Preaching Easter

Is nonviolence the best way to conceive the character of God through Scripture?

By Molly T. Marshall

It is the perennial problem of the preacher in this season: how do I proclaim the raising of Jesus of Nazareth in a fresh and compelling way? What might I add to the storied articulation of the inexplicable witness to resurrection appearances, encounters with the doubting, and further commissioning of his followers? The pastor surely wants to offer a perspective on resurrection that beckons these erstwhile seekers or perfunctory attenders to probe further.

This past week I revisited the thinking of J. Denny Weaver, author of The Nonviolent Atonement and The Nonviolent God, in preparation for his visit to our campus. Weaver is a leading Mennonite theologian, having taught at Bluffton University for 31 years. That he was a beloved professor is underscored by the school’s decision to rename the mascot in his honor, J. Denny Beaver.

I believe he has offered the preacher (and the layperson who hears the message) a fresh way to preach the good news of the resurrection without being bogged down in one of the classic interpretations of the cross in western Christian theology. You remember them — St. John the Divine (Classic Christus Victor), Anselm (Satisfaction), Abelard (Moral Influence) and Calvin (Substitution), as well as subsequent variations of these. He is correct to critique how these formulations accommodate violence and portray God as needing the death of Jesus.

Think of Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ. The underlying theological assumption of the film is that the more Jesus suffers, the more redemptive his action. The violent re-creation of the torture of Jesus earned the film an “R” rating. In the throbbing two hours, most of the scenes include violence; only two minutes are given to the resurrection, almost as an afterthought.

Weaver’s argument is straightforward. He offers to the working pastor, who is often troubled by the image of God in these theories, clear language to answer the question: “Why did Jesus die?” Jesus died because he lived in such a way — nonviolent confrontation and witness to the mercy of God — that the powers of evil killed him. It was not a death required by God, but was instigated by those who opposed Jesus’ vision of the reign of God. Weaver is sympathetic with feminist and minority scholars who allege “divine child abuse” if ransom payments to Satan, legal recompense or penal substitution are deemed necessary.

Thus Weaver does not believe that God provided Jesus as a sacrifice to expiate sin or as a substitute for sinful humanity. God did not require a sacrifice to assuage divine wrath so that forgiveness might occur. Weaver places the reason for the death of Jesus squarely in the hands of humans (without being anti-Semitic); God did not will it.

Calling his approach a narrative Christus Victor understanding of atonement, Weaver gleans from his reading of the New Testament that the saving act is resurrection. Salvation is through God’s victory over death, and this is the way that God is in the Jesus story. The powers of evil are vanquished through the resurrection of Jesus.

Yet, I wonder — is it only the resurrection that identifies God with the life of Jesus? God’s embrace of the exigencies of human suffering as representative humanity is part of the “voyage of discovery and anguish” (Paul Fiddes’ words) God takes to be near us, to be one of us. Further, in the cross, God takes responsibility for a world in which evil can occur, which is surely salvific.

Weaver’s approach is clearly Christocentric. He reads the Old Testament and the varied layers of New Testament literature through the story of Jesus. He argues that it is through the story of Jesus that we see the true character of God.

His work on atonement leads him to ask the larger question: is nonviolence the best way to conceive the character of God through Scripture? This is especially significant since many pictures of violence attributed to God spatter the narratives of the Hebrew Bible. Weaver does not deny they are there, but offers as response that there is more than one rendering of the character of God, and the disparate visions are contested. A nonviolent God is found alongside the warring, destroying, and avenging depiction.

He suggests that our job as interpreters is not to synthesize all these views into a more acceptable whole, but to determine which way the story is moving. Jesus gives clarity and direction to the story as he consistently reveals God to be nonviolent, even as he goes to his death.

Weaver has given the church a new perspective for preaching Easter as he articulates a nonviolent vision of atonement. This will go a long way in quelling the uneasiness many have in seeking to interpret the cross, our pathway as disciples, and the ways of God in the larger arc of redemption.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.