Ray Gingerich’s visit: violent God and pacifist Jesus?

 Over the weekend, me and Nicole went to three meetings where Mennonite scholar Ray Gingerich was speaking. His most interesting and challenging talk for me was the Sunday night one at Scripture Union House, Mt Hawthorn. It was a fundraiser for the Pine Gap 6, who are facing jail for doing a ‘Citizens’ Inspection’ of the Pine Gap (US) military facility in Australia.

 His theme was ‘A violent God and a pacifist Jesus?’. Ray likes to ask a lot of questions and provoke his listeners into thinking. He has a curious mind which tends to go off on tangents he finds interesting.

His basic argument was that if Christ is the fullest revelation of God and he is pacifist, then God is pacifist too. Where the Bible suggests a violent God, we defer to our fuller understanding of God through Christ.

Ray was asked, ‘What about when the Old Testament reports God asking the Israelites to slaughter an entire town? Does that mean the writer had it wrong?’ His answer to this was round-about and a long time coming, but when it did come, it affected me a lot.

Ray referred to Yoder’s posthumous work The Jewish-Christian Schism revisited (which I haven’t read yet). In it (apparently) Yoder talks about how Jesus was in a certain stream of Judaism, one particularly influenced by the post-exilic prophets. It was these books of the OT that were at the centre of Jesus’ Bible. Add to that the fact that the canon was not yet nearly as stable as it is today for the Old Testament.

Ray’s answer presupposes that there is contradiction within the Old Testament and between it and the New Testament. These streams can’t all be right (‘a square circle’) – so we’d better decide which streams are life-giving and fit into the fullest revelation we have of God in Jesus.

 I felt simultaneously suspicious and excited at this idea. It needs a lot more talking about.

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10 Comments

Filed under Bible, John Howard Yoder, meeting report

10 responses to “Ray Gingerich’s visit: violent God and pacifist Jesus?

  1. Eric

    I went to one of Ray’s talks while he was in Australia. I assumed he represented the progressive mennonite viewpoint. In listening to him I got the impression the he was like a person that gets lost in the bush while looking for trees. I question whether he is a follower of Jesus or a follower of J.H.Yoder or Yoderism as I see it.I prefer the Word of God than the babel of theology.

  2. Thanks for commenting Eric. I really understand where you’re coming from. I think Yoder (and probably Ray too) would agree with you about how important it is to follow Jesus and not anyone else. I’d say inevitably when we follow Jesus we end up having a theology, so it’s not theology that’s bad, but we need to make sure it doesn’t make us lose sight of Jesus.

  3. Eric

    I disagree Nathan. Following Jesus does not need to lead to a theology. If more people read their Bibles instead of text books on theology there would probably be a better understanding of the life God expects us to lead.Money spent on theology would be better spent on the helping those who have needs that are not being met eg the homeless who could not care less about theology. Food to the homeless is more important than some text book ‘tea and biscuit’ study of some theologian’s ideas.My advice to Christians is stop reading about theology and start reading your Bibles and help those who need help.

  4. michael

    yahweh is never a violent god.he has a purpose but often the stiff neck people resisted him.so his attempt to draw his people near to him should should not be interpreted or took as a reason to brand him as a violent god.he is a loving god, christ menifested his love and salvation is made available to the gentile.scholarly people intention of drawing up customer with unreasonable idea is one factor for exhibitng gos as a violent god.so it time to stop palying with god adn serve him if we truely belive him by spreading and making his name known to all people

  5. Eric

    I totaly agree with you Michael.

  6. John Arthur

    Hi Nathan,

    Although I did not attend any of Ray’s seminars, he seems to have raised a very complex and important point that many evangelicals seem unwilling to face, namely how could the God of peace revealed supremely in Jesus command genocide?

    Barth sees an indirect identity between the words of the bible and the Word of God (Jesus Christ) and his approach might be useful for evangelical radicals to adopt. The Word is in the words but not identical with it.

