Sunday, August 10, 2014

Miroslav Volf on divine violence

There are horrific things happening in Iraq at the moment. Christians are being persecuted by the demonic ISIS. Those people are truly under the control of Satan: they are beheading Christian children and putting their head on pikes in the park at Mosul; they compelled at least one Christian to affirm their creed about Allah and Muhammad his only prophet, effectively a recantation of Christianity, and then beheaded him anyway; numerous Christians having fled persecution are now awaiting their deaths on barren desert mountains.

What do we do? What is the response?

Mirsolav Volf, in Exclusion & Embrace (Abingdon, 1996) writes about the cross as a sign of God's embrace of the sinful and wicked, absorbing violence into himself. But what about the image of the Rider on the White Horse from Revelation, who afflicts such violence?

What about the Rider on the white horse who seems to deploy violence without any thought of embracing the enemy? Is he not the same suffering Messiah who was all along secretly dreaming of revenge and has now finally come to take it with a fury? . . .  

But who are those who suffer violence at the hand of the Rider? They are the people drunk with the blood of the innocent (Revelation 17:6) who make war against the Lamb and those who adorned themselves with righteous deeds (Revelation 19:19). Its imposing political order and economic splendor not withstanding, the imperial power o Rome is in the eyes of John the Seer a system of "political tyranny and economic exploitation," founded "on conquest and maintained by violence and oppression" (Bauckham 1993, 35). The violence of the Rider is the righteous judgment against this system of the one called "Faithful and True" (Revelation 19:11). Without such judgment there can be no world of peace, of truth, and of justice; terror (the "beast" that devours) and propaganda (the "false prophet" that deceives) must be overcome, evil must be separated from good, and darkness from the light. These are the causes of violence, and they must be remove if a world of peace is to be established. . . . 

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 suburban ideology, entertained often by people who are neither courageous nor honest enough to reflect on the implications of terror taking place right in the middle of their living rooms! . . . 

The key question is who should be engaged in separating the darkness from the light? Who should exercise violence against the "beast" and the "false prophet"? Echoing the whole New Testament, the Apocalypse mentions only God. But what does its silence about human agency in the apocalyptic violence mean? . . .

. . . [H]umans are not God. There is a duty prior to the duty of imitating God, and that is the duty of not wanting to be God, of letting God be God and humans be humans. Without such a duty guarding the divinity of God the duty to imitate God would be empty because our concept of God would be nothing more than the mirror image of ourselves.

Preserving the fundamental difference between God and nonGod, the biblical tradition insists that there are things which only God may do. One of them is to use violence. . . .

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God's refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

In a word, Volf proposes that human beings practice nonviolence but God does not; we call to God to be just and to bring vengeance when appropriate, but God is the one who uses the violence, not us. Human nonviolence is grounded and motivated by a belief in divine violence.

To speak for myself, my tendency and inclination is to think that we must respond to ISIS with violence. The biblical tradition likewise shows that God uses human persons as means of effecting judgment on others on at least some occasion. But it is not easy just to go to war and to sign off the lives of thousands of innocent persons; I certainly don't want to go fight anyone. It is not at all an easy matter. The least we can do -- and the thing we must do as Christians -- is pray for the persecuted, and pray for God to reveal his justice in shattering the oppressive forces of evil in defense of his people. The body of Christ is yet again receiving blow after blow from the hands of evil men.