Sunday, December 11, 2011

Awesome or Awful?

One of the most anticipated films of the new year is the Hollywood remake of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." I've seen the original Swedish version and it is a terrific mystery/thriller. But as good as the plot is, what really sticks in your mind is the central female character. Lisbeth Salander is a researcher and computer hacker who is as emotionally shut down as she is brilliant. We find out that Lisbeth has been abused by the authority figures in her life. Far from making her passive, Lisbeth is a formidable foe to her enemies. Still, she is no superhero and she takes quite a beating in the trilogy of stories. But in each movie there is at least one scene that features what the website TV Tropes calls a Crowning Moment of Awesome. You know what I mean. It's the point where all hope seems lost, all avenues of escape are closed, and someone you care for is about to die when suddenly a character does something so mind-blowingly and brilliantly heroic that you want to jump up from your seat and scream, "Yeah!" It can even stir you if the action is violent (which it is) and you are a pacifist.

There is a reason for this. The books' late author, Stieg Larsson, was haunted by the gang-rape of a girl he witnessed when he was 15. He was ashamed of the fact that he did not try to stop it and became a crusading journalist and an ardent feminist. One can see in Lisbeth a heroine who stands up to men who hate women.

You'll notice that during Advent that not only are we looking back to Jesus' birth but also forward to his second coming. And while he originally came into this world incognito, as it were, and offered humanity forgiveness, reconciliation to God and entrance into his Kingdom, the second time will be different. At that point, the offer will have expired and everyone who didn't take advantage during the enrollment period is out of luck. This time Jesus is coming as the rightful Lord of all the earth. All evil will cease and all those who are unrepentant will be judged and punished. No more Mister Nice God.

And that bothers some modern Christians. If Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the embodiment of God's love, how do we reconcile that with the picture of him in the apocalyptic passages of the gospels and in Book of Revelation: the conquering King who passes final judgment on his enemies?

It didn't bother the people of the Bible. They longed for real justice. There were no appeals in their legal system. If a dispute was within a family, the patriarchal head of that family had absolute authority to decide such matters. Obviously familial favoritism could creep in. If more than one family was involved, the matter was decided by the village elders. If there was a disparity in the relative power of the families in conflict, the decisions were made on the basis of political considerations, of what was best for the peace of the village, not what was just for the individual. For complex cases or matters involving disputes between tribes, judges could be engaged--at the expense of the parties involved. And as money entered into the process, so did real corruption. Jesus used an unjust judge as a character in one of his parables and nobody objected. And one can see why. In line with the other cultures of the Middle East, there wasn't always a separation between the roles of judge and prosecutor. So if your judge was not impartial, if he were bribed by your opponent or accuser, you could be in big trouble. Again and again through his prophets, God decried a system where the winner in a legal action was not always the one who was righteous, but the one who was richest.

In rare instances, very thorny cases might be put before the king. In the First Book of Kings, Solomon decides a case in which 2 prostitutes are fighting over whose baby died and who had rights to the surviving baby. Solomon's psychologically insightful judgment cemented his reputation for wisdom. But the king was only human and he, too, had prejudices and political and personal reasons that could interfere with the impartial administration of justice. What happens if you can't get justice from the highest human authority? The only person who can make things right is God.

So God's promise that he would one day settle all human affairs with a final judgment was received with hope by the powerless. The prophets called it the Day of the Lord. It was the day when all injustices would be redressed, all the righteous would be vindicated and all the evildoers would be punished. It was awesome and if you were hadn't broken God's law, you had nothing to worry about.

But as any attentive child knows, observing the technicalities of the law is not the same as true justice. Smart evildoers have always figured out ways to game the system. They work out ways to keep to the letter of the law while violating its spirit. And then as now, you could find lawyers only too willing to help with whatever semantic slight of hand, far-fetched interpretation, or exploitable vagueness is required.

Jesus singled out one as an example. If a person had money or property that was supposed to go to the support of his parents, he could declare it "Korban" or a gift dedicated to God, and he was relieved of his obligation to his aging folks. Even if he regretted it later, the Pharisees said such a vow was binding. It outraged Jesus that they would use one's duty to God as an excuse to neglect one's duty to people. This was something the Pharisees did in their use of the Sabbath commandment to try and stop Jesus from healing the sick. And individuals and groups still pervert the laws of God and the laws of man to harm others. But God is not fooled by sophistry nor bound by technicalities. As he told Samuel, he doesn't judge by externals; God looks into people's hearts. And it is in the heart, Jesus reminds us, that evil is conceived.

Of course that ups the stakes for all of us. If God judges us on our true intentions, if to him all hearts are open, all desires known, if none of our secrets are hid from him, as we say every Sunday, who can truly plead innocence? Who hasn't been so angry at someone that you wished them ill? Who hasn't gloated over the misfortune of someone you don't like? Who hasn't envied someone else's life or coveted their stuff? Who hasn't desired someone you're not married to? Who hasn't found rationalizations for not helping someone or for not doing what you know you ought to? Who hasn't, in lieu of a lie, at least refrained from correcting a misunderstanding that serves the same purpose? And this is on top of the harmful words and acts of selfishness or aggression we actually commit.

