Whenever you hear a voice that sounds coercive, threatening, overbearing, that is somehow loud and in your face, you can be sure that, no matter how religious and holy it might claim to be, it is not God’s voice. God’s voice in this world is never coercive or overbearing in any way, but is always an invitation and a beckoning that respects you and your freedom in a way that no human institution or person ever does. God’s voice is thoroughly underwhelming, like a baby’s presence.
Sadly whenever someone tries to teach this, immediately there are objections, often angry and bitter: What about God’s judgment? What about God’s condemnation of sin? What about God’s anger?
Scripture does, on the surface, give us the impression that God is sometimes angry and full of condemnation and violence. But these are anthropomorphisms (a way of speaking about God that reveals how we feel about God when we are unfaithful, sinful, and violent).
God’s voice does judge and it does condemn, but it judges and condemns not by coercive force, but in the same way that the innocence of a baby judges false sophistication, in the way that generosity exposes selfishness, in the way that big-heartedness reveals pettiness, in the way that light makes darkness flee, and in the way that the truth shames lies. God’s voice judges us not by overpowering us but by shining love and light into all those places were we find ourselves huddled in fear, shame, bitterness, hostility, and sin.
But this is not something we learn easily. Already way back, before the birth of Christ, sincere religious people were yearning for God to come into the world in power. What they wanted, and prayed for, was a physical superstar who would come into the world and cleanse it by overpowering sin and evil and rooting them out by force. What they wanted in the longed-for Messiah was a morally superior violence that would give evil no options, but force it literally to acquiesce. What we got instead was a helpless baby in the straw who overpowered no one.
Twenty centuries later, we are still struggling to accept this. Too often the Christ we try to incarnate and preach is still that ancient, longed-for, overpowering Messiah who aims to cleanse the world through flat-out coercion.
We see this most clearly of course in Islamic extremists who like well-intentioned Christians back in the time of the Inquisition, sincerely believe that error has no rights and that, in the name of God, we must use force, violence if necessary, to bring about God’s will on earth. In this view, murder and violence may be done to further God’s purpose because God wants his will imposed upon this world, whether the world wants to accept it or not. But this is the antithesis of true religion.
We need to view God, always, as non-coercive, as an invitation. This has immense implications for everything to do with church and religion, from how we preach, to how we catechize, to how we do liturgy, to how we reach out to those who don’t share our beliefs, to how we approach divisive moral issues, to how loud we turn up the sound system in our churches. God’s voice is not a loud, coercive, overbearing, threatening voice, one that gets into your face whether you like it or not. Rather, God’s voice invites in, beckons, leaves you free, and is as non-threatening as the innocence and powerlessness of a baby – or a saint.
We would do well to better understand this. We are, I believe, too prone inside our church circles to blame the world’s resistance to God’s message simply on its hardness of heart, sin, and indifference. Partly that’s true, but a large part of that resistance has its root too in another source, namely, our own preaching, catechesis, pastoral practice, moral fever, and elitism. Too often, however sincerely we might be doing this, the voice we try to give to God is too-laden with coercion, threat, manipulation, violence, harshness, our own judgments, our own fears, our own wounds, and especially our own egos to bear enough resemblance to the divine kenosis and free invitation that Jesus gave voice to in his birth, life, and message.
Sometimes, after just having given a talk or a homily, I am told by a well-meaning person: “You should raise your voice more! Speak louder! You’re speaking too softly!”
I don’t think so! We need, I believe, to (figuratively and perhaps literally) begin more and more to lower our voices whenever we purport to be speaking in God’s name because God’s voice never overpowers, is never overbearing, never shouts at anyone. Indeed, as Mary Jo Leddy (a voice that speaks God’s hard challenge with the correct invitational gentleness) says: We need to find the few words that are truly our own – and then speak them, clearly but softly.