Violence, Peace, and Judgment (& Gone Baby Gone)

Watching the movie Gone Baby Gone last night spurred my thinking about the complexities of pursuing peace and reconciliation in a world sick with violence. Gone Baby Gone is a brilliant and disturbing film that challenges its viewers to consider the possibility of a moral space between right and wrong.

One question worth pursuing might be this: What would it look like to think well theologically about reconciliation and peace in a world sick with violence? Such thinking would involve, first and foremost, I suggest, consideration of God’s relationship to violence, revenge, and peace. Especially in light of recent attempts to distance God from violence, to conceive of an inherently nonviolent God, this line of thinking is all the more critical for a robust doctrine of God in the church.

Let’s find our way into the discussion by considering Miroslav Volf’s theological exploration of identify, otherness, and reconciliation, Exclusion and Embrace. In the concluding pages he asks a question especially pertinent to our discussion: how do we relate the Crucified Messiah to the Rider of the white horse who seems to deploy violence without any thought of embracing the enemy?

In ways unpopular for many Western theologians, Volf argues that “the certainty of God’s judgment at the end of history is the presupposition for the renunciation of violence in the middle of it”. In other words, Christians can pursue peace only through displacing and transferring it to God. And to those who seek to separate completely God’s relationship to violence, Volf addresses the obvious question:

Why must God say the unrelenting ‘no’ to a world of injustice, deception, and violence in such a violent way? Why must the ‘no’ be symbolically coded in the images of terror breaking out and covering the world with blood and ashes? Is nonviolence impotent? One strategy of responding to these questions will not work. The attempt to exonerate the Revelation from the charge of affirming divine violence by suggesting that the Rider’s victory was not ‘fought with literal weapons,’ but with the sword ‘which protrudes from his mouth,’ which is ‘the Word of God’…is implausible. The violence of the divine word is no less lethal that the violence of the literal sword. We must either reject the Rider’s violence or find ways to makes sense of it; we cannot deny it. Is there a way of making sense not only of the language of divine ‘conquest’ but of the phenomenon of divine ‘violence’ in Revelation?

There are people who trust in the infectious power of nonviolence: sooner or later it will be crowned with success. In this belief, however, one can smell a bit too much of the sweet aroma of a suburban ideology, entertained by people who are neither courageous nor honest enough to reflect on the implication of terror taking place right in the middle of their living rooms (p. 296)!

The necessity of the Rider’s judgment lies in the stark reality of those who stubbornly insist on remaining beasts and false prophets, and in so doing have become “untouchable for the lure of God’s truth and goodness.” If there exist those who refuse what no one deserves, grace, they will experience God’s terror not because of the evil they have done, “but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah”. Do we give up hope then for the redemption of all? No, at the same time we affirm God’s anger and violence, while hoping to the end that even “the flag bearer will desert the army that desires the make war against the lamb” (pp. 298-9).

Volf summarizes his thesis that nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance:

Without entrusting oneself to the God who judges justly, it will be hardly possible to follow the crucified Messiah and refuse to retaliate when abused. The certainty of God’s just judgment at the end of history is the presupposition for the renunciation of violence in the middle of it. The divine system of judgment is not the flip side of the human reign of terror, but a necessary correlate of human nonviolence. Since the search for truth and the practice of justice cannot be given up, the only way in which nonviolence and forgiveness will be possible in a world of violence is through displacement or transference of violence, not through its complete relinquishment (p. 302).

Reactions? Thoughts?

Is this feasible? Does this provide us with the pastoral resources to walk with people in distress? And to engage politically and socially? Can we pursue peace while relinquishing, transferring, violence to God?


6 thoughts on “Violence, Peace, and Judgment (& Gone Baby Gone)

  1. “The certainty of God’s just judgment at the end of history is the presupposition for the renunciation of violence in the middle of it. The divine system of judgment is not the flip side of the human reign of terror, but a necessary correlate of human nonviolence. Since the search for truth and the practice of justice cannot be given up, the only way in which nonviolence and forgiveness will be possible in a world of violence is through displacement or transference of violence, not through its complete relinquishment (p. 302).

    Can we pursue peace while relinquishing or transferring violence to God?”

    How does the certainty of God’s judgment give Christians the freedom to renounce violence in the midst of history? Paul, I feel, makes the same argument in Romans 12, but at times I am confused to how either Paul or Volf get there. Just because Christians believe vengeance is ultimately God’s, does not make it any easier to bless persecutors. On the contrary, I ask this question: at what point does relinquishing and transferring violence to God cause more disconnection between an already fractured humanity? Is not the act of displacing and transfering violence still a violent act? Acting violently, and transfering violence are both motivated by hate and otherness, at least on the human end.

