Guest Post #2 Violence and Christian Holy Writ: The Il-logic of Divine Un-favor

David Horstkoetter is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Marquette University. He received his Bachelor’s Degree at Multnomah Bible College and his Master of Arts at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. David’s interests are history, social ethics, and systematic theology. He blogs at Flying Farther.


Violence is often seen as evidence of divine un-favor—the opposite of blessing within a prosperity gospel context. Here violence done to one is equated with a person losing; while to be victorious, or feeling the victory promised by the church after one gets saved, is predicated on vanquishing. Now, of course this is far from unoriginal, but the twist here is that this logic also works itself out on a more subtle level when people feel that they aren’t winning in their life. The import is that a simple feeling of malaise becomes evidence of divine un-favor or no salvation. The result is a Christian life as pragmatic and will-to-power, even in every day details, whether one subscribes to a prosperity gospel explicitly or not. Apollo Fights the Fires of Dionysius

Where we place the importance of violence will determine (literally and logically) whether we do—or ignore—violence to others. Half jokingly, I wonder if we should recover the theological category of divine smiting, just to make sure that violence is put in its proper place, rather than allowed to have too much purchase. If we are not careful, violence becomes legitimated because it is understood as earned. I believe this explains much of the logic for conservative Christian proclamation that parades like a Hebrew prophet of old, explaining away natural disasters and, say, September 11 through terrible theodicy arguments. In such cases, violence was understood as deserved divine punishment-retribution. (I should say here that I am not ignoring the political concept of blow back. The September 11 attacks were certainly the result of blow back from American policy.) This is the same logic used by people who blame the victim in rape cases. Here one sees a(n) (ana)logical consistency between individual rape cases and the oppression that liberation theology addresses on a structural level. And perhaps this explains some of the current resistance to liberation theology: why align one’s self with the losers? After all, Jesus didn’t tap out, right? (See Wait, people seriously say that?!)

We must obviously take care to understand violence as parasitic (not determinative) and that Christians are called to God’s economy. Perpetrators of violence warp the God-who-judges and simplistically see violence as the evidence of judgment, while ignoring the economic and social vulnerability so crucial to God’s sense of judgment-justice and gratuity. Violence visited upon the weak is not God’s way because the divine kingdom is not a self-serving empire or spitefully vindictive. If the Psalms and the Sermon on the Mount have anything to say, it is that God cares for the true victims. Gustavo Gutiérrez has rightly seen that the “God in whom we believe is the God of life. Belief in the resurrection entails defending the life of the weakest members of society. Looking for the Lord among the living leads to commitment to those who see their right to life being constantly violated. To assert the resurrection of the Lord is to assert life in the face of death” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, God of Life, 14). Thus to let others be defined by violence has allowed us to write them off — they did not triumph on their own, so they are not worth our attention. Blaming the victim rids the person or people of their humanity and thus turns subjects into objects of derision. Weakness has somehow become something to take advantage. Clearly this is incongruent with God on the cross.

Up until now I have oh so eloquently made moves that the Hulk could describe: “Violence, bad!” How does this square with its conflict with texts of terror? First, a few boundaries. We must be aware of historic anti-semitism in Biblical studies that subtly still rears its head at times. And we also cannot give into a Marcionite urge. However, we also must allow for honesty: there is indeed a tension that seems to exist. Is there inherently a supercessionism in Christianity? But J. Kameron Carter has argued that supercessionism has helped bring about racist racial categories (Race: A Theological Account). Then again, what about the different kind of supercessionism, a universalizing kind, that Jesus spoke about with the woman at the well? Questions abound and the complexity is mindboggling.

I do think there is a way to deal with some of the issues around violence that hopefully eliminate what should not be an issue in the first place. Perhaps this is evidence of my time among the Jesuits, but difference in order to unify may work here for moving beyond impasse or paralyzing frustration. The distinction? Covenant.

Covenant is originally given, not earned; covenant was instituted by grace and fulfilled in human response. Also, Jewish covenant, especially with Abraham, has a tendency toward expansion, if not outright universalism: a blessing to the nations. Some of the covenants clearly had conditions, however, blessings and curses in covenants work differently than prosperity assumes.

We, as Christians, are not in covenant that speaks of any blessings or curses. None. The book of Hebrews may come close—that is, at least there is contention on whether one could lose their salvation by continued disobedience. But this has nothing to do with blessings and curses associated with obedience and disobedience through the Jewish covenants. We do, as Christians, work within a different paradigm that also has continuity with Jewish thought: God’s economy of gift. Or at least we are supposed to.

