Like many white upper-middle-class mainline Protestants, I’ve long taken issue with the concept of divine wrath, believing it to conflict with the God whose most determinative attribute is goodness itself. Whenever I’ve pondered the possibility of God’s anger, I’ve invariably thought about it directed at me—I’m no saint, sure, but I’m no great sinner either. The notion that God’s wrath could be fixed upon me made God seem loathsome—more demiurge than God.
I’ve changed my mind about God’s wrath. Actually, my friend Brian Stolarz changed my mind. When reflecting upon the category of divine wrath, I no longer think of myself, but rather Alfred Dewayne Brown, Brian’s client.
Brian spent ten years working to free an innocent man, Alfred Dewayne Brown, from death row in Texas. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, Dewayne had been convicted of killing a policeman in Houston and was sentenced to be executed by the state. Brown’s IQ of 67 (the value designated for mental handi-cap) was “ginned” up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. The evidence that could have proved his alibi was hidden by prosecutors and only discovered fortuitously years later by Brian. Dewayne was released by the state in the summer of 2017 and now has a civil rights case pending to seek restitution for the injustice done to him.
I’ve worked in a prison as a chaplain and interacted with prisoners in solitary and on death row, so I’ve developed a good BS radar. Dewayne is unlike the prisoners I’ve met. My immediate reaction from my short time with him was how difficult it was to understand how anyone could believe that he committed the crime of which he was accused. I was also overwhelmed by Dewayne’s expressions of forgiveness for those who had wronged him—crooked cops and lawyers, a prejudiced system, and an indifferent society. “I’ve forgiven all that,” he said.
Here’s the crux of the matter (and I use that word deliberately): Dewayne is allowed to express forgiveness about the crimes done to him. But, as a Christian, I am not so permitted. Neither are you. If we told Dewayne, for example, that he should forgive and forget, then he would be justified in kicking in our sanctimonious teeth.
In The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), Fleming Rutledge points out that we commonly suppose that Christianity is primarily about forgiveness. Jesus, after all, told his disciples they were to forgive seventy times seven (Matt. 18:21, KJV). As he hung dying on the cross, he petitioned for the Father’s forgiveness toward those who crucified him. Forgiveness is cemented into the prayer he taught his disciples. However, to reduce the message of Christianity to forgiveness is to ignore what Scripture tells us transpired on the cross. The cross is more properly about God working justice.
The most fulsome meaning of righteousness, Rutledge reminds her readers, is justice understood not only as a noun but as an active, reality-making verb. Righteousness often sounds like a vague spiritual attribute, but the original meaning couldn’t be more this-worldly. Justice, don’t forget, is the subject of Isaiah’s foreshadowing of the coming Messiah (Isa. 9:6–7; 61). Justice is what Jesus chooses to preach for his first sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:16–19).
To mute the message of the cross into a platitude about forgiveness is to sever Jesus’ sacrifice from the Old Testament prophets who anticipated and longed for an apocalyptic invasion by Yahweh, and to suggest that his work on the cross was done to accomplish something other than the biblical record indicates. It’s not forgiveness qua forgiveness we see, says Rutledge, but God’s wrath poured out against sin and upon the systems (Paul would say “the powers”) created by sin. On the correspondence between sin as injustice and God’s wrath, Rutledge cites Isaiah’s initial chapter:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt-offerings…bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
…Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes! I will turn my hand against you.
Christianly speaking, forgiveness is a vapid, meaningless concept apart from justice. The sacrifice of the God-Man on the cross is a sign that something in the world is terribly wrong and must be put right. The sin-bred injustice of the world requires rectification (Rutledge’s preferred translation for righteousness). Only God can right what’s wrong, and the cross is how he has done it. God pours out himself into Jesus, and then on the cross, God pours out his wrath against Jesus and on the sin that nailed him there.