We can't very well plead that an exception be made in our case. That's the same favoritism that screws up human attempts at justice. If all wrongs must be made right, we ourselves must submit to God's justice. And that realization is what turns the Day of the Lord from a promise into a threat, from a dream into a nightmare.

So is that the choice: no real justice ever or absolute justice that leaves us all condemned? It would be, except for one thing--God's forgiveness. If we confess our sins and repent, he will forgive us. But isn't that a violation of strict justice? Isn't that a trick for getting out of paying for our sins?

It would be if what was most important to God was adherence to specific rules. The problem is that if rules are all that count, it doesn't matter if those rules were arbitrary, like the rules of a game. In a game all that matters is that you follow the rules. Your motive for playing, be it sportsmanship or anger or arrogance or greed, is irrelevant. The kind of person you are is irrelevant. Ty Cobb was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He was also surly, combative, racist and a difficult father. O.J. Simpson is both a Hall of Famer and a felon. What matters in games is how you play them.

God's laws are not the rules of a game and the purpose is not scoring points. God is not interested in us simply becoming good at following rules but in our becoming good people. God is interested in us being the type of people who don't have to think about the rules because the behavior they prescribe has become natural to us. God's rules are like the rules of good health. We ought to just naturally eat the right foods in reasonable quantities, get enough sun and exercise and do most things in moderation. But we don't. We eat bad foods and we eat too much of them. We sit around too much and overdo some things while neglecting others. To get better we must be honest with our doctor, let him work on us, change our lifestyle and follow doctor's orders until we get better. God's rules are the rules for living a healthy moral and spiritual life. To get better we must be honest with him, let God work on us, change our lifestyle and follow his orders till we get better. Maintaining health in both cases entails making the rules just part of who we are.

God's justice isn't about restoring rules but restoring people. It's about healing our injuries, not evening things up by giving those who harmed us corresponding injuries. If someone kills a loved one, all human justice can do is punish the perpetrator. It can kill a murderer but it can't undo our loss by bringing back the dead. But all things are possible with God. He can and will restore what and whom we have lost. He can even heal the perpetrator, provided that person repents and wants to be healed. God's plan is to bring the earth and its inhabitants back to what he intended it and us to be.

Does that mean all people will be saved? The Bible never promises that. For one thing, it would require God to override the will of the unrepentant. He is the God of love and love must be voluntary. If a man offered his love to a woman and the woman refused, we would not consider it loving for him to perform psychological reconditioning or brain surgery on her until she did reciprocate his "love." That would be worse than rape.

God will allow those who refuse his love to do so. Jesus used 2 images of the consequences of rejecting God. The one everyone thinks of is a fiery hell. This is obviously a metaphor. The word he used for hell is Gehenna, literally the valley of Hinnom, Jerusalem's garbage dump. The city's refuse burned there night and day, which made it a vivid picture of the burning shame of those who refused God's healing and forgiveness and find themselves irreparably broken and outside the city of God.

Which brings us to the other image Jesus used: exile. Jesus' favorite picture of the Kingdom of God was a wedding banquet, the biggest, most joyful event in the life of a village. Everybody came and the celebration lasted for a week. No one wanted to be left out. But in Jesus' parable that is what happens to those who weren't ready, like the foolish virgins or the man improperly dressed. Weddings weren't secrets. Everyone knew they were being held and had plenty of time to be ready. In the honor/shame societies of the Middle East, it would be an insult not to come or not to enter into the spirit of the festivities. It would be like a guest at a reception loudly insulting the bride and groom. Even today he would be asked to leave. And in that culture, it would be a deep shame as well as emotionally devastating to be excluded, to be an outcast, to be separated from your family and community.

The result of rejecting God is to find yourself outside his people and his Kingdom. God will not force anyone in. Again, without an inward change, no person would be able to enjoy or even stand being part of his Kingdom. But since God is the source of all goodness and joy, these voluntary exiles from his Kingdom won't find any of that outside his presence either.

Because of humanity's selfishness and sinfulness, we will never know full justice in this life. That will only come about when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ returns to put everything right. Which would be terrifying for all of us except for his mercy and forgiveness. If we let his Spirit work on us now and follow his orders for our moral and spiritual health, we will have nothing to fear. All the consequences of our sins have been taken on by Jesus.

In films, the hero's Crowning Moment of Awesome is almost always him delivering a deathblow to the bad guys and their schemes. It may also be him coming to the rescue of someone else. It is rarely the hero saving the bad guys. But that is precisely what Jesus' triumph is to be. It is not their deaths but their rebirth he is seeking. It is not their final corruption but their ultimate redemption he desires. It is not their condemnation but their commendation as good and faithful servants he wants to pronounce.

There are 2 ways to get rid of the bad guys. One is to kill them all. That's how they do it in our films. The other is to make them into good guys. That's the method Jesus prefers. When he comes back, he wants his enemies to be his allies. And he wants us to pass the word and model the change in our lives. People will respond to this awesome news…if we only do it justice.

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