Thursday, April 23, 2015

God Who Rules By Threat

But a God who rules by threat does not rule at all.  As I can cause pain, so I can take it away.
I can restore you.  I can make you whole.
-  God is Dead #6 by
Jonathan Hickman, Mike Costa, and Di Amorim

Is God a god who rules by threat?  No, no, you say, God is love!  But how many people have come to God, been converted, been "saved," primarily out of fear that if they didn't, God would send them to hell?

Is that why you became a Christian?  I freely admit it was a good motivator for me.

"God loves you very much.  You should love him back.  If you do, he will take you to heaven to spend all of eternity with him.  But if you don't, he will damn you forever to pain and torture in hell."

But wait, maybe it's the promise of heaven that motivates us, not the threat of hell.  But if our destination in the afterlife is dependent on such an if/then economy, can there be a promise of heaven without a threat of hell?

But let's back up.  What about threats of punishment, wrath, and violence here on this earth?  If we offend this God, our God, does not the threat of divine retribution hang over our heads?  Again, I ask, is God a god of wrath and vengeance?  Is our first instinct to point to the various Bible verses that confirm this sentiment?  Is our first reaction to find these verses and argue some sort of positive justification that our God is wrathful and vengeful?

Why would we worship a God like that?

Why should we?  Why do we?

Should we?  Do we?

I will pause for a moment while you light your torches.

My point, that I'm getting to in an admittedly roundabout way, is that perhaps this depiction of a wrathful, violent God, is not accurate, or certainly not the depiction we should emphasize.  Perhaps it's not the story we should be telling.  Because right now the story that we're telling is that God is a bastard.

Now, I know what you will say, "Mitchell, you magnificent stallion of a man!  You can't call God a bastard!"

Well, if we stop portraying him as a bastard, then I will stop calling him as such.

I'm not saying we should ignore the ugly parts of the Bible because we don't like them (though, more concerning, is the number of Christians that really seem to approve of them), but that we should confront them and wrestle with them.  I submit the radical notion that we can read the Bible without mindlessly agreeing with it.

Ever sit with Christians that are discussing the Exodus and subsequent conquest of Canaan?  That is a story of full on, unrestrained genocide.  And most Christians don't flinch at it.  Instead, we nod our heads in agreement.  We applaud it!  If we dare to ask how a loving God could order such a heinous act, we Christians will leap at the opportunity to defend God.

We will eagerly defend genocide.

We make all sorts of leaps in logic and ethics in order to defend God or excuse him of this appalling behavior.  Though, let's be honest, most of us wouldn't classify it as appalling at all.  Now, the Holocaust, that certainly was terrible, but the conquest of the Promise Land wasn't.  Why?  Well, because the conquest was God's will.  And when God does something, it must be good!

And what I'm saying is that when the president does it, it's not illegal.

See, that reasoning doesn't really fly.

But the indigenous people of the lands of Canaan were evil sinners and God enacted his just and righteous punishment against them.  God's judgement will fall, in due time, on all sinners.  Just as God judged the people of Canaan, so shall similar judgement fall on the sinners of our day: the homosexuals, the communists, the liberals, the left-handed, the vegans, the Albanians, and the Prius owners.  In this case we use the Old Testament example of divinely ordered atrocious war crimes optimistically and hope that it will be repeated against those people we just don't like.

That is terrifying.  How do we claim that God is love and Jesus is the Prince of Peace out of one side of our mouths while praying for God's violent judgement upon others out of the other side?

In Disarming Scripture, Derek Flood says, "We should not cry out for God's wrath and judgment, because we are all sinners in need of mercy."1  I have tried in my writings to express my claim that I am the worst of all sinners.  This is not to gloat, but to say I am in no position to judge others or call for judgement upon them.  For if I call for judgement, I am the very first person said judgement will target.  I am far too aware of the plank in my own eye to get bent out of shape by the speck in yours.

But the Bible says numerous times that if people obey God, he will bless them.  If they disobey them, he will curse them.  The Canaanites clearly disobeyed God, so he cursed them.  Simple.  Reasonable.

But is that love?  Is that the ridiculous, unfathomable, downright stupid love of Christ that forgives sinners even as they are crucifying him?  There is a saying that I've heard floating around that says God must be at least as nice as Jesus.  If Jesus is our most perfect revelation of God, then it stands that, yes, God must be love as much as Jesus is love.  And Jesus exemplified that love that is a gift, a true gift, freely given, never earned, yes, yes, oui, oui, amen.

But God is also wrathful and vengeful, and we should be very afraid of him, for fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Right?  But you know what's more fearsome, more terrifying, than being a sinner in the hands of an angry God?  Being a sinner in the hands of a loving God.  Wrath and vengeance I get.  I can understand that.  The unconditional, unmerited, undeserved grace of God?  That befuddles me beyond words.

Plus, we Christians, in the face of supposed secular attacks on our well-being, often claim that without God we would not have any morality.  The sense of right and wrong go straight out the window.  Yet, here we often find ourselves arguing that the genocides of Scripture are morally right and good.  We should not have to comprise our morals when we read the Bible.

Genocide is wrong.  Genocide is wrong even if God wills it.  Genocide is wrong especially if God wills it.

However, if you're looking for a clear cut answer about what we should do with these troubling passages of Scripture, you clearly have not been reading my work for too long.  I don't have an answer.  An answer is not the issue.  The issue is that instead of blindly affirming terrible things because the "Bible tells me so," we should be willing to wrestle, struggle, and discuss these things.  We should be deeply troubled by these passages.  And we should not be afraid to question them.  As Derek Flood says, "It is good to think.  It is good to question in the name of compassion.  It is good to have a morality rooted in life and our shared human experience.  These are essential elements of a healthy faith."2  We should be willing to protest the unquestioning affirmation of troubling Scripture, even if that feels like we are protesting God.  And if that is the case, then perhaps we do have a moral obligation to protest God.

So let's stop telling everybody that God is a bastard with our insistence that the violence in the Bible is somehow morally good.  Because I don't think God is a bastard.  I think God is an expression of that incomprehensible love that defies all understanding.  I think God is love, and that love is a gift.

That love is the gift.

1. Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (San Franciso, CA: Metanoia Books, 2014), 66.
2. Ibid., 254.

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