As Hurricane Florence whips up winds and rain outside, I’m mindful of the harm it continues to cause people all over the Carolinas. But I’m also aware that it has predictably drawn out a way of thinking about the divine that will go on hurting people even after the weather improves.
I was an unwilling participant in a mass communication that read in part, “Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods….and people fighting to take God out of everything? Seems to me God is sending an awfully loud message!!!!!!” There were copious emojis peppered throughout to drill its prophetic voice home. The call for those of us in agreement to type “amen” was answered in the several thousands. Many people piled on in the comment section that somehow the hurricane, happening during hurricane season, where hurricanes naturally occur, was indeed a supernatural tit for our mortal tat—revenge!—since we’ve somehow managed to bounce Almighty God from our schools and government. (No word still on why God apparently doesn’t have the power to cause Hurricanes in Las Vegas. They call themselves Sin City for crying out loud—they’re practically begging for wrath. In the very least, they could use the water.)
The idea is rooted quite simply in this: When we do bad things, God punishes those bad things. Like a judge or a moody dad. Either way, God is thought of as actively paying back sin with punishment, though never telling us specifically which sins are being punished, or if the punishment is complete. I have heard people say that they assumed the loss of a child was God’s punishment for sins they committed decades earlier in college. From these same lips I assume the lyrics to Amazing Grace had been sung. Heartbreaking.
For some folks in the Christian tradition, this whole thing is satisfied with a fairly straightforward point about Jesus and his crucifixion. It goes something like this: God punished sin on the cross, so if God is still using hurricanes and cancers and lost jobs and flat tires and death of loved ones to punish sin, then the cross was a failure. Jesus crying out “It is finished” from the cross implies strongly in this view that he thought he was really doing something final, in the very least bringing to an end the arrangement where people sacrifice animals and worry to keep God’s anger about sin at bay. That is, a basic Christian doctrine is generally ignored when a believer thinks that sin was forgiven at the crucifixion of Christ but is still being punished today via various inconveniences, pains and disappointments.
But this leads me to another, perhaps more important point: Is God now—and has God ever been— vengeful?
It’s generally understood that God is a punitive Deity, doling out punishments to humans who fail in any way to follow the rules given by Same. Yes yes, God is Love, but the emphasis for most of us—and what we’ve been threatened with—has always been God’s wrath, a feature of God’s justice. We learned this wasn’t merely some “fair-’n-square” type of justice. God, we’re told, pays back sinners with unimaginable holy intensity. God is willing to brutally avenge the Divine Name for our having dragged it through the mud with our naughty deeds. You and I only get that God is Love stuff after God has attended to his wrath. That is, God wants to be Love, but first God must be Even. To stay with this faith for a lifetime is to learn to live with anxiety and call it peace, or to stop thinking about it entirely so you don’t go mad.
We may, therefore, be delightfully sedated to discover that the scriptures paint a very different picture, if you’ll see it; Biblically speaking, God’s justice is restorative far more than it is retributive.
Retribution is revenge, which prioritizes self-interest above all else.
Restoration is healing, and prioritizes everything being as it should be.
Yes, we can find examples in the Bible of God’s retribution for sin. It’s complicated. But stories of punishment and wrath read through the lens of restorative justice puts them in new light. For instance, much of the divine retribution in the Bible is God allowing the natural consequences for some form of stupidity or evil to play itself out. Like God allowing enemies to conquer Israel, or allowing bad kings to take the throne, or sons and daughters to move away and join other nations, etc. The people are told how to live, and they insist on living some other way, and God’s retribution is God allowing the inherent consequences for their behavior to unfold. The stories are still often gruesome and heartbreaking. But they become far less about God’s petty vengeance in this light, and we may even feel invited to go back and reread other stories to discover a different angle on God all together.