by Fleming RutledgeWe can begin with the oddity of the universally recognized signifier, “the crucifixion.” It will help us to understand the uniqueness of Jesus’ death if we can grasp the idiosyncrasy of this manner of speaking. There have been many famous deaths in world history; we might think of John F. Kennedy, or Marie Antoinette, or Cleopatra, but we do not refer to “the assassination,” “the guillotining,” or “the poisoning.” Such references would be incomprehensible. The use of the term “the crucifixion” for the execution of Jesus shows that it still retains a privileged status. When we speak of “the crucifixion,” even in this secular age, many people will know what is meant. There is something in the strange death of the man identified as Son of God that continues to command special attention. This death, this execution, above and beyond all others, continues to have universal reverberations. Of no other death in human history can this be said. The cross of Jesus stands alone in this regard; it is sui generis. There were many thousands of crucifixions in Roman times, but only the crucifixion of Jesus is remembered as having any significance at all, let alone world-transforming significance.Excerpt taken from Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 3-4.
Summarizing the prophets’ words of divine wrath in light of the cross, Rutledge writes: “Because justice is such a central part of God’s nature, he has declared enmity against every form of injustice. His wrath will come upon those who have exploited the poor and weak; he will not permit his purpose to be subverted” (110).
Despite the queasiness God’s wrath elicits among mainline and liberal Protestants, how could one think of Alfred Dewayne Brown and not hear the above lines as good news? Brown’s story emphasizes the problem with the popular disavowal of divine anger, which is that what we (in power) find repugnant is a source of hope and empowerment to the oppressed peoples of the world. The wrath of God is not an antiquated belief to be explained away; it is the always-timely good news that the outrage we rightly feel over the world’s injustice is “first of all outrage in the heart of God.” Wrath is not a contradiction of God’s goodness but an integral part of it.
Rutledge shows us that the biblical picture of God’s anger is different from the caricature of a petulant, capricious god that is frequently conjured when divine wrath is considered. “The wrath of God,” she writes, “is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God had temper tantrums; it is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his coming to set matters right.” Understood rightly, it’s actually the non-angry god who appears morally distasteful, for “a non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence.”
I can’t help but wonder if we prefer that god—the passive accomplice to injustice—because, on some subconscious level, that is what we know ourselves to be: accomplices to injustice. I did no direct wrong to Dewayne Brown, but on most days I’m indifferent to others like him on death row. The inky facts of injustice are all over my newspaper, but I don’t do anything about it. I try not to see color, even as I neglect to see it through the prism of the cross. I’m not an oppressor, but I am most definitely an accomplice. Odds are, so are you.
Perhaps we find the concept of a wrathful God so threatening because we know that the Bible’s ire is pointed at the indifference of the masses every bit as much as it is toward hands-on oppressors. As Rutledge points out: “In the Bible, the idolatry and negligence of groups en masse receive most of the attention, from Amos’ withering depiction of rich suburban housewives (Amos 4.1) to Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem (Luke 13.34) to James’ rebuke of an insensitive local congregation (James 2.2–8)” (122).
As Brett Dennen puts it in his song “Ain’t No Reason,” slavery is stitched into every fiber of our clothes. We’re implicated in the world’s injustice, even if we like to think ourselves guiltless. Rutledge believes this explains why so much of American popular Christianity projects a distorted view of reality (by “distorted,” she means sentimental). Our escapist mentality protects us not just from the unendurable aspects of life, but also from the burden of any responsibility for them. Such sentimentality, however nostalgic and sweet, has its victims—they have names such as Alfred Dewayne Brown.
Having a friend like Brian and having met someone like Dewayne, I’m convinced we risk something precious when we jettison God’s wrath from our Christianity. We risk losing our own outrage. Actually, it may have been Fleming Rutledge who changed my mind:
If, when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not yet understood the depths of God. It depends on what outrages us. To be outraged on behalf of oneself or one’s own group alone is to be human, but it is not to participate in Christ. To be outraged and to take action on behalf of the voiceless and oppressed, however, is to do the work of God. (132)
Jason Micheli is executive pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. He blogs at www.tamedcynic.org, hosts the podcast Crackers and Grape Juice, and is the author of Cancer Is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo (Fortress Press, 2016).