As we deal with the accumulated toxic waste deriving from certain cultural issues—various racial enmities, mistreatment of the opposite sex, the calculated insolence of the rich over the poor, the ingrained envy of the rich by the poor—we have to beware of our limitations.
There are three responses to this kind of thing that we need to distinguish from one another—and we must make the distinctions sharp.
There is the response of justice, biblically defined, and which is within our purview. In other words, earthly rulers and leaders are required by God to do justice, love mercy, and walk with humility (Mic. 6:8). This means that when a husband is beating up his wife, the magistrate should find the rod for the back of a fool, or the equivalent. It means that when a woman plays at being Potiphar’s wife, and falsely accuses someone of rape, the judgment against her should be hard (Dt. 19:16-21). When a rich man grinds the face of the poor, the judge is standing at the door (Jas. 5:4). When a poor man brings a spurious charge against a wealthy man, the court should be entirely deaf to his plea (Ex. 23:1-3). Strict justice, and straightforward.
The second response, perfectly just but beyond our reach, is the response of God to every injustice ever committed. Our justice will be rough-hewn at best, but God’s justice will cover every nuance, every subtlety, and all contingencies. Every wrong will be put right. Every tear will be dried. Every idle word will be weighed. All injustice will be put absolutely right, and with no remainder. Those who love wickedness are appalled at this prospect, but the righteous yearn for that time of coming judgment.
“Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; The world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: Let the hills be joyful together Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: With righteousness shall he judge the world, And the people with equity” (Psalm 98:7–9).
But what about the third response? This is the one we must turn away from, with loathing. In Old Testament law, the lex talionis famously required eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. This was not—as many in the time of Jesus (and since have) thought—a justification for personal vengeance. No, it was a system of strict and measured justice, required of the magistrate, in order to head off the mission of the blood avenger. This was required in order to break the cycle of personal vengeance. God had limited the scope of the blood avenger by establishing the cities of refuge, and the second move was to have the magistrate apply the kind of justice that would take incentives away from the blood avenger. Before Moses laid down this law, what you tended to get was a life for an eye, a life for a tooth. And then, after that, you would get ten lives for a life, and you were off to the races. Whenever sinful men undertake the task of “fixing everything,” they are trying to step into the role of God and what they actually accomplish is to make a hash of everything.
God put strict limits on what a court of justice can do because we are not to be trusted with anything that goes beyond simple and straightforward justice. If Smith steals Murphy’s stereo, he owes him a stereo, plus a little something for all the hassle (Ex. 22:1). But whenever we pervert the court system in order to bring in some sort of cosmic justice, the results invariably are something a little closer to cosmic chaos. We are not reaching for something that is wrong, but we are reaching for something that is beyond our competence.
We are not taught in Scripture that vengeance is wrong. No, we are taught, from the lips of Jehovah Himself, that “vengeance is mine, declareth the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Redressing structural economic injustices, making sure all men treat their wives honorably, making sure all the girls are cute, outlawing racial insensitivities, and so on, is way beyond our pay grade. Whenever we attempt it, we are only initiating and setting on fire the destructive cycles of personal vengeance, only now with the power of the state driving it all.
It sets off the cycle of personal vengeance because the people that we are doing it to are fully aware of the incompetence involved—sometimes malicious and other times just a maladroit do-goodery. B.B. King once gave us a great example of the latter.
I stood in line
Down at the County Hall
I heard a man say, “We’re gonna build
Some new apartments for y’all”
And everybody wanna know
Yes, they wanna know
Why I’m singing the blues
The thing is out in public view, as it were. Everybody can see it. And each side is always aware of the shortcomings of the other side, the alien group, and since we have inaugurated the era of cosmic justice, the stage is set. Since some people have undertaken to fix everything, it is not long before everybody is fixing everything. And when everybody is fixing everything, it should not astonish us that nothing is getting fixed. We are, however, breaking a good many things.
And so this is what we are currently doing, and this is how we are doing such damage to race relations, and even more damage to the relationship between the sexes. Whenever we set ourselves up to fix all the standing grievances, all we do is make a metric ton more of them. In the hands of mortal men, the only thing that large scale reparations and vengeance can do is escalate the need for reparations and vengeance. The only thing it can do is grow, like a cancer. The only thing it can do is drive inexorably toward bloodshed. This is what grows into civil wars. That is what you will be watching on the evening news tonight.
Because God declares that vengeance is His, and because He deputized the civil magistrate to be His agent of wrath, He made sure that his deputies, His deacons in this venture, kept themselves within strict limits. Don’t get above yourself. If somebody drives into a crowd and kills somebody, arrest that guy and charge him. Don’t try to change the color of the sky which overarches them all.
It may look like I am changing the subject, but not really. In 1830, about 3700 free blacks were slave-owners (obviously, a very small minority of the slave-owners). But if we give that population a growth rate of about 3%, we have a population today of their descendants coming in at a bit under a million. When a modern soul, full of Pure Thoughts and Uplift, decides to right every cosmic wrong, he might easily insist that the descendant of German immigrants who arrived here in 1910, having had nothing whatever to do with slavery, express their guilt and complicity in the crime of slavery to an indignant descendant of one of those actually guilty of the offense.
