More Thoughts About God and Violence

Two post-evangelical memoirs (am I inventing a genre here?) I read recently, Losing My Religion by William Lobdell and Reasons to Believe by John Marks, make for some interesting comparisons. Both these authors are journalists who for a time embraced an evangelical form of Christian faith, but who lost that faith, including belief in a God of any kind, through their work of chronicling human suffering. Both concluded that a God who would allow such things as priests raping children with the knowledge and collusion of their superiors (in Lobdell’s case) and a father living in the false hope of reuniting with his sons who the journalist knows to be dead in the Bosnian war (in Marks’ case) cannot be any sort of superior being.

Both also encounter suffering people who devote their lives to God through Christ, including an adult survivor of horrible childhood sexual abuse by his priest (Lobdell) and a middle-aged couple whose adult son, once headed for success, spirals through mental illness to an early death (Marks).

This has me wondering. To the thoughtful but detached observer of suffering, the thought of God is understandably offensive. If God is like me, standing there watching such things, but infinitely superior to me in being all-powerful and completely good, how can God allow this? How can I justify accepting such a God?

But many who suffer greatly tell us that God is extraordinarily present with them in that suffering. Of course, many others who suffer have also found nothing, no one, no god, and their voices deserve our ears and respect.

Though I keep hoping for news of something else, for now I have concluded that there are really only two ways of dealing with evil – either to destroy it with violence (which inevitably is only a lesser evil and never seems to ultimately get the job done) or else to go on living in the face of evil and refuse to return violence for violence. This often works like salt in a wound, drawing out the worst of the poison, but in so doing exposes the evil for what it is, making an appeal to justice which is often more powerful at defeating a particular evil (think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others . . . “one more in the name of love”).

Assuming there really are only these two options, is it possible that God chooses option two? Certainly we humans have attributed great acts of destruction to God, when we felt that destruction was justified, the lesser evil to bring about the greater good. (Read the Old Testament, read much of church history, read the billboard on the side of Interstate 35 that says God is speaking through twin towers and hurricanes but no one is listening.) Is it possible, though, that God only ever has chosen option two, to simply be, the “I AM,” present with people, which means that by definition, the “I AM” is always suffering? And yet that by virtue of being God, as shown in God incarnate in Christ – if this is true – that God has power to bring life from death, and therefore make evil as we know it ultimately powerless?

And that God’s presence with the suffering ones records the truth about what has been done to them, even as it sometimes reveals to the sufferer the humanity – and therefore the suffering – of the perpetrator? And that somehow in this mediating presence there is the possibility for peace and love to erupt?

I tread very lightly here, mostly ignorant to any depth of human suffering, cushioned and cut off as I am from pain, privileged and rich, comfortable like only a slice of humanity has ever been, expressly because others suffered – and suffer – to make this unsustainable lifestyle of mine possible. Do I have any right even to speak of suffering, to treat it lightly as a subject for philosophical conversation?

Is there any valid response to suffering other than being present with the sufferer? Is that what Jesus meant by enjoining those who would follow him to “take up your cross”? Shut up and listen, hush up your condemnations and your ideologies about who’s right and wrong and love everybody, dammit?! I do know enough to know that love, the unconditional kind, the non-respecter-of-persons kind, cannot last long without suffering of some sort.

I agree with Lobdell and Marks that Supreme-Righteous-Ruler-of-the-Universe-God just doesn’t make any sense with the way things are. A God standing over and above all things, watching Rwandan machetes and Nazi gas chambers with unblinking eyes and idle hands is no god I want to worship. I’m an atheist too when it comes to this god, and wary of the religionists who follow this god.

A suffering God, though – a “least of these” God, a “with us” God; I can consider this, even as the thought of it condemns me. Of course it is hard for me to sense a God like this – I am mostly the perpetrator and rarely the sufferer.

These thoughts are hardly conclusive, just another untried idea kicking around in my brain. To quote a song I’ve been writing for six years now, “there are rocks in my heart and holes in my thoughts but I’ll keep pounding this pavement with my genuine rubber soul.”


  1. First, thanks for reminding us that those who haven’t found God need “our ears and respect,” this is important to note considering that atheists are more reviled in our society than rapist and child-molesters.

