God is not a terrorist (reflections on Scripture & terrible love)

When we see acts of terror perpetrated in the name of religion, we (rightly) have a visceral response.  The idea of people using violence, threat, intimidation and coercion in the name of promoting their beliefs is inherently offensive to us.  When we see people use religion in this way, we see in them the image of the god who shaped them, and shudder.

This whole enterprise is precarious for Christians that are still ambiguous as to whether or not they serve a God of terror themselves.  We may in fact leave vengeance in the hands of God, which is pragmatically much better for the world than using violent means to promote our faith system now.  But what does it all mean if God’s ultimate invitation to humankind is nothing more than a kindly worded threat?   "Come follow me, worship me, love me…because it really is in your best interest-aaand because I’d hate to have to throw you into a literal fire for billions of years, roasting alongside your gay neighbor, and Jews killed in the holocaust who never prayed 'the sinner’s prayer.'"  One might be tempted to call such a God a monster, except you better not say such a thing out loud—a capricious, angry deity would certainly not tolerate such blasphemy.  One swath of Christian tradition basically takes that out with one magic word, “sovereignty." End of conversation.  Oh, and "his ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts higher than our thoughts" (a text that is actually about the unfathomable mercy of God, but never mind).  Now shut up

So you do.  You don’t articulate out loud the deep suspicions that linger in your mind when the lights go out.  Your heart says that if this is true, this god you are told is so good is still a monster trying to lure you into the bed.  At the heart of the universe as you understand it is not a force of benevolence and beauty, but a malicious being who will send the vast majority of humans who have lived over the last 200,000 years into unending torment.  In your head, there is a voice that reminds you, “but God sent me Jesus so I would not have to go through all of that.” But your heart is still uncertain how to interpret this.  If God had to come up with a legal loophole allowing Him to beat His own son to death, doing all the things to Him that He ought to do to you for your own misconduct—does that really make you feel that much better about him?

For many of us, God is still a terrorist.  He will take hostages, maim, kill and destroy to accomplish His desires in the world.  And when that doesn’t ring true in the depths of the soul he gave you when he created you in his own image, the voice in your head tells you that doesn’t matter.  Clearly there is something wrong with you—maybe if you prayed more, read the Bible more, and especially if you sinned less, you would feel more comfortable with this terrorist God than you do right now?  So you stuff it all down.   And like the elder son,  you remain in the Father’s house, while quiet suspicion of his purposes eats away your external shows of piety from the inside.  A God that powerful can be respected or admired—but cannot be loved, no matter how many times you are told that you are supposed to.

That God is more a projection of our own guilt and fear, perhaps.  But there are real reasons we have to harbor such suspicions.  After all, we are given a violent, messy holy book that often seems to give us contradictory images of this God.  As Phyllis Tribble appropriately called them years ago, we do have these “texts of terror.” And we can’t just pick and choose which parts of the Bible we like, can we?

Truly if we are going to allow Scripture to be our authoritative guide to a life with God, we can’t throw parts of it out.  We have to read reverently and carefully…but also read violently.  We have to engage our heart, our emotions, our affections.  In the Hebrew tradition, those who engage God on such dangerous, heart-first terms are not demoted, but rewarded.  These are the classic Jewish examples of true piety—Abraham, Moses, Job, those with the chutzpah to go one-on-one with the holy one, to plead their case, to make their argument—unflinching.  Loving God, in Old Testament terms, is not to bury your questions, fears, concerns and accusations of the divine, but to bring them out in the open. 

No matter how many textual gymnastics we perform, there are still texts that will trouble us, disturb us, frighten us.  There are conservatives who will tell you to suck it up and take it on the chin, that’s why He’s God and you’re not (again, just shut up and believe!).  There are liberals who tell you those texts weren’t supposed to be there to begin with, it is after all a very human, imperfect collection.  So if there are parts you don’t like, feel free to avoid them altogether. 

It seems fairly rare even now that you find people who accept that these texts do carry authority—and yet grant that the texts are in fact there to trouble us, to disturb us.  What if offense, outrage and discomfort is what you were intended to feel?  What if the communities that came up around those texts were not as primitive or unsophisticated as we assume, but were aware that these texts would produce this kind of wrestling in us?  What if this kind of struggle was intended? 

