Saturday, January 10, 2009

Wrath of God? (2)

Continued from part (1)...

So - what's with this wrath of God that must be satisfied? Is God so blood-thirsty and angry that I should be afraid all the time? Why should Jesus die like that? What's that all about anyway?

Got me thinking...

First of all, I thought about a Reconciliation Seminar that took place in South Africa during the days when apartheid was being dismantled. A group of people were organized into sub-groups. Each was assigned a name related to the various issues involved in reconciliation. I don't recall all the titles but some were Mercy, Forgiveness, and Justice. Each group met to discuss reconciliation from the sole perspective of each title. Then they all came together for an over-all discussion.

When the folks representing Justice got up to speak, they took the Mercy and Forgiveness groups to task. "You always want to rush past us along the way! You do not want to face up to the fact that JUSTICE must be served before true, lasting reconciliation can take place!"

It gave me pause when I heard about this. They were right, I think.

But I also came to the realization that justice from a human perspective is too limited. Our forms of justice always end up at "an eye for an eye," and "a tooth for a tooth," sort of solutions*. And endless bickering about who-wronged-who first. Its like this from the sandbox to every on-going conflict in the world today - as so sadly illustrated by the middle east conflicts.

And here's where the image of Christ begins to form. Perhaps he is God's unequivocal statement that God has a better way. God promises to take all the punishments for crimes against humanity and against God (aka sin) onto Him/Her self. Otherwise, how can justice be served and reconciliation begin. How else can we get past the endless striving for human justice that never ends?

At first I pictured this in the setting of a parent in the sandbox with two scrapping kids. To stop their anger from destroying one another I might say, "Here, hit me instead of your brother! Vent your anger on me, not your sister! I put you both in the sandbox so ultimately your offenses against one another are my fault anyway. So, take it out on me! Then when your anger is spent, turn back to one another and get along..."

But my thoughts soon turned to a more shocking place. Sandbox scraps are one thing. But what about the real crimes that go on in the world? I thought about the horribly-named Lord's Resistance Army that is infamous for recruiting child soldiers. They kidnap children of 8 or 10 years of age, then threaten to cut off their arms (and do!) if the children don't take a gun and murder their own parents. Or worse! What an ugly illustration of the evil that human beings are capable of. Shouldn't crimes like this provoke God's Wrath? And I'm sure you can think of other equally horrible examples.

Now the term Wrath of God takes on more meaning. I want, No! I need, to believe that God's Wrath cries out against such abominable things! How can I ever "forgive" someone who would perpetrate crimes like that unless I know that they have first faced the demands of justice?

Then I come up against the biblical teaching that all sins are connected. There is no "degree scale" that separates my "little" offenses from someone else's "huge" offense. We don't fully realize what each of us is capable of because most of us are spared the deeper horribleness of life. But I've read enough from survivors of these horrors and caught enough glimpses of my own dark corners to at least fear what I may be capable of. I hope I never to have to find out.

Yet, the shocking part of the Good News is that God is willing to remove all forms of separation that keep his children away. God is willing to invoke Divine Justice to reconcile all human children to the Creator and somehow God absorbs all this evil without being destroyed by it. Jesus cried out while dying: "It is finished." And so I must believe that somehow, beyond my limited understanding, it is.

I'm no theologian. Books have been written about this topic that go way beyond anything I can understand. But now I at least understand a little of why that line is in the song. And I'm in awe of a God who holds out the promise of justice beyond my comprehension that is Divinely Fair, and yet need not be feared. A justice that is ultimately about our own good. And it is a first step towards mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation. And somehow it is all represented within the being of Jesus Christ, the saviour of all.

(* I once read that in contrast to how many would understand these terms today, when this was given in the Bible as part of the expansions on the Law of Moses, it was intended to stop the constant escalation of violence. That is, a punishment must not exceed the crime!)


Jane said...

Thanks for the link, Grant. I can't pretend to understand all the subtleties of your discussion, but here are a few of my thoughts...

