The Power of Violence and the Power of God: A reflection on the Trinity

The Power of Violence and the Power of God: A reflection on the Trinity

Glynn Cardy

Sun 11 Jun

Here are some reasons I like the Doctrine of the Trinity:

It defies reasoning.  Or at least the reasoning that many of us in the 21st century are used to.  When it is described literally as three beings it is reduced to an idolatrous nonsense.  To talk trinity is to enter the world of poetry, song, and mysticism.

Trinity is not in the Bible.  Sure the words “Father”, “Son” and “Holy Spirit” are there, but there is no mention or justification of a triune God.  Which is not surprising given most of the authors were Jewish.  This of course then raises the question, what is the relationship of theology to the biblical texts?  And who says the past must always govern the future?

Trinity points to a dream of relationality and mutuality – beyond the constraints of the past, of prejudices, and presumptions.  And encourages us to embody that dream.

Trinity is about the nature of God, and therefore the power of God.  To understand that power is to know that the eradication of violence – violence in all its insidious manifestations – is not a mission priority among other mission priorities for Christians.  Rather it is at the core of our faith.  Violence is the ultimate blasphemy.

Let’s begin by thinking about power.  Last weekend in London seven people were killed, 48 hurt, 21 critically, by a group of three Muslim men who believed they were doing the will of Allah.  They seemed to have believed, not unlike Christian crusaders of the past, they were doing the will of God by killing people different from them.

I tried to imagine how I would feel if the killings were done by three Christian men in the name of the God of Jesus.  I would, like most Muslims last week, be horrified.  I would want to distance myself from those men’s understanding of faith, and give them a label like ‘fundamentalist fanatics’.  I would be worried, like many Muslims around the world are, that the reaction from the public would bundle my faith together with the faith of the killers.  I would want to reach out to the victims and their families.  And, I would be deeply offended and sad, that the God of Jesus, whom I have tried to follow most of my life, was being used to justify actions that are the very antithesis of all that I believe.

The Christian school of thinking called ‘Process Theology’ has a long history, and it was out of this school that the term ‘Progressive Theology’ was coined.  The well-known luminary of the Process School, the Englishman A.N. Whitehead, pointedly criticized the dominant Christian conception of God when he said that “the Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.”[i]

In other words, the Church by the 4th century at least, had fashioned God into a paternal divine king, unchangeable and omnipotent, with unilateral control over all events.  John Cobb, co-founder of the Claremont School of Process Theology, says that omnipotence is not a biblical characteristic of God.  God does not use, or have, coercive power.  God is not a manipulator of us humans, nor is a bully, nor is violent in any way.  Rather God’s power is relational power, and experienced as mutual, other-centred love.  As Whitehead says, “Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved… It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.”[ii]

Some people, like I suspect the London terrorists, think that to be able to kill or injure another person is an indication of strength.  The Christian tradition that I draw upon would say this is not strength but weakness.  Rather strength is the ability to help, without using any form of physical, mental or emotional coercion, another to believe in, trust in, and cherish himself or herself, and to be able to freely contribute.  Strength is the ability to enter into mutual, reciprocal relationships that produce loving, healing, liberating, inclusive outcomes.

There is a story told of a wise and holy woman who once was threatened with death by a cruel bandit:

“Be good enough”, the woman said, “to fulfil my dying wish.  Cut off the branch of that tree”.

One slash of the sword, and it was done. 

“What now?” asked the bandit.

“Put it back again,” said the woman.

The bandit laughed.  “You must be crazy to think that anyone can do that.”

“On the contrary,” she said, “it is you who are crazy to think that you are mighty because you can wound and destroy.  The mighty know how to create and heal.”[iii]

There a number of pictorial depictions of the Trinity.  Rublev’s icon has three androgynous angels sitting around a table.  The mistake is to imagine that the angels represent three beings called ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’.  But it is not a mistake to see the three as representing the Christian community dreamed of in God – marked by the absence of dominance, privilege, and the violence that emerges to sustain dominance and privilege. 

The three hares sharing an ear is an interfaith, cross-cultural symbol that decorates a number of old English churches, particularly in Devon, and has been used to imagine the Trinity.  The latestt research seems to think the symbol originated in China.[iv]  Again the mistake is to think of God as three beings, in this case hares.  Rather it invites us to think about the connectedness and reciprocity of God-in-community.

The problem though with any of these static depictions is that, again following the insights of process theologians, God is not about ‘substance’ and ‘being’ but about ‘becoming’ and ‘relatedness’.  That is why I talk about God as a verb, a movement, or a love song.  To be in God, to be in ‘God-in-trinity, is to be letting love continually change, renew, and energize us.  God-in-community is an ever-expanding, ever-embracing concept.  It is not fixed.  To paraphrase Margaret Mahy, God doesn’t stay put like a good hill does.

God-in-community does not recognize the in/out, win/lose, my race/your race, my religion/your religion boundaries.  Indeed to follow this moving God is to inhabit the boundaries – that back slash between in/out and win/lose – it is to inhabit the boundaries, the edge, of acceptability, of popularity, of safety, of knowing.

Language is difficult when it comes to a God who is not a being but who is becoming.  Language gets fuzzy, rather than precise.  That’s because I suspect some experiences – especially mystical experiences – are hard to articulate, or simply can’t be.

One of the reasons I mentioned for liking the doctrine of the Trinity is that it points to a dream and encourages us to embody that dream.  By that I mean that we are called to live the way of God-in-Jesus trying to eradicate that infectious disease of violence and all the subsequent illnesses it spawns, and instead live, and create healthy systems that propagate, mutual life-giving love-enhancing relationships.  So:

Let’s build a community without walls and barriers. 
Let’s build a community where kindness, justice, and joy are the norms. 
Let’s build a community where the different, marginalized, and children are particularly welcome. 
Let’s build a community where everybody has the opportunity to offer their leadership, and that leadership is valued (whether that be as the leader of smiles, the leader of whacky ideas, or the leader of hospitality to visiting children).
Let’s build a community-on-the-move… networking, interacting, offering across this city and beyond.

[i]   Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), p. 342.

[ii] Op. cit. p.343.

[iii] Adapted from De Mello, A., The Heart of the Enlightened, (New York : Doubleday, 1991).

[iv] Tom Greeves, Sue Andrew, Chris Chapman The Three Hares: A Curiosity Worth Regarding, 2016.