King David, known for not only his military conquests but also for his sexual ones complained to God in Psalm 38 “O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath…” It sounds here like David is having a bad day because God has shown up to make it so. David sinned, and so God is mad and is doing things to David to satisfy the divine scales of justice. Until you get a couple more verses in: “…because of my foolishness I am utterly bowed down and prostrate, all day long I go around mourning, for my loins are filled with burning…”. A fool with burning loins sounds like a great way of describing a man who has met with the consequences of his sexual conquests. God isn’t punishing King David with harsh weather over on the east coast and hoping he makes the connection. King David, who collected women as the spoils of war and entitled himself to having sex with any and all of them, contracted gonorrhea.*
Noah’s flood is an example squarely in the retributive justice column. It was some decidedly unnatural and over-the-top retribution for sure, and seems to counter a lot of what I’ve said. I know. However, I do note that God promises to never to flood the earth again afterward, which is a strange thing to promise when everything You do is justified by your eternal Goodness. It smacks of regret, as though it was less than perfectly right. It’s almost as if the text tells us in that famous story that God flooding the world for its being violent didn’t fix the problems as much as it simply moistened them. Within a chapter of the Earth drying out, what was humanity up to but the very thing that got them flooded in the first place. The first book of the Bible shows us that retribution for sin doesn’t do any good for anybody, and aren’t worth ever repeating. Thank God.
Restorative justice helps us understand how to think of God as Love and Justice simultaneously, without our having to hold God as having a schizophrenic relationship with imperfect people. God’s love is justice, because it’s two ways of describing God’s positive feelings for what has been made. Restorative justice centers on the restoration of victims as well as those who did them harm. Restorative justice has in mind that someday things will be as they were intended to be, so much so that the lion and the lamb will lie down together. Retribution just gets rid of lions.
Perhaps now we see more clearly the book of Hosea showing God being angry, sure, but as one channeling such anger into rebuilding the people. “Come, let us return to the Lord; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up.” –Hosea 6:1
Or in Isaiah 40, after unimaginable hardship and frustration at the hands of enemies within and without, the prophet offers, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” God doesn’t want vengeance. God wants people—if even over generations—to learn and grow.
The one time Jesus is said to be angry it was because religious leaders were more concerned that he would labor to heal a man’s deformed hand on the Day of Rest than for the man himself (Mark 3). Jesus was angry, and even grieved that their pious hearts had gotten to such a rigid place. But then he turned and restored the man’s hand, because God’s anger and justice aren’t about retribution. God is about restoration. I can imagine being Jesus and wanting to smack those pharisees around a bit for so missing the point, but the anger of God makes things better, not worse. God’s justice is good, not evil that we call good because God did it.
A god who sends hurricanes for unspecified sins to inconvenience, maim or kill random citizens of that general vicinity, is a terrorist. What do terrorists do but inflict suffering with limited and varying results to see if they can make the world afraid enough to become something else. This isn’t Jesus and we know it. Jesus—who said if you have seen me you have seen the Father—doesn’t terrorize people, and so we are free to give up the awful notion that God attacks us with storms or anything else to sloppily punish unnamed people’s unnamed sins. “God is Love,” John insists. “…There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4)
So what’s left for us to contemplate about life’s literal and figurative storms if God is not the one orchestrating them for our punishment or to get even with us. Well, what did Jesus do when bad things happened to people? He never seemed to blame or rationalize. He just got involved, helping and feeding and healing and encouraging. And when he got angry with those unhelpful godtalkers with their asinine explanations, and channeled his anger into doing so much good that it made everyone rethink what God was like—what faith in this God was like. And what is God and faith in this God like? I’ll put it this way:
God doesn’t send hurricanes. God sends hurricane relief, which is you.
For more on God’s anger, our alleged control over God’s mood, and compassion in action, check out my book Experiments n Honesty, Meditations On Love, Fear and the Honest to God Naked Truth.
*I’m indebted to womanist professor Wil Gaffney for this insight from Psalm 38. I am also aware that I am depicting King David’s sexploits here rather causally and nearly comedically, as we cannot know what disease he’d contracted but do know that he was guilty of rape and murder.