Please read over the preceding paragraph, and quietly repeat to yourself the incontrovertible fact that it contains no defense of slavery whatever. It does contain an assumption that collides drastically with the simplistic dichotomies that get set up whenever the Hatfields and McCoys are heading off to get their guns. Tribalism is simple-minded. Racism is simple-minded. Hot feuds are simple-minded. Once things get heated up, and the race war breaks out, you don’t have to choose sides. The other side does that for you.
In a similar way, once the emotional handicap called feminism gets into fourth gear, you don’t have to be a guilty white male. You are a white male, and therefore guilty. Careful analysis never occurs in the middle of any feud. And identity politics—involving the sexes, the tribes, the races, the sexual choices, or the nationalities—doesn’t know how to do anything but feud.
All of this is the result of people trying to usurp the place of God. But God is not mocked, and a man (or a woman), or a black man (or a black woman) will reap what he or she sows. And what we are sowing these days are these sacks of grievance seeds and we are harvesting a bumper crop of malice and hatred. With any luck at all, a little more rain, and a little more sunshine, and we won’t be able to stand being around anyone.
And because we are well into the mass hysteria phase of this thing, we should recognize that we have abandoned trying to administer justice. We attempted to administer cosmic justice, thinking that we could approximate the Almighty’s skill set, made a royal mess of the whole thing, and now are having a temper tantrum to cover up our embarrassment.
The point is not that the actually guilty should be able to go free. They will not get away with anything. The judge of the whole earth will do right (Gen. 18:25). The point is that we are incapable of finding and convicting the actual guilty parties. If we deny this most obvious fact, and keep up our pursuit of end-of-the-rainbow justice anyhow, we will accomplish the one thing we are good at, which is breaking everything in sight, and multiplying the guilt.
So hold your peace, rebellious pot
The Lord is God, and you are not.
So the last thing. One of the central reasons why our generation has gone off on this binge-like moral crusade is that we are trying to compensate for all the guilt. We are sinking further and further into that demented state where we rebel against God’s standards, one after another, and are accumulating guilt because of it. But because we are created in the image of God, we still have a need to feel righteous. We have a deep need to feel more righteous than some other group. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and we want to be that king.
We desperately want to feel like we are moral beings, but since we are not, we have resorted to grading on a curve. Now we desperately need someone to enroll in the class who will flunk out worse than we are. And then, just in time (providential really), here come a gaggle of white supremacists. When you heave a sigh of relief that at least you are not as bad as these neo-Nazis, perhaps this is an indicator that your standards have slipped.
“For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12).
This generation may not want to hear more gospel, but they most certainly need to hear more gospel. Jesus Christ died to save sinners, and we most certainly qualify. And by we, I mean all of us, white and black, men and women We are in a wretched state. One of the reasons we should resist toppling these statues is because it is being done in a frenzy of faux-righteousness, with people trying to gin up a sense of purity. “At least I am better than neo-Nazis.” “At least I am better than those slave-owners.” “At least I smoke pot, and not Marlboros.” Well, even if you were better, and many are not, you would still need Jesus.
So the real problem, and the real shock in all of this, is that by any number of metrics we might use, we are not better than the sinners whose statues are being scrubbed. Adultery is worse than racial bigotry, and we are a nation of adulterers. Abortion is worse than slavery—the slavers when they sold you at least allowed you to live. They didn’t chop you up and sell your parts. They didn’t elect congressmen who gave major amounts of money to the choppers.
And please note: to say that one sin is worse than another one is by no means a justification of the smaller sin. All sin is sin, all sin sent Christ to the cross, and no sin can be waved off because someone else did something that was worse. But there can be a real spiritual benefit for a generation, if they have built up a major industry by pointing out how wicked others are, to discover that they themselves are among the worst.
America has more blood guilt than the Nazis, by a factor of millions, and we disguise this from ourselves by not having our soldiers march goosestep. But if we are comparing the blood of innocents, apples to apples, we are worse. America has far more sexual confusion and perversion than did the Old South. There used to be a huge slave market in Charleston. Before we take spiritual pride in the fact that it is gone (and thank God it is gone), remind yourself what isn’t gone. Black children are still being executed in Charleston and elsewhere, and on a grand scale. Here is a reminder of some unpleasant realities that I wrote in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting.
The good news is this. Jesus Christ offers to save sinners, even sinners as radically self-righteous as ourselves. But like all the sin He forgives, the self-righteousness has to be repented. And to be repented, it has to be seen and named. And keep in mind that self-righteousness, of the kind that we are awash in, is the major thing that prevents reformation and revival breaking out in our country. “And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (Luke 18:9).
I thank thee, God, that I am not like this white supremacist. I thank thee, God, that I am not like those slave-owners. I thank thee, God, that I am not like those Germans during the war. Beg pardon, but our generation is exactly like them. We are a people with lust in our hearts, pride in our brains, and blood on our hands. We are not anywhere near as good as we want to think we are.We are a people with lust in our hearts, pride in our brains, and blood on our hands.
We must repent of self-righteousness, which means repenting of every form of identity politics, which means repenting of our irrational hatreds. And Christ, through the authority bestowed on Him through His death and resurrection, will welcome and receive you. Not otherwise. Outside of Christ, sinners preen themselves as fully righteous as they dance on the brink of an everlasting Abyss.