“The quiet of a suburban home”

(This post follows up nicely on yesterday’s post about hell from C.S. Lewis.)

I finally finished reading a challenging book about Christian reconciliation called Exclusion & Embrace by Miroslav Volf, a theologian from Croatia who lived through the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. He believes that a Christian commitment to nonviolence (which he affirms almost without qualification) must be premised upon God’s violence, i.e., the God of love is also a God of vengeance. Christ as suffering Messiah does not contradict Christ as the Rider on the White Horse of Revelation. Only God can resort to violence justly.

He observes that Christians of the Anabaptist tradition (for example, Mennonites and Amish), who tend to be most committed to nonviolence in this world, are themselves most comfortable in talking about God’s vengeance at the end of it. Volf believes that’s the right perspective.

Maybe this talk of a violent God—as opposed to a God who is always “nice”—makes us uncomfortable? Here’s his devastating response:

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 that 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.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

5 thoughts on ““The quiet of a suburban home””

  1. Brent, I agree that “turning the other cheek” is something that is only fully understandable and “just” in light of knowing that, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Also something like, “Do good to those who hate you, and you will be heaping coals of fire on their heads.” Ultimately all sin will be punished and all good deeds rewarded–only, it is not our place to try to make that happen, but leave it to the much more knowledgeable and capable God. Also, we often really are not in much place to judge others ourselves because we too have erred and stand needful of mercy. “Judge not, that you be not judged.”

    However, I am not sure I equate this truth of God’s being the dispenser of justice with there being no human agency involved in that. In Romans 13 God says the magistrate is ordained by God, and that “he bears not the sword in vain.” I think there is a substantial difference between “personal vengeance,” which we are to avoid, and “law and order” in the society, which is something that sometimes requires governmental “force of arms” to maintain. I really don’t think America was in error to “fight” against Hitler, or the Mexican government is against drug lords. I am not even sure it is wrong for me to fight against someone who breaks into my home in order to protect my wife and children (Moses’ law allows for that). I think the proscription of “fighting” is mainly one of, “You can’t treat me like that, ” or retaliating for personal affronts, or “taking revenge,” as opposed to protecting others from harm.

    1. It’s unfair to Volf’s argument to quickly summarize it in a few sentences as I’ve done above. I was trying to summarize it enough to get to this meaty and provocative paragraph, whose main point is “God is a God of vengeance,” which is the same as saying that God is a God of (just) violence—that God must be justly violent if sin is really sinful and deserving of punishment (which is what I’ve been reflecting on as I’ve been reading and studying Romans).

      If we don’t see sin as a big problem, we simply miss the point of the gospel and fail to understand the cross.

      All of what you say above has value and has been hotly debated for 2,000 years. I’m not a pacifist, and I would gladly defend my family with my very life—and by taking the life of someone else—if I had to. It’s not clear that Volf is a pacifist, either. Notice I say he affirms nonviolence “almost” without qualification. He definitely doesn’t rule it out. In particular, he cites Bonhoeffer’s decision to take part in the Hitler assassination plot as possibly justified.

      But I share with Volf a deep suspicion of violent action. When human beings practice violence, even through war, we do so unjustly—even if we determine that war is unavoidable and the lesser of two evils, etc. We can’t help it. War is, as Volf says, always one side’s justice fighting against another side’s justice (again, he’s not saying that one side is not more justified than the other). He’s skeptical of the “just war doctrine” because try to name a war in which its perpetrators didn’t imagine that they were justified.

      And you know as well as I that on a personal level, we fail miserably to live up to “turn the other cheek.” Whenever we violate Jesus’ teaching on the subject of retaliation, we’re always like, “Well of course that doesn’t apply in this particular situation!” When does it ever apply then?

      That’s why I appreciate the witness of our Anabaptist brothers and sisters who are so principled about nonviolence, even if I can’t go all the way in their direction.

      But if we understand that vengeance belongs to God (in an ultimate, perfectly just way) then we don’t have to fear that if we don’t take matters into our own hands—using violence—then justice won’t be done. Justice will never be fully done by human beings. Justice most assuredly will be done by God. No one gets off the hook. And I see that as good news, so long as I understand that only through Christ is my own contribution to injustice accounted for.

      See what I mean?

      Thanks for commenting!


  2. I’m not sure. Volf’s words are certainly powerful and his story compelling. And I realize I speak from a quiet suburban home. But isn’t a central part of our belief that Jesus allowed the ground to be soaked in his blood while offering no retaliation? And if the retaliation is only delayed – that is, till the end time – how is that different? Where is grace? It really calls into question some foundational concepts of our belief.

    1. Nancy, if I might reply to your comment, I think it is clear that the Scripture teaches in many places that, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” The whole teaching of Hell (itself consistently proclaimed, including most particularly and repeatedly by Jesus himself) shows that God ultimately “takes vengeance” on those who reject the sacrifice of his Son on their behalf. I don’t believe Paul’s teachings on grace are intended to override that repeated truth. Instead, I believe grace to mean, “I have at very great expense paid the way for you to avoid that vengeance, if you will on your part take advantage of it in the manner that I have prescribed, which is through repentance and faith, and that repentance and faith will be manifested by works that prove them up.” Jesus himself said, as the start of his preaching ministry, and following the preaching of John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” So also Peter preached “repent” in the Pentecost sermon inaugurating the “Church age.” I read once in a Christianity Today article that Jesus, “Father, forgive them,” probably meant, “Don’t strike them dead even as they act, but grant them the mercy of time to realize what they have done so they can repent,” which to me is consistent with what Peter preached at Pentecost. So I think, actually, that a “delay” in vengeance is itself “grace and mercy.”

    2. Volf would say, I think (it was a difficult book!), that there must be a final “exclusion” of that which cannot or will not be reconciled to God. How would that not be punitive? Yes, Volf’s words imply final judgment and hell, both of which are also foundational concepts of our belief. Right? Volf brings the subject up in the first place in his effort to reconcile the Rider on the White Horse of Revelation with the Jesus who taught us to turn the other cheek. His sobering conclusion is that only God can use violence. “Vengeance is mine,” etc.

      God doesn’t ignore justice in order to be gracious to us. As my Christian ethics prof at Emory said, “Grace rises above justice; it doesn’t fall below it.” The classic Christian understanding of the cross is that God has finally dealt with sin, evil, and injustice, once and for all, for everyone who will accept it. That’s grace! But I can’t accept that God will force God’s self on anyone who won’t have God.

      Also, even in final judgment, people who have placed their faith in Christ don’t get off scot-free. There is the painful awareness of seeing oneself as one really is—the full measure of one’s destructive sinfulness. By all means, we are saved through Christ in spite of this, but this judgment is purgative—cleansing. That’s also a kind of grace.

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