In the past it was said, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, but I say unto you “do not resist one who is evil but if anyone strikes you in the right cheek, turn the other also”Matthew 5:38-42 Paraphrase
“It is an urgent longing for enduring life and joy, it is fear of God’s wrath, that drives us and urges us to obey Him”Andreas Ehrenpreis, Brotherly Community of Love
One of the most basic themes of the New Testament is the dialectic between grace and judgement. We see it already in the opening salvo of Jesus’ proclamation of his work: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” There is a dual message here. On the one hand, there is an implicit judgement of the worldly order of things, our disordered ways of going about our lives—Christ calls us to turn, to repent. On the other hand, there is an implicit message of grace, “the kingdom of God has drawn near”, God’s love is present and ready-at-hand for us all: We can become more than we presently are. And so, the basic gospel proclamation both destroys us and the present order while also raising us up anew into the new life of the kingdom of God. There is no tension between these two: God’s grace and judgement are the same movement; the one implies the other. The unveiling of God’s kingdom—the order of peace, unity, and love—simultaneously reveals the false order of this world—violence, strife and mammon. The good Spirit stands diametrically opposed to the spirit of this world.
In the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul writes about how “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven”. How is this wrath revealed? By some divine lighting bolt striking down the ungodly? Hardly. Rather, God’s wrath is revealed in humanity’s wickedness. The alienation from the Love of God is the wrath of God, and the self-enclosed lives we live as a result reveal his judgement. Because of humanity’s rebellion, “God gave them up to the lusts of their hearts” and “they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.” Thus, they were “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are… insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil.” Richard Hays summarizes what Paul is saying here:
“Paul does not argue on a case-by-case basis that every single individual has first known and then rejected God; instead, thinking in mythico-historical categories, he casts forth a blanket condemnation of humankind. The whole passage is “Paul’s real story of the universal fall.” As Käsemann puts it, “For the apostle, history is governed by the primal sin of rebellion against the Creator, which finds repeated and universal expression.” The passage is… a diagnosis of the human condition. The diseased behaviour detailed in verses 24-31 is symptomatic of the one sickness of humanity as a whole. Because they have turned away from God, “All, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin”. According to Paul’s analysis, God’s “wrath” against his fallen human creatures takes the ironic form of allowing them the freedom to have their own way, abandoning them to their own devices… Paul is not warning his readers that they will incur the wrath of God if they do the things that he lists here; rather, speaking in Israel’s prophetic tradition, he is presenting an empirical survey of rampant human lawlessness as evidence that God’s wrath and judgement are already at work in the world.”
The human condition is to be under the power of Sin, locked in what we will be calling the “economy of judgement”. The central characteristic of this economy of judgement is that “you get what you deserve”, and “you reap what you sow”. It is the fallen order of things in which actions have consequences and we find ourselves under the iron Law of fate, circumstance and misfortune. In human relationships and society, it is the economy of “eye for an eye”, “tooth for a tooth”: your slap will be returned with mine. Thus we are caught in a web of clan against clan, violence returned with violence, strife with more strife, hate with hate, greed with greed and death with death. We see this economy of judgement all over the gospel stories: You can’t pay your bills? Sell your children into slavery. You have leprosy? You must be excluded. You are a prostitute? The good people of the town can have nothing to do with you. You have cheated on your husband? You must be stoned.
While we wouldn’t recognize these examples as ‘just’ in any sense, our lives today in the 21st century are governed by the same kind of tit-for-tat logic. I was struck by this recently when tragedy visited my family. A cousin of mine whom I had never met took his own life. He had been struggling for years with mental illness after a car accident had left him with brain damage and one night, couldn’t take it anymore. At his funeral, some people I talked to said in very polite language that he had essentially “reaped what he sowed”. The mistakes of his youth and the circumstances of his upbringing had culminated in him now taking his own life; if only he had been more ‘responsible’ and ‘made something with his life’, this would not have happened. Here we see the same economy of judgement at work: actions have consequences, you are caught up in the iron futility of what is, and all you can do is get your act together, clean your room and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
What disturbed me about the comments made to me by these people was that they never were able to rise above the reality of the situation before us. Besides the fact that there are so many other factors at play in a suicide than ‘responsibility’—mental illness, environment, etc.—their remarks were so banal as to be untruthful. NO! I want to scream into the abyss. People who ‘have it all together’ don’t end up killing themselves. The comment is as hopeless as the situation, and speaks nothing into it than more judgement. Indeed the very act of suicide is felt as an implicit judgement on the family, on the community, on everyone and anything. The person driven to the dispair of suicide feels under the incessant gaze of judgement, the soul destroying ‘never enough’ of the crowd, the whispered lies of the prince of darkness. Eventually, the world’s gaze of judgement is turned inward as he slowly eats himself alive. To speak more judgement into this situation is to close the situation off from hope, and to be ensnared in the net of despair. The only word that can truthfully be spoken in this situation is the message of Grace: This is not the end: Our broken stories can be remade under the gaze of God. Our past, our circumstances, the trajectory of our lives do not have to define us. The encounter with the love of God can make us what we are not. And we know that neither life nor death, nor things to come nor things present, nor heights nor depth will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus.
