Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. (2Timothy 4:14)
The idea of a vengeful God seems like the vestige of a brutal religious past – a past that our secular culture is intent on burying.
When Bart Simpson (in full God mode), goads the Flanders’ boys into giving him their mother’s home made cookies, and they demur, he snarls, “Do you want a happy God or a vengeful God?”
“Happy God! Happy God!“, they shriek in girly overtones.
Too right eh? What place is there in our modern society for a vengeful God. All that smiting. All that sword play by his followers down the century. When it comes to gods, if one even exists, we all want a happy god, right, Morgan Freeman in a white suit, a hip cat who lets things slide. If our god is a happy god, then we will be, as reflections of that god, happy too. All will be peace and light.
Sorry, but it won’t. And current events, politically and culturally are proving it. As the quote from 2Timothy4:14 demonstrates, it is only the hope that God himself is the one who will mete out vengeance, that stops us meting it our ourselves.
Paul, in commenting on that ratbag Alexander’s stance towards him, doesn’t even bother to figure out how to litigate, he simply says that “the Lord will repay him according to his deeds”.
And that’s no one-off. Paul states it again in Romans 12:9, quoting several OT prophets:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
And if you think that’s just a Pauline bon mot, The writer to the Hebrews says the same thing, quoting Hosea 4:9:
For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people. (Hebrew 10:30).
Gee, you’d start to think that leaving vengeance to God was central to this Christian schtick, wouldn’t you?
Why is this important? Because as I watch it, vengeance is the new modus operandi of the political agenda in Australia at the moment, particularly as the election margins are being fought not over economic battles, but over culture wars. Prisoners are just ripe for the taking, and the metaphorical slaughtering.
When you take a vengeful God out of the framework, one who will repay, then vengeance is solely up to you. Up to your political party. Up to your particular cultural stripe. And I can hear the sound of the knives being sharpened from here as July 2 approaches.
Charles Taylor’s observes that the secular state operates within the “the immanent frame”; a “closed world” not subject to outside spiritual influence.
In other words, this is all there is. And if this is all there is, then there is no safety valve for vengeance, no way to make room for Someone else to deal with it. You’d better fight like crazy with every ounce of your political, legal, cultural strength to get your agenda up and running, because this is all there is baby!
So if the Alexander-the-coppersmiths of this world do you much harm, then forget about leaving it to a non-existent god to repay, it’s time to do a good ol’ repaying yourself, though the ballot box, the courts, the various legislative bodies set up around the country.
This thirst for vengeance is self-evident in the lead-up to what is becoming an extremely polarising federal election in Australia (and in the lead up to that other lesser-known, lesser-reported election in the US later this year).
Simply put there is no safety net in our secular framework culture when it comes to vengeance, and I think we’re in for a rough few years because of it.
How does this work itself out? Here are a few examples:
The Labor Party is out to avenge the Liberal Party’s Royal Commission into the union Movement. If it wins the election it will simply reward unions and punish businesses. Is it good economic management? Perhaps not, but boy will it feel good. Vengeance.
The Liberal Party started the Royal Commission in the first place as a reaction to the flourishing of the union movement in the Rudd/Gillard years. It felt good seeing those union bullies taken down a peg or two. Vengeance.
And The Greens (sorry to harp on about them)? The Greens are out to avenge the real and perceived grievances of a variety of constituents; which is partly why they are pushing so hard for anti-discrimination legislations that punish those who they felt punished others down the decades. Vengeance.
Now vengeance may be disguised as concern for the community, or the vision of community that each party wants, but this quote from Stanley Hauerwas is worth noting:
“Making the modern nation-state into a community – for the state to become the primary source of identity through loose talk of community – is very dangerous.”
Hauerwas is simply putting meat on the bones of Taylor’s observation. Remove the idea of transcendence, replace it with the reality of immanence, and voila, there’s a recipe for political, social and cultural overreach by the state right there. As the cultural landscape becomes harsher, expect a harsher state. Expect harsher politics. Expect harsher responses to differences within our community.
And how does this lack of a transcendent Avenger play out with the the average punter forced to go to the polls here in Australia? Well, if our guy doesn’t get up in the election, there’s always road rage or an indigenous football player to take it out on. Cold vengeance is so September 10. We want piping hot vengeance and we want it now. And if we can’t get it in great big political dollops, we’ll make do with entree-sized versions in our own houses, streets and local councils.
Perhaps it is all best summed up, without him realising it of course, by his Right Royal Smugness, Mr Phillip Adams, in The Australian newspaper’s weekend magazine today. Australia’s most famous atheist finds time to write yet another column about God. He states:
Please turn your Bibles to Matthew 5:5. In his account of the Sermon on the Mount, Matt quotes the Lord: ‘Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth.’ This is a fib that dwarfs Everest. Because they aren’t and they won’t. Not only do the meek NOT inherit, they’re very rarely mentioned in the will. Name me one place on Earth that the meek inherited. On time in history.”
Now Phil (I can call you Phil, right?), has no time for all dictatorships, so it’s not just a religious thing – he (belatedly) hates the Commies too. But his angst reveals the very problem Taylor highlights: the lack of transcendence in our Western setting.
Why do we as Christians believe that the meek WILL inherit the earth (a quote by the way, from Psalm 37 about the righteous Israelites inheriting the Promised Land in the face of tyranny)? Not because we’re stupid, or hopelessly optimistic, but because of our eschatological hope borne our of the resurrection of Jesus!
Eschatology drives our commitment to leaving vengeance to the Lord. Eschatology drives our belief that the meekest man to ever live, who on the cross, asked for forgiveness for his political and religious enemies, has been given all authority on heaven and on earth. The same Jesus who will, one day, share his inheritance with his people, and mete out vengeance upon all for whom it is deserved.
The Christian community, no matter what happens over the coming secular decades, is freed from the tit-for-tat political, cultural and social vengeance that will inevitably ravage our state from political parties whose only hope is in this age. We are being called to live and voice a markedly different approach to vengeance, and as the immanent frame takes a deeper grip, our approach will shine all the brighter, odder, and attractive.
Let me close by answering Phillip Adams’ jaded challenge to name one place the meek have inherited. Well, starting from a small patch of ground in a tomb outside Jerusalem on a dark Sunday morning, the inheritance of the meek has grown and grown, until one day, one final day, the meek will inherit every square inch, and the God of vengeance will fully repay.