God & Violence – January 2000

Question: Preface: I am totally new today to process theology–at least as systematic theology. Intuitively, perhaps I have been thinking this way for a long time. Here is my inquiry. I’m reading Walter Wink’s book the Powers that Be. In the book, Dr. Wink dismisses the possibility that Jesus’ action in the Temple (i.e., the making of the “whip,” driving the people and animals out, and turning over the tables) was violent. In another part of the book, he characterizes God as being non-violent in character even though he characterizes the Hebrew Bible as showing the violent nature of God. I, on the other hand, have no problem seeing Jesus action in the temple as an act of violence (how reckless, for example, to stampede animals–innocent people could have been injured; to have the crowd experience a crush at the doors and people be killed or injured; the possibility of bones being broken by over turning the tables. I see Jesus in the process of change… of becoming rather than being always and forever non-violent. Does this show, as I think it does, that God (and Christ as God incarnate), was/is not immutable, but rather God/Christ was violent at times, but changed in nature in reaction and relation to humankind?

Publication Month: January 2000

Dr. Cobb’s Response

From the point of view of process theology God is never violent in the usual sense.  Central to our understanding is that God relates to us persuasively rather than coercively. God lures us to act in that way that is best in the circumstances. By introducing possibilities of such action that go beyond what the situation would otherwise allow, God expands our freedom. Violence as we ordinarily understand it restricts the freedom of its object. We think that God’s loving nature was revealed to us in Jesus, both in his behavior and in his teaching.

But to say that God is never violent does not mean that God’s call to us is always comfortable or pleasant. Whitehead is quite explicit on this point. He holds that each occasion receives an “initial aim” from God. He writes: “This function of God is  analogous to the remorseless working of things in Greek and in Buddhist thought., The initial aim is the best for that impasse. But if the best be bad, then the ruthlessness of God can personified as Ate, the goddess of mischief. The chaff is burnt.” (PR. p. 244) Hence people can experience God as “violent” in a special sense.

This “violence” is vividly expressed in Kazantzakis.

“Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath — a great Cry — which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: ‘Away, let go of the earth, walk!’… ” (Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco. Simon and Schuster, 1965, pp. 291-92). Kazantzakis proceeds to talk of God’s call to animals and then to human beings, always emphasizing creaturely resistance and the divine insistence. The Cry functions persuasively, not by compulsion, but its persistence and insistence can be felt as “violent.” The question is also about human violence. That God is persuasive certainly points to the superiority of persuasion in human affairs. Process theology emphasizes that strongly. Employing compulsion is a sign of failure or desperation rather than a normative approach. But in human affairs it can often be the best choice remaining. If a baby girl is about to be hit by a car, there is no time to persuade her to move out of the way. One snatches her violently to save her life. I am confident that God calls us to do that.

Does God ever call us to injure other people? Again, I think the answer is affirmative. If killing Hitler could have stopped the Holocaust and shortened the war, Bonhoeffer was right to support that project. On a much lesser scale, Jesus used violence to cleanse the temple.

Whitehead pointed out that “life is robbery.” For one creature to live, other lives are sacrificed. Certainly human life involves enormous killing of other creatures. That is the kind of world we live in.

But Whitehead goes on to say that the robber needs justification. The fact that we must destroy to live does not mean that the destruction is not evil. Because it is evil, we should minimize it. Some process thinkers make the choice for vegetarianism for this reason. Many process thinkers are deeply concerned about the extent of the violence humanity is inflicting on the earth. Reducing that violence is a moral imperative.

In human affairs the goal is to order matters as much as possible by persuasion, as little as possible by violence. To act persuasively may still involve great insistence and persistence, but it will always respect and enhance the freedom of others.

In relation to other creatures, the goal is to reduce the destructive violence we inflict on them. We know now that we must do so for our own sake as well as for others. Our violation of the earth is undercutting our own future as a species. The poor of the world suffer first, but in time we who are rich will suffer too.

So the answer is that process thinkers do not believe that a life of complete nonviolence is possible. Jesus does not model that. But a process theologian, Marjorie Suchocki, has recently published a book in which she argues that unnecessary violence is the fundamental character of sin. Our emphasis should certainly be on opposing excessive violence rather than on rationalizing our present violent customs and social organization.