A couple of days ago, I wrote a very lengthy review of Brian Zahnd’s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. Since then, I’ve received a number of questions of various sorts, but there has been a cluster of them I wanted to briefly speak to right now.
One of the main concerns motivating many who are attracted to the message of Zahnd and associates of his is the social justice component. They’re vocal advocates online and in the world for pressing issues of social justice such as poverty, government violence, criminal justice reform, war, trafficking, and a number of other of the issues which plague our world. They connect this concern, this activism—rightly!—to their commitment to living out the ethic of Jesus. Jesus didn’t just come to live and die to get rid of individual sins but to challenge the principalities and powers, to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and justice to the oppressed.
Now, the inverse of that is that many (especially on the younger end) are concerned because the Evangelical churches they’ve grown up in seem to be some of the worst offenders when it comes to the social issues which concern them. They vote for Trump. They vote for war. They support torture. They seem to be (and often truly are) apathetic to issues of White Supremacy, police violence, and don’t seem to care about anything but abortion or gay marriage.
For this set, reading my review, the question is, “Okay, you’ve defended retribution, penal substitution, and even God’s wrath, but now what? What real-world impact does your theology make?” A program of non-violence stemming from a non-violent God taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount seems to lead directly to non-violent action, while there seems to be a direct link between the theology I’m defending and, well, everything that’s wrong with Western Christendom.
I can’t give a full answer to that here. To do the job properly would involve a few chapters of corrective historiography, a deep dive in issues of just war theory, and a half-dozen other points. I actually think (once again) Joshua Ryan Butler’s books, Fleming Rutledge in The Crucifixion, Tim Keller’s Generous Justice, and even John Stott at the tail-end of his classic The Cross of Christ (and his works on ethics which stand consistent with it) are a far better resource at this point. Still, I’d like to sketch a few points.
But first, two caveats.
Points of Theological Order
Abuse does not remove proper use. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: just about every Christian doctrine can be abused in some way that leads to terrible consequences. Teaching on forgiveness—a concept we all believe in—can lead to views of cheap grace which let people off the hook for caring about a life of discipleship and justice. Or, they can be used to short-circuit the work of confronting offenders with their sins, or retraumatizing victims by making them “reconcile” with their offenders too quickly, or without regard for proper concerns of safety and wisdom. That said, we don’t want to scrap forgiveness, but teach it properly.
What I am saying is that misapplication can happen easily for a variety of reasons. People are sinfully inconsistent, for one thing. Also, they happen to be very good at drawing faulty conclusions from true premises. What’s more, they can actually just sin and willfully turn from their stated beliefs when it is in their interests. I think this must be born in mind when it comes to certain historical cases people make to tar teachings on these subjects.
Second, the connections between various doctrines is not always as tight as people like to make them. For instance, I happen to believe in penal substitution as well as Just War theory. Someone like Darrin Snyder Belousek would argue that this comes from my buying wholesale into the same retributive package. He argues that accepting the one means you have to accept the other (and by implication, distortions such as aggressive criminal practice and militarism). But that’s not necessarily true. The issues are certainly related, but their justifications can actually be distinguished (theologically and Scripturally) from each other.
For instance, it’s fully possible to reject penal substitution as a moral confusion and affirm just war as a moral necessity for governance in the world. If I’m not mistaken, I believe Nicholas Wolterstorff holds such a view. Conversely, Miroslav Volf has held just the opposite and argued quite forcefully that it’s precisely the promise that God will repay, will handle justice in this life or the next, that allows for the practice of non-violence here and now. To quote Volf:
My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people 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 slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.
-Exclusion and Embrace, p. 304
Similarly, Preston Sprinkle and my own podcast mate Andrew Wilson are pacifists who hold views of atonement, divine retribution, and OT authority of the sort I defended in the Zahnd review. So they read key verses in the Gospels and the Epistles differently than ones I do that have to do with human responsibility, citizenship, and so forth.
Beyond this, though, the positive question is what does (or can) this theology do on the ground?
News for Victims and Victimizers
Well, first, I think it gives us good news for both victims and victimizers—and this in various ways.