    I would like to comment on your thinking as it pertains to evil, specifically the idea that there are only two ways to deal with it. I know you were thinking outloud here, so am I.

    We were raised to understand the universe in a sort of dualistic way, light/dark, good/bad, holy/evil, there was, at least in my mind, some line over which one could not cross into the other, recall the idea that God is holy and thus “separate” from evil, sin, whatever. I could attempt to write a philisophical rejection of such a universe, but I won’t, because: 1) I really don’t possess the language and education that would enable me to do so, and 2) I get tired even thinking about attempting it. So I will just say the good/evil bifurcation doesn’t pass the smell test with me.

    I think the universe, creation, all that is, is simply a smear; it is a some kind of whole, everything is connected. What is evil, well, I don’t know, I guess its like porn, you know it when you see it. I recall the butchery in Rwanda you refer to, 1993 or so if I remember right, this is of course evil, they ran out of machetes, often village children were rounded up into fields, surrounded, then over a period of many hours brutally maimed with gardening impliments. Evil. I have read nothing about the history of Rwanda, but I am sure if I did, I would find a tangled web of history that would make finding the situation in 93 far more complicated than simply evil. Nazis, that makes me think of The Reader, Kate Winslet’s character participates in the murder of 30(300?) Jews, yet she lives her entire life never understanding what she did to be wrong, she was following orders, she was helping control a situation.

    Of course we can resort to all the thought experiments from ethics class, is it wrong to steal bread? Yes. Is it wrong when your children are starving? Umm. Is it wrong to lie? Yes. Is it wrong to lie to protect national secrets? Umm. Right now in my Jefferson studies I am reading of a moment in his presidency when he sent mixed messages to Spain, France, and England, you could say he equivocated, you could say he fibbed, you could say he even prevaricated, you could say he frickin lied, and in doing so stalled for time (his intended outcome) and avoided a war with France, ended up able to buy Louisiana for pennies an acre, and now what a huge godly country we have…the author of this history commends Jefferson’s diplomacy, his political acumen, his strategy. At many points along the way, and with many individuals that were involved with implementing Jefferson’s approach, we could find oodles of wrongdoing, and, if carried to a dualist extreme, sin, or evil.

    (Deep breath)

    What I’m saying is, like you, the whole “Supreme-Righteous-Ruler-of-the Universe-God” falls flat with me. But for me, I must go further, I cannot really even fathom the “suffering God,” or “God with us,” or whatever. And declaring something right or wrong, good or evil, to me is only a surface scratch on the finish of history.

    So what do I think of God and suffering? Depends what day you ask me, even what moment, also may depend on the last person I spoke with, if I’ve had a drink or not (I’m more friendly toward God with a beer or two in me, I think I could perhaps wave my hands in the air to some banal praise song if I went to church buzzed, lol), and, I suppose, my current state of depression/ not-depression. I have figured out God many times, I recall one time years ago, mowing the lawn, it simply struck me like a bolt from the blue why Christ had to die for our sins, it was not because he was sinless but because God found himself culpable in the horror of creation, being the creator, and atoned for it by, you know the story. This epiphany stayed with me till, oh, suppertime I suppose.

    Boy can I blab. I will end by saying, as I know you have heard me say a few times, that there is a growing…intuition I feel, a sort of desire to explore some the the Eastern religious traditions, problem is time, circumstance, also where would I start. But the little I have encountered has struck some kind of nerve with me, their world view is so radically different, I am curious. Anyway. Thanks for the great blog, Julia. Nnox

    • Thanks for adding to the conversation so generously, Nnox. Oh boy can I relate to your story about epiphany while mowing the lawn, which lasted until dinnertime. That is so much how my mind works! And how this blog works, I hasten to add.

      You know, the protestant reformation started and grew over beers at German pubs. Maybe there’s something to that 🙂

      You make a very important observation that I have also found true – good and evil are rarely (if ever?) separate entities, and what is evil in one
      situation could be good in another (and vice versa). I can see the sense in the theory that humans created the ideas of God (complete goodness) and Satan (complete evil), because we want something, some being or beings, to be pure sources of good and evil; then we want good to be more powerful than evil so that someday evil will be purged from the system.

