Jewish literature, and Roman military life, etc. (Nijay Gupta, finishing a PhD in NT at Durham University in England and now teaching at Ashland Seminary is beginning a study of the last of these three, and that should be interesting.) This Pauline language is fully denationalized and is “theologized,” specifically “apocalypticized”: it is used to describe the conflict between God and/or believers on the one hand, and evil powers, Satan, false gospels and ideologies, etc., on the other. In some sense, believers participate in the divine apocalyptic battle, as in other Jewish literature. But this battle is in no sense actual military combat or physical violence. Nor is this battle a form of “soft violence,” that is, non-lethal coercion. The battle is waged with such weapons as proclamation, prayer, persuastion, and suffering. The use of military imagery may be a bit off-putting to us who are sensitive to its abuse, but it in no way justifies the use of violence. In fact, God is the kenotic warrior! God’s means of initiating and waging the apocayptic battle is to send into the world weapons of righteousness that embody the divine character: the Son, the Spirit, the church.

2. Paul’s rejection of violence is firmly rooted in his gospel, so the question of the Akedah/Abraham’s sacrifice, to which Paul alludes in Romans 8, is also significant. The key to this problem is how Paul views Christ’s death (itself a form of violence, with or without the analogy to the Akedah). For Paul, Christ’s death is both the donation of the Son by the Father and the donation of the Son by the Son himself—a self-donation. It expresses both the love of the Father and the love of the Son. Because of this close and inseparable connection between Father and Son, the Father’s giving of the Son is ultimately an act of self-giving. The Father gives the Beloved, Son, the One who shares in the very divine status of God. Although, of course, Paul does not state this interaction in specifically Trinitarian terms, he does indicate the deep self-involvement of the Father in the giving of the Son by the use of the reflexive pronoun iin Rom 8:3 and the parallel adjective idiou in Rom 8:32—God’s own son. To put it in theological language that Miroslav Volf and others have used, Paul sees the atonement fundamentally as a two-party “transaction,” not a “three-party” transaction. That is, God in/through Christ (one party) lovingly reconciles the world (second party) through Christ’s incarnation and death, rather than God (one party) sending and punishing Christ (second party) in Christ’s death so that the world/believers (third party) do not have to die.

3. I struggle theologically with the freedom of God/constrained by his own character of love. But I am very leary of the hint of divine change (e.g. from OT to NT) or the perception of divine change (e.g. “progressive revelation”). Paul would absolutely say that the “God of the OT” is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul is not Marcion. So, how might Paul read those bloody narratives? I think he would read them, and did read them (as seen in his “apocalypticizing” or “spiritualizing” [I hate that term] of the divine warrior tradition), allegorically, as did Origen, though Origen did so with a different allegorical strategy. I am not trying to say that Paul and Origen were thoroughgoing hermeneutical brothers, only that violence drew them both to some form of allegorical interpretation.

4. On the practical side, it seems to me that Rom 13:1-7 does not sanction believers’ participation in anything that contradicts the explicit exhortations in the context (all of Rom 12 and 13). That passage is a very Jewish nod to established authority, but the sword it approves is not the sword of the soldier. My point is primarily that, given all the interpretations of Rom 13 out there, no interpretation can be valid that allows Christians to violate the explicit command, for instance, to love enemies. So even if one concludes that 13:1-7 says God installs governments to carry out violence when necessary, Rom 12 and Rom 13:8ff prohibit believers from doing so. Which means either one goes the path of Luther (bifurcating the individual into two roles) or one becomes Anabaptist theologically if not ecclesially). Facing this heremeneutical and existential dilemma, I choose the latter, or perhaps it chooses me.