Thursday, March 20, 2014

"The Nonviolent God"

J. Denny Weaver is an Anabaptist/Mennonite theologian who is best known for his book “The Nonviolent Atonement” (2001; 2nd ed., 2011).
Dr. Weaver is coming to Kansas City as part of a book tour related to his new book, “The Nonviolent God” (2013). I am currently reading that book as well as co-leading a Sunday School class discussing it at Rainbow Mennonite Church.
Weaver was born in Kansas City, Kan., in 1941, and has ties to Rainbow (in KCKS) where he will be speaking on March 30. He will also be speaking at Central Baptist Theological Seminary on March 31. I am looking forward to hearing his talks.
Now Professor Emeritus at Bluffton University (in Ohio) where he taught for 31 years, Weaver is also the author of books about the Anabaptists, such as Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism” (1987; 2nd ed., 2005).
Before I really knew anything about Weaver, I mentioned what he had written about the Atonement being “divine child abuse,” as some feminist theologians describe traditional views concerning the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion. (See my “Limits of Liberalism,” pp. 196-199).
Traditional views of the atonement are severely critiqued by Weaver, who is sympathetic with the feminist theologians’ point just mentioned, as well as with James Cone who has “linked substitutionary atonement specifically to defenses of slavery and colonial oppression” (“Nonviolent Atonement,” p. 66).
Whereas “The Nonviolent Atonement” is primarily a rejection of the traditional views of the Atonement, especially the penal substitution theory that has been predominant among Protestants, “The Nonviolent God” expands that idea to include the theology of the nature of God.
On the second page of the latter, Weaver clearly states, “That God should be understood with nonviolent images constitutes the major thesis of this book.”
That thesis is based on this premise: “If God is revealed in Jesus, as Christian faith professes, then God should be considered nonviolent as a reflection of the nonviolence of Jesus” (p. 125).
Thus, “if God (or the character of God) is revealed in Jesus, the violent and nonviolent images of God cannot be reconciled” (p. 135). There are, to be sure, violent images of God in the Old Testament and even in the parables of Jesus.
But Weaver argues that there are more and stronger images of God as nonviolent and that those should be constitutive of a theological understanding of God and of the Christian life.
The emphasis on nonviolent atonement and a nonviolent God is consistent with a central conviction of Anabaptists/Mennonites such as Weaver.
Nonviolence, often referred to as pacifism, has been a dominant characteristic of most Anabaptists since the heyday of Menno Simons (1496-1561) and is entrenched in most Mennonite churches to this day.
As one who has long identified with that tradition, and who is now a member of a Mennonite church, Weaver’s arguments strongly resonate with me, even though I don’t necessarily agree with every point.
Thus, I can emphatically say that I am glad we in the U.S. have such a “weak” President. (With regard to the critical situations in Iran, in Syria, and now in Ukraine, how many times have I heard the President criticized by his political enemies for being weak!)
But if the President were “stronger,” and thus more inclined to use military might rather than nonviolent ways to deal with international disputes, our country could well be fighting right now in Iran and Syria and perhaps in Ukraine soon.
Since God is nonviolent, though, those who truly believe in God should always seek to be nonviolent too.


  1. Local Thinking Friend Sue Wright (and I wish there were more women who would respond to my blog articles) sent the following comments (and permission to post them here):

    "I like to think of and celebrate our 'weak' President as trying to lead 'Without Ego And Killing.'
    Let's hope that strategy prevails and that we find other ways to stem the rise of rulers and terrorists who thrive on frightening everyone to death."

    1. Leroy, I wish that I could join your local thinking friend and "celebrate our 'weak' President as trying to lead 'Without Ego And Killing." I live in the United States where the current president is hell bent on surpassing the combined lawlessness and thirst for blood of his predecessors. The present President, intoxicated with ego and killing, is pathetically weak, but in his weakness he is first of the rulers and terrorists who thrive on frightening everyone to death. Let us pray that this strategy fails so profoundly that no other ruler will dare curse the planet with it again.

  2. This emphasis needs cooperative efforts among Christians to support nonviolent solutions for mankind (or demonstrate American exceptionalism--"king of the hill." David Lamb in his "God Acting Badly" and Paul Copan in his "Is God a Moral Monster" give insights to the view of a violent God in the Old Testament. And of course we greatly appreciate the work of Glen Stassen toward a science of peace. It seems strange how silent American Christians are on positive aspects of God's grace extended in practice.

    1. Les, good to hear from you again, and I much appreciate your comments.

      I didn't know about Lamb's and Copan's books, and Weaver doesn't make any reference to them--although they seem to be important books that deal with the main issue dealt with in Weaver's book.

      Weaver does make a number of references to Stassen and the various books/articles he has published through the years. We baptists are fortunate to have someone like Glen consistently writing such good and important stuff about peacemaking.

  3. Local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman (about whom you will probably hear more from me soon) writes,

    "Finally, someone capable of giving religion a good name. Weaver has God figured out. The old 'omnis' on the nature of God are no longer operative.

