Here’s a topic you’ve not heard me spend much time on: God’s wrath.
So, let’s go there. It doesn’t take an especially close reading of the bible to uncover the fact that God is quite frequently represented as angry. And when God is angry, it’s at humanity. Whatever relationship God has to sharks and redwoods and geological fault lines is really beyond our knowing, but our scriptures are not silent on the point of God’s feelings toward humanity. God loves us. God pleads with us. God forgives us. And God is angry with us.
It’s hard for me to say that. Even as I wrote this sermon, I had to stop myself from softening those words. I wanted to say, “And, sometimes, God is angry with us” or “God is angry with some of us.” But those are both dodges. Those both imply that either we are, for the most part, doing the right thing — doing well — and only occasionally breaking God’s heart with our disregard for and neglect of the weakest and most needy, the despised and neglected among us; or that most of us are doing right by one another from the point of view of God, and that the real problems of this world can be laid at the feet of a few wicked evildoers.
These are the sorts of dodges that people make all the time as we deal with our relationships with one another out here in the “real” world: anger can be minimized because we imagine that we are “good” most of the time, or that most of us are good.
These rationalizations, while they may serve to shield us from our own fear of accusation, our discomfort with anger, and our resentment of any authority that asserts itself over us, raise two basic theological conundrums.
The first, our urge to assert that we are each basically good, is so difficult to challenge. Particularly from a pulpit. While it may not be the case across the spectrum of Christianities practiced throughout the world, and certainly is not the case for Christianity across time, it is the case that in the global north and west, in the mainline Protestant tradition to which we as Lutherans in the United States belong, there is a great reluctance to speak of God’s judgment. We don’t want to be affiliated with those other kinds of Christians. The kind who preach hellfire and brimstone. The kind who divide the world into us and them, clean and unclean, pure and impure.
So, instead, we join the broader culture in a kind of psychological Christianity, or therapeutic Christianity, that begins with the affirmation that God created the world, looked upon it and called it good; and that ends with the affirmation that God “so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son” without giving much attention to the reality of sin that necessitated a divine intervention in the life of the world in the first place.
When we make that first move, to say that we are mostly good, in a sense we are saying that we mostly didn’t need God’s intervention in Christ. That we mostly had this under control ourselves, and that we’re mostly able to clean up our own messes.
This kind of logic reminds me of my senior year of college. I was mostly done with my coursework. I’d lived abroad in Costa Rica for a summer. I’d completed a 3-month internship in adolescent mental health. I was finally living off campus in a grown up apartment. I was living life on my own terms, taking care of myself. Except near the end of the semester, when I hadn’t quite budgeted to make my students loans and the paychecks from my part-time job stretch, and I needed to call my folks and see if they could help me just a little bit until the beginning of the month.
We’re mostly good, most of the time, and isn’t that enough — or so we wonder in a question that mostly misses the point. Because when we aren’t “good,” when we can’t pull ourselves up, when we come up short, when we find ourselves insufficient to the crisis at hand, the question isn’t whether or not we’ll somehow become better than we’ve ever been before. It’s whether or not there is a power and a presence beyond our own that can sustain us through the crisis. It is not, fundamentally, our goodness — our sufficiency — that counts, but God’s.
If, when faced with God’s anger or wrath, our first dodge is to assert that we’re good most of the time, the second is to claim that most of us are good. That it’s just a few really rotten apples that spoil the bunch. Week to week our minds turn to different names to populate that list. We have our favorite politicians to blame. Then there are the easy targets, the perpetrators of heinous crimes, the public figures whose private scandals come to light. The constant parade of big news stories in the papers, on the news, across the internet, conspire to make it possible for us to believe that somehow all the responsibility for the world’s brokenness can be laid at the feet of a few mutually agreed upon failures.
This is not how the prophet Amos sees the world.
“The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by… shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again … The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:2b,8,11)
For the prophet Amos, the nation of Israel is not a community of mostly good people who do good most of the time. It is a community of people who cannot separate themselves one from another. It is not the king or the people, but the whole nation together that must give an account for the treatment of the needy and the poor among them. The faithfulness of Israel is not counted by the prophet as a private affair, but as a public witness to a public relationship between God and God’s people.
To the prophet Amos’ way of seeing, the ongoing and persistent presence of poverty in Israel testifies to an economy that values profit over people, such that business owners are trying to squeeze more labor out of the workers, asking “when will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale?” (Amos 8:5a) It is an economy that offers less and less of value for more and more of people’s savings, “we will make the ephah small and the shekel great and practice deceit with false balances.” (Amos 8:5b)
Amos accuses the entire nation of “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” The prophet suggests that the greed of Israel’s economy has grown so great that creditors are foreclosing on those who cannot pay their debts for even minor purchases, not just home mortgages but even the sandals on their feet. The economy has grown so greedy that the ancient tradition of leaving the gleanings of the field for the hungry has been forgotten, and even the most basic of necessities, food, cannot be counted upon.
Amos’ anger is not directed against one leader, or a handful of elites. Amos brings a word from the Lord to Israel to say that this nation as a whole has forgotten who they are before God. In response, God’s wrath will take the form of a famine — not of food or water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.