    A little background might be helpful here: I am an Iraq War veteran and a Denver Seminary student writing his thesis on just war vs. pacifism vs. just peacemaking. I know this to be true: no one can put another human being in the crosshairs of their weapon and pull the trigger without being motivated by hate. That act of taking another human life, in my estimation, is the rape of the imago dei, the anithesis of love. The act of displacing or transfering this violence to God is again, on the human end, motivated by hate. One cannot love as Christ loved, and commit acts of violence.

    Is it possible to pursue peace while relinquishing or transferring violence to God? NO, because it’s foundationally destructive. One must seek peace in all things, with all people, and live with the consequences. When one begins to displace their anger, hate, and violence by projecting it onto God (who judges in the eschaton), they start to create an otherness that dehumanizes the recipient of God’s judgment. Yes, vengence is God’s, but Christians must beware lest they find too much satisfaction in that statement.

    Reconciliation begins with realizing the humanity of the other. When one realizes the humanity of their enemy it becomes impossible to violate them. This is the beginning of peace, reconciliation, and redemption. There is a lack of grace involved in the displacement of violence. No matter who violence is projected upon, in motivation, it is still an act of violence. An act anithetical to the healing of the kingdom.

    On this side of the eschaton then, Christians must work for the continual peace and reconciliation of humanity. In the end, violence is the injury that must invite the healing of the kingdom. Displacing violence however, undermines the healing the kingdom has to offer to the world.

  2. Ben, it is great to have you contribute in such a significant and informed way! Please say hello to Andrea for me. I hope you two are doing well.

    Let me ask a follow-up question: Does loving my enemies and praying for those who persecute me (Matthew 5:44) necessarily exclude the relinquishment of vengence (judgment) to God (Romans 12:19-21)?

    If the two are mutually exclusion for someone, then I’m interested to see how his or her view inteprets passages such as 1 Peter 2:21-23 that bring the two together (“To this you were called [i.e. bearing up under the pain of unjust suffering], because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps…when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” ) And, if our theology is submitting to the scriptures, then we must also hear the recorded cries for God’s just vengence in the Psalms (Ps 94:3-8, 23; Ps 119:84) and in Revelation (Rev 6:10).

    I don’t hear you saying that God will not take vengence on those who commit evil, judging justly. Rather, that the act of transferring violence to God can all too easily become a “clapping at the gallows”, a gleefulness about the vengence God will exact. I think you are right to say that this is, in some ways, an act of violence itself.

    With James, I am not willing to discard divine violence. So, for myself and others committed to doing the same, we are left to “disentangle” the reality of divine violence from our own fears and selfish desires for revenge. That appears to be precisely the issue to probe further.

    Perhaps the imprecatory Psalms and the cries for God’s judgment in Revelation (6:10 – “How long will it be before you judge and avenge your blood” ) signal not the penultimate step of seeking peace, but only a necessary component of its progression, its process. In other words, I’m not sure the Psalmist and the saints of Revelation indicate for us a “clapping at the gallows”, but that, as Volf contends for example, relinquishing vengence to God is a step toward loving my enemies and praying for those who persecute me, of not taking vengence but leaving it to the wrath of God (Rom. 12:19). It is not the only step – and that is what I am probing here a bit.

    I have walked with many people struggling through the process of forgiving and reconciling with those who have harmed them, violated them, ravaged them. In every case, forgiveness, not to mention reconciliation, is a process that moves incrementally from hatred and rage to love and compassion.

    So, can relinquishing violence to God serve as the necessary first steps toward not taking revenge ourselves (imprecatory Psalms, Rom 12) and lead through the power of the Spirit to those acts of love and prayer to which Jesus exhorts us (Mt 5:44)? Or, are the two mutually exclusive?

  3. Kent,
    It is good to hear from you as well! I will tell Andrea hello for you, and if you could remember us in your prayers over the next few months we would greatly appreciate it. We are moving to Cambodia to teach English for two years, and are expecting our first child in January. Lots of big changes we are both apprehensive and excited about.

    “Does loving my enemies and praying for those who persecute me (Matthew 5:44) necessarily exclude the relinquishment of vengeance (judgment) to God (Romans 12:19-21)?”

    Two things: 1) No, I do not think that praying for persecutors should necessarily exclude the relinquishment of vengeance to God, however I do feel that humans must be careful in doing so lest relinquishment stems from violent motives. 2) I agree with James that “we cannot assume some fundamental similarity b/w divine and human violence,” and in that Christians must live in tension. Christians must pursue reconciliation and love, while simultaneously finding hope in the eschaton.

    “Volf contends for example, relinquishing vengeance to God is a step toward loving my enemies and praying for those who persecute me, of not taking vengeance but leaving it to the wrath of God (Rom. 12:19). It is not the only step – and that is what I am probing here a bit.”

    I must admit that my initial reactions to statements such as this are much more experiential than theological. The taking of human life, or innocence, should never be glorified or justified. However, this is exactly what humans do when backing war. We wave our flags and stand idly by enabling whole scale murder. This is human vengeance. Tit for tat: you fly into our buildings, and we’ll bomb your country. When framing vengeance in this context, and because this is what I am most familiar with, I have a difficult time reconciling divine vengeance and human justice.

