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).
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?