    Israel’s understanding of God is only partial and sometimes mistaken. God never commands genocide even if the text says so. Rather, I take the view that the biblical witness to divine revelation accurately records Israel’s growing (but sometimes mistaken) view of God.

    Jesus never quotes from the texts of violence because violence contradicts Jesus’ peaceful way. Rather, when he interprets the OT he seems to be in harmony with the vision of shalom and social justice seen in the OT prophets.

    I agree that Jesus accepted the authority of the OT. However, he did not always interpret it literally. Jesus is one greater than the OT and the one to whom the OT looks forward.

    Many things in the OT are not compatible with the way of Jesus. e.g. polygamy, war, patriarchy and capital punishment are some examples.

    The biblical witness is inspired of God, but the OT is simply an accurate reflection of Israel’s understanding (which accurately contains their sometimes mistaken views) of God and of ethics.

    Jesus is the Word of God and it is to him we submit ourselves. The bible is derivatively God’s word in human words in history pointing to the One who is the Word of God.

    I hope you find some of these comments helpful,

    Shalom,
    John Arthur

  7. d jones

    it sounds like all of you have your theology neatly filed and tucked away. I personally cannot accept God because of his seemingly bi polar nature. “Kiss the son, for his anger can flare up in an instant” etc.

    But my main point is that you all seem to missing the point. You all need to get out and prove your faith…go help a homeless person, go visit somebody in prison. As it stands now, you all sound like a bunch of Pharisees who feel content and comforted that you have your theology all worked out.

  8. Phill

    I agree with you d jones. One thing that I will always find amusing is when Christians content that morals are derived from religion (I.e the bible in this case) and not basic instinct….. and then make quotes like this ”God never commands genocide even if the text says so.” Not only a contradiction but complete proof of the ability to make morally sound judgments even if a celestial dictator, whom they praise, scribes otherwise.

  9. Michael Hochstetler

    Eric: You have a point about spending money on the poor rather than on theology books. Generally speaking, that is the attitude we ought to take. But the problem is that if we just read our bibles, we will not cease to have a theology; what we will have then will not be “just the bible” but the bible viewed through the lens of the theological ethos of which we have been influenced. The closest we can come to having “just the bible” is to consider the different ways the bible has been interpreted and break up the comfortable patterns that develop in our minds.
    Can it really be true that “following Jesus does not lead to a theology?” The moment you make the value judgement that helping the poor is more important than figuring out our beliefs, you have just arrived at a theological conclusion. Ask yourself this question: why did the white churchmen stand on the sidelines during the civil rights movement and refuse to take part in what God was doing in their time? According to Dr. Martin Luther King, it was because they concluded that “‘Those are social issues, with which the Gospel has no real concern;’” because they “commit[ed] themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange un-biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.” In other words, it was because of bad theology.

  10. John Arthur

    Hi D. Jones,
    Thank you for your comments. I may be a “Pharisee” but I do not know enough about the others to make such a judgment, although you may well know a lot more about them than I do.

    I see God as a loving personal, relational and social presence/person whose nature is unconditional, others-centred, self-giving compassion who has revealed himself/herself in many and various ways but supremely in Jesus.

    Hence I agree with you that we ought to show compassion in our daily lives in championing the poor and the oppressed and seek to build positive, uplifting relationships that reflect the character of Jesus.

    I do not think that I have all my theology worked out as you claim nor do I accept the bipolar nature of God. I may have overstated my case but I do thank you for your comments.

    Hi, Phill,
    I do not think that God is a celestial dictator but I do thank you for your comments. Whether I am capable of making an ethical judgment or not is not predicated upon the words of the bible being God’s words as you well point out.

    As a follower of Jesus (the compassionate, lowly, suffering servant of God), I believe that my ethics come principally from him. Since the bible is in some sense a “witness” to divine revelation then my ethics have some relation to it. But as I pointed out, I see an indirect (not a direct) identity between the words of the bible and the Word of God.

    The genocide commanded in the text of the OT seems to me incompatible with what Jesus had to say as viewed through the lens of the synoptic gospels.

    May God bless and encourage you both.

    John Arthur

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