01 July 2013

Moving from Fear to Love: Ours is not a God Who Punishes Evil!

Today's readings speak to us in profound and very challenging ways I think. The first, which I am going to focus on here, is from Genesis 18 and recounts a dialogue between Abraham (the Father of Faith and one whose faith is counted as righteousness) and God over whether God will indeed destroy Sodom if a number of righteous people can be found there. You remember it no doubt: God has heard rumors of the tremendous evil of this city and determines he will find out for himself. If things are as bad as he has heard, then he will destroy the city and everyone therein.

Abraham, the representative of true faith, in a remarkably frank conversation with God, asks a series of questions: What if you find fifty righteous persons, will you destroy everyone? "Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?" (Remember that when God destroys evil innocence is also destroyed; the world, after all, is ambiguous and that is true of each and all of us as well.) How about 45? What about 30? 20? and so forth. In each case, God answers that he would not destroy the whole city if x or y righteous men were found therein, and even only 10 righteous persons are found there. But what is the author of Genesis really trying to say here? Is he revealing a God of vengeance whose justice is retributive and who punishes us for our evil? Is he revealing a God with whom we are called to bargain or remonstrate, a God who will be swayed by our superior reason,  or who may be cajoled into changing his mind if the case made is eloquent enough? Is he revealing a fickle and capricious God who is moved hither and yon like a reed blowing in the wind?

I think reading the text in this way would be a profound mistake. It would then become a variation on the idea that the God of Israel revealed in the OT is essentially different than the God of Christians, that, in fact, he is a God of vengeance where the God revealed by Jesus Christ is a God of mercy. But this story is not an attempt to paint a picture of a God of vengeance or retributive justice being reminded by a reasonable and faithful human being of “the bigger picture”! Instead I think the author is recounting the history of Israel and her own coming to know and reveal the real God; this history is captured or personified in Abraham's dialogue with God as more and more clearly he establishes that Yahweh is not the God who punishes evil (evil is its own punishment and carries its own consequences) nor the one who is wed to an abstract notion of justice which he upholds at the expense of the innocent. Instead Abraham's dialogue gradually reveals to us a God Israel herself slowly comes to know more fully only through her repeated experiences of God's faithfulness, mercy, and compassion. In this dialogue it is not God’s mind that is changed, but Abraham’s (Israel's) as, with questions of increasing wonder and disbelief, he tries to establish and plumb the depths of God’s mercy. It is a God for whom the concrete life of the least and the lost is more important than the most common and convincing principle of justice while the presence of the slightest bit of good is more compelling than a world full of evil. It is the God we come to know in authentic faith.

When we compare the OT and NT side by side what we really see are not two essentially different Gods, but many stories of the movement in history from distorted, inadequate, or partial images and faith to more adequate and fuller images of God and forms of faith; it is the movement from fragmentary, distorted, and partial revelations of a punitive God to the exhaustive revelation of the God of mercy in the Christ Event. The OT is the record of a People coming to be from members of many different cultures and religions --- and doing so as its members outgrow their original theologies and related anthropologies under the influence of repeated experiences of Yahweh's faithfulness, mercy, and compassion. The OT is a history of the progressive (and often inconsistent) purification of Israel's minds and hearts regarding who God is and what constitutes true religion. It is through this purification that they mature as God's own People and persons of true faith. In today's story especially we are listening to Israel slowly relinquish belief in the God who punishes evil and evil doers, the God whose justice is at war with (his) mercy and whose compassion conflicts with his need for retribution or vindication; she does this only in so far as she affirms her own deepest experiences of God and, in an attempt to resolve it, pushes the tension between these two "theological worlds" to the limits of her imagination and narrative capacity.

She has done this in other stories too. There is the story of the flood where retributive justice wars with compassion and eventually in an act of radical humility and self-emptying God "repents" and promises never to destroy the world in this way again. There is the story of the sacrifice of Isaac where Abraham's hand is stayed by God just as he is ready to plunge the knife into Isaac's chest, and where a different and acceptable sacrifice is provided by God. While this story foreshadows God's own gift of Jesus and Jesus' own sacrifice, it also originally served to proclaim an end to human sacrifice because the God of Israel was NOT a God who required retribution for evil. The God of Israel was different and had a different way of doing justice. He called for Israel to embrace a different religious practice so that they could know and serve him intimately as a light to the Nations. It is no wonder that idolatry looms so large in the failures outlined by Israel. The struggle between false gods and ideas of god and Israel's most profound experience of God's own actions in her life characterized her on every level of her existence --- personal, historical, individual, corporate.

In many ways this struggle and story reprises our own as well. After getting his disciples in touch with who OTHERS say that he is, it is not surprising that Jesus' most critical question to them is, "And you, who do YOU say that I am?" This tension and movement between what we have been told of God and who we actually know in light of our own experiences of his faithfulness, compassion, and mercy is a dominant thread in our own spiritual journeys as well.

In particular, letting go of our belief in the God who punishes evil (or sends evil to punish us!!!), our belief in the God who is the focus of a theology of fear in order to exhaustively embrace the God revealed on the Cross, the God who asserts his rights (i.e., does justice) by loving unconditionally, who sets everything right and fulfills it through forgiveness and mercy, is not an easy task. Everything militates against this; whether it is family history, grade school catechetics, punitive nuns, theologically unsophisticated preaching and writing on hell, judgment, or our own super egos, this is one bit of idolatry, one bit of "worldliness" or pagan theology that is hard to shake.

Our inability to really believe in the power of the love of God may be the real face of unbelief in our own lives and in our Church today. Like Israel however (and, through the exhaustive revelation of God in Christ) we can do it only by allowing  the non-punitive God who is Love-in-Act to truly be our Lord and Master. Each day we are called on to discern both who others say that God is, and who we ourselves say that he is. Each day we are called on to allow our own hearts and minds to be purified by the God of Jesus Christ as we experience him. Each day we are called on to become Christians who believe more and more firmly and completely in the loving God he reveals and no other --- not the God who punishes evil but the One who submits entirely to it himself, transforms and redeems it with his presence, and thus (in time) loves the world into wholeness.