The wisdom of the Jewish tradition is found precisely in this profound capacity for self-criticism.  It is all over the texts themselves, this back and forth--Israel wrestling with its maker in the dark like their patriarch, Jacob.  And often in the light, for us all to see.  One of my favorite examples of this is the contrast between how God introduces Himself to Moses in Exodus 34.6, when He says, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.  Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” 

In the later, more obscure book of Jonah, the accidental prophet is in a huff that this God would want to show mercy to the Ninevites.  He is blinded by his prejudice, and perhaps by the real memory of atrocities committed by these people against his own.  In a moment of anger, the prophet Jonah remembers God’s famous introduction to Moses, and delivers it back to the Holy One, sarcastically.  “Isn’t that what I said, Lord, when I was still at home?  That is what I tried to forestall to Tarnish.  I knew that you are a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love…”  Can you hear it?  He’s quoting Exodus back to God word for word, until this turn, when you are expecting to read, "yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished." Instead, we get “a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  Wow.  In other words, “this is why I tried to stay home to begin with.  Because in my heart of hearts, no matter what my teachers told me, I always knew you were really about this mercy business more than you were the punishing.  I always suspected you weren’t going to follow through on punishing my enemies and their children’s children.”  How very much like God and the unique character of these chosen people, that the revelation that runs like a current beneath all these stories that come before leaps into life through the words of a prophet who is not even happy about it. 

It is precisely in this way that the story of Scripture moves forward—through the back and forth, rough and tumble of these texts, covered in the dirt from the long night of wrestling—that a consistent narrative of grace and mercy emerges.  This motif is most clear in the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth himself.  To be certain, Jesus talks about judgment.  There are many warnings of judgment in Scripture, and indeed to face the intrinsic consequences of our actions is a fearsome thing.  "The wages of sin is death."  We do, in fact, "reap what we sow."  But the extraordinary picture of God that develops through the teaching of Jesus Himself is not of a God who enforces this cycle of cause and effect, but a God who is constantly interrupting it with grace.  Jesus’ own warnings of judgment are not used as an evangelistic tool to tell the outsiders to get right—this is not the kind of thing he does with the woman at the well, for example, or with Zacchaeus.

Rather, he keeps turning the way the Pharisees understand judgment on its ear in surprising ways, as he does with us.  Most people who have grown up in evangelical churches have heard sermons threatening eternal hell if they don’t invite Jesus into their heart in the crusade, for example. But I have yet to meet a single person who has a story of hearing a sermon based on the separation of the sheep and goats, determined on how we treat those who are marginalized and poor.  We are still just as squeamish with the teachings of Jesus as the Pharisees were. 

And then in Jesus’ own use of the Hebrew Bible, he is notoriously selective in what texts he chooses to highlight.  One can imagine the incredulity of  his critics when Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  In the famous, beloved words of Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Now everyone hearing this knows that Jesus has only read half of that clause—forget anachronistic verse numbers in our Bibles, Jesus stops MID-SENTENCE instead of reading the rest of the clause, “and the day of vengeance of our God.”  Luke puts this dramatically: “Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.”  This is the ancient version of the mic drop.  I wish I were a black preacher even now, so I could preach a sermon the way I’d like to called “Jesus shut the book!”  The trouble with grace preachers, then and now, is that they are always leaving stuff out

Jesus "does not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it," as we read in Matthew’s gospel. But His reading of the text, his enfleshment of the text, is surprising, subversive and disruptive.   The trouble with Jesus is that He is also retroactive.  Everything we thought we understood about the Hebrew Scriptures now must be re-interpreted and informed in light of him.  This is why Paul and the other New Testament writers are notoriously unconcerned with “reading the Bible in context” the way people understand such things now.  For them, every text is read through the lens of Jesus.  The Christ event exploded every jot and tittle of the Bible they read, and they followed their Lord in reading their Scriptures in surprising, creative, often subversive ways. 

The gospels are the texts that answer definitively for us the question of “what is God like?”   The answer, resoundingly, is JESUS (also the answer to all questions ever asked in Sunday School).  Jesus is “the image of the invisible of the God” in Paul’s phrase, “the one in whom all the fullness of the godhead dwells.”  Jesus is “the exact representation of God” in the words of Hebrews. 

