Violence and Divine Un-favor

So my post is up over at Per Caritatem for Cynthia’s series on Violence and Holy Writ. It is titled The Il-logic of Divine Un-favor.

Below is what got posted, but you’ll have to go over there to see the discussion in the comments.

Violence is often seen as evidence of divine un-favor—the opposite of blessing within a prosperity gospel context. Here violence done to one is equated with a person losing; while to be victorious, or feeling the victory promised by the church after one gets saved, is predicated on vanquishing. Now, of course this is far from unoriginal, but the twist here is that this logic also works itself out on a more subtle level when people feel that they aren’t winning in their life. The import is that a simple feeling of malaise becomes evidence of divine un-favor or no salvation. The result is a Christian life as pragmatic and will-to-power, even in every day details, whether one subscribes to a prosperity gospel explicitly or not.

Where we place the importance of violence will determine (literally and logically) whether we do—or ignore—violence to others. Half jokingly, I wonder if we should recover the theological category of divine smiting, just to make sure that violence is put in its proper place, rather than allowed to have too much purchase. If we are not careful, violence becomes legitimated because it is understood as earned. I believe this explains much of the logic for conservative Christian proclamation that parades like a Hebrew prophet of old, explaining away natural disasters and, say, September 11 through terrible theodicy arguments. In such cases, violence was understood as deserved divine punishment-retribution. (I should say here that I am not ignoring the political concept of blow back. The September 11 attacks were certainly the result of blow back from American policy.) This is the same logic used by people who blame the victim in rape cases. Here one sees a(n) (ana)logical consistency between individual rape cases and the oppression that liberation theology addresses on a structural level. And perhaps this explains some of the current resistance to liberation theology: why align one’s self with the losers? After all, Jesus didn’t tap out, right? (See Wait, people seriously say that?!)

We must obviously take care to understand violence as parasitic (not determinative) and that Christians are called to God’s economy. Perpetrators of violence warp the God-who-judges and simplistically see violence as the evidence of judgment, while ignoring the economic and social vulnerability so crucial to God’s sense of judgment-justice and gratuity. Violence visited upon the weak is not God’s way because the divine kingdom is not a self-serving empire or spitefully vindictive. If the Psalms and the Sermon on the Mount have anything to say, it is that God cares for the true victims. Gustavo Gutiérrez has rightly seen that the “God in whom we believe is the God of life. Belief in the resurrection entails defending the life of the weakest members of society. Looking for the Lord among the living leads to commitment to those who see their right to life being constantly violated. To assert the resurrection of the Lord is to assert life in the face of death” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, God of Life, 14). Thus to let others be defined by violence has allowed us to write them off — they did not triumph on their own, so they are not worth our attention. Blaming the victim rids the person or people of their humanity and thus turns subjects into objects of derision. Weakness has somehow become something to take advantage. Clearly this is incongruent with God on the cross.

Up until now I have oh so eloquently made moves that the Hulk could describe: “Violence, bad!” How does this square with its conflict with texts of terror? First, a few boundaries. We must be aware of historic anti-semitism in Biblical studies that subtly still rears its head at times. And we also cannot give into a Marcionite urge. However, we also must allow for honesty: there is indeed a tension that seems to exist. Is there inherently a supercessionism in Christianity? But J. Kameron Carter has argued that supercessionism has helped bring about racist racial categories (Race: A Theological Account). Then again, what about the different kind of supercessionism, a universalizing kind, that Jesus spoke about with the woman at the well? Questions abound and the complexity is mindboggling.

I do think there is a way to deal with some of the issues around violence that hopefully eliminate what should not be an issue in the first place. Perhaps this is evidence of my time among the Jesuits, but difference in order to unify may work here for moving beyond impasse or paralyzing frustration. The distinction? Covenant.

Covenant is originally given, not earned; covenant was instituted by grace and fulfilled in human response. Also, Jewish covenant, especially with Abraham, has a tendency toward expansion, if not outright universalism: a blessing to the nations. Some of the covenants clearly had conditions, however, blessings and curses in covenants work differently than prosperity assumes.

We, as Christians, are not in covenant that speaks of any blessings or curses. None. The book of Hebrews may come close—that is, at least there is contention on whether one could lose their salvation by continued disobedience. But this has nothing to do with blessings and curses associated with obedience and disobedience through the Jewish covenants. We do, as Christians, work within a different paradigm that also has continuity with Jewish thought: God’s economy of gift. Or at least we are supposed to.

The logic of violence as divine un-favor has no support within contemporary Christian thought, yet somehow it continues. I suspect that such a discourse has more to do with capitalism, privilege, and victimization, than it does with Christian notions of humanity and what God desires.