Why in the history of history of the church has enemy-loving non-violence so rarely been attributed to God and so rarely been espoused as the defining characteristic of kingdom people? In light of the fact that the New Testament makes cruciform love the central characteristic of who God is and of what it means to be a follower of Christ, why has this centrality been so rarely affirmed?
One could argue that the portrait of God in the NT is not unambiguously non-violent, the revelation of God on Calvary notwithstanding. For it can’t be denied that there are violent-appearing images of God in certain teachings of Jesus and certain NT authors. I address here Jesus cleansing the temple, and Jesus’ command to buy a sword. And it certainly can’t be denied that the most violent imagery in the NT is found in the book of Revelation, which I explain in this post.
However, even with these exegetical questions about specific passages, I can’t think of a teaching in Scripture that is simpler, clearer or more uniformly taught than the NT’s call for followers of Jesus to unconditionally embrace an enemy-loving, non-violent posture toward all people at all times. From my perspective, any ambiguity that is alleged to accompany this teaching arises not because there is any difficulty in understanding it, but because theologians have struggled to integrate this teaching with one or more of the following three beliefs and practices.
Love and Just-War Intuitions. First, the NT’s teaching runs directly counter to most people’s commonsense intuitions about the justified use of violence in certain personal, social, and national circumstances. The prevailing assumption throughout history is that Jesus and certain NT authors surely weren’t forbidding the use of violence to protect our families or our country! Whatever they actually meant, this commonsensical line of thinking goes, they could not have meant that, for that is patently absurd!
It seems to me that disciples are called to obey the NT’s teachings on love and non-violence even if it strikes them as foolish to do so. In fact, we ought not be surprised that the NT’s teaching on loving enemies strikes us as foolish since this teaching amounts to nothing other than the command to imitate God (Eph 5:1-2). And as Paul himself conceded, to the “natural” or “fleshly” mindset, nothing could seem more foolish than the proclamation that the omnipotent Creator choose to accomplish his sovereign purposes by allowing himself to be tortured and executed on a cross!
Jesus taught that if we only love those for whom it makes sense to love, there is nothing distinctly godly and rewarding about our love. But when we go beyond the conditional kind of love people normally extend to others and instead choose to love and bless even our worst “enemies,” we reflect God’s indiscriminate love in a distinctive way and thus enjoy a unique reward (Mt 5:46; Lk 6:32-33). Our love, in other words, is supposed to look foolish, and this, it seems to me, rules out any possibility of qualifying the NT’s command to love and to refrain from violence on commonsensical grounds.
Non-Violent Love and Theological Determinism. Second, while I don’t wish to offend my Calvinist sisters and brothers, I nevertheless confess that I do not believe it is a coincidence that the theologian who first laid the groundwork for Christian justification for “just-war” and religious persecution was St. Augustine, the theologian who was the Church’s first full-fledged determinist. It is challenging to see how a God whose essence is self-sacrificial love could meticulously preordain every nightmarish event that has ever, or will ever, come to pass—including the eternal suffering of non-elect individuals. While the NT’s teaching on the non-violent nature of love is remarkably clear, this kind of love becomes exceedingly problematic when applied to an omni-determinative concept of God.
The driving question surrounding this issue, I believe, is this: as it concerns our concept of God, are we to understand God’s power in light of his cruciform love, or are we to understand God’s love in light of a predeterministic view of God’s power? I believe the New Testament itself is quite clear about which path we should take. For Paul, the cross was the quintessential expression of “the wisdom and power of God” (I Cor. 1).
If the cross, understood as the thematic center of Jesus’ life, is indeed the quintessential revelation of God, then not only God’s power, but every other attribute of God, should be rethought in light of the cross. If we start and end with the cross as we reflect on God’s power, I submit it would never occur to us to imagine God’s power was of a deterministic sort. (I explore this further here.) And still less would we then allow a deterministic conception of divine power to compromise the humble, self-giving love of God that is revealed on the cross.
Non-Violent Love and the OT. Finally, while the dominant portrait of God found in the OT could be described as one who is loving, the NT’s revelation that God’s essence is love, as defined by Calvary, obviously clashes with the OT’s violent portraits of God. When an OT portrait of God commanding the merciless slaughter of women and infants is given authority alongside the revelation of God in the crucified Christ to reveal what God is like, the concept of divine love cannot help but become highly ambiguous. But notice that the ambiguity does not reside in what Jesus and the NT actually taught on this subject. It rather arises when we try to integrate their teachings with portraits of Yahweh commanding genocide or ripping fetuses out of wombs.
This approach assumes that the revelation of God in Christ is one revelation among others. But Jesus did not reveal part of what God is like. He is the one and only Word in whom the fullness of God dwelt and who reveals exactly what God is like down to his very essence (hypostasis, Heb. 1:3). All Scripture must therefore be interpreted in such a way that it points to him, and never in a way that qualifies or compromises him.
We must never waver from the conviction, reflected throughout the New Testament that Jesus is “the center and circumference of the Bible.” Hence, instead of allowing sub-Christ-like portraits to compromise Christ, we must confront the challenge of finding a way to disclose how these portraits bear witness to Christ.