I have real problems with human ideas of justice and "fairness". I know you are not one of these people, but too many "religious" people have become complacent, because God - the Creator - the Higher Power - promised forgiveness through the sacrifice of his son. It is *people* who threaten the "wrath of God". Until God comes down to me and tells me s/he's POed about something I've done, I'm not going to believe it. But so many people out there are preaching the wrath of God business, and saying - phew, well we're off the hook because as long as we go to church every Sunday, we're in God's good books, and s/he'll save his/her wrath for all the other sinners.

I've had wrongs done to me in life, and I'm sure I've done more than a few wrongs. I didn't do my wrongs intentionally, and I'm sure most of the people who wronged me didn't do it intentionally.

Having come through many years of healing work, I have arrived at forgiveness on my own, as the only sane solution. The problem is, we're human, and we don't have the intelligence or patience of a God. Our first reaction to a wrong is almost always anger and the desire for "justice", i.e. retribution. I know if someone did something awful to me tomorrow, I'd feel the same way. But at some time in the future, I know that the desire for revenge would pass. Maybe as a "parent" God feels the same way, but knows he/she has to count to ten and wait for forgiveness to come. Myself, if I pictured God up there, s/he would be feeling sad more than feeling angry. That's a human interpretation. How can any of us know how God "feels"? I'm afraid I can't take the bible's word on it, because frankly, it's had too many editors, and editors are human, and have an agenda.

Maybe the Creator passed on some wisdom to us after all. Because taking "an eye for an eye" is not going to help or heal people one iota. But it's people, who are on about the wrath of God, retribution, lawsuits, you name it. My dad died at 61. Was the doctor involved partly to blame? Perhaps. Would suing bring him back? No. I was told I should sue to stop the doctor "doing this to someone else". He didn't mean for my dad to die of a hospital infection. It happens. It sucks, but it happens.

Perhaps my primary frustration with "religion" as opposed to "faith" is the way humans use language to threaten and control. Why should God be wrathful at all? Why should God pass judgement? If we're all sinners, why is it my wife and I couldn't walk into most churches without being judged? I don't think God would judge me, but people would in a heartbeat. Until all the religious people are out in the streets protesting this, I won't be going back to church. I don't feel worried about the Creator condemning me, but you can be sure there'd be millions doing it on her/his behalf!

gmc said...

Hi Jane,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think 'you've got it.' There is a growing gulf between "religious" people and people who understand the amazing grace of God - and glimpse what the Creator's Justice looks like and how shocking it is compared to human ideas.

It's always been religious people who don't really care much for Jesus and never have. If they can't obscure and bury his message with a bunch of religious "stuff," then they try to get rid of those who 'get it.' They've been trying for over two thousand years.

Have you read the book The Shack? Another interesting take on God, and forgiveness and reconciliation.

Thanks again

Miss Mabel said...

There has been a lot of criticism of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation methods, precisely because many feel justice was too quickly by-passed (you can see a summary of the criticisms on wikipedia.)

Justice doesn't just mean revenge. It's about dissuading future people from similar acts--to live socially, we need a way of punishing "defectors"/ those who harm society for their own advantage. I don't agree that human justice "always" ends up being about eye for an eye.

And the point is, we are human beings, here on this physical/human earth. We have to struggle with these notions of justice and forgiveness, and do the best we can.

Aluwings said...

I agree about Justice and revenge. Not the same at all, but that's what it can degenerate to.

Regarding "human" justice always ending up at an eye-for-an-eye, I guess I'd be better to say that I believe this represents the lower end of the scale of justice, and when we achieve something better than that, we may actually be reaching towards a "Divine" expression of that word?

Also, to go back to Jane's comments for a second, I agree that true Justice certainly does not give religious people the "get out of jail free" card that they often try to turn it into.

In my opinion, Justice is all part of a Divine Rehabilitation program that ultimately builds us up, but within the reality (not the denial) of who we are and what we've done. It may be experienced in a sort of long slow growth of self-awareness (sentience) which expands to include a larger view of the repercussions of our lives, our attitudes, our relationships, our acts, our beliefs... I'm still thinking this out...

I believe that at some point in life, we all will come face-to-face with who we truly are, either as part of our redemption (ala Scrooge in A Chrismas Carol), or our judgment, or our repentance, or whatever sort of terms are appropriate.

And somehow it is all aligned towards our Ultimate Good, not our destruction.