Isaiah 61:2: (listing the things the LORD has sent the speaker to do)
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn
Today after class I was talking with a friend and fellow Classicist about the idea of vengeance and justice being God’s. I don’t know where it emerged from, but the first part of the conversation I remember as we walked down the hallway from our seminar room was something along the lines of how burning people at the stake is one of the dumbest things in Christian history: “Hey, my interpretation of how much Jesus loves you is truer than yours! I’m going to burn you at the stake for that!” We both agreed that this is a horrific misuse of power (and I argue that the church ought never to be an institute of power)–that justice and vengeance are God’s, not man’s. This conversation led into something very much like what I said on Sunday (which I’m getting to), only he brought up a lot of the points as well. What follows is a bit of a modified meditation based on a selection from Sunday’s homily, that conversation and some other thoughts as well…
First: Favour. If we recall my last post, we were talking about God’s favour. He lifts up the broken, sets free the oppressed, all that good stuff. This is the kind of God most of us are comfortable with today–one who loves us and cares for us and strengthens the weak. A God who hears the cries of the oppressed and weeps for the blood of the innocent. But here, after describing such a God, we see another side of the same God, mixing favour with revenge. I don’t know all the nuances of this uncomfortable revelation, but it is a necessary and a true one.
Part of the LORDâ€™s favour, though, is His vengeance. The vengeance of God is the sort of thing that does not always sit comfortably with us today. Today, we like mostly to hear about a God who loves us and cares for us, who is our Father in Heaven; a God with whom we can connect on a spiritual level; a God who cares for the weak, lifts up the oppressedâ€”the God described thus far. And suddenly, this same God engages in vengeance. Here is a revelation about God that is less comfortable than the others.
In Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf writes:
One could object that it is not worthy of God to wield the sword. Is God not love, long-suffering and all-powerful love? A counter-question could go something like this: Is it not a bit too arrogant to presume that our contemporary sensibilities about what is compatible with Godâ€™s love are so much healthier than those of the people of God throughout the whole history of Judaism and Christianity? (303)
To not do justice to Volfâ€™s arguments, in a world of violence, the blood of victims cries out for justice. If God does not punish the wicked, is He not suddenly complicit with their actions? Is He not saying that their oppression and evil are acceptable things to do? Volf says, â€œif God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship. …in a world of violence we are faced with an inescapable alternative: either Godâ€™s violence or human violenceâ€ (303). This is to say that justice must be doneâ€”God loves justice, He says so in verse 8 of Isaiah 61.
If we were in one of the many lands in this earth today full of â€œpeople whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slitâ€ (Volf 304), the only way to stave off the human desire for justice and vengeance is a reminder of Godâ€™sâ€”there will be justice, and God will administer it. This is the Christian hope. Without it, we would begin a descent into destruction and madness, filled with the endless cycle of revenge and unforgiveness. Without Godâ€™s justice, the world is merely a world of Serbs and Croats, of Palestinians and Jews, of Irish Catholics and Protestants, of Hutus and Tutsis. Or, thinking of burning/executing heretics, is it safe for the Church to play God?
I am not God.
Neither are you.
Neither is the Pope.
Neither is the Archbishop of Canterbury. Nor were Calvin, Wesley, Augustine, Luther, Ambrose.
The Church with power is often the church with corruption. If you were a Waldensian, and I were an Inquisitor, would it be just for me to burn you at the stake? I mean, seriously. I am a flawed human being, who may very well be half a heretic to begin with. Who am I to decide who is saved and who is damned? Isn’t Christ in the business of doing that? Won’t every Waldensian get what he deserves on Judgement Day? With the reminder of Judgement Day, the Church should never have burned anyone at the stake; Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord! Let it be His. Let us not descend into madness.
Instead, with a hope of justiceâ€”retributive justiceâ€”we can try and live lives of love. We can cease repaying violence with violence, knowing that when God comes to abide with us at the end of the ages, wrongs will be righted, blood will be atoned for, and sin will be punished. This is a large part of the Christian hope, and it cannot be ignored. By acknowledging the retributive justice of God in the future, we can advocate the social justice of humans in the present. By pointing out Godâ€™s vengeance, we can hope to stop manâ€™s. Hope lies in Christ. Christ teaches that He will judge; He teaches us to love and forgive.
But love and forgiveness, reconciliation and hope, these are topics for another post.
And I know that there are other aspects of justice to be explored. Maybe I’ll get to that someday too…