It’s Not Like You Killed Someone: Divine Justice, Retribution, And The Church
And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. – Genesis 4:10-15
Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him. – Acts 7:58-8:1a
I’m taking a class at church on the life and teachings of St. Paul. It’s from a series about to come out, created by Adam Hamilton (it was offered to people who attended the Church of the Resurrection Leadership Conference last autumn; several members of our leadership attended and brought this not-ready-for-primetime series back with them) and last night was the first class, covering St. Paul’s early life up to his conversion and baptism by Ananias in Damascus.
An important part of the discussion was the martyrdom of St. Stephen. The author of the Acts of the Apostles places young Saul in a rather prominent position: the one at whose feet the witnesses lay their cloaks and who would “approve” of such an execution was appointed by the leadership to oversee and direct it. It would have been very clear to early readers that young Saul was not just an onlooker, but an important part of that particular narrative.
We know how the story continues. The letters from the Sanhedrin to the synagogues in Damascus, the lightning strike, the voice in the thunder, the blindness, the house on Straight Street (which, while no longer their entirely, still has the arched entrance, and the oldest Christian worship space in Damascus, claimed as the house of Ananias where St. Paul was baptized; I don’t know about anyone else, but I really want to go there), the dreams, and Paul’s baptism. In the midst of the hatred, fear, self-righteousness, murder and threats of violence, God saw a way where the folks at the time saw nothing but death. God saw Saul’s potential – his desire for success; his inner drive to do a particular task better than anyone else; most of all his desire to be at peace and right with God – and decided that this guy, this murderer, would be a most excellent choice to be the missionary to the Gentiles, the single most important follower of Jesus Christ in human history.
So, he’s kind of like Moses that way. On a literary level, I’m sure that’s no accident. Having Moses and Saul become murderers gives the stories a certain literary symmetry. All the same, we do have the text with which to concern ourselves, and no amount of literary analysis or historical demythologizing lets us off the hook of considering the person and work of St. Paul in its totality as a theological moment of great import. We must acknowledge, whether we wish or no, that our faith history is filled to overflowing with prostitutes, the mentally unbalanced, idolaters, those who lived out faith even while not being of the chosen people, rapists, and of course murderers. All these, along with more reputable folks, make up those God used to fulfill the Divine purpose. Divine relentlessness, what we who follow in the footsteps of John Wesley might call prevenient grace, refuses to surrender in the face even of murder. These folks, from Cain and Moses and King David to St. Peter (who struck the ear from the High Priest’s slave) to St. Paul were to be used and nothing would prevent God from using them.
Which gets me thinking about a couple things. Divine justice, it is clear, doesn’t resemble human justice. Were Moses or Cain living in Texas, they would have been executed by now. Were the Twelve concerned with justice, they might well have risen up, cast out Paul from their midst, and perhaps arranged a quiet, out-of-the-way death for him. Such things were not uncommon at the time. We read and hear so often from the families of victims, from police and their supporters, from just ordinary folks, that murderers aren’t human beings, they should be locked away and the key lost, murderers should themselves die because Divine justice demands it (even though, it should be clear enough, there isn’t a bit of evidence from Scriptural narrative God would have supported the execution of any of those upon whom he showed favor). It should be obvious that when we human beings talk about “justice” we aren’t at all concerning ourselves with Divine justice. We just want vengeance. We want those who have murdered our loved ones – family, friends, important people – to themselves face the final destiny that awaits us all.
Which, of course, leads me to wonder: Why do we humans even pretend to call ourselves believers in God, or followers of Christ, if we are so willing to destroy what God has created and, in the past, used to great benefit for Divine purposes. World-changing purposes, really; consider if Moses had faced human justice for his crimes; consider if King David had surrendered himself to his own, self-proclaimed, justice for the death of Uriah, or his son Absalom. Would we even have a Christian Church, at least as it exists today, had St. Paul faced a human tribunal for the death of St. Stephen?
We are so quick to judge. We are so quick to declare our judgments approved by God. We are so confident that excluding others from Church, from society, from life, are all acts approved by God when even a glance at the most familiar stories from the Bible remind us that while we human beings may be all too willing to exclude, to destroy, and to kill those we have determined do not belong either to the human race or to the Beloved Community, God continues to insist, throughout the generations and through the narratives in Scripture, that this just isn’t the case.
Perhaps if we didn’t waste so much energy figuring out ways to keep folks out, to remove them from our membership roles, to declare them unacceptable, to create new and interesting barriers to acceptance in our homes, our churches, our societies, and our political culture, we might just hear a voice not so much thundering as it is whispering, “Why are you persecuting me?”