      Life as we know it has never really worked that way, though, and even those (Christians) who hold a belief in a literal being named Satan don’t actually see that being as complete evil, but rather a good angel fallen hopelessly into evil (I am woefully ignorant about other religious perspectives on Satan). That leaves, for most believers, only one being who is pure anything, and that would be God who is pure good.

      But, as I’ve been lamenting for many posts now, a purely good God – at least, an all-powerful one who is engaged in human history – doesn’t compute with human experience, although many who believe or want to believe do their best to work it all out theologically.

      Many others have called off or downgraded the importance of the search for God, but it’s worth reiterating – they have plenty to contribute to this and other conversations. I find it ironic (or maybe illuminating?) that many of the greatest evildoers I can think of have been religious people – and many of the atheists and agnostics I have known or studied have been charitable and thoughtful people. Which brings me to a previous post’s subject – labels are stupid. We’re all humans, and we may as well love and listen to one another, eh?

  2. I’m curious to know why you believe it follows that a God who allows evil to exist in the world must himself be powerless or uncaring? From a logical standpoint, the one does not imply the other. It actually sounds borderline ridiculous to me to hear somebody essentially say that they care more about evil in the world than God does.

    There is free will. If God prevented genocide in Africa he would have to do away with free will. But God does have wrath and there will be justice. God’s wrath is being held off for some time so that people like me have time to realize that all of my good works are like dirty rags in his eyes. I understand those in the emergent church don’t care for the concept of blood sacrifice, but that’s what I need to cover my sins according to the word – the blood of Jesus to cover up all the crap I’ve done in my life.

    Now, I haven’t read either book. I listened to William Lobdell being interviewed by Hugh Hewitt once and they covered a lot of his arguments. Nice enough guy but I come to different conclusions than he does.

    Sorry, I realize this sounds preachy but I am no wordsmith – it’s just going to come off that way.


  3. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Rich. Good question – “I’m curious to know why you believe it follows that a God who allows evil to exist in the world must himself be powerless or uncaring?”

    My answer is that from a simple, this-is-what-I-see perspective, setting aside theologies (human theories) about free will and sovereignty, resurrection and final judgment; a God who looks on while priests rape children cannot be at the same time all-powerful, all-good, and personally involved in human history. It just does not compute for me. I’m feeling more like the psalmist in these posts than like a theologian.

    I am not necessarily attempting to overthrow theologies about free will and sovereignty, the lordship of Christ, or any other framework. As I said, I’m thinking out loud. I’m not trying to build a theology. I’m simply looking for a different way to think about God and violence; and testing out loud the assumptions I’ve been brought up with.

    It’s good to have a faith that I can talk about in everyday words, I think, and that can stand up to some kicking around. I guess I’m very much in a kicking-it-around phase of my faith journey.

    Incidentally, I haven’t come to the same conclusions as Lobdell or Marks either. Reading their books helped clarify for me some of the things I believe – or have believed and continue to work through – that in my view they were misunderstanding or unaware of.

    • Thanks – always glad to contribute. I think your blog is well-written and I hope I don’t come off being too argumentative (or worse, insulting). It’s always nice when someone is being completely transparent with their thoughts while they are working things out. In fact, as far as pedigrees go, I feel quite over-matched in terms of our backgrounds on the topic (you’re a pastors kid after all) – so thanks for going easy on me. For that reason I enjoy debates online because I’m too slow to form my thoughts/responses in real-time within the context of a face-to-face conversation. Not that this is a debate really, more a clarifying of different viewpoints.

      OK, so two more thoughts – and perhaps these will feel cliche to you as well:
      1) Regarding the priest who rapes young boys. Is this any different than the dentist who over-sedates his patients and gropes them? I don’t think so, yet you rarely hear anyone claim they have serious doubts about dentistry because of these incidents. Just something to think about. In my worldview man (inclusive word here, I’m not into PC language) is and always will be fallible. I read this in scripture but it rings very true in my heart as well. It seems logical to me that man can be fallible but serve an infallible God.

