Bad People and the Judgment of God

Jack Hunter over at The American Conservative notices something interesting:

During the Ferguson riots in August, Mad Men actor and St. Louis native Jon Hamm said, “That’s my neighborhood, and I know there’s a lot more good people in those neighborhoods than there are bad people.” Judging by their rhetoric and reaction (or lack thereof) to the DOJ report, it’s not hard to conclude that many conservatives believe the opposite of Hamm’s statement—that although there are some good people in Ferguson most of them are probably bad.

Conservatives certainly agreed that black entrepreneurs whose businesses were destroyed during the riots were good people. They agreed that the black citizens who used their 2nd Amendment rights to protect private property from looting were good as well. But far more often than these positive narratives, we saw right-wing media portray the black citizens of Ferguson as “thugs,” “animals,” “savages,” and worse.

At that gut, emotional level, there was an underlying sense among many conservatives that whatever injustice the people of Ferguson may have suffered, they probably deserved it. Some might attribute this to racism, intentional or not, and I agree, but it also something more than that. It’s about how we as human beings, particularly partisans, have a tendency to lump people together and indict the whole lot.

The question I always have when the matter of bad people, or evil, comes up is: “How do you know you are not it?” Because most Christian (and secularist) conversations on evil begin from the presumptions that the people having the conversation are not evil, that evil mostly resides outside of those having the conversation, and that it is readily and easily identifiable by those having the conversation.

In fact, Our ethical conversations on evil tend to be dominated by identities — good people are good because of who they are, and not how they act. What makes an action moral or ethical is the doer, and not the act itself or the outcome of the act. This is why the violence of “good people” is never brought into question.

This is not how scripture deals with the matter. Scripture doesn’t really have this conversation about good and evil — if there’s an “evil” in the world, it is the people of God, for whom God saves God’s harshest judgment. Yes, the prophets proclaim judgment on Israel’s enemies, but only as part of the greater judgment God has for Israel, God’s called-out people:

5 The Lord has become like an enemy;
he has swallowed up Israel;
he has swallowed up all its palaces;
he has laid in ruins its strongholds,
and he has multiplied in the daughter of Judah
mourning and lamentation.
6 He has laid waste his booth like a garden,
laid in ruins his meeting place;
the Lord has made Zion forget
festival and Sabbath,
and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest.
7 The Lord has scorned his altar,
disowned his sanctuary;
he has delivered into the hand of the enemy
the walls of her palaces;
they raised a clamor in the house of the Lord
as on the day of festival.
8 The Lord determined to lay in ruins
the wall of the daughter of Zion;
he stretched out the measuring line;
he did not restrain his hand from destroying;
he caused rampart and wall to lament;
they languished together
(Lamentations 2:5-8 ESV)

Or how about this?

14 “Therefore do not pray for this people [Judah], or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble. 15 What right has my beloved in my house, when she has done many vile deeds? Can even sacrificial flesh avert your doom? Can you then exult? 16 The Lord once called you ‘a green olive tree, beautiful with good fruit. ’ But with the roar of a great tempest he will set fire to it, and its branches will be consumed. 17 The Lord of hosts, who planted you, has decreed disaster against you, because of the evil that the house of Israel and the house of Judah have done, provoking me to anger by making offerings to Baal.
(Jeremiah 11:14-17 ESV)

These things (just one small example) are not decreed against Assyria, or Egypt, or Moab, or Tyre, or Babylon (God does pronounce against Babylon though Jeremiah), but against God’s very own people.

In fact, nowhere in scripture do I see any command that we who are the people of God are called to confront and defeat evil. Because we, and no one else, are the very evil God confronts. It’s an odd confrontation, because God seeks not our destruction but our redemption. This is why Jesus is God’s judgment on the world, on the evil that is us, not by conquering and subjugating us but by surrendering utterly and completely to us — to our violence, to our fear. We are redeemed in his baptism, in his death, and in his rising, which shows that the evil we do is pointless. Meaningless. It can achieve nothing valuable, nothing lasting, nothing permanent.

This is why I can, in confidence, say we as church (and even as Christians) should not fear nor despair over the arrangement of the world. Or the struggles waged within the world. In the end, they are of no consequence.

There is no evil, no bad people, that aren’t us. And we have been defeated. And redeemed. That’s all that matters.

4 thoughts on “Bad People and the Judgment of God

  1. Yes, we who identify ourselves as Christians are of this messed-up world too. And because we know the love of God and what that love is about, we are also held to be more responsible to that love than others… We know God’s love is good for us. At the same time, why is it that we succumb to the temptation to keep it to ourselves or count it as our own righteousness — as if sharing God’s love makes us better than others, but also poorer if we share it? I have no logical answer… except that Christians are human beings like everybody else. We don’t want to lose what we think we’ve got. The irony is that when it comes right down to it, God’s love has got us — not the other way around. Why not share the grace? I honestly wish we would.

  2. When Jesus hurls warnings about worms and fire and the other symbols of death in the toxic landfill which is Sheol, he is usually speaking to religious leaders. This is not because he hates the Pharisees, but because he loves them. And woe to the Christian who thanks God that he was not born a Pharisee. These warnings apply all the more to Christian leaders (and self-styled Christian nations). Jesus shows something like the exasperation of the dad on the family trip who yells to the kids in the back seat, “If I have to stop this [in]car[nation], you’re going to be sorry!”

    I started watching a TV series “The Americans” about a couple of KGB sleeper agents in the early 1980s, who have passed for 15 years as ordinary suburbanites in the DC area, with a couple of kids in school who know nothing about their parents’ nocturnal activities. It’s a very clever setup, which starts us out sympathizing with these crypto-Russians, and worrying about their narrow escapes from the FBI, CIA, etc. Then we are exposed gradually to the accumulation of awful things they have done and continue to do for “the cause”. And the awful things which were done to them to prepare them for this life. They have some pangs of conscience about it and sometimes balk, as when now they have been ordered to recruit their teenage daughter as an agent. The US authorities don’t come off much better, showing harshness and vindictiveness such that their passions often turn them into their own worst enemies. In general, the ferocity and cruelty of violence wipes away any mitigation of purposes, good or bad. When the Russian wife forces an old woman, who has seen too much to be allowed to live, to commit suicide at gunpoint by overdosing on her own heart medication, the woman asks if all this, including her own death, is necessary to make the world a better place. “Yes, I’m sorry but it is.” The answer as the old woman nears death, “That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things.” That’s what we all tell ourselves.

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