God stands with us in solidarity when we are abused. He says that He identifies with the weak, the exploited, the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, the helpless, the victims.
This gives us hope, at least when we believe we should be identified as being in at least one of these categories. But then a problem arises. What do we believe solidarity should involve? How do we want to be defended? What do we actually have in mind, what do we want to see happen when the Almighty, most powerful being of the entire universe chooses to identify as one of us, the disadvantaged and abused?
As we encounter the radical teachings of Jesus relating to how we are to relate to our abusers, do we begin feeling uncomfortable with how God intends to defend us? Do we prefer that He come to our rescue in forceful ways rather than the apparently weak ways that Jesus used when He was here on earth? Do our own desires for revenge, for settling old scores, for getting even with our exploiters start to make us upset when we begin to discover that God's ways of justice may be radically different from how we have always defined justice? Do we then start to feel tempted to extend our search for a mighty rescuer to other options than a God who looks like Jesus when we discover that the One sent to deliver us from evil desires to deliver us more from our own sinful desires for revenge rather than imposing harsh punishments on our enemies?
Even as I write these words I find myself feeling ambivalent myself about these principles. Like most people, part of me is uncomfortable settling for being rescued using methods that do not agree with my cravings to get even. My head tells me that God is right and that He has been showing me for years reasons why His way is best and is the only way that can effectively resolve the problem of rebellion for all eternity. But that does not eliminate my own heart's selfish desires to be vindicated with more forceful ways against those who have abused me.
But this is just what God is wanting me to see. In contemplating what I want rescue to look like for me, I find like most people that I would prefer that God indulge at least to some extent in forcefully imposing penalties and punishment and revenge on others like many assert He should do to overcome evil.
That is, until it becomes painfully clear that the real issue of evil lies mainly within the confines of my own heart, my own spirit, my own mind and body. Then it is suddenly not so appealing to beg God to wreak vengeance on His enemies, for if I am willing to be really truthful I will find myself also in the crosshairs of what it means to be an enemy of God. And because that is true for each one of us, we have to begin to admit that maybe God's ways really are the best ways after all even though our fallen nature nature will never acquiesce to this truth.
What I have been coming to see in what God has been teaching me in recent years about how He plans to win over evil, has been a journey rich with amazement, discovery and surprises. At times my mind is reeling from stunning insights I find in His Word that I have never heard anyone propose before. And although I lay no claim to having a corner on truth or anything even close to that, at the same time I cannot deny that by using the methods of careful and balanced study, allowing the Word and the Spirit of God act as my guides and as self-interpreters, these new concepts all fit together so perfectly that it is hard to refute them easily if I am willing to be honest.
Yet when it comes to the deep residual cravings for revenge against those who have caused me such deep wounds and have left enormous damage both in my heart and even my character over my life, like many others I can find that these things I am learning about a God can be very troubling. I am starting to see One who intends to win this war by relying on love instead of violence. When the implications of this begin to sink in God's ways can become far less appealing to me when I realize I must let go of all my own desires for retaliation and instead come to love those who have exploited me. Jesus requires that I love my enemies and abusers the same way I want to be loved myself. When that truth starts to become vividly clear in my awareness I have to admit that it is impossible for me to fulfill that command of God. I am now starting to see that I am in just as much need of a miracle of transformation as those who have so damaged and wounded me.
The gospel of social justice can be very appealing and truly sounds like good news initially. When Jesus first showed up preaching this good news to His hometown folks they really latched onto the idea. Well, they were quite excited about it until it suddenly began to hit them that He intended to apply that same good news to their worst enemies as well as to them. Then suddenly their joy turned into rage and they decided that this kind of God was not really the one they had been waiting for after all and it might be time to keep looking for a Messiah who would do things their preferred way, the way of violence where revenge would be meted out with destructive force against those who had committed atrocities against them.
Here is how Jesus announced His mission statement in His very first sermon at His home church.
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)
Nothing could have brought more hope and joy to these people than to hear these words in the context in which they were given. The people to whom Jesus was speaking were chaffing under cruel oppression by an occupying army of ruthless Romans who believed in using excessive force to impose their control over conquered nations. Because the Jews hated the Romans so deeply and believed that these pagans were far beyond God's interest or ability to save, and that only the Jews were able to be in God's favor, they assumed that the only way God could rescue them was to rely on methods involving even greater force and relying on weapons of violence to overcome the power of the Roman empire.
Time after time attempts were made by various groups or individuals to launch a successful rebellion. But time after time each one had been crushed with increasing cruelty viciously inflicted by the occupying forces in order to send a clear message that power enforced by the violence of Rome was to remain in control. The philosophy of Rome was entirely based on a religion rooted in force, for the belief of supremacy founded on force was the very mindset and methods of the entire empire. To reinforce this belief in everyone they conquered, the Roman army would stop at nothing to inflict public humiliation, torture, shame, disgrace and prolonged suffering to the worst degree in order to instill fear greater than any desire for freedom. Rome was even foretold in prophecy using symbols making it clear that rule through force was the very essence of what Rome stood for.