    "Your word on our president's actions is also right on. I trust him more than anyone else on our national destiny."

  4. Thinking Friend Charles Shields, whom I knew in Louisville in the mid-1960s and haven't seen since, sent the following comments (and also gave posting permission):

    "I left the sacrificial imagery of Judaism as the best way to depict God years ago.

    "I do not agree with you about Obama. I think he has put our country in peril. He is living his Father’s dream and moving us toward European Socialism at a rapid rate.

    "You might find George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty" an interesting defense of the morality of Capitalism.

    "Would love to hear Weaver."

  5. Charles, I appreciate you writing, and I see that we agree a great deal more regarding theology than politics.

    In my brief reference to President Obama, I was not saying anything directly about his economic policies, although you may see his "weakness" toward America's foes to be linked to his economic intentions.

    I am not familiar with George Gilder, by name anyway. But I know about his ideas, and when I read that he was President Reagan's most quoted living author, I realize that you and I have serious differences in our understanding of the economic problems of our nation. (And I am afraid you would have a problem agreeing with Dr. Weaver also.)

    I much appreciate hearing from people who do not agree with my ideas; that broadens the dialogue and makes this blog more valuable for its readers. So thanks, again, for sharing your ideas.

  6. I'm delighted to hear of Mr. Weaver's books. I've long had a problem with the punishment paradigm in the theological traditions of my youth. (Baptist and Seventh-day Adventist) I couldn't reconcile the "Substitutionary Atonement" with the Divine I felt and my faith reached for.
    I tried a couple of fudges, including saying the show wasn't for God's sake but to mollify our own violent natures. But I abandoned that as I saw that sinners need hugs not someone to beat up on.
    Perhaps you remember me trying to work through this back at Fukuoka International Church.
    Since then I have dismissed any Theology that has the Divine trafficking in punishment.

    Patrick Crews

    1. Patrick, thanks for posting your comments, which I take as being in harmony with the view of the Atonement forwarded by Dr. Weaver--as well as by Dr. Sparkman, about whom I have written in the blog article to be posted on 3/25.

    2. LKS said
      "Patrick, thanks for posting your comments, which I take as being in harmony with the view of the Atonement forwarded by Dr. Weaver--as well as by Dr. Sparkman, about whom I have written in the blog article to be posted on 3/25."

      I haven't read these gentlemen yet. I'm more responding to your characterization of their Christology, which I trust to be accurate,
      I don't have an objective dogmatic Theology. I take Theology to be "God Language," the metaphors and stories we use to express The Divine in our very limited context of understanding. Since my college days in which I read a great deal of Kierkegaard, Buber, and Tillich, my interpretations are informed by what promotes Faith and Compassion. So if Jesus Christ is not in any sense an embodiment of Wisdom and Compassion, he makes zero sense to me. So speaking Christian, I will be a little dogmatic in insisting that Christ must be revelatory of Unconditional Love. And we must be as well!

  7. Thinking Friend Michael Olmsted, who for many years was pastor of University Heights Baptist Church in Springfield, Mo., sent the following piece under the title "Violence and Redemption."

    "I suspect that most of us color our Scripture interpretations and theological statements through an emotional/experiential comfort zone. My early perspective on substitutionary atonement was precise and harsh, almost a 'this for that' or precise legalistic balance.

    "But through my journey with Christ I have become increasingly captivated by the doctrine of incarnation, the inexplicable idea of God becoming one with us while continuing to be the utterly holy God. The prologue to John's gospel became my bedrock of hope in every life experience and has modified some of my 'easy' beliefs.

    "Because I believe Christ is God-in-flesh and still God I cannot accept the idea of 'child abuse' connected to the cross and true to the core of our faith as resurrection. The key is in Jesus' cry from the cross, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' (Psalm 22:1, read the entire psalm).

    "Believers profess that God is powerfully present with us in the experiences of life, and most frequently presume that means God will solve every problem, answer every prayer to our advantage, and obliterate evil. Such an interpretation characterizes God as little more than a Middle Eastern potentate or fairy god-mother.

    "As I have struggled with the harshness of the cross, Colossians 1:19-20 has reshaped my ideas: '... it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him (Christ), and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him ...'

    "So, as I hear that cry of loneliness and pain from the cross I do not see Christ alone in the presence of evil. I see Christ who is one with the Father ... I see God in all his fullness with the Son, defeating evil an death ... I see God, our loving Father, with us in the very real darkness of this world ... God choosing to experience our loneliness and fears.

    "Because I believe in the incarnation I do not see Christ as the child sent by a harsh parent to die for humankind. The voice of Jesus was the voice of God crying out against all that keeps us from God. This is a flawed creation, to which history clearly attests. Only God can offer the ultimate gift of grace and love."

    1. Michael, thank you for your meaty comments. I fully agree with your incarnational approach, as I assume Dr. Weaver would also.

      At the beginning of his book (p. 1), he emphasizes a Bible verse that I have often used through the years in talking about the work of Jesus: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). This, I believe, is the same sort of understanding you articulated above.