What we have been calling the economy of judgement comes out most clearly in one of the gospel stories, where the disciples ask Jesus about some Galileans who had perished in a particularly awful way: “do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Christ’s answer has often perplexed commentators, but it seems to fit into the logic we have been describing. He responds first with “no”: there is nothing just about how these men died, the sacred ‘eye for an eye’ order that the disciples are assuming does not represent true justice. It is the absurd fallen judgement of the Powers of this age; it is not to be relied upon. It is falsehood and is to be overcome. Christ then pivots and turns this back to his hearers: “I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” You are no better than they are. By your question, you have shown that you are still part of the fallen eye-for-an-eye economy, and unless you turn and come into Christ’s kingdom and the economy of Grace, you, too, will be destroyed.
Christ’s “economy of Grace” comes as a salvation, as an alternative, to the corrupt order of this world. It proclaims that we do not have to ‘get what we deserve’, we do not have to be what we presently are: we are called to something higher. More is possible for us than the economy of judgement can offer us. By the Spirit, we are called into God’s own Trinitarian economy of mutual, self-giving love. This eternal order of peace stands as the ground of all things, more real than our illusory orders of violence and greed can ever be. It is our stand within this eternal source which allows us to be lifted up out of the merely human and allows us to return hate with love, violence with peace, judgement with grace, greed with generosity and strife with unity. While the world must demand blood for blood, violence for more violence; Christ’s kingdom makes its stand on peace. While the world would have us descend into clannish bickering, each side demanding their rights; Christ’s kingdom would rather suffer injustice than go against their neighbour. While the world tramples the poor in pursuit of wealth, Christ’s kingdom stands with the poor, claiming that the kingdom of God is theirs. While the world drives relentlessly for power, status, and possessions, Christ’s kingdom seeks weakness, service and community. The world’s economy of judgement lives tit-for-tat: violence unto violence, power unto power, wealth unto wealth, lust unto lust, greed unto greed until its corrupt order is all in all. Christ’s economy of Grace on the other hand seeks forever peace unto peace, love unto love, unity unto unity, joy unto joy, grace unto grace until God’s kingdom is all in all.
Because of this fundamentally different orientation, Christ’s kingdom cannot help but be a disruptive presence in the world, refusing to be pulled into the logic of acquisition that drives the economy, the logic of violence that drives the military, the logic of dominance that drives government, or the logic of acrimony that drives the courts. Its disruption does not come in the form of revolution, that is, by violently imposing the new order; such a revolution never really rises above the “tit-for-tat” order of things. But rather, its subversion of the worldly order comes by participating in an economy of Grace which can only be seen as ‘foolishness’ to the world. The breaking in of God’s coming order is the true revolution. We can only be freed from the sclerotic options of the present by opening ourselves up to the power of God’s future. Ellul writes:
“This is the revolutionary situation: to be a revolutionary is to judge the world… in the name of a truth which does not yet exist (but is coming)—and it is to do so, because we believe this truth to be more genuine and more real than the reality which surrounds us. Consequently it means bringing the future into the present as an explosive force. It means believing that the future events are more important and truer than present events; it means understanding the present in light of the future, dominating it by the future…The Christian… even if he does not make a great show politically, or a great demonstration of revolutionary power… if he really lives by the power of Christ, if, by hope, he makes the coming of the kingdom actual, is a true revolutionary. He judges the present time in virtue of a meta-historical fact, and the incursion of this event into the present is the only force capable of throwing off the dead weight of social and political institutions which are gradually crushing the life out of our present civilization.”
