Saturday, January 24, 2015

Room for Vengeance

There seems to be no end to the number of people who feel themselves personally responsible for the execution of justice.

There’s former rugby player Steve Waterfield who, waking to find a burglar in his apartment, was disinclined to simply let him make a run for it. He declared to himself, “Right son, you’re getting a whacking”, blocked the doorway, beat the trespasser bloody and left him reeling.

More seriously, there’s the Afghan woman alleged to have killed at least 25 Taliban militants to avenge the murder of her son, a police officer.

And the most egregious recent examples of freelance justice were proud to declare they had just “avenged the Prophet Muhammad”.

The Common Thread

Though motives probably differed, in each case those who did injury to others, large or small, were convinced they were right in taking matters into their own hands. Mr. Waterfield, had he not been caught off guard and full of adrenalin when pushed by the burglar on the way out his front door, might have let matters slide without becoming violent. The Afghan mother, if the facts are correct, got her revenge on those whose only commonality with her son’s murderers was likely their ideology. If the number of dead is any indication, it didn’t help her find whatever closure she was looking for. As for the self-styled “avengers of the Prophet”, who knows exactly what they were thinking?

The common thread in revenge seems to be the notion that “If I don’t do something, he/she/they are going to get away with it”, whatever “it” may be. It’s a lack of confidence in the police, the legal system or the powers that be to do what needs to be done, or to do it in a timely way, or to do it adequately.

An Odd Notion about Justice

In attempting to “avenge the Prophet” the Paris gunmen were enunciating some pretty strange theology. It’s a little late to ask them to clarify their thought processes for us, but stop and think about it for a second: Muhammad was no lightweight in the miracle department, if you believe the Qu’ran. We are told God split the moon in two and rejoined the pieces on Muhammad’s behalf; that he traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem in a single night, a journey of 1,230 km, and ascended mystically to the heavens; and that he even brought water for 1,500 men from a single container (though that one, to be honest, sounds a tad derivative to me).

You’d think someone with that sort of power at his disposal would be more than capable of avenging his own name, wouldn’t you? It’s almost as if the Paris gunmen lacked confidence in the Messenger of Allah. Like they figured he needed their help dealing with the scandalous ideas disseminated by middle-aged French cartoonists.

The message they sent the world, intentionally or otherwise, is that their God can’t fight his own battles. He can split the moon for his prophet, but not shut the mouths of a few infidels.

God and Payback

In contrast, the God of the Bible and his Messenger don’t seem to suffer from any sense of inadequacy on that front. In fact, the apostles tell us explicitly not to take revenge when we feel an injustice has been done to us:
“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.’ ”
If Paul, writing by the Holy Spirit, is convinced that God will avenge the wrongs done to his followers, how much more is he capable of defending his own holy name from blasphemy and mocking? Paul himself was a former blasphemer, the same sort of “insolent opponent” of Jesus Christ that the Paris gunmen thought needed to be silenced. Rather than being obliterated for his folly, he was transformed by the grace of the very God he persecuted. Rather than make an example of him by crushing him, Paul’s God made him an example and demonstration of his own perfect patience. So in declining to avenge the wrongs done to us, we are following the example of the Lord himself.

That’s quite a way for a God to handle insults to his person, isn’t it. Shows a total absence of insecurity, to say the least.

Handing Over to Satan

Of course, the Church does have some responsibility to deal with blasphemy. Just because Paul was a former blasphemer does not mean he had gone soft on people who speak contemptuously about God or deliberately harm his reputation in the world. He told Timothy he had “handed over [Hymenaeus and Alexander] to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme”.

What does that mean exactly? Paul’s letter to Corinth has him giving similar instructions to the Christians there about one of their number who was reported to be sexually immoral. He tells them, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”. From these instructions we can conclude that delivering someone to Satan involves breaking fellowship with them and putting them out into the world where Satan, who is always happy to sift believers like wheat when allowed the opportunity, can show them the error of their ways.

Whether or not it is in Satan’s interests to be used by God as an instrument to chasten and reform sinning believers, that is the effect Paul both desired and expected. Hymenaeus and Alexander had “made shipwreck of their faith” through blasphemy and needed to learn that there were consequences for their words and actions. Paul’s hope was that they would come to repentance rather than spiritual ruin.

Blasphemy and ‘Infidels’

But do you notice something about this disciplinary process for blasphemy? It has nothing whatsoever to do with anyone outside the circle of church fellowship. As Paul elsewhere says, “God judges those outside” and “What have I to do with judging outsiders?”

As for mankind generally, those people that extremists and clerics refer to as ‘infidels’, the Lord taught that “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people”, in the sense that such sins will not normally bring on the immediate judgment of God. These individual sins, no matter how offensive to us and to the Lord, are not the biggest problem. It is the rejection of Jesus Christ that represents the eternal danger, for those who do not love him will one day come into eternal judgment.

The Church has no jurisdiction over people like the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, Bill Maher and others with big mouths and no time for Christians or our God. They are nothing to do with us. Some of us might take the time to write a letter to the editor to point out their error. Some would simply turn off the TV or not buy their magazine. Hopefully we would all recognize the need to pray for them. We have no interest in seeing their freedom of speech curtailed and no business appealing to governments to do it.

Is this because the Church is indifferent to blasphemy and impervious to insults? Not at all. We love our Saviour. We love to hear others speak well of him. We are saddened by the mudslinging of people like Maher and St├ęphane Charbonnier and we’d love to see the end of it. But we have a God who is big enough to deal with such things himself, in his own time and in his own way.

He said “vengeance is mine”. If we believe him we will leave him plenty of room.

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