How does the revelation of Jesus inform how we read the Hebrew Bible then?  For one, the fact that the definitive revelation of God comes in the form of the advocate and the intercessor, the one who reconciles the world to Himself on His cross, shows us the surprising ways God had been revealing Himself all along.  In a flat, western approach to Scripture, God in the Hebrew texts is only revealed through the actions of the God character in the ancient narratives.  We have not understood there is a more intuitive, Spirit-led way of reading those God-breathed texts—texts that were wiser and more revelatory than we gave them credit for.  Those texts work on us on an affective level, engaging the heart and the emotions in ways that, over against our dismissal of their human writers as primitives, demonstrate an astonishing self-awareness. 

So when we read, say, the stories of Abraham or of Moses pleading with God for the people to be saved from divine wrath, our sympathies are with those people.  We recognize ourselves in their stubbornness, disobedience and outright sin.  If we read with our souls open, we are horrified at the idea that they would be wiped out.  We never consider that this is perhaps how God intended for those texts to be read, that the outrage that we feel is not a mark of unfaithfulness, but fidelity to the Spirit that inspired them.  As it turns out, the way God is most clearly revealed in such texts is not through the God character in the texts—but through Abraham and Moses.  God is revealed in their pleading, their desperate, heartsick intercession.  These human intercessors paved the way for us for the ultimate revelation our hearts were longing for—the revelation of Jesus.  Those texts were never meant to go down easy, but to force the kind of anguish and soul-struggle that would make us like Moses, too—with the ultimate end that the struggle with them would produce nothing less than Christ-likeness. (my friend Dr. Chris Green has greatly shaped my reading of Scripture on this point, though he would express this part better-and further should by no means be held responsible for everything in this essay!)

Jesus is not the foil to God the Father, but the revelation of His heart for us all along.  I remember being shaken to my core when I read the New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham’s work, and he gave this simple rubric to understand God’s activity in the book of Revelation: “Whatever you see the lamb doing, that’s what God is doing.”  I believe that to be true not only for Revelation, but for all of Scripture—whatever you see the lamb doing, that's what God is doing.  

This is not a parlor trick.  This does not trivialize how we read our Old Testament, but rather emboldens those “texts of terror” to speak life into us again.  It is a kind of reading that requires tenacity, disciplined engagement, and nothing less than the Spirit of God herself to reveal them to us.  It is, in short, a way of reading Scripture that requires Jesus to teach us, to instruct us.  Over and against much of the project of textual criticism in the 20th century, I am not looking for way of understanding the Bible that does not require God.  I want a way of reading Scripture that requires God in order to work. 

We read texts that we struggled with, thinking we somehow weren’t doing it right—failing to realize that these passages were never intended to console us to begin with.   The texts do not exist to comfort us, but to bring the kind of discomfort and disruption that makes revelation possible—that makes revelation necessary.  There is no “common sense” way to interpret the Bible.  We are given inspired, enchanted texts that churn in our bellies—"sweet to the taste, but bitter to the stomach.”  They churn and they churn until Christ is formed in us.  If they are not read with heart, mind and soul engaged, if they do not have access to our affections—they can only offend us.  Only when the word is ingested can it come to life in us in a way that reveals Jesus.  This is precisely how Scripture is “the word of God” at all—it is the word of God insofar that it reveals “THE Word” that is Jesus of Nazareth.

The God revealed to us in Jesus is not a terrorist.  But he does reveal to us, in the words of my favorite song by The National, a “terrible love.”  This love is terrible, in the ways that the tenderness of God always feels when it is resisted.  It is the terrible tenderness of Jesus when the soldiers come to seize him in the garden, and calls the man who betrayed him “friend.”  It is the terrible tenderness of the God who loves us to the end, despite ourselves, undeterred by our fickle hearts and weak flesh.  This relentless tenderness, experienced as wrath to those who reject it, carries the holy story forward, through all of the wrestling.   It is ultimately the story of how mercy triumphs over judgment and how perfect love casts out fear. 

The world is full of terror.  The news is full of terrible stories of how humans harm each other.  When we run from them into the ancient story, we hear good news—these texts speak a better word than what we have heard seen and heard in the terror of the world.  The God revealed to us in Jesus is no terrorist—he is not a deity who accomplishes his purposes through threat, intimidation and coercion.  Rather than using his great power to overwhelm us, he lays down his power and allows himself to be killed on the cross.  That is the definitive revelation of God to the world, the One who then overcomes not through acts of terror, but through terrible love.  Against the backdrop of all the horrors of the world—which we inflicted even on the Son of Love himself--the resurrection reveals a love that is more terrible still.