Now that we are focused on violence, in the wake of the terrible tragedy in Newton, Connecticut, and now that “God” has been dragged in as an accomplice, if not cause of the carnage (an accomplice, if God merely allowed all this, to teach us a lesson; or else, the cause, if God actually was punishing us by means of this massacre – it’s hard to know exactly what Dobson meant), I will add my reflections.
Perhaps because the first little child to be buried was a Jewish boy named Noah, I was reminded of the biblical story of Noah; the flood and the ark. It’s from Genesis chapter six. That means this story is a scant five chapters from the Creation story, in which the world was created as a perfect garden paradise; a place of harmony and abundance. But things quickly descended in to violent chaos. Adam and Eve’s son Cain killed his own brother, Able. Then, even worse, the story moves on to a brute named Lamech who boasts to his multiple wives that he has killed a man merely for striking him (Gen 4). The story keeps getting worse until at last chapter six opens with this summing up of the world of humans, from God’s perspective:
Gen. 6:5 “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”
A few verses later we get another, similar summary from God, only this time with one added detail: its a bit more specific about the problem:
6:11 “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.”
By the way, the bible has a complex history. One of the reasons this summary statement sounds so much like the previous summary is that the story as we now have it has compressed two versions into one, both of which have borrowed all the main plot motifs from other ancient flood and survivor stories. I only bring up this information to point to one of the reason why I don’t take this story literally. But I do take it as an important reflection by ancient, thoughtful people, about the world, and about God, and the mess we are in. That’s what the bible is, after all.
God’s Emotional Life
So anyway, in one of the very few places in the bible where we get an author telling us direct information about God’s emotional life, we read his reaction to this violent world in verse 6.
6:6 “And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
God was heart-sick at the effects of violence. He grieved. I think this is what we are supposed to think about how God responds to violence. God is grieving for those precious children from Newton right now, as well as for the adults whose lives were ended violently.
God’s Response: 2 Options
So God looks with grief at humans and all of the violence, how is God to respond? In this ancient story, the author seems to suggest that God could destroy the whole world and start over with a new Creation, a new Genesis chapter one. But God has already tried that option, and it has led to this violent outcome. Now it’s time to try option two: wipe out the bad guys and start humanity over with only the remaining good guys. The story continues:
7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the sight of the LORD.”
So Noah, a good guy, and his family, and animals (two of each kind, in one version, and 7 of each kind in another – and now these two versions sit side by side in our final version) all get into the ark, ride out the flood, and start the human population over again. But this story too goes bad, quickly, and so now what?
It appears that starting from scratch (Genesis 1) or starting over with only the good people (Genesis 6) neither produce a good world for very long. Humans seem to have this propensity for the evil of violence.
The Bible on Violence
Long story short: the Bible has a hard time with knowing what to do about violence. It goes back and forth about it a lot. Often, violence is described as good; when it’s “our” violence against “our” opposition (Israelites against Canaanites, David against Goliath). But even that can go too far, as when the prophet Hosea (1:4) denounces a king (Jehu) for a blood bath he conducted in the name of, and for the sake of God. Ambivalence about evil appears in other places in the bible too. People who wrote the Psalms sometimes cry out to God to be delivered from “violent people” and then turn around and ask God to help them to be successfully violent against them (Psalm 18 is a good example). So it goes both ways.
Nevertheless, even in the context of all of this ambivalence, the consistent vision of the perfect future that God will one day bring about is a picture of a return to that Garden of Eden-like state of harmony and peace. One day, people will beat swords into plows, spears in to pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, in fact they won’t even learn the art of warfare any longer (Isaiah 2 // Micah 4). The perfect state that God intends is a state of peace. The weapons fall silent. The days of predation are finished: lions and wolves lie down together, and a little child, like the ones in Newton, Connecticut lead them without fear (Isaiah 11). In the mean time, violence grieves God “to his heart.”
Jesus on Violence
If this is how the bible historically thinks of violence and it’s end, is it any big surprise that by the time of Jesus, who had all of these texts to reflect on, we find him drawing the only possible conclusion: God wills violence to end, even if it means sacrificing yourself instead of taking up the sword, just as Jesus did, just as some of those brave teachers did at the Shady Hook elementary school did. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” Jesus famously said (Matthew 26:52), as a summary statement which rejected violence as a means to a good end. Jesus did not believe in the myth that we would be redeemed by violence. Instead, Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek.
So now people such as James Dobson and Mike Hukabee want us to believe that God takes up the violent sword, in the form of a Bushwaker assault rifle, points it at the little heads of defenseless children and starts firing rounds, in order to make the rest of us feel bad about – about what? About “sins” such as not wanting the State to say our prayers for us, in public schools? About not wanting to discriminate any longer against people who fall in love differently than we (heterosexuals) do?
Let’s ask two questions. 1) What kind of God would conduct a massacre of innocent children to teach adults lessons? 2) Does that picture of God map up to the picture we get from Jesus?
How about an alternative? What would this whole trauma look like from the perspective of God as a God who is good; a “Father in Heaven” – as Jesus taught us to believe in? Might not a good God not grieve for the loss of precious lives? Might not a good God want us to find ways to prevent repeating this kind of senseless violence? Might not a good God want us to find ways to come along side parents of children who are exhibiting signs of mental illness and to find ways to provide for them effective treatments and support systems so that single parent’s were not left to deal with it all alone?
Evil, in General
Why does a good God allow this kind of evil? I sure wish I knew; I don’t know anyone who does. All I can say is that it appears that God has decided to make us humans truly free. God does not turn all our evil thoughts into rainbows and butterflies. God does not stop us from freely feeling anger, even from fantasies of vengeance, nor from harsh words, raised voices, raised fists, raised weapons, or fingers pulling triggers. We are radically free, and radically responsible morally for what we choose to do.
And if that’s true, the there is one bit about what the Huckabee’s and Dobson’s of the world think that may be true. Maybe God does let us suffer from the mess we have made of the world, just as Able suffered Cain’s murderous designs. If we have a world that is so awash in guns and with huge bullet magazines, connected to a semi-automatic triggers that it’s easy, even likely that every kind of person can get their hands on them – criminals, the mentally ill, drug gangs, and everyone else, then maybe we get what we deserve. If we are so in love with our “freedoms” that we don’t protect our own children, then maybe we are the guilty ones.
Well then, let us at least use this horrific example of of our own degeneracy to convince us that we must do better. We will stand up to the huge money influence of the NRA and say “Enough!” We will vote down any and every politician that tries to hide behind an ideology of “rights” that puts assault rifles in the hands of almost anybody and say, “Are you kidding?” We are not living in the days of the Minute-Man militia of farmer-soldiers who might need to be called up in a moment to go fight the Red Coats at Valley Forge. The world has moved on, just a bit, since those days. In these days, our children are being slaughtered in their schools. Enough! God grieves, because God is good. What are we doing?