IN How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian, Crossan takes on the difficult task of reconciling two major themes in the Bible which seem to stand at odds with one another; is God violent or not?
He points out we see two facets of the character of God; his distributive justice and his retributive justice. The first being the God of love, non-violence, compassion, and mercy. The second being the God responsible for the blessings and curses found in books like Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and much of the major and minor prophets. “Can God be both?” Crossan repeatedly asks throughout the book.
He eventually turns to Jesus asking which Jesus is the true Jesus, the one who approaches Holy Week riding on a peaceful donkey or the one who storms the battlefield in a river of blood in Revelation. His answer and his thesis for the book is “Jesus is the lens through which we can know God and the lens through which we can know Jesus is the Jesus of history.” The Jesus of history is, for Crossan, the non-violent protestor who rides donkeys.
We are now left with a bit of a conundrum. What do we do with the parts of the Bible where Jesus (or Paul, or God) don’t act quite peacefully? Crossan would call this the heartbeat or give-and-take of the Bible. First, we see God act in radical distributive justice. But then the text turns on itself by subverting God’s radicality with the normalcy of civilization. For Crossan, this is retributive justice, imperialism, escalation of violence and peace through victory. In other words, the text asserts God’s goodness and then undermines his goodness through cultural norms.
Crossan is brilliant and his work is loaded with incredible and important historical information. It will be hard to read the Gospels without noticing the non-violence of Jesus contrasted with the power of Rome. As a matter of fact, it has been incredibly eye-opening to read the Gospels as a type of resistance literature (among many other things, of course).
Perhaps the two most powerful points for me were Crossan’s juxtaposition of God’s peace through distributive justice and Rome’s peace through victory. In God’s economy, peace is found through justice; not winning. The second point reinforces the first, Jesus’ suffering in spite of his righteousness at the hand of violent men was the stick in the spoke of the world’s tendency for the escalation of violence. He has tripped the system and given us a new way to live in the world. It’s an incredibly powerful and challenging moment.
Towards the end of the book I got the sense Crossan did not want to deal with the part of the text that was difficult. Any time he came across something which subverted his assertion that God was non-violent and worked in the world through distributive justice, he chalked it up as contaminated writing marred by the normalcy of civilization.
A few questions came to mind. One, can God not have wrath and love at the same time? Is this not what any good father would do? Second, could works like Revelation be a metaphor for how God would or could deal with evil in the world? Or, even better yet, in its context, would Revelation be considered a more resistance literature? Indeed, Crossan took certain liberties with when he chose to consider which texts were literal and which we not.
TO SUM IT UP
This is an important work. I will say that even though I did not agree with all of Crossan’s conclusions, I am a better person for it and have enjoyed reading it. The historical context (conveniently left out of Revelation) Crossan jam packs into the work is worth it the price of admission.
What do you think? Have you read it?