    Will there be a divine justice, wrath, or vengeance? Should we as Christians find hope in divine judgment? Does a future judgment allow Christians to freely love and extend grace to all in the present? Yes, but I pray it is vastly different from human vengeance, and that God understands the distinctions better than I. May we all find the grace to extend love and reconciliation to our enemies, and the humility to hope in a good and just God who understands the mysteries of his creation.

  4. Thanks for getting this discussion started, Kent.

    I agree that we cannot give up the language of divine ‘judgment’ (or a related notion of divine ‘punishment’), but I wonder if it goes too far to call this ‘violence’. I am wary about the latter term, because even though the Psalms, for example, often implore God to punish, judge, and do all kinds of ‘wicked’ things to those who are persecuting the lamenters, many of those very Psalms themselves describe how the wicked are the ones who do violence and bring judgment on themselves by departing from the law of the Lord.

    Without taking the time to do a whole lot of exegetical work to back this up, my basic thoughts are:
    1) We need a better theological account of divine judgment and/or punishment, that isn’t simply the transferral of (anthropocentrically conceived) ‘violence’ to God (and I do think Volf is at fault here).
    2) That better account of divine judgment should (Barth-like) take its cue from the judgment brought upon all in Christ’s death and resurrection; we need to Christologically specify the “vengeance” that is God’s right alone.
    And 3) related to the latter point, there has to be a clear sense in which Christians understand themselves, with all humanity, as included in God’s judgment – such that any notion of divine “punishment” has more to say about God’s historical and providential use of creaturely rebellion, rather than about an ontological or eschatological distinction: in other words, this notion cannot help but go awry, and feed our need for self-assurance, if it becomes a way for Christians, or the persecuted, to eternally separate ‘us’ from ‘them’.

    So even though I think something has gone very wrong when we seek to defend a peace ethic by ‘transferring’ violence (as that which we should not do) to God, I agree that we need a better account of how God, in God’s providence, utilizes our rebellion to call us back to himself, to speak a Word that can in the last instance only be a word of grace.

    The supreme danger of ‘transferring violence’ to God, I think, is exactly what James was pointing out: as humans called to be ‘transformed’ into the image of Christ who is himself the image of God, we have to watch very carefully the ‘images’ of God we project. We are always fashioning idols to relieve ourselves of the hard work of following after the God who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

  5. Scott, many thanks for your comments. The distinction you make between ‘violence’ and ‘judgment’ (or ‘punishment’ ) is definitely the right one to make. Although you did not say this, by parsing these questions in terms of God’s ‘judgment’ rather than ‘violence’, we stay much closer to the language of the scriptures – and this is a good thing for the terms used are now regulated by their use within the biblical witness.

    Another note, I think we share a similar concern with the ease in which some contemporary discussions about ‘judgment’ or ‘punishment’ take sharply anthropmorphic and anthropocentric turns. One of the reasons for getting the discussion started was to probe the ways in which we think about God and his relationship to actions that some are deeming unworthy or unfitting of God (e.g. ‘judgment’).

    I am not at all interested in defending Volf’s position but only want to continue probing the issue a bit more if you can humor me. It would seem (and I might be way off on this), that contending for a relationship of non-correspondence between divine and human action related to judgment would prevent the all-too-easy collapsing of God’s judgment as justification for human violence. By maintaining that divine judgment, such as we see of the rider on the white horse in Revelation, is an action reserved for God alone, don’t we allow for a relinquishment – not transfer – of human vengence to the only one capable of exacting judgment justly, rightly? In these terms, then, God doesn’t become the one who exacts vengence they way we would like (anthropocentric), but he is the one to whom we can relinquishment our anger, fear, and desire for revenge and trust to be the only one capable of executing judgment justly. Any thoughts – am I totally off my rocker here?

  6. Not off your rocker at all – that sounds pretty sound to me. ‘Relinquishing’ rather than ‘transferring’ vengeance seems exactly right, in fact.

    One of the remaining questions, however, is the tricky one about whether there is or can be any Chrisitan vocation to exercise judgment – and if so, what it is (e.g., the classic question of the ‘Christian statesmen’ ). That question – about the places where (an ‘exceptional’ ) correspondence between divine and human judgment might remain – is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak, in terms of which categories are most properly applied to divine judgment in the first place.

    At the end of the day, my main concern is an account of God’s work that does not divide God’s being into contradictory attributes – in other words, I’m unhappy with any account that assumes a fundamental (even if, sometimes, there needs to be a conceptual) distinction between grace and judgment, love and justice, etc. I think it is only because, in God, grace and justice are finally one, that humans are in fact called to be conformed to the image of Christ…. which may very well demand a ‘relinquishing’ of vengeance to the one for whom ‘judgment’ is not ‘revenge’.

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