This is a follow up to my post The Labor of Grace about the Christian response to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
What I want to wrestle with here is how the vengeance of God fits in with the command to forgive others, even our enemies.
The relevant passage is Romans 12.19:
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.The thing I want to think about is how my willingness to forgive Bin Laden is contingent upon my confidence that God will kick him in ass. The "Welcome to Hell" sentiment expressed by Mike Huckabee.
There are two issues I'm wrestling with. First, am I really forgiving someone if I'm simply handing him off to be punished by another? True, by handing the person off I'm forgoing my own right to vengeance. But is that the same as forgiveness? Because it seems to me that forgoing vengeance, while necessary, is not a sufficient condition for forgiveness. They are not the same thing. Forgiveness goes further than "Welcome to Hell." (Not that I blame Huckabee for expressing that sentiment. See my comments on the "moral click" in my earlier post.)
These thoughts about forgiveness bring me to the second issue. Does it make any sense to command me to forgive my enemies when God will not forgive his enemies? As I understand it, Christians are to forgive everyone. However, God, according to some, is only going to forgive a select few. Which means human beings are being asked to do something that even God can't pull off. That humans are to be more merciful, more loving, and more forgiving than God. Which seems odd.
So how are we to think about a passage like Romans 12.19?
I think the most obvious thing to say is that Romans 12.9 is about behavior rather than theology. That is, Romans 12.19 isn't trying to describe God's personality of the nature of Divine Judgment. Romans 12.19 is, rather, a command: Do not take revenge.
This, I think, is the most important thing to take away from Romans 12.9, the call to nonviolence, to hand over to God our hate, blood lust, and thirst for revenge. Justice, payback, reprisals, getting even. All this is to be handed over to God.
I think this is the same logic found in the imprecatory psalms, where hate and vengeance is expressed toward enemies:
Psalm 137.8-9What is so shocking about these psalms is how hate is expressed as an act of worship. But I think that's the idea. The hate is handed over to God rather than directed at the perpetrators. The hate is for the sanctuary where the poison can be slowly drawn out.
O Babylon, you will be destroyed.
Happy is the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who takes your babies
and smashes them against the rocks!
So we get the general ethical idea behind Romans 12.19. Don't take vengeance into your own hands. Hand it over to God.
Still, this doesn't help us understand the asymmetry between divine and human forgiveness. That humans are commanded to forgive where God will not. That human love is to exceed God's love.
Here's a first pass about what I think is going on with all this, psychologically speaking.
Psychologists have studied for some time a phenomenon called just world belief. Just world belief is the psychological tendency to believe that the world is seeking to find a moral balance, that through God, karma, or fate everyone gets what they deserve in the end. That is, when bad things happen to people we are tempted to suspect that they "had it coming." You see this sort of thinking all the time and it's often expressed in religious language. For example, when a tsunami hits New Orleans you seem someone like Pat Robertson suggest that the Big Easy "deserved" what happened to it. And while it is easy (very easy) to see Pat Robertson as a nut job, the psychological research on just world belief suggests that we are all vulnerable to this sort of thinking. When something bad happens to our neighbors we darkly wonder, if only briefly, what might have been going on behind those closed doors...
Just world belief also explains why we tend to put halos around the rich, beautiful, talented or successful. Our tendency is to think that good things happen to good people and that bad things happen to bad people. So we moralize the rich and the poor, the successes and the failures.
The point in going into all this is that I think just world belief tends to frame how we think about God's vengeance. Specifically, everyday we look out on a world full of moral loose ends, a world full of victims and perpetrators. And in the face of all that injustice we want God to be the fixer who will make it all balance out in the end. On this earth we can't get every score settled, every rapist prosecuted, every murderer executed. Every Osama Bin Laden killed. And so, wanting the world to be a just world, we posit a god to make the mechanism work. If not justice in this life then in the next.
The problem with this idea is that it reduces the Christian God to a form of karma. And this isn't too surprising because just world thinking is simply another example of how Christian belief gets captured by what psychologists call magical thinking. (Just world belief is a form of magical thinking as it posits causes and effects that aren't rooted in physical laws. See my book Unclean for other examples of magical thinking in the Christian faith.) But even if it is natural, psychologically speaking, to posit God-as-karma, this isn't the Christian understanding. The whole notion of Divine love, grace, forgiveness, and self-offering ("Father forgive them.") suggests that the accounting books of justice are not "balanced" through a just world, God-as-karma mechanism. Rather, the "balancing" comes through God absorbing the wound of sin, dissipating it in the Divine love. I think this is what it means to say that Christ "became sin." The life and love of God, symbolized by the blood of Jesus, soaks up and absorbs the sin of the world. The residual of evil isn't balanced out via karma and just deserts. Rather, it is soaked up in the love of God. The violence that killed Jesus doesn't get a payback. It isn't balanced out with more "eye for an eye" violence. Rather, that sin is absorbed and dissipated by the love of "Father forgive them." In this sense, our love for our enemies isn't doing anything God hasn't already done. Our mercy shadows God's mercy. There is no one we can forgive that God won't forgive.
So where does that leave God's vengeance? If God isn't going to balance it all out with tit-for-tat then what is Romans 12:19 talking about with "vengeance is mine; I will repay"?
I can't say with any certainty what it all means, other than to express the worry that if Romans 12.19 is interpreted to mean "everyone gets what they deserve" we aren't, as best I can tell, talking about the God of Jesus Christ. We are, rather, talking about something quite different, something that seems primitive, pagan even--the just world belief of a balanced cosmic accounting.
To clarify, this isn't to say that I think perpetrators are going to get a free pass. That someone like Osama Bin Laden gets to waltz into heaven without any sort of reckoning. On this score, Huckabee has a point. There is hell to pay. But I think hell has to be understood against the background of God's love. Hell isn't a form of karma.
Let me end with this. I like the way Romans 12:19 says "leave room" for the wrath of God. It suggests, to me at least, that the wrath of God is a bit bigger than what I think it might be. That it includes some stuff I wouldn't think would be a part of the picture. It suggests that I might be a bit surprised about what the wrath of God looks like. And that only makes sense. My notion of vengeance is very small, very bound by my just world biases, my tacit belief in karma. But God's wrath? I suspect it's a bit different. A larger, more expansive view.
So I step back. And make room.