It gives good news to victims of injustice. First, as I argued, it tells them that God takes their pain seriously. He hates what has happened to them as well. God is opposed to rape. God is opposed to racism. God is opposed to lynching. God is opposed to grinding dehumanization. He knows, he hears, and he has taken account of it. No matter who has ignored you, no matter what “justice” system has turned a blind eye to you, the Judge of the World has not—he has known you and your pain and has a will to do something about it. Indeed, he has become one of you—a victim—in order to do just that. As one friend puts it, God is in solidarity with the victims. That is part of the message of the cross.
And not only that—he brings healing with him. He has a will to put an end to such things and restore creatures to himself. Including you. God has come in the flesh to save the world. He has come to reveal God, to condemn sin, to bring resurrection life, healing and wholeness to all who would repent of their sins and turn to him. You can turn to him and be healed and not let vengeance consume you, but let him heal your wounds.
To the Victimizers
This brings me to the other side: it gives good new to the victimizers. The good news is that despite their darkness, despite their wickedness, despite the real depths of their injustice, God offers salvation to them who repent. To those who turn, they have the promise that all they have done can be blotted out. It can be dead and buried and they too can be reunited with God, have life, to have the fullness they chase through their sin. Some fear repenting because they do not know if there is any way to come back. They don’t think there is an atonement for what they have done and surely God cannot forgive it, so they persist and throw themselves headlong down the road of sin. The cross says, yes, even your sins—the sins of an oppressor like Paul, who counted himself the chief of sinners! (1 Tim 1:15)—can be put aside as well.
But, it also stands as a warning to them. We need to remember that the prophets inveighed most harshly against the political and religious leaders of Israel. Ezekiel condemned the shepherd for the waywardness of the sheep—for devouring them and letting them go astray unto death. Isaiah and Amos go after the rich who unrighteously take advantage of the poor and pervert justice against them. They condemn the priests and the prophets who allow the people to fall into idolatry (an injustice to their souls and to God), and sexual immorality (an injustice to their bodies and each other). They condemn nations who make war for glory, power, and might and warn that God’s wrath will come against them. And that same instinct sees most of Jesus’ harshest condemnations were for the religious and political leaders of his day who were either grinding the weak into the ground with burden, or the rich for their callous treatment of the poor.
Speaking plainly, the wrath and judgment of God against sin is a motivator to stop sinning. That’s how it is used in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Now, I don’t think that is opposed to showing people how sin eventually eats itself up, destroys itself, and is a way that just “naturally” leads to death either. But Scripture gives us more than one way to invite people to turn from their sinful oppression.
These two sides—the invitation and the warning—are important messages I think disciples of Christ need to be able to present as they follow their master in standing against injustice. We have a message of warning and hope. We have a message that says the world will not always carry on this way. The kingdom of God is coming in salvation and judgment, therefore repent as Zaccheus did and make restitution, do justice, turn from wickedness, and let the Lord transform you. Otherwise, your ways will lead to ruin—some of it visible in the consequences you may see in this life, or those you don’t think are coming in the next.
I don’t see these notions interfering at all with the work of justice in the world. I see this as fully compatible with motivating Christians to stand vocally against sin and oppression of all sorts, while simultaneously offering a vision of Christlike reconciliation.
Retributive Justice As a Check on Power and Vengeance
One point I want to underline is that this notion of justice is also a firm ground from which to speak truth to power. The judgment of God says that no matter how high or lofty, how powerful or mighty, dominant the powers that be, they will be held to account by God—either in this life or the next. This, I think, can give strength and courage to the reformer at work in City Hall, the protestor in the streets demonstrating peacefully for justice, the defense attorney working to protect the falsely accused and disadvantaged, the prosecutor trying to bring the corrupt to justice for oppressing the weak, and the resister who sets themselves, as Christ did, against unjust power. No matter the power standing against you, you will take up your cross and follow Christ, bearing the burden of opposition, from persecution against you from the powers that be.
