Last month I wrote a review of Greg Boyd’s latest book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. This month I invite you to consider how Boyd’s project could affect Christianity now.
Crucifixion of the Warrior God seeks to do what the title implies. In my view, crucifying the image of a Warrior God is the developmental task for our time. This would resolve negative emotional contagion that comes from religious adherents trying to imitate the character of their violent deity, or follow selected “fightin’ words” in their holy texts. Consider what has happened in the American South with the Civil Rights movement. Or Gandhi in India. Such events give insight into the power of non-violence and show the fallacy of the belief that violence is the central way to resolve conflict. Worshipping and following a Warrior God is not helpful, and can, in fact, be dangerous.
One must enter a thought experiment to picture Christianity as it existed in its earliest years. Since Christians refused to participate in the state church that worshipped the emperor, they were accused of atheism. That is to say early Christians were “political atheists” (Smith-Daniels, 1998). First century Christians would not face the possibility of being a soldier; since the government was oppressive, why would they fight on its behalf? Instead they emphasized the virtues of charity, faith, hope, kindness, and the notion of being in Christ with all the rich, abundant character growth such a status entailed. Their refusal to take a knee to Roman political power caused persecution and divided families. Do not be astonished when the world hates you (1 John).
The Constantinian Shift and Augustine’s Just War Theory were two cultural thrusts that transformed the ethos for Christians, so that by the 4th or 5th century, non-violence was no longer the default stance and was instead seen to be heretical. This more violent strain of Christianity has continued to be the default milieu, despite Jesus’ strong edicts about loving one’s enemy and His warnings that one cannot serve God and Mammon.
Some point to the scriptural record of God’s involvement in Old Testament atrocities to justify violence, but this ignores direct words of Jesus. Some say that God is a mystery and, as such, beyond the grasp of humanity. This is a turn off to secular people. In my view, as an advocate for peace and a student of human nature, I see how the Bible is a barrier to reaching educated people. Or, I should say, proof-texting the Bible is a barrier to reaching educated people. The cruciform hermeneutic described in Boyd’s book provides a pathway for honoring the text and showing a cohesive way to integrate it. Boyd synthesizes a lot of 20th century scholarship about biblical translation that reveals culture may have had a bigger influence than previously known with regards to several orthodox premises that many have thought were irrefutable. For example, Boyd shows how culture influenced scholars who were first articulating the concepts of Just War, Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and hell as a place of eternal torment.
When a group honors a warrior deity, I see how easily one can be duped to participate in violence for a so called “good cause.” This person trusts that she perceives the reality of a certain situation and is able to discern who is right and who is wrong, but sometimes later, when one sees a broader perspective, one realizes the earlier error. If one believes that in the direst of times, God chooses to participate in violence, then there is space for one also, at the direst of times, to do the same. This is a vital point. If part of religion includes the admonition for adherents to “follow God,” then it is important to discern the nature of that God and whether or not one should follow that God in destroying others. In a culture in which technology makes it possible to kill thousands at a time, wise religious people should consider what sort of god they worship. People tend to become what they admire, so, is my deity violent?
Boyd’s proposals destroy what some see as a two-faced (Janus-faced) deity in the Old and New Testaments. The different stories in scripture about God show how different cultures perceived Him. Old Testament scripture shows God’s interaction with ancient Near East culture. Boyd reports that in the ancient era the way to worship a god was to ascribe violence to that god. Such attribution would imply that one’s god was the most powerful. In that culture, one may not have actually been an eyewitness to a deity acting in a violent fashion, but the way to worship a god was to give one’s god credit for any climactic event.
Thus, Boyd argues that the violent depictions of God in Old Testament scripture are examples of stooping to meet the culture. When the Constantinian Shift occurred and put Christians in alliance with government, leaders rationalized a way forward that ignored the direct teachings of Jesus with regard to enemy love. They looked back into images of the Old Testament God to find support for Christians to align with power. Constantine changed the nature of the Christian church. I choose to keep the seventh-day Sabbath as a Constantinian protest that shows my disagreement with the notion of the church making an alliance with powerful entities.
Religion and power are a tempting mix and are easy to admire when one worships a Warrior God. “If one challenges the gods of war—whether they be national, ethnic, or religious—in the name of Christianity, this is tantamount to standing against the gods of Western Civilization and its own gods. In short, to assert a faith that embraces the nonviolence of Jesus is to proclaim oneself an atheist in relation to the preferred gods of nationalism and patriotism” (Smith-Daniels, p. 144). When it comes to nationalism or patriotism, Christians now seem to be willing to name enemies and justify violence and ignore the implications of Christ’s teaching. Shifting the stance to allow for violence is easier if one views God as a Warrior God, and many consider it heretical to look at God in any other way than as a Warrior God.
In the context of how Seventh-day Adventists relate to violence, I was fascinated by the phenomenon last year when members relished the moment that Hacksaw Ridge came to a measure of popularity. We felt a sense of pride as we saw one of our own courageously choose non-violence on the big screen. It might be time to confront our view of God. Is our God a Warrior God? If so, what does that mean? If not, what does that mean? As our tribe seems to ignore the cognitive dissonance in this moment, I think of Mark Twain’s words:
A man can be a Christian or a patriot, but he can’t legally be a Christian and a patriot—except in the usual way: one of the two with the mouth, the other with the heart.”
The problem is this: We are proud of the movie, but refuse to disentangle ourselves from the political evangelical narrative that puts God and guns and motherhood and prideful militaristic strength in one basket. Is this authentic Christianity? Has the way we read the Bible allowed this to happen? Would a cruciform hermeneutic be a path to authenticity?
I know some will find Boyd’s hermeneutic to be inadequate. A quick glance at his work may allow one to say he is excusing unsavory aspects of the Bible. As a reader who is not a theologian, I see a common sense approach that uses biblical scholarship. As a Seventh-day Adventist, I see some reliance on SDA theologians. As an anthropology student, I am intrigued with the evidence Boyd provides supporting the assertion that culture has affected all aspects of biblical writing from the context of ancient culture when the original words were written, to more recent times when scholars were translating from the original languages. As a Jesus follower, I look at Boyd’s premise and say, “Why not?”
Boyd says scripture is God breathed, but God breathed it into earthen vessels. Boyd’s cruciform hermeneutic holds fast to the gospel record of Jesus’ life as a clear transcription of what happened and a reference point for all else. In my view, frequently, those who are unwilling to recognize a cultural imprint on scripture, or on translation, are also unwilling to see their own implicit subjectivity in deciding which verse in the Bible is the one that trumps the others. Culture is embedded in language. It is time to crucify the Warrior God.
Boyd, G. (2017). Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Smith-Christopher, D.L. (1998) “Political Atheism and Radical Faith: The Challenge of Christian Nonviolence in the Third Millennium,” in Smith-Christopher, D.L. (ed) Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.
Image courtesy of Fortress Press.
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