      2) Regarding the need to determine things experientially as opposed to believing what somebody else has written (e.g. the gospel accounts or the old testament prophets). This works well for some things but not so well for others. The one example that comes to mind is drug use. I’d prefer to believe what the medical community tells me about the effects of cocaine or crystal meth rather than have to go through 1st hand experience in order to draw conclusions.

      Ultimately, we seem to approach things from very different perspectives. I don’t understand the post-modern relativistic lenses that I think you view the world with. I know you view my stance as out-dated, paternalistic, or whatever. I had to smile at your description of yourself on Facebook – “I’m a recovering evangelical”. I guess I’m still addicted and in denial 🙂

      • Hi Rich – no, you don’t sound argumentative or insulting to me. Thanks for engaging with these thoughts. To your points above:

        1) Topping the list of egregiousness in the clergy abuse issue is the willful ignorance of superiors in the Catholic church institution. Using your groping dentist illustration, it would be like if a patient pressed charges against a dentist, the accrediting board of dentistry (or whatever the institution is called) looked into the matter and found the dentist guilty, and then did their very best to cover up the incident and keep the dentist practicing. OR, sent the dentist off to some poor remote village where victims would be less likely to report incidents. Add to it that the Catholic church superiors are supposedly ordained by God to shepherd the faithful, and it is appalling, though having been a pastor’s kid I maybe have seen more than most people the nasty side of “full-time ministry.” (Oh, boy, could I go off on a tangent here!)

        2) Re: drug use – this illustration doesn’t work for me. As you say, you can believe the medical community about the harmful effects of drug use, but much more importantly, if you don’t believe the medical community, you can get the education you need to do your own research about the effects of drug use on brain cells or whatever else. Society currently has the tools it needs to test all of this, and we need not rely merely on the say-so of others.

        It seems highly inefficient to me that I can’t – or won’t – simply take the word of the men (i use this term gender-specifically 🙂 ) who sat at councils a thousand years ago and voted on matters of theology and scriptural canons. If I could just accept their decisions, I could get on with other things. But instead, I insist on reinventing the wheel! The thing is, I have come to a phase in my life/faith journey/process where I have so many questions and so little certainty – and if I were to speak in the language I’ve used most of my life, I would say that God is leading me to ask hard questions, to be true to the unique creation I am becoming. Because of the place i am at, it even feels deceptive for me to phrase it that way, but honestly that is still my hope – that my life is being guided by the lover of my soul and the God of the universe, even if I am having a dark and dismal time trying to hold on to it all right now.

        “I know you view my stance as out-dated, paternalistic, or whatever.” – please do not assume you know my opinion of you or your perspective. To be honest, I think you and your perspective have something to teach me, and I want to listen well. It’s just that I think every perspective has something to teach me, and I’m changing the radio station regularly these days (which you may call postmodern and relativistic if you like, but i’m not really into labels, as I’ve probably over-mentioned on this blog!).

        • Julia –

          First – sorry about the labels. I was trying to describe how we’re different in our thinking process and it’s all I could come up with. Also, sorry for assuming you look down at what I’ll call traditional Christian viewpoints. I’ll accept that you don’t and not be as defensive.

          You extended the analogy well with the Catholic church. I wasn’t actually trying to defend Catholics at all, just the idea that church leaders occasionally sin in very public ways and that this shouldn’t deter anyone from faith in God. What horrible pressure to think that as a servant of God (or as the spouse or child of that servant) you need to somehow appear sinless. There are often people who need to be removed from leadership positions and in most churches I’ve been in they are.

          When it comes to the catholic church though, I am actually willing to hogpile on them with you. Among the things that they do that have no basis in scripture (in addition to child molestation and the whole cover-up):

          * Priests not allowed to be married (a more recent development, causing cruel hardship on wives and children of priests when this was decreed)
          * The grifting of parishioners through the sale of indulgences and masses under the pretense that it’s for the benefit of family members in “purgatory” or who have left the church.
          * The idea that confession needs to take place with a priest.
          * The idea that the masses cannot understand scripture and must get all teaching from priests.
          * The idea that the wine actually turns into blood and the bread into actual flesh (yuck).