The logic of violence as divine un-favor has no support within contemporary Christian thought, yet somehow it continues. I suspect that such a discourse has more to do with capitalism, privilege, and victimization, than it does with Christian notions of humanity and what God desires.

14 thoughts on “Guest Post #2 Violence and Christian Holy Writ: The Il-logic of Divine Un-favor”

  1. The question of how to reject the violence of “divine unfavor” without falling into supercessionism is one of THE questions. David suggests the key is covenant. That will work, I think, only if we rethink the theme of covenant something along the lines that Barth did, so that Jesus Christ is THE one elected to both damnation and salvation for everyone.

  2. agreed. I think David’s questioning of divine favor is fruitful, but to go off of Michael’s comment: to embrace covenant without the question of election is to not only do away with covenant, but to fall into a supercession which ultimately supercedes Christianity as well. In other words, if the rejection of violence becomes the key to divine life, then why is Christianity unique in that respect?

    It’s good to say a word negatively about what the divine life excludes, but without a commensurate positive word, I think we get an equal supercession of nonviolence.

  3. I do think I provide a positive notion: “We do, as Christians, work within a different paradigm that also has continuity with Jewish thought: God’s economy of gift. Or at least we are supposed to.”

    But I certainly don’t spell it out much.

  4. Spell out a little more, then, how you see “economy of gift” bringing continuity between Christians and Jews, without superceding both.

    Here’s my concern: Milbank uses this language in his work, the logic of which (I think) becomes most evident in his “In the Name of Jesus”, in which the specifics of Christ’s life are muted in favor of Christ-the-principle-which-gives-rise-to-the-church. In other words, EOG supercedes both Christ and Israel, when given apart from their narratives.

    You mention the covenant of Abraham as a covenant of grace, but is one instantiation of the EOG, a precursor to it, an analogous form…etc?

  5. It might be fun to rile hackles with using Milbank here, but I have more than a few others in mind when it comes to economy of gift: Milbank as you’ve noted, and then Douglas Meeks, Kathryn Tanner, Steve Long, etc. This list obviously has its tensions. Still, I believe the over all turn is correct: we know of God as gift-giver and it is to gift which we respond.

    Here I think lies an understanding of election that I should have voiced: in some sense, all are elected because God’s gifts, and blessing in God’s gifts, are eventually to be extended to all. Here is the universal invitation to God’s way of life — and one could thus call this election. I’m unsure if this should be called a covenant in the formal sense, other than the fact that the NT talks about Jesus’ work as a new covenantal work. I’m simply trying to note that Christians are not bound in the same way as Jews.

    However, I’m not sure EOG supersedes Israel or Christianity, but certainly links the two. I am very much concerned with maintaining the particular, rather than some strictly transcendental notion of gift. But I am also with Balthasar and plenty others, that what is seen of God in the incarnation is both mystery and the revelation of what God is (i.e. for Balthasar, the kenosis of Jesus reveals the fundamental kenotic quality of the trinity). I am simply trying to get to the point that it was God’s particular, revelatory work, which was done through gift, does establish and link the communities together in a common call from a common God to be a blessing to the world.

    A quick note about gift to help distinguish some of this from Milbank. God’s work is done in gift, but also in some negation as well because God certainly has a specific and different telos in mind. One might call this union of gift and negation — a yes and no that one could construe as apocalyptic — is move towards transfiguration (I’m thinking some Bulgakov and Doug Harink here).

    When I mentioned continuity with Israel, I was thinking of the Abrahamic covenant (God called him out of Ur, God makes the move to establish a covenant, etc.), but also notions like giving and dividing up the promised land among the tribes, and the establishment of the years of jubilee to make sure that God’s gifts remain and everyone would be provided for. It isn’t that EOG supersedes, but rather God works through gift-giving in both communities (i.e. Holy Spirit is sent as a gift as well). Maybe Milbanks isn’t wrong, so much as narrow, but I’d have to do more work on that to say it with true confidence.

    Perhaps I should’ve spelled out more about how I see economy of gift, but I was trying to avoid creating a commercial for my own emphases. In hindsight, I should’ve just owned it and ran with it.

    Whew, some of the sentences above were kinda convoluted, but I’m studying for comps right now and have precious little time. Still, Myles, I’ve got a paper that I’m working on to submit for publishing that talks a lot more about the above if you have particular questions about what I’m talking about when I say EOG.

  6. I understand concerns about Christian triumphalism, anti-Semitism, etc., but sometimes a type of supercessionism isn’t such a bad thing.

    As far as I can tell, God relates to different people in different ways at different times. Making that point is not to say that one way of relating is superior to another way. It’s just that contexts change and people change. And God (if God doesn’t also change) is at least very open to accommodating herself to these changes.

