The Thinking Theologian: Transcending our violence

By Dr Joel Hodge, 15 August 2019


The vision of the New Testament is one of fundamental and complete harmony between God and humanity. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ farewell discourse focusses on this harmony: ‘that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us’ (Jn 17:21).

In the book of Revelation, we are given the powerful image of the descent of the holy city—the new Jerusalem—from heaven. In it, the harmony between God and creation will be fully realised:

Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away. (Rev 21:3–4)

What a powerful vision! God is not some distant watchmaker or dictator but an intimate father and friend. Yet, a vision of harmony implies a reality of disharmony. Humans seek harmony but seem to continually engage in division and conflict.

The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously remarked: ‘The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.’

Niebuhr is pointing to the division, hatred, violence, selfishness and destruction that have afflicted human history across all cultures. Unfortunately, the one reality or truth that we can clearly identify about humans is their baffling propensity to fight and destroy each other, regardless of ethnicity, sex or religion.

The 20th century demonstrated this in terrible detail; it is, as far as we know, the bloodiest century of all time. Moreover, despite the end of the Cold War—a period which was characterised by the possibility of the mutually assured destruction of nuclear warfare—the 21st century is not faring much better. The beginning of this century was greeted with spectacular terrorist attacks on New York, which have led to more military conflict and terrible civilian attacks.

There is a fundamental disharmony in humanity, then. According to traditional Christian thought, this disharmony has its source in original sin; that is, in the disharmony between Creator and creature caused by human pride and envy.

The Bible symbolically tells this story through the ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. Genesis’ theological message is as pertinent today as it was thousands of years ago. This ‘fall’ from harmony with God was caused by grasping at what the original humans were not ready for—the divine life itself.

Genesis shows that the original humans came to pre-emptively desire something which God was preparing for them. Instead of growing in friendship with God and each other, they made themselves into rivals with God and each other by grasping and taking rather than receiving. Like children, they took before they were ready and then blamed each other. This action set off an irreversible chain of desire that led to murder in the story of Cain and Abel, which immediately follows the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis.

For Genesis, then, human life is characterised by a pattern of grasping and taking rather than receiving friendship and love from God. As humans came to self-consciousness, they came to awareness of their own capacities and of relationship with others, especially of the divinity. Instead of constructively engaging in relationship, humans have used their self-consciousness for their own envious and prideful gain, especially in opposition to God.

The original disharmony with God and other humans results, then, in the human propensity for distorted desire (concupiscence), pride and selfishness. Grasping and taking, moreover, manifests in the constant resort to violence and domination.

The story of the Bible is, in one sense, God’s recovery action following the fall; that is, God’s effort to bring us to our true selves in loving unity with each other and himself, despite the evil we do. In Jesus, God confronts this evil head-on, with transformative love and forgiveness.

God’s action to ‘save’ us is not for God’s own sake, but for our good. God doesn’t need us; we need God. The Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe stated that humans need God because they cannot unite themselves without God. We are incapable of providing the communion and fulfilment that we each yearn for and seek. The best we have done is military empires built on violence and domination.

Importantly, Jesus rejects the violent model of communion at the climax of his trial before Pilate: ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world’ (Jn 18:36). Following this statement, in a great twist of irony, Barabbas, a violent revolutionary, is released in place of Jesus.

At this point of the Gospel, original sin is put on display in its ugliness: humans choose violent order and mob violence rather than the way of divine love offered by Jesus. The conventional way of giving order and harmony through violence is chosen rather than the liberating path of God’s love.

The Christian eschatological vision exemplified in the book of Revelation declares that this ‘old order’ is and will pass away. Violence is no longer capable of unanimously uniting us around scapegoats, enemies and victims like it was in the past. Jesus has definitively exposed violence as a deficient way of dealing with disharmony and disorder.

Jesus has given us an opportunity to transcend our violence. Will we take it?

This is uncertain, but according to the New Testament, we are in the ‘end times’ of violent human communion. There are various frenetic attempts to re-constitute human life through violence: Islamist terrorism, Nazism and Communism all attest to this effort. But they all have to fight against their own inevitable failure.

The way of self-sacrificial love is the only viable option for humans to achieve fulfilment and harmony. This way of love is exemplified in the life of Jesus. In Jesus, divine and human love have met in an intimate and everlasting harmony.

The encounter of Jesus at the Resurrection was the definitive starting point in which the early Christians finally recognised that in Jesus, God is showing us what true harmony is and offering us the chance to be part of it. God had conquered violence and death through love and was building a new communion of love through Jesus’ family on earth, enlivened by the Spirit.

Jesus’ definitive gift to his family was the Spirit: the substance of God’s own marvellous life of love. Jesus has not left us alone but has passed on God’s love to us. In this love, Jesus is inviting us into the beautiful harmony of God’s own life.

Through the Spirit, God has made, and is making, humanity ready to enter fully into his life—to overcome the divisions of the past and realise true harmony with each other in God, ‘so as to have the right to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates’ (Rev 22:14). Thus, God has given us everything—his very life of love—‘so that they may be one, as we are one’ (Jn 17:22).

Dr Joel Hodge is Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne) and National Course Coordinator for Undergraduate Theology Degrees and Short Courses.

This article was originally published in the July 2019 edition of the Melbourne Catholic Magazine.

With thanks to Melbourne Catholic Magazine and the Archdiocese of Melbourne.


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