          I’ll stop there. There’s more, though. Actually I could go on about how homosexuality is a big factor in this, too. Why did the boy scouts get such a hard time when they said they didn’t want gay scout leaders? Seems they were justified by exactly what has gone on in the Catholic church.

          I’d like to hear you elaborate on which parts of the Bible you feel are uninspired vs parts you feel are inspired – you allude to this (decisions 1000 years ago?). Shayna and I are hoping to make it to the science museum this weekend to check out the dead sea scrolls. I haven’t read a ton about the historicity of the Bible, but I have read some F.F. Bruce. I marvel at how as archaeologists find earlier and earlier manuscripts, the more accurate the later ones appear which were once thought to have lost a lot of meaning in translation over time.

          I’m not sure if I’ve completed my thoughts on all this – but I agreed to sub on a volleyball team tonight so I’m sitting here killing time and eating vending machine food at work until that starts. I should probably get ready to go now. Vending machine dinner and volleyball – not sounding like a winning combination right now.

          • Hi Rich – hope the vended victuals-fueled volleyball went alright 🙂 Glad to hear you are still playing – i hope to join a league this next year, after many years not playing.

            Just to bat things around with you a bit, I would suggest regarding the points you raise above about practices in the Catholic church having no basis in scripture; that the particular people who came up with those practices would say that they do have basis in scripture. I would also suggest that there are practices in your and my own faith tradition(s) that others would say are not scriptural. Every reading of scripture is an interpretation of some sort.

            I don’t think it works to compare the Boy Scout story with the Catholic clergy abuse one, with the intent of giving any insight on homosexuality. I’ve got no statistics, but I really don’t think pedophiles are all or even mostly gay. And I surely don’t think all or most gay men are pedophiles or abusers of one sort or another.

            Re: inspiration of the Bible – i haven’t come to any conclusions about inspiration of all or parts of the Bible. My point about thousand-year-old councils was that I’m not willing to just take their word for it, but I want to freely ask questions, do research, think it through for myself in community with others (including you through this conversation!).

            Think about the men who sat at those councils – through their consensus they overturned previously-held ideas about God and Christ and scripture. They did not simply take what had been handed down to them without thinking about it, disagreeing on some points, conversing, trying to move forward in some way. (Though that could be over-idealizing things – I’ve read that the calling of the councils and at least some of the decisions made were politically motivated – not surprising, but beside my point right now.)

            Think about the early church and the struggle over whether Gentile Christians needed to convert to Judaism or not – it’s hard for us to imagine how heretical it must have sounded to many in the church when some said that Judaism was not a necessary identity for Christians to take on.

            Think about Martin Luther, who questioned so much about the church and its doctrines.

            Etc., etc. I am NOT saying that i count myself among the reformers of Christianity, only trying to show that so much of what we call “orthodox” in our faith now actually grew out of people asking questions, trying out new ideas, often being called heretics 🙂 Isn’t there some quote about heresy becoming orthodoxy?

            I don’t think it’s honest or true, the way church folks (I having been one most of my life) talk about God as if we’ve got him all figured out (gender-specificity intended because that’s part of our orthodoxy about God). We act as if it’s all been decided already, and now it’s just a matter of learning the correct information – when that very information is only a snapshot of the long history of the conversation people have been having about God.

            Nathan & i hope to make it to the Dead Sea scrolls exhibit too! I never imagined, studying about them years ago, that someday I would be able to drive 70 miles from home and see them!

  4. Rich, you have used the word “logic” in both your posts, logic doesn’t really help us understand the nature of God as he/she/it relates to evil. We could create syllogisms that would prove either your view or the view that Julia is examining. I think what you mean is simply that the view of God you espouse in your comment succeeds with you. It does not succeed with me, and, from what I know of Julia, her either.

    Theologies, Julia reminds us, are simply human-created system of explaining God. Rich, you mentioned a few articles of theology: God’s wrath, justice; good works are filthy rags; blood sacrifice, etc. Certainly you realize that these articles belong to a certain system of understanding God, that this system has not always existed, and that many who ponder this system reject it for very good reasons. Julia sense an impending quote from TJ, I will not disappoint!