    To pick just one example, one can recall how God changes God’s plans for Israel and reluctantly allows the people to have kings. As a change (development? step backwards?) in the religious life of Israel the creation of the monarchy could be charged with supercessionism. So could the later prophetic rejection of that monarchy. Any kind of change is open to this charge (thus, Barth doesn’t get us off the hook, as MWW suggests).

    Consequently, I’m actually quite surprised by the number of concerns about Marcionism or supercessionism that have been raised thus far in this series. To recognize changes (within the OT, between the OT and NT, within the NT, and perhaps even between the NT and today) need not carry any concomitant triumphalism or anti-Semitism.

  7. Yes, Dan, I may in the end agree with you: that we may not be able to avoid a supercessionism. This is why I asked: “what about the different kind of supercessionism, a universalizing kind, that Jesus spoke about with the woman at the well?” Was Jesus actually wrong to say that the Jews were right but it won’t matter because God through Christ will be for all, or does this present a fundamental challenge to the way supercessionism has been put forward? I suspect the later.

    Still, even if we should embrace that we are supercessionist at some point, I want to do it very carefully. If we do not do it carefully, I suspect we’ll need another work like Carter’s.

  8. Perhaps an appeal to different metaphors and images rather than categories of supercessionism, replacement theology, etc. would be helpful? What if what happens with the event of Christianity is, to use a Gadamerian term, a type of “fusion of horizons,” in which aspects of the former and aspects of the new are brought together into something unique. After all, Jesus is a Jewish Messiah whose Jewishiness ought not, as Kant did and encourages us to do, be downplayed or worse, denied. Yet, this Jewish Messiah-Redeemer also has, for lack of better words, “Trinitarian ties” to Creation and the multiplicity and diversity of human beings. He’s not interested in eradicating these differences, but rather in bringing them into a harmonious union, analogous to the way in which the various individual parts of a symphonic masterpiece simultaneously unite and yet their individuality is neither nullified nor flattened into “sameness”. Given that my focus for the past five or so years has been in the direction of philosophy, with my most current research focusing upon cultural critique, Foucault, and philosophy of race, rather than biblical studies, I am not conversant with the current literature on this topic. Thus, I appreciate the way that you guys are bringing the issues to the fore for those of us in other fields. I also appreciate the dialogical “tone” of the discussions thus far—may it continue! (I am also not suggesting that my “metaphors” answer all of the complex issues associated with the concerns voiced). Thanks again to David for tackling this issue within the “spatial” constraints of 1500 words!

  9. On another note, David, I like your semi-serious line about possibly recovering a “theological category of divine smiting, just to make sure that violence is put in its proper place.”

    I actually think the NT authors were trying to do something like this by reserving judgment, and vengeance, to be the exclusive property of God through Jesus. When reread in this way, what becomes apparent is that the cross of Christ becomes the manifestation of what divine vengeance looks like.

    Of course, there are other violent events that have been linked to divine judgment (like the fall of Jerusalem in 70CE). However, such events are not the result of God’s active judgment, but what happens when we are left to the “natural” consequences of our own sinful actions. These are penultimate, passive forms of divine judgment. God’s ultimate, active form of judging (and taking vengeance), however, looks very different. Here, it is God who suffers violence and takes its consequences into God’s self, so that all may be saved.

    This, I think, then becomes part of the reason why acts of violence against others are forbidden to Christ-followers. Christians may participate in God’s passive form of judgment (as the churches in John’s Apocalypse do, when they are called to withdraw from the Empire, as God allows that Empire to devour itself), but any tentative, proleptic involvement in God’s active judgment must be cruciform.

    (Also, as an aside, I find it interesting that all the people you mention in relation to talk of God’s Economy of Grace are theologians. This is an increasingly prominent theme in NT scholarship as well.)

  10. Justin Meggitt, Ted Jennings, Richard Horsley, and Ched Myers all come immediately to mind. I could go back to some of my research and dig up others, if you want.

  11. Neil Elliott, and the (increasingly great) cloud of witnesses who support a counter-imperial reading of Paul would certainly fit the bill for the idea of finding an “economy of grace” in Paul (and the NT more broadly). I just couldn’t remember if Elliott actually used this language or not.

    By the way, Cynthia, given your interest in philosophy and social theory, you might want to check out Jennings’ “Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul: On Justice” (if you haven’t already!). It’s a really great little book.

  12. Most of those figures are familiar, but for some reason I don’t remember economy of God being such a big focus — it seemed often about the anti-empire stance. I’ll have to go back and look at them.

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