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Worshipers and the Wrathful God, Part 2

The question of the worthiness of God's wrath as a cause for worship was introduced in the previous post.  The subject is complex and there is no doubt blog posts are not the venue for detailed theological discourse and analysis.  Here I will simply raise two questions:

Is a wrathful or judgmental or vengeful God one that can or even should be worshiped?

Is the doctrine of God's wrath, particularly in its violent descriptions, an ongoing contradiction to the commands and example of Jesus?

Since this issues are not so much rooted in whether or not the Bible depicts God's wrath, as they are in whether or not these depictions are worthy of worship or even moral, this post will address these questions on the basis of their morality, not their undeniable presence in the Bible.

Is Wrath (sometimes) Morally Commendable?

In most instances, we become angry at personal hurts or irritations.  We become jealous at perceived rivals.  In short, our anger is normally the desire cause someone emotional or physical pain because we have suffered some real or imagined injury.  Thus, "turn the other cheek" is a real challenge that seems to run against our wilful human nature.  In light of all this, we put anger and wrath and vengeance all in the closet labeled Bad Stuff I Ought Not to Do.

But, is that always true?

Since our basic understanding of this whole issue is framed out of our own perceptions regarding what is ethically or morally acceptable (or not), it will be most helpful to approach this subject on the basis of basic moral reasoning.  Can anger, particularly when it is connected to punishment, ever be morally acceptable or even morally required?  I believe the answer has to be yes.

There are circumstances when anger, outrage, and expectation of punishment originates out of the core of our morality, and not our wickedness.  The moral person ought to feel anger when he or she sees a child abused or reads a story about a young lady being raped.  In the face of violence against the powerless and the sense oppression of the weak, moral human beings feel anger.  The woman or man who happily announces they have achieved the high moral ground of feeling no anger or outrage at a sexual predator of young children caught in the act is more a savage than a saint.

A measure of the morality of any civilization may be legitimately determined by asking the simple question: What actions or conditions generate moral outrage?

Some will suggest that incarceration is all about protecting the rest of society, not punishing the guilty.  The suggestion that civil justice should be understood as retribution is dismissed as unchristian and immoral.  It is difficult for me to take this suggestion seriously.

All forced incarceration is a kind of violence. That is why for a private citizen to lock someone up in a sealed room for years is a serious crime.  It is not the kind of violence involved in physical abuse or execution, but it is violence, nonetheless.  But, incarceration alone is not the only issue.  If the crimes a person has committed are particularly outrageous, moral people would be troubled to discover the conditions of incarceration were opulent   Even when the conditions are humane, moral people are justified in thinking the life of an incarcerated violent criminal should be less than enjoyable.

Whatever else, this means civil justice does (and should) reflect societal retribution appropriately applied in response to crime.  Ironically, the breakdown of confidence in civil justice as a satisfactory process of corporate vengeance would inevitably serve to increase violence within the society.  The increase would be both on the part of those involved in crimes and on the part of those who turn to personal vendettas as a means of punishment for (real or perceived) crimes.

The just society must be one that visits punishment upon criminals, particular those who have done acts of great violence.  This demonstrates that punishment of wrongdoing simply cannot be unworthy of either a just society or a moral God.

The question of the nature of God's punishments, whether in this life or in the life to come, is far more complex question.  For this post, the question is more basic and simpler: Is punishment of wrongdoers unworthy of the Christian God?  It is not.

The Nonviolent People of a Wrathful God

At first glance, the notion of God's wrath would seem to undermine Christian nonviolence.  Certainly, a number of advocates of nonviolence are troubled by the Bible's imagery of the eventual outpouring of God's judgment.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  The dismissal of eventual justice and fierce retribution from God upon evildoers serves to undermine Christian nonviolence.

Let me draw two simple illustrations and then conclude by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

If a group of children, while playing together, endures the abuse of a bully, what will their reaction be?  If they are certain the bully's parents have become aware of the misbehavior and will shortly punish the bully for it, they are likely to avoid the bully or, at least to some degree, endure the abuse.  If the bully's parents are known to be overly permissive and will in no way punish him for his misbehavior (and they have no other adult source of justice to call upon), they are likely to take actions against the bully themselves.

Or, in another scenario: Imagine a town in the days of the wild west with absolutely no one present who will enact law enforcement.  Such a situation is all but certain to increase violence within the town.  Vendettas and acts of personal retribution will be generated since the victims of crime and their families know that the criminals face no threat of legal action.  If there was widespread confidence that civil justice will be carried out against those who have done done violence, people are far more likely to restrain their personal desires to act against the criminal.  

And so it is that saints around the throne in Revelation 6:10, who are pleading for God's retribution upon the murderous persecutors of the church, are precisely those who nonviolently submitted to that persecution.  Their prayer for God's swift retribution does not contradiction their nonviolence, it helps to explain it.  Confidence that God will repay empowers the church toward restraint. 

It is no accident that Dr. King wove his message of nonviolence within the framework of a just God who will, in due time, visit His justice upon those who have acted violent upon the innocent and the powerless. 

     I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" 
     Somebody’s asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?"
     Somebody’s asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?"
     Somebody’s asking, "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?"
     I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." 
     How long? Not long.  Because "no lie can live forever."
How long? Not long.  Because "you shall reap what you sow."
How long?  Not long!

Truth forever on the scaffold,
rong forever on the throne,
     Yet that scaffold sways the future,
          And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

     How long? Not long!  Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long.  Because:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat!
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.
O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!
Our God is marching on.

Glory, hallelujah!  Glory, hallelujah!
March 25, 1965
Montgomery, Alabama

Confidence in eventual justice, exuberantly proclaimed in Harriet Beecher Stowe's dramatic lyrics describing the outpouring of divine wrath upon the wicked, supported and empowered King's willingness to patiently endure, and to ask others to endure, violence done against them.

The wrath of God, then, is a worthy cause for worship.  Not in every song.  Not every week.  But, at least every once and awhile, we need to join with the great and the small in praising the One who destroys the destroyers of the earth. (Revelation 11:8)

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