Into this atmosphere of belief in the supremacy of force through unmitigated violence, the innocent Son of God appeared to challenge humanity's belief in and addiction to force. Jesus came to challenge not just the Roman empire's reliance on force and intimidation but much more to dismantle our very addiction to force that is deeply embedded within the human heart. Jesus came to conquer not just the kingdoms of this world but the very roots that these kingdoms rely on to keep themselves in power. Jesus came to address the root problem of sin itself which is a misapprehension of what is needed and required to maintain order and harmony in society of any kind.
So, why was it that when Jesus got up to preach His first sermon that His initial welcome was suddenly transformed into an attempted assassination? What did He do 'wrong' that so antagonized His listeners to go from cheering to raging in just a matter of minutes? Why did they have such a problem with His explanation of Scripture, the very Scriptures that they claimed to believe and follow?
It was not so much what Jesus read that caused such a stir that day but rather what He refused to read. In their minds He committed a big mistake in failing to adhere to clearly accepted rules of exegesis by lifting a passage of Scripture out of context. Jesus had closed the scroll and quit reading just short of one of the favorite passages they were eagerly anticipating to hear Him finish reading. The rest of the verse was what had long given them comfort and support in their strong desire that God would soon rescue them from their oppressors employing superior violence to overwhelm their enemies and at last exalt the Jews to the rightful position they felt belonged to them as rulers instead of victims.
Jesus was reading from Isaiah 61 and which accurately laid out God's plan to bring justice to our world, but the Jews did not yet understand the methods He intended to use to accomplish that. Jesus also knew that their prejudice and blindness and misapprehensions of God and His ways ran so deep that if He finished that sentence in His reading that anything He might say after that would likely not even be heard. So by leaving off the last part of the passage in Isaiah, Jesus created keen focus for them to pay attention to why He had chosen to read it differently than they expected to hear it.
So, what was the part that Jesus deliberately left out? It has to do with the same issue that we today still resist accepting, about the method God intends to use to win over evil. It also involved a very misunderstood word that lies deep in the heart of many who demand that God do things our way just as the Jews felt He should do. It had to do with our opinions about what justice must look like.
...to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD and the day of vengeance of our God. (Isaiah 61:2)
Desire for vengeance runs so deep in the psyche of fallen, sinful humans that it is nearly impossible to challenge its true meaning without strong resistance. It is wired into our very nature to want to inflict punishment on those who have done wrong, especially if we are the ones who have suffered as a result. And of course punishment is almost always tightly wrapped up into our assumptions about justice. The concept of vengeance pretty much lies at the core of everything we believe about what justice should mean.
Yet it is this distorted notion of what justice means that prevents many from believing the truth about God's methods for overcoming evil and winning by reliance on love alone. It is this very issue that acts as a sword to divide and polarize us into one camp or the other, for this sword of truth about God's ways lays open to us the deepest areas of our souls where lie our cravings for revenge. It is this deep desire for vengeance that drives so much of how we administer justice both in our worldly systems of power as well as what we believe about how heaven will ultimately win over evil.
What God has been increasingly revealing in recent years is that His ways are indeed not our ways and His thoughts are very different than our thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9) This is where our own hearts fall into the challenge of grappling with the dissonance between how God plans to overcome evil and how our own desires want to see it deal with. Because sin has caused us to redefine nearly every word we use in religion to fit our own paradigms of how we want to see sin addressed, we fail to pay attention to how Jesus revealed God's intentions of how He will overcome.
We don't have so much problem with our ideas of how to conquer evil as long as we read mainly in the Old Testament (which might be why it is becoming so popular for many today to gravitate in that direction). But as soon as we begin to take seriously the radical teachings and example of Jesus who shattered nearly every paradigm leftover from the ancients, we find our own hearts beginning to question whether the way of Jesus really is the way that has enough power to win against the overwhelming odds of force and violence and intimidation.
If we are looking for a loophole, for exceptions by which we can justify insisting that at some point God will be forced to resort to violence and impose punishment to at last exterminate evil and suppress His enemies, we may find great comfort and support in turning to the book of Revelation to vindicate our opinion. In a surface reading bolstered by typical assumptions about how God should practice justice like we do, it might be easy to conclude that indeed God will resort to exercising violence to overwhelm His enemies violence in the end to subdue all His opponents.
But I believe it is time we think again about this suspicious approach to Revelation. For if our interpretations of this symbolic prophecy are in any way out of harmony in the slightest with the explicit teachings of Jesus on how to relate to enemies and friends alike, then we should be willing to lay aside our preconceptions and opinions no matter how many centuries they have been taught and take a fresh look at this prophecy relying more on the brilliant light of truth streaming from the throne of heaven in the faithful witness of Jesus who is the star of Revelation.
That is what I have been seeking to do over the past six months and it has proved to be both very stimulating while at the same time deeply disturbing. Nearly everything I have been taught about the meaning of this book has had to come under scrutiny and has had to be challenged and at times even discarded much to my surprise at times. At the same time I am discovering a beauty and power and cohesion that I have never seen before as I have chosen to rely principally on the testimony of Jesus to discern what the various symbols might mean and who is doing what in this prophecy.