Second, as I said, it is a warning to those in power in a variety of ways. For example, I think considering concerns about retributive justice can help spur productive action about criminal justice reform. Part of what’s so troubling about it is the rampant inequities we find, as well as the disproportionate nature of some sentencing which has landed, especially on people of color. Knowing that God is a God of justice who is opposed to false imprisonment, unfair and unjust treatment of inmates who are, nonetheless, Image-bearers—all of this should motivate Christians to either lobby, vote, or support efforts at criminal justice reform in those ways which God has called them, in whatever offices God has called them (voter, legislator, law enforcement officer, civil servant). God is “not a respecter of persons” (Rom. 2:11), favoring the strong or powerful over the weak, or one race over another, but is a true judge and demands right judgment from human representatives.
Which means also that those Christians who are at work in the justice and political system, all forgiven and cleansed sinners who stood condemned as well, should be moved to carry out their work without a spirit of retaliation. Mercy can temper even the work of justice in the world. The same patience that moves God to restrain his judgment so that men might repent (2 Pet. 3), can imbue our work with patience, keeping us from spiteful retaliation. It should make those in authority who wield the sword wary of coming under God’s judgment through the unjust treatment of those over whom they govern. They now govern and work as disciples.
Indeed, surprisingly enough, a concern for matters of retribution might slow us down in our march towards violent solutions to our local and global problems. Even for the Just War theorist, there needs to be a concern than in your duty to love your neighbor, or administer the sword (Rom. 13), you do so in a way that reflects God’s justice, which is never petty, never a matter of overkill, or lust for blood. It is about trying to secure peace, so that righteousness might thrive. If you really believe this, you have a strong motivation to seek whatever non-violent means you can to resolve or restrain evil until the point is forced.
This brings me to another point about what this looks like on the ground. One chap brought up my Palestinian heritage. What does the gospel I’m looking to defend mean for the Palestinian people on the West Bank? Or efforts for justice in Charleston? Or Ferguson? I have to say, I think it can impact it in a dozen different ways I don’t have the space to articulate. I also think that beyond atonement, we have a number of other doctrines (anthropology, eschatology, union with Christ, ecclesiology) that should be shaping our thought here. I’ve said this before, but no every doctrine has to do everything. And trouble comes when we try to force them to.
With that said, as I mentioned above, I think seeing the cross as the judgment of God on sin—including my own—moves me to pursue justice in this world in a non-retaliatory way. I’m not out looking for vengeance—that’s God’s work (Rom. 12). I am out seeking to follow Jesus in bringing shalom to the earth by repenting of the ways that I participate in sin against God and my neighbor. And I am out looking for the best ways to invite my neighbors to do the same. I will extend the mercy of the gospel and work as best as I can to be at peace with all.
Indeed, I will aim to be a peacemaker, insofar as it is possible, not holding people’s sins against me against them in a pale imitation of the forgiveness God has shown me. Even when I attempt to hold someone accountable for their wickedness, or restrain them from committing more, I do it as a way of loving my neighbor who they are harming, as well as the offender himself, for I do not want him to destroy himself in sin. I think these principles can be at work in the streets of Ferguson, as well as the villages of Palestine, or any other place that Christians are called to witness to God’s grace and justice.
In other words, I don’t think any of my argument rules out disciples taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously as a road-map for discipleship for the church in the world. Indeed, even though I do affirm Just War theory and the distinction between public and private offices, I think there are even ways to apply the Sermon on the Mount to rulers and authorities in political office.
And as a member of the Church, I will do all of this as a way of witnessing to the complex, multi-faceted glory of the gospel which judges sin, saves sinners, liberates victims, and reconciles the warring nations within itself as it shares the bread and wine of God’s body broken and blood shed for sin.
This has gone long, and I still have left so much out. For instance, we could talk about the positive ways that an account of atonement such as the one I am advocating could incorporate some of Girard’s insights in order to stop scapegoating and weaponizing our victims (I have tried to do that here). All the same, I think you begin to see the way that none of what I’m arguing for need blunt the work of justice in the world. Preaching the cross as justice ought lead to just people.
Soli Deo Gloria