Again, in my own efforts to understand divine anger and divine punishment, I draw on my experiences of having been a child, and the ways my parents tried to offer me correction. After many patient explanations, after plenty of warnings, there did come a time, especially as I grew older, when my parents decided that the way I would learn best was to suffer the natural consequences for my decisions and actions. If I stayed up too late reading under the covers, dawn still came at the same time and I would have to go to school exhausted. If I spent my money on junk food and diversions, there would be no new clothes for the new school year. Actions had consequences.
That’s how I hear Amos’ forecasted famine. If the nation continues to ignore the terms of God’s covenant; if the people continue to enjoy the privileges they reap off the backs of the poor, the needy and the neglected; then they will suffer the natural consequences of a society that has gone bad from the inside out. Like a bowl of overripe fruit, what had been given them for nourishment will go bad and spoil. If the people refuse to listen to God’s word, then they will be unable to access the abundant life it brings. Natural consequences.
My friend Anne Howard, Executive Director of The Beatitudes Society, an ecumenical leadership development program that identifies and nurtures an emerging generation of Progressive church leaders for the sake of the common good, has taken to signing off on all her emails with the phrase, “we’re all in this together.” It’s the perfect closing for correspondence from an organization that takes its name from Jesus’ most famous sermon, the one in which he said, “blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” and “blessed are those who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”
Jesus, whose own prophetic ministry drew on the legacy and authority of the prophets of Israel, shared their concern for the poor and the hungry, the grieving and the reviled. Like the prophets of old, his ministry was an earthy, embodied, political ministry. He, too, talked about the needs of the sick, the poor, the outcast, the stranger. In fact, when he spoke of heaven, it was almost always to say that it had drawn near, that it was breaking into this world, and not breaking us out.
In her classic essay on feminist Christian ethics, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Bev Harrison writes,
“Otherworldliness” in religion has two very different sources in our social world of knowledge. One sort of otherworldly religion appears among the poor and downtrodden, reflecting a double dynamic in their experience: It reflects a hopelessness about this world that is engendered by living daily with the evil of oppression, but it also fuels and encourages an ongoing struggle against the present order by conjuring a better time and a better place, beyond the oppressive here and now.
However, an entirely different form of otherworldliness appears amongst those of us who have never been marginalized, who have lived well above the daily struggle to survive, when our privileges are threatened. This form of otherworldliness is merely escapist, and its political consequences are entirely reactionary. Its result is to encourage denial of responsibility for the limited power that we do have, and it always results in reinforcing the status quo.”
Harrison connects this observation about our tendency to privatize religion and assign it to some other world with her insights on anger when she writes,
It is my thesis that we Christians have come very close to killing love precisely because we have understood anger to be a deadly sin. Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to other and it is always a vivid form of caring. To put the point another way: anger is — and it always is — a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed.
God’s anger, God’s wrath, is not a sign of God’s abandonment. It is a vivid form of caring that signals God’s resistance to our human desire to pull away from God (“I’m mostly good”) and to pull away from each other (“most of us are good”).
Let me try and wrap this up with an anecdote from my own life over the past week that may illustrate what I’ve been trying to say here.
The thing that send me searching my bookshelves for Bev Harrison’s essay, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” in the first place was my abiding anger over the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. I was in Atlanta with friends, Black and White, when the verdict was made public, friends I’ve known for over a decade and with whom I’ve engaged in some of the most intense political, ethical and theological conversations in my life. As we shared the news with one another, we barely spoke. The pain of the wound of racism that is at the heart of the public furor over this verdict is overwhelming.
As the following week wore on, as Kerry and I sat at our dining room table, as you and your families sat at your dining room tables, my anger has only grown. My anger is so deep on this point that it is difficult to speak. And I wondered, “is there anything redemptive about this anger? Can anything good come from these feelings that surface and are submerged over and over again? Is there any value to this wrath?”
Bev Harrison’s answer is: yes. The power of anger in the work of love is to give us the visceral evidence we need that the fabric of our relationships is torn, and that action is required. The power of anger in the work of love is the voice of the prophet Amos, delivering a message from an angry, loving God that the creation, which God looked at and called good, for which God sent God’s only begotten Son, is aching under so much political, economic, and environmental abuse.
The power of anger in the work of love is the sound of the organizer knocking at your door, or the call from the program director looking for volunteers, or the letter that comes to your mailbox asking for a donation.
The power of anger in the work of love is the energy required to pull ourselves out of the hopelessness that is always trying to own us, to convince us that the world as it is is the world as it will always be.
The power of anger in the work of love is that voice that rises up inside each one of us, that voice that comes first from God, that says, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.” It is the voice inside us that has always known that we are all of us in this together and that refuses to be silenced.
The power of anger in the work of love is the end of the famine of hearing the words of the Lord, and when we understand the power of anger in the work of love in this way, then God’s wrath is not to be feared but to be longed for. For it is God’s anger, spoken through God’s prophets, like Amos and you and me, that sets the spark that starts a revolution.