    In 1822, less than four years before he died, Jefferson wrote a letter discussing “Platonizing Christians,” that is, Christianity that is full of mystery, sensation, and incomprehensibility. He found the theologies of Knox, Calvin et. al to be utter nonsense. In his letter he compares the teachings of Jesus (which he thought was the most “sublime” moral code ever given to the human race) with the “demoralizing dogmas of Calvin:”

    1. That there are three Gods. (Doctrine of the Trinity)
    2. That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing. (Filthy rags, etc.)
    3. That faith is every thing, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.
    4. That reason in religion is of unlawful use.
    5. That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save.

    Stuff in parenthesis mine, btw.

    And of course you can find reasoned rejections of orthodox Christianity all through time, TJ is just someone I’m into personally.

    Rich, you said “post-modern” and “relativistic,” I would be curious to hear you qualify those ideas. What I remember of evangelical churches is that they like to create “bogeymen,” could be “evolutionist” or “secular humanist” or “environmentalist” or, perhaps, “post-modernist.” I think Julia is going for a “this-is-what-I-see” perspective rather than some secular orthodoxy, well, Julia, I will not speak on your behalf anymore, sorry!

  5. Hi Nnox, thanks for weighing in here and providing us with the Thomas Jefferson quote (spelled out here in case someone didn’t connect “TJ” or “Jefferson” with what is a household name for you :).

    Just to add a comment here, which I sort of discussed in a reply I just wrote to Rich elsewhere on this post, I think “orthodox Christianity” is a system in continual flux. What is orthodox in one time and place is not in another. Who decides these things? It has not escaped my attention that much of the theology I’ve been taught came from the minds of rich Anglo men, and I think it’s likely that we who have envisioned God through their theologies have been looking at a small and distorted piece and calling it the perfect whole.

    Okay, i forgive you for speaking on my behalf 🙂

      • Hold on, now – did I say anything to imply “contemptible?” I happen to know and love and respect a whole passel of rich Anglo men, and have learned from and enjoyed the works of many many more.

        If I had grown up only ever hearing from poor Asian women, do you suppose I might one day conclude that there were more perspectives from which to draw, without deciding that poor Asian women were contemptible?

  6. Sorry to interrupt this very interesting conversation, but Julia, I must know how to make those smiley faces…I am imagining all sorts of ironic uses for them….

  7. Colon then end-parenthesis, like this but without the space:
    : )
    If you type that in, many WP programs will turn it into a colorful smiley face. Sometimes i wish they wouldn’t, because i like the old-school-ness of the original design!

  8. “just another untried idea kicking around in my brain”

    The Saints have been trying it for many centuries and seem to have a pretty decent track record. : ) The incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ were (are) works of subversion. They were not a military offense or a court room drama. I think your view of a suffering God are on the mark. “That which is unassumed is unredeemed.” -Saint Gregory of Nazianzus

  9. Thanks for the comment, Keith. Yes, it’s always good to remember that most of the “new” or “untried” ideas we come up with have actually been in the minds of others throughout history. Whether we acknowledge it or are even aware of it, we are greatly influenced by the past and its people!

    Nathan and i are currently reading John F. Haught’s book God After Darwin, which so often sounds like a reply to my blog. His discussion of a God of suffering love and process theology reminds me a lot of the ideas you have raised, Keith.

  10. Julia, to quote you again…

    “It seems highly inefficient to me that I can’t – or won’t – simply take the word of the men (i use this term gender-specifically ) who sat at councils a thousand years ago and voted on matters of theology and scriptural canons.”

    If you believe in the incarnation of Christ then you likely believe the councils at least through the first council of Ephesus. If you can’t side with what the first three councils affirmed what do you have left?

    I don’t mean for that to sound passive aggressive or flippant.

  11. It doesn’t sound passive-agressive or flippant. This is the style of conversation I relish! Challenge me, disagree, say what you will as long as the tone remains respectful – which I think it always has throughout everyone’s comments here.

    Let me try to clarify – I am not saying that I disbelieve the affirmations of any of these councils – only that I don’t want to believe simply because they determined what should be believed already. I want to dig in, think through, talk it out for myself, and much of what i post here is part of that process for me.

    • I predict an expansion of the Second and Third Century Patristics section of your library. 🙂

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