It happened in an instant.
I clicked on the TV as I started to make dinner, and there was that video, of the black-clothed man speaking with a British accent, holding a knife, giving a speech before he was about to behead an American reporter, his captive.
It wasn’t just the heinousness of his act, which I already knew about. It was the arrogance of his posture, what I took to be the hubris of his threats toward us – me! – and the casual manner he affected as judge and jury over another.
In an instant, I informed his image on my TV what we would do to him. We’d give him even better than he’d given so far. Did he not know who America is in the world? Not only will we defeat his army but we’ll save something especially brutal, just for him, I told him.
It didn’t take a second heartbeat before lots of arrogance and brutality came from my mouth.
Why is that?
There is certainly a place here for “wrath,” isn’t there? And it’s not entirely an unrighteous wrath. YES, the wrath of God is on godlessness and wickedness of people who suppress the truth of God (Romans 1:18)! YES, the wrath of God is deservedly on such hateful and destructive speech and acts…on the hubris of people who take life…life which is the gift and province of God.
The book of Revelation paints us a picture of the wrath of God being poured out. “You are just in these judgments, O Holy One, you who are and who were; for they have shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.” (Rev. 16:5-6). God who loves people made in his image is right in his wrath against the hubris and arrogance of humans in their hatred and violence. It is part of his love to feel wrath toward us when we turn into our own and one another’s enemies and arrogate to ourselves the right to treat others this way. In his love, God is wrathful toward us for it.
And it is, of course, only natural to feel angry and bitter toward someone who is actively threatening us…isn’t it? Actually, I am quite sure the terrorist’s posture and attitude is calculated to produce the maximum amount of matching hatred in us, the better to pursue what seems to be his agenda: some kind of war between our nation and the “nation” he is trying to declare.
But right there…right there…is where the Spirit of God intervenes in the believer’s heart.
Such a response is natural to our fallen state, “in the flesh” as the Bible puts it. But we who have put our trust in Jesus are “born again” – we no longer live “according to the flesh,” the Bible tells us – living by the dictates of the flesh just produces death. [The “flesh” in the Bible refers to ourselves unconnected with God, living only for this life.]
When we trust Jesus, the Spirit of God lives within us and we are called to live “according to the Spirit.” Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God, and God’s Spirit produces in us what the Bible calls the “fruit” of the Spirit: not anger, malice, bitterness, hatred…but love, joy, peace and patience (Romans 8, Galatians 5).
So by the Spirit of God I was drawn up short and reminded that the terrorist, so casually and arrogantly about to take a life he had no power to give, is a human lost in sin and fear as all humans are. That Jesus died even for him. That “vengeance” is not mine to take (Romans 12:19), not even through the television screen, because it is God’s to do with as God will (but remember: he took the wrath for sin on himself, in Christ! Neither do we get to dictate what God should do with his wrath).
What is mine to do is to obey Jesus, even in my heart, face-to-face with a heartless video. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing,” Jesus said while terrorists nailed him to a cross (and yes, this is one of ISIS’s favorite ways of torturing people, too). We take sin too much for granted. We do not realize that the sin which persuades us to hate our neighbor or coworkers is part and parcel of the same sin that persuades terrorists to kill; Jesus said it was on a continuum with calling that arrogant driver who cut you off this morning a moron. The sin we casually dismiss on our own part is under the wrath of God, too, because it is destroying us as well as others.
The Jesus answer to arrogant hatred and violent power is to turn the other cheek. NOT in powerlessness, but in the power of a love that has already transcended hatred and violent death. Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and to give over our “advantage” to those who want to hurt us BECAUSE there is nothing they can win. By refusing to respond with hatred or fear, Jesus’ followers disarm their weapons. If we are ultimately safe in Christ, our eternal home and relationships secure, what can any enemy take from us?
No, Jesus isn’t here talking to a government or army. The Bible continues to give the state the power “of the sword” in order to do good with it – to defend those it is empowered to protect. My own reflection on this is not about what our government should do in response to what has happened. I do pray for those for whom this IS their decision, for great wisdom in the face of this arrogant evil.
But I can’t help but remember that in my lifetime I HAVE seen those who used these “Jesus” principles to effect major change. These are the principles that underlie “civil disobedience” such as Martin Luther King Jr taught during the civil rights struggle. Those who sat at lunch counters, with heads bowed as their neighbors threw food at them in hatred, made those who hated them for their skin color look ridiculous, and defeated the hatred by making their actions look as ridiculous as they were. The hatred was real; the anger it must have aroused in the hearts of those treated that way must have been huge. But by their self-discipline they conquered it in ways that matching hatred and violence would never have done. There is indeed power in claiming the transcendence of love over hatred.
As for me, I had a need to repent. While it is a feeling, and a natural one, to respond in kind to hatred and threats toward me, I am born again by the Spirit. It is not Spirit to issue threats. Instead, I am compelled to pray, even for the black-clad terrorist who hates me…even if he were to actually succeed in coming close enough to me to do what he says he longs to do to me.
My life belongs to Christ, and neither he nor any enemy can take it, for real. In the meantime, I am called to let the Spirit of God reign in me, to so keep in step with the Spirit that Christ “leaks” out of me…so that anyone who threatens me would know that they were encountering Christ. And make no mistake: all who do evil are not really in service to any cause other than the cause of Evil. And Christ has already defeated that.
I can’t become this kind of Christ-leaking person in my own power. It needs to come from, as my denomination’s affirmations say, a “conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit.” It needs to come from a turning of my heart and mind to worship, so that by turning myself over to Christ my mind and my vision might be transformed, so that I will not block the Spirit who is already present in me, from producing in me God’s love, peace, patience, gentleness and joy. Did not God already defeat such evil utterly, in the death and resurrection of Christ? Will not God one day make all things new, and will such evil itself not be destroyed? Has God not already shown us the way, in Christ, to stand against it? “It’s not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zech 4:6)
It happened in an instant.