Apologists seeking to save God from God are quick to remind us that the God of the Hebrew Bible was a God of justice in order to explain the violence found there.
They contrast these texts with the God of the Christian Testament – seen through the lens of Jesus Christ as a God of love and mercy. Jesus is portrayed as a long-hair, blond, blue-eyed, peace-loving pacifist, calling his followers to turn the other cheek.
Such an interpretation becomes the basis for nonviolence. And yet, Jesus is a bit more ambiguous than what these apologists would have us believe.
Caution should be taken not to reduce him to a one-dimensional placatory caricature. Like all of us, Jesus was complex, complicated and, at times, contradictory. True, Jesus’ teachings indicate an aversion to violence, but this does not mean he was a pacifist.
Within the Gospels, there exist certain problematic passages which portray him as an instigator of division, a disruptor of unity: “Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? Truly I tell you no, but rather division” (Luke 12:50).
This Jesus, when he sees moneychangers in the Temple turning a holy site into a for-profit marketplace, makes a whip and, in righteous indignation, violently chases out the bankers, overturning their tables (John 3:15).
As this nascent Jewish sect emerged, there existed no clear call for the rejection of the symbols of violent power. When John the Baptist preached, the masses asked what they must do to be right with God. Among them were soldiers. To them, John responded: “Do not intimidate! Do not extort! Be content with your pay!” (Luke 3:14).
What is interesting about this exchange is what is not said. The soldiers are not told to forsake the violence associated with their duties; their role as instruments of colonial violence is not challenged.
When a centurion approached Jesus, pleading for a cure for his servant, Jesus grants his request, ignoring his complicity with the occupying army and the violence required to maintain imperial order.
Soldiers were not the only ones who were armed. Before his betrayal, he instructs his disciples to get armed: “If you have a money belt, take it, and likewise a bag; and the one without a sword should sell their cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:35-36).
What kind of pacifist instructs followers to sell their possessions and buy a sword? If Jesus was speaking today, rather than a sword, he would have told them to purchase a pistol!
Jesus may have been instructing his disciples to arm themselves, but they were already packing heat. “Look, Lord, we have two swords” (Luke 22:38), the disciples boasted. No divine rebuke followed, only an ambiguous, “That’s enough!”
These disciples of Christ did not hesitate to instigate violence. At his arrest, Peter drew his sword and severed the high priest’s ear (John 18:10). Jesus responded by claiming, “All who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).
Jesus may be speaking to Peter but to whom is he directing this comment? After all, it was Jesus who told his disciples to be armed. It was not Peter for whom these comments were addressed; for if it was, then Jesus would have contradicted himself.
He was speaking to those who came to arrest him: the colonizers and their local vassals. The protectors of empire who pick up the sword to enforce repression are the ones, per Jesus, who will die by the sword.
Christianity’s blood thirst is revealed in the book of Revelation. In those last days, a violent Jesus returns – his second coming – to war against those who reject his lordship. These prophesies concerning the Day of Judgement have him at the center of an unimaginable bloodbath.
Prior to Jesus’ return, he sits on a throne with a sharp sickle in his hand. This sickle cuts all the branches with ripe grapes and places the grapes in the huge “winepress of God’s anger.” The carnage is so great that we are told the blood which flows from this winepress reaches the bridles of the horses for some 184 miles (Rev. 14:14-19).
But the slaughter is not over. For later, the heavens open and Jesus – “the warrior of justice” – rides a white horse accompanied by the armies of heaven to do war against the enemies of God.
All who have failed to accept Jesus as Lord are killed by his sword, and their corpses are left for the “birds to gorge on their flesh” (Rev. 19:11-21). This war is so fierce that it spills into heaven (Rev. 12:7-12). So much for the image of heaven being a peaceful place.
This crusading messiah who sits on the throne of judgment – and not mercy – becomes the Lord whose character and reign is awaited with great anticipation by today’s oppressors.
This blood-thirsty deity becomes the moral guide of imperialists, invaders, white supremacists and colonialists. This is the Lord whose reign is for God’s faithful, leaving those on the margins to wonder how such a blood-thirsty God can be dethroned.
Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series. Part one is available here.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.