What is disturbing me possibly the most is not that I am having to rethink and challenge institutionally entrenched beliefs and interpretations and traditions to look for new options. I personally do not have years of heavy investment in education and teaching and public discourse that might reservations for me. What does disturb me increasingly is a growing awareness at my own heart level of the serious implications of what this all means for me personally. If it is true, as it is becoming more and more clear to me, that God really does plan to overcome evil using apparently wimpy methods of Jesus instead of resorting at some point to using violent force against His enemies as I have always been taught, then in my own life, if I want to participate in His victory, I too must become willing to embrace the same methods that God relies on to overcome. After all, it is those called overcomers that are noted as the favored ones by God in each of the seven churches, not those who turn to using power over others to win through resorting to violence.
It is starting to become clear to me that it may be this very issue of how we define justice and what we are going to personally do about it that may become the most polarizing issue determining which side of the war we will find ourselves on in the end. According to what I find in the teachings of Jesus and what I am now starting to see more clearly in the book of Revelation, a book that has too long been used to support the very opposite view, is that it will only be those who are willing to lay down the weapons this world relies on for winning who will actually overcome. God is behind those who choose to embrace the methods of the violently slaughtered Lamb, and it is they who will at last be found standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion when all the dust and smoke clears away.
Some have recently brought to my attention that when Jesus came to this earth to expose the real truth about God's ways, that He also came to rewrite the way we view history. The rigid Pharisees and teachers of the law and religious leaders of Christ's day were immersed in a belief of God based on belief in violence to win over evil. But Jesus revealed that their choice to cling to this misguided opinion would place them directly in the line of becoming guilty for all the unjust deaths from the very first murder of Abel all the way down to the most recent victim of their own prejudice and hatred (Matt. 23:34-36; Luke 11:49-51).
At the same time Jesus was also making a public declaration that He was choosing to place Himself in full solidarity with all those victims who have been exploited since the foundation of this world's ways of doing things. As a result, history should be more accurately viewed from the perspective of the victims instead of the records of the conquerors the way we usually write history. Jesus declared that the way to rightly perceive the real truth about history is to view it from God's perspective which will be from the view of the victimized, not those addicted to use of power and who rely on violence to win.
So when Jesus laid out His mission statement quoting from Isaiah 61, why did He leave off the part about vengeance? Was He suggesting that Isaiah got it wrong and that God is not really going to take vengeance on His enemies after all? Or did He leave off that part because in that atmosphere that pervaded the thinking of His listeners He knew if He read those words it would be impossible to explain to them the true meaning of vengeance until they were willing to accept other truths first?
I believe this is often the case with us. Until we are willing to embrace some fundamental new truths about God and the way He designed reality to operate, it will be impossible for us to accept other truths. As a result we will continue to distort God's Word and misapply passages just as did the Jews. Jesus could not explain to them at that point what God really meant in the word vengeance until they first were willing to accept Jesus' testimony about what God was like in His own demonstration of that while living among us as a human being. After demonstrating that God was strikingly different than what most have assumed He was like, and then going on to show us that God would rather be abused than to ever abuse anyone in the slightest way, within that very demonstration itself we begin to discern the true meaning of God's kind of vengeance.
Years later Paul tried to improve our perception of how God gets revenge in his letter to the Romans, ironically a group of people living at the very place where this world's belief in violence was the most entrenched. Paul addressed our desires for revenge that Jesus had refuted in His own life and death by putting it this way:
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:18-21 NRSV)
Could Jesus have explained this version of vengeance to those listening to Him when He preached His initial mission statement? Most likely not. But the real question now is, are we willing to challenge our own deeply entrenched mistaken beliefs about the very same issue? Are we ready to challenge our strong opinions about how God plans to overcome evil with good using only His methods instead of resorting to the methods of His enemies? Are we ready to radically revisit our own assumptions about what is found in Revelation so as to align them fully with the teachings and spirit of Jesus, to lay aside our own selfish cravings for punishment against our enemies and to instead embrace the way of forgiveness? Am I willing to embrace fully this principle of enemy-love and to join with Jesus in overcoming as He overcame? This is the way of the violently slaughtered Lamb of Revelation!
In reality I have to concede that when Jesus said He came to set the captives free, He was really talking about setting me free from captivity to my inner chains of desire for revenge in preference to His way of forgiveness.
When He said He came to bring good news to the afflicted, He did not have in mind bringing news of punishment for those who have afflicted me, but rather news of winning them over to the ways of love. And that means winning me as well which would make all of us equal in His kingdom.
And finally, in the part He didn't read that the day about when the vengeance of our God would someday arrive, I am starting to see that His kind of vengeance will look strangely different than what we have so long had in mind, for God's kind of vengeance is purely redemptive and not punitive. Furthermore, He is inviting me even now to participate in activating His kind of vengeance by treating my abusers and enemies the same way God treats His abusers, with love and forgiveness and compassion and kindness until they either destroy themselves through their own evil desires or they are won over by love to embrace the methods of God and evil at last is really overcome with good.