Faith, love and nonviolence

“Sometimes I would like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when He could do something about it.”

“Well, why don’t you ask Him?”

“Because I’m afraid He would ask me the same question.”

Maybe I am simply looking for reasons – or excuses – to defend a lack of faith, or maybe I am finally being honest with myself.   I have recently become more comfortable in expressing the fact that I do not believe in a “God” that is able to act independently in the world, or as a “being” that exists “somewhere”, from whom a particular set of instructions and rules emanates that I can choose either to believe or not to believe.  I have struggled with what this meant for my identity as a Christian, but I am growing in the sense that there is a more radical, intimate, worldly relationship that is to be had with God, that also demands of us absolute responsibility for our actions and the world in which we live, that is very relevant to the Christian community.

A lot of this thinking crystallised during an encounter I had this week, when I had a conversation with a member of the Jehovah’s Witness church about our responsibilities to take action against violence and injustice (the particular example was the Trident nuclear weapons system).  He claimed that he could not bring himself to believe that God doesn’t have a ‘grand plan’, and was absolutely committed to the idea that if nuclear weapons have to exist, then that’s because God has chosen to have them.  He truly believed that he could devolve responsibility to his God, that he had neither ability nor right to change the wrongs of the world, that this was God’s business alone.  This was an idea I found deeply troubling.

For me, the narrative in the gospel is of God being removed – crucified – as an idea separate to the world, as ‘out there’, as something utterly other, and being reborn within the world, among a community.  The story of the crucifixion and resurrection means that the divine is now something that we experience primarily in communion with the earth and the rest of humanity as we act in love for justice and peace.  This means that we have to take absolute responsibility for what we do and what our earth is like, because the story of the crucifixion/resurrection relegated the idea of God as an external actor to whom we can devolve responsibility, and placed God into the heart of our social fabric, into the very core of our existence.

Peter Rollins spoke of this at Greenbelt a number of years ago.  He said,

“as we participate in the resurrection, and the new life of Christ, we participate in the birth of God in our midst, among us, so that the only way in Christianity of really encountering God, of being faithful to God, is in serving one another, in caring for one another.  The weakness of God – not a God of ‘strength’ and ‘might’ out there, a meta-narrative, but a God of weakness who is among us, in carnation, around us… this does not mean that you have to stop believing that God as a creator exists out there, but if you take the Christian story seriously I want to argue that that becomes irrelevant, absolutely irrelevant.  That’s a philosophy question, “Does God exist?” is a philosophy question – you ask that in philosophy class.  For Christians, it’s the experience of the divine abandonment, of the contraction, where everything that defines who you are is stripped, and then, the rebirth of meaning and God among us in our interactions.  In other words, you cannot say any more that ‘God made me do it.’ You have to take responsibility for what you do… you act out of love, but never knowing ‘this is definitely what I have to do’.  If you get it wrong, you might have blood on your hands.  We act as human beings, fractured, broken, and beautiful.”

For me, an essential ingredient to the way this is practised is nonviolence.  Nonviolence should not rely on a meta-narrative, on a grand story of justification for our own actions, or our groups actions.  Nonviolence demands that in every interaction you are accountable for what you do, say, think, or believe, because violence itself runs much deeper than ‘direct violence’, the kind of violence we can see and objectify.  Johan Galtung identified two other types of violence, structural and cultural beyond direct violence.  ‘Cultural violence’ holds particular relevance here, and was described by Galtung like this –

“By ‘cultural violence’ we mean those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence – exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science and formal science (logic, mathematics) – that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence. Stars, crosses and crescents; flags, anthems and military parades; the ubiquitous portrait of the Leader; inflammatory speeches and posters – all these come to mind.”

Instead, nonviolence provides a way of looking and acting in the world with love, but without appealing to an external mediator or authority. At its best, nonviolence does not simply recreate a structure of thought or process to be followed dogmatically – by doing this it loses its potency, and begins to look like just one other node in a matrix of belief systems to appeal to.  In order to be a way of practising love, nonviolence can’t just replace our institutions, myths or grand narratives with new ones, for the same reasons that acts of love should never be prescribed by a call to an authority.  There is no reason to love – love is, in itself, the reason, and to give a reason means it is no longer love.  Nonviolence is an opportunity to look at the world with fresh eyes, to assume that (direct, structural, cultural) violence is not the only option.  Nonviolence provides a vantage point to act without simply regurgitating the problems we hope to act on, and responding to violence, injustice and oppression with full acknowledgement that we take responsibility for what it is we do.

So to go full circle, back to that little quote I started this piece with –

“Sometimes I would like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when He could do something about it.”

“Well, why don’t you ask Him?”

“Because I’m afraid He would ask me the same question.”

I am starting to wonder if a call on God to resolve the poverty, suffering and injustice in the world is not a particularly important part of the Christian journey – whether or not there is a being to appeal to is simply not relevant to the Christian journey of love.  Instead, love leads us to encounter God in our midst, in both the beauty and strength visible on our planet, and in the violence of injustice, oppression and persecution in our own lives and communities.  Nonviolence becomes an essential tool to look at the world through fresh eyes, to understand the world in which we live beyond the pervasive narratives of violence, and to act with absolute responsibility and commitment to the realities of injustice and oppression we encounter.

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