In one of the gospel stories, after driving out a demon, Christ is accused of wielding the power of Satan: “He has Beelzebub, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” Christ’s answer is telling: Satan cannot cast out Satan, and a “kingdom divided against itself cannot stand”. The prince of this world cannot exorcise its own demons, nor does it want to. But Jesus then turns the accusation back on the Pharisees when he makes the strange statement about “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” as “the unforgivable sin”. Perhaps we are now equipped to understand what he means. It is the Holy Spirit who frees us from the clutches of Mammon; and to denounce this freedom as the work of the devil is to put oneself under self-imposed lock and key. There is no greater bondage than to confuse the Spirit of Freedom with the spirit of this world. In such a condition, the offer of liberation is swatted away as a threat, and meanwhile the evil spirit pulls him ever deeper into the mire. The tit-for-tat order of judgement and the hellish hounds of tribalism, hatred, greed, and violence are let loose, now confused for virtue. A Church in such a condition is like a sterile, incestuous pond, buzzing with flies, stinking and rotten. The Alligators on the banks, having consumed all of their young, now turn on themselves, eating each other or gorging and suffocating themselves on their own tails. C.S Lewis captures the condition of such a soul or such a church with horrifying accuracy in The Last Battle:
“Aslan,” said Lucy through her tears, “could you – will you – do something for these poor Dwarfs?” “Dearest,” said Aslan, “I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot, do.” He came close to the Dwarfs and gave a low growl: low, but it set all the air shaking. But the Dwarfs said to one another, “Hear that? That’s the gang at the other end of the stable. Trying to frighten us. They do it with a machine of some kind. Don’t take any notice. They won’t take us in again!” Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.” But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarrelling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said: “Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.” “You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”
We can be sure that God’s love will continue to relentlessly pound the barricades of such a self-enclosed soul. But just like the glorious feast turns to dung in the hands of the dwarves, so God’s love is experienced as a painful torment. It forever calls us painfully out of ourselves into an ever-expanding communion, “from glory unto glory”. God’s love always wants more for us and it always calls us to die to ourselves only so that we may find ourselves. There is no tension between judgement and grace here. Grace is not a static ‘acceptance’ but a dynamic making possible what was impossible, making alive what was dead, making new what was old. Judgement is not a senseless ‘no’, but a burning away of the dross so that what is genuine, good and true can come through. Those who loose their life will find it. Those who die will live. Those who give up all for the sake of the kingdom will receive everything.
How should we see the dwarves? Should we look upon them with the eyes of this world: epic, irresponsible losers who never made anything of their lives? No! This is the gaze of the Father of Lies who genuinely hates creation and wants nothing more than to slurp the life from it, to feed his own pit of self-loathing. This is the objectifying gaze which makes others less so that we can become more. Rather, we must learn to see as we have been seen. We must learn to see, in all that we meet, a spark of Love. By attending to that spark, nurturing it, assuming it, “loving it forth”, it can grow into a large fire. Just like our Heavenly Father “lets it rain on the just and unjust”, just so we are called to attend to creation with indiscriminate agapeic love. This way of loving, this mode of attention, pierces the finite veil of sin, injustice and absurdity and sees the true reality of all things grounded in the Love of God. It looks past the vicissitudes of fallen time, into the fullness of God’s good future when His Love will be “all in all”. Thus we see in all people not their sins, addictions, or petty annoyances, but the spark of love, the image of God, Christ himself. And so, we are called to see the Dwarves of the world with the eyes of God: despite their wretched condition, there is still, somewhere, love present. Pope Francis puts it beautifully:
We need to enter the darkness, the night in which so many of our brothers live. We need to be able to make contact with them and let them feel our closeness, without letting ourselves be wrapped up in that darkness and influenced by it… It means trying to reach everyone by sharing the experience of mercy, which we ourselves have experienced, without ever caving in to the temptation of feeling that we are just or perfect. The more conscious we are of our wretchedness and our sins, the more we experience the love and infinite mercy of God among us, and the more capable we are of looking upon the many “wounded” we meet along the way with acceptance and mercy.
Francis points to a temptation that lurks here: the assumption that it is out of my own resources, righteousness, ‘having it all together’ that I can ‘help’ by molding others in my own image. This is the vision of the patronizing colonialist and it is yet another form of delusion, another way that the prince of this world gazes upon the world through us. It is yet another way of making others less so that I can become more. Rather, the Father can only gaze upon the world through us, if we first become blind to our own fallen perceptions. Our finite judgement and our participation in the tit-for-tat economy must cease. We must stop seeing in the terms of the world—status, wealth, power—we must die to all of this; only then, can God see through us. We must decrease so that He can increase. Only then can we truly be. In the end, hope lies not in our petty human economies, but in the abundant more that is possible under the gaze of God. And if the Heavenly Father sees even the little sparrow fall, how can he forget any of his Children?
The featured image is called Dry Bones by Rebekah Osborn