“Rage is the salient characteristic of Satan and of the satanic in men. There are others, including guile, deceit, and temptation. But at the heart of Satan’s mission is an overwhelming animus against God and the godly” (Walsh, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, p. 17).
We must choose, in the final analysis, between the rage of man and the wrath of God. And, depending on that choice, one of two things must happen. Either the rage of man falls underneath the wrath of God in what the Scots called the Lang Day, the final day of assizes, or the rage of man is swallowed up by the wrath of God that was visited upon Christ in the great propitiation on Golgotha. Either final judgment crushes the rage of man, shutting every mouth, or propitiation annihilates the rage of man, opening the mouths of all the redeemed in everlasting praise. One or the other. Rage is either silenced because sound doesn’t travel in the vacuum of the outer darkness, or rage is silenced because it has been transformed into unceasing adoration.
Complicity and Rage:
The rage of man has to assume that the problem is always, necessarily, elsewhere. This kind of anger always aims out, somewhere else, at anyone else. But when God gives the spirit of true repentance, He grants us the humiliating recognition that all of us are complicit in the rebellion of Adam—he represented us all, and he represented us well. And since we are all cousins to one another, descended from Adam, our sins are all cousins as well. And this is why faithful believers are so reluctant to give way to the diabolical spirit of accusation. We know that apart from the grace of God in Christ, those other sins out there are very much like our own. So we are not divided between orcs and elves, but rather between orcs and recovering orcs. We know what we used to be like, and we know what we would be like still were it not for intervention of God.
“For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared . . .” (Titus 3:3–4).
The early Puritan John Bradford immortalized this sentiment when he saw some criminals being taken off to be hanged, and said, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn astutely said that the line dividing good and evil runs right through the middle of every human heart. The Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity (not absolute depravity, mind you) reminds us that all of us are capable, but for the grace of God, of descending down to the worst that human beings have done, which is, let us be frank, really dark.
When we look at what men are capable of—heartless administrators of the gulag, abortionists with their blood instruments, serial murderers after a thrill, sexual abusers of the helpless, pornographer pimps selling their art to eager customers, and with the self-deception of self-justifying rage tying it all together, we must recognize that the only reason that we were not standing in the shoes of that monster over there, whoever it might be, is the sheer grace of God. We were not kept from that kind of behavior by our own internal and innate goodness.
By nature I was an object of wrath, and it is no injustice that I was an object of wrath. My membership in the lump dedicated to wrath was entirely fitting (Rom. 9:21). The mere fact that we all die is evidence that we were partakers in the disobedience of eating the forbidden fruit. Another name for this relationship with the sins of others is complicity. But for the grace of God I could have been that abuser of little children. But for the grace of God I could have been a wholesaler of body parts from abortion mills. But for the grace of God I could have been slandering representatives of the gospel on the Internet, blaspheming the God who brought them to love righteousness. This is a wicked planet, and I cannot look anywhere on it and find a place where I could not have been a native resident.
Sexual Abuse and Complicity:
When addressing sexual abuse of children we are talking about one of the great human corruptions. It builds upon our corruptions and it amplifies our corruptions. But the sexual use of children is not just an expression of corruption. It is also an attempt to recruit others into that corruption, evangelism into debauchery, and we need to realize that it often works. While many who are abused do not grow up to become abusers themselves, it unfortunately does not work the other way around. An overwhelming number of abusers, perhaps as many as 80%, were abused themselves when they were young—they were successfully recruited, in other words. But we cannot recognize this without seeing that complicity can start early.
Say a boy of six was molested by an older cousin, who was thirteen. Then when he is thirteen, he molests his sister, who is three. It is certain true to say that nothing justifies abuse of that three-year-old girl. Nothing justifies it in either instance of abuse. But this is because sin is defined by the holy law of God, and not by our own personal histories. Even if the perpetrator had a tragic personal history, he still had a responsibility to refuse ongoing complicity.
So there is no attempt being made to justify such behavior, but surely something must explain it. I should say at this point that I am simply seeking to deal in an honest way with the problems created by human evil. I also know that some will seize on what I have just said and simplistically accuse me of “blaming the victim” (again). But I have only said that dogs have four legs, and I have