O dear, O dear, O Dear – Again.

I have blogged about Fr John Dear before. Radio National seems rather taken with him, because months after his visit to these shores, they aired another program starring the starry-eyed priest on Encounter on the 22nd of April (yes folks, I am even catching up on my radio listening from my time in Turkey).

I found this program (which could have been called “John Dear and Friends”) thoroughly infuriating. The only sane voice on the whole program (which included said priest, along with fellow non-violence “theologians” Ira Chernus, J. Denny Weaver, and Donna Mulhearn) was that of Bishop Tom Frame, former Anglican bishop to the Australian Defence Force, and now Director, St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra. Before we get to his sanity, lets just get a glimpse of what the others were on about.

Ira Chernus: Augustine’s Just War theory was a significant turning point if only because of his own massive influence on the history of the Western church. …As the church became such a powerful institution it was bound to sanction violence in some ways. And Augustine’s theology just gave it the most sophisticated stamp of approval.

Ah yes. Big bad violent Church just looking for a theological justification to biff someone on the nose…

John Dear: He [Jesus] is the measure of our theology. Jesus as a teacher of non-violence. That everything he taught was about non-violence. He believed that. What did he teach? Was it violent? Did he come to teach us violence or teach us non-violence? The core passages, all of his teachings, are the Sermon on the Mount. …I’m just saying, there’s no just war and not only are we going to be people of a radical, active non-violence with a universal love, we do it because Jesus says here in one of the only times he describes the nature of God, we do it because God is a God of universal non-violent love. God is a God of non-violence. ‘The sun on the good and the bad; the rain, on the just and the unjust.’ This turns everything upside down that we’ve been taught.

Yes, it does somewhat–in that reading–but we will return to the issue of justice in a moment when we get to the sane Tom Frame. For a moment, a little more insanity. J. Denny Weaver has a go at the classical “Christus Victor” theology of the Atonement (not to mention Anselm and Abelard).

J. Denny Weaver: Christus Victor is Latin for the Victorious Christ, and the way you get to that Victorious Christ, there are a couple of different images. One of them is a ransom. The idea is that Satan held and holds the souls of humankind captive and God arranges a transaction with Satan; God promises to give Satan his son and in exchange, Satan will release the souls of humankind, and so that Satan gets Jesus, and the souls are released, and Satan kills Jesus, and thinks that he has defeated God and then three days later God raises him from the dead, and defeats Satan, because Satan couldn’t hold Jesus. And so out of that ransom payment, death, resurrection, you get to Christus Victor.

Well, that’s a bowlderisation of a beautiful and comforting doctrine if ever there was one. All the way through this program, J. Denny Weaver portrays the atonement as God offering up his Son for a violent death to appease his sense of justice. And I thought “Christus Victor” meant that Christ actually battled the evil of Satan and–by rising from death–won that battle. Silly me. But Weaver “discovers” a pacifist reading of the “Christus Victor” theology:

J. Denny Weaver: the violence that kills Jesus in my reconstructed image here, my reconstructed Christus Victor, the violence that killed Jesus is not God’s violence. It’s clearly Rome’s violence, and in fact to use violence shows the difference of means between the reign of God and the reign of evil.

Right. And in another age they used to say it was the Jews violence. Whatever happened to the understanding that it was Satan’s violence, the violence of evil and of our own sin, that killed Jesus? Any way, one more cooky theologian to hear from:

Donna Mulhearn: Yes, I certainly believe there is. Jesus was totally inclusive in the way that he lived. He invited everybody to his table and he was extremely ecumenical. One of the heroes of one of the greatest parables in the Gospels is a foreigner, a Samaritan, someone of a different religion to Jesus, and I think that’s our example, that we go into communion and deep fellowship with people of other faiths.

Ah yes, the myth of the “totally inclusive” Jesus. Almost as mythical as the “non-violent” Jesus.

Now don’t get me wrong. I oppose violence as a way of sorting out the personal, societal or international problems. I believe that violent actions demean the human dignity of the attacker as well as the victim. But the type of theology being espoused here is true neither to the mega-theology of the atonement nor to the micro-theology of social justice and pacifism. And thanks to Bishop Tom Frame for pointing this out:

Tom Frame: I think to say there’s a God of peace or a God of war is to misunderstand means for ends. God is a God of justice amongst the other attributes of God that we read about in the Scriptures. God is a God of Love and there are times when, in order to show love, there’s going to be a great personal price. In the Christian tradition there are many ways of responding to social, political and economic and religious questions. There are lots of ways of dealing with strife in the world, a conflict of disagreement and non-violence is but one way. Now it’s always preferable not to use force, and I distinguish force from violence; it’s always better not to use force to find peaceful, non-violent ways of resolving problems. Sometimes that simply isn’t possible because the demands of justice are so great, so compelling and so immediate that some response other than non-violence is necessary. Now I think that at times, and the Christian tradition certainly allows it, that force needs to be used when those demands of justice at least require us to take firm action. For instance to stop people who are being oppressed from suffering further violence against their person. But also to uphold certain principles, which if they were to be violated, would lead to far greater evil.

Tom goes on to point out the instance where Jesus sat down and made a whip before driving the money changers out of the temple (John 2:15). Quoting that passage is resorting to text-proofing–but it takes just this one instance to call into question the whole portrait of Jesus as the uncompromising proponent of non-violence. It wasn’t just that he went “into the Temple and threw over a few tables and then sat in the doorway and blocked it” (Donna Mulhearn), he actually made a weapon and used it in a premeditated act of violence. But Tom Frame also calls into question J. Denny Weaver’s construction of the atonement theology:

There’s certainly a great deal of violence in the Christian story. …It is the case that Jesus addressed the violence of the world in which he lived, and in so doing, became a victim of that same violence. He died a terribly violent death and it seems to me at that point we have a demonstration of the divine will that God in the face of terrible violence, will himself not resort to violence in order to bring about the salvation of humanity.

To paint the atonment as the act of a callous, violent, patriarchal God handing his own Son over to a violent without a second thought just to satisfy his own hurt feelings is a travesty. God is a God of Justice above all. It seems incredible to me that–in the name of social justice–these social reformers don’t get it. If our theology is Arian–forgetti
ng that the Son of God is fully God himself as well as fully human–we will see God’s actions only as injust. But if we approach the atonement from the perspective of orthodox theology, we see that in the death of Christ God takes our human violence, the violence of sin, upon himself, so that his forgiveness and mercy may not come at the expense of Justice.

I do not believe that Christianity espouses violence. Even Augustine’s Just War theology cannot be interpreted as a defence of violence except by doing voilence to that very theology. It is, nevertheless, a recognition that at times, for the sake of justice, “force” (as Bishop Frame calls it) may sometimes be unavoidable.

As a closing thought (completely hypothetical), I wonder what Fr John Dear would do if he found his a daughter being attacked by a rapist? What response would his doctrine of total non-violence recommend?

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