Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Concerning God's Judgment

I briefly introduced this topic about a week ago. The comments are better than what I actually wrote.

After 9-11, Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell or someone (maybe both) made comments that God was punishing the US for its sins. I forget whether it was abortion or homosexuality that was supposedly ticking off God at that point. More recently, there was a report that a Jews For Jesus rep speaking at Sarah Palin’s church claimed that terrorist attacks on Israel were God’s punishment for something. Not believing in Jesus, most likely, given the source. Obama’s pastor, the Rev Jeremiah T. Wright, was captured on video saying “God damn America” for its sins. I again forget which sins were supposed to be the operative ones in this case, though I recall they were more social than religious. The exact quotes don’t mean much for our discussion, as it is the general principle I am concerned with.

This is not quite the same as statements about chickens coming home to roost. That would refer to some sort of natural forces coming back to bite you. I am interested in this idea that God himself punishes nations.

Right up front, we know that it is a biblical possibility. Yahweh is quite specific throughout the Old Testament that He will bless or curse Israel on the basis of its behavior. Insincere worship, as evidenced by evil dealings with other human beings, is the usual accusation, exceeded only by God’s wrath at actual worship of other gods. It shows up in the New Testament in the words of Jesus as well, warning that cities which reject his gospel messengers will fare worse than Sodom and Gomorrah did. Finally, such punishments are predicted in the Revelation to John as well, though the focus seems to have shifted to churches somewhat.

Point #1. Biblical punishments are announced beforehand. That would seem to get us off the hook but for one problem: How would we know? The warnings of the Hebrew prophets were widely known in their day, but there doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that everyone got the specific message You. There in the field. Smarten up now or the Assyrians are coming in. In our own age, how do we think God would go about making sure we got the memo? We have our general directions about what to do, but how would the specific “last chance” warning get delivered? Who would we listen to? Maybe there’s a few hundred prophets out there who have already delivered the message. But with a few thousand prophets to choose from, how would we know which hundred were the right guys? Or gals.

It all seems rather shaky. You can set up shop, telling people that God is going to punish us for whatever really torques you off personally, and then when anything bad happens you can say, “See? Toldja.”

Point #2. Why us? It’s easy to see how other countries might blame the wrong targets, choosing especially those nations, which can’t or won’t fight back, but we have to figure God has a clearer idea who has really been sinning. If He’s punishing countries for homosexuality and abortion, how did the Netherlands escape notice? If Our Lord is singling out nations that have had slavery and abuse the poor, how did we make it to the top of the list over, well, everyone else? How did we make the cut and move on to the next round in this reality show?

This is just American exceptionalism turned inside out. Though he hardly intended it, Rev. Wright is declaring that we are a chosen people when he preaches like this. The idea of the prophetic voice speaking on behalf of the poor to the powerful is popular in the African-American churches and has moved into the social activist circles of the mainstream denominations, but it carries an American arrogance hidden in its backpack.

Nor is there any escape in the idea that these are our prophets, other nations have theirs, and what they do is none of our business. Who are those prophets? If they were out there, mightn’t we have heard at least a whisper of ‘em? European clergy seem to condemn their own governments only for their cooperation with US policy. In a part of the world with weekly church attendance at less than 10% - sometimes little more than 1% - wouldn’t an Old Testament God at least mention their religious practice?

Point #3. Concerning Israel. Things get a bit trickier here. An argument could be made that modern Israel is at least a partial equivalent to the chosen people God seemed to warn quite frequently a few thousand years ago. Plus, modern Israel does have a number of prophet-type people giving religious warnings. Just because I can’t sort out which ones should be listened to and which ones ignored doesn’t mean much. In that instance, the argument that they have to figure out who those prophets are without help from Americans might make sense. Whether a Jews For Jesus preacher traveling the US and talking primarily to Gentiles fits in that basket is an open question. If I read Habakkuk correctly, Israel isn’t allowed the “Hey, at least we’re better than our neighbors” excuse.

Still, it’s a stretch. Jewish exceptionalism has considerable precedent, but we are still left with Point #1, prior warning.

Point #4. And yet. And yet God has worked this way before, and He is pretty darn clear that nations of some sort will be judged at the end of the age. I imagine that Jews living in the days of Jeremiah and Micah had reasons to believe that God wasn’t threatening them, not really.


james said...

If you want to be picky about it, American exceptionalism inherits from Jewish exceptionalism. The Puritans (to pick one of the more famous examples) wanted to build a New Jerusalem, and seemed to be comfortable with the idea that they as inheritors of the promise would be held to higher standards than others (from him to whom much is given much is required).
It was not an uncommon notion in Britain as well: the Bible in English transformed society there.

terri said...

The problem of sorting out God's judgment is a tricky one that has no real, satisifying answer.

For instance, the idea of stoning prophets whose predictions don't come true probably worked while the Israelites were wandering in the desert with Moses and were concerned only with the present and immediate future, but wouldn't have worked with most of the prophets we read in the OT....many whose prophecies/warnings didn't come into fruition until hundreds of years later....who were dealing with historical, organized governments and nations which took years to do everything.

Then we have the problem of understanding God's declaration that he is going to use Babylon and Assyria to judge Israel, and then afterward judging those nations for being the instrument of His judgment. huh?

Perhaps the image of God as judge works best if we see Him as a constant restrainer of judgment, rather then as a proactive punisher. In other words, bad things would be continually happening to His people if it were not for His active intervention preventing them. His judgment is to simply remove His protection and allow nature to take its course.

Maybe that concept works better than seeing judgment as a purposeful, painful interruption of what would otherwise be easy living for the wicked.

Then, we must ask, how does Jesus death impact the concept of judgment. Is it still a valid way to portray God when we have been assured of the completeness of Christ's redemption? Are nations in the last days judged by the same criteria as the nations in Israel's days?

Finally, the point about excetionalism is an excellent one...though perhaps I would have labeled it egoism. If I, as an individual, begin to view everything around me in terms of what God is trying to tell *me* it reduces the people in my life to bit players in a great drama in which I am the lead and turning point.

OK...I've rambled enough...and I could go on even longer.

Let us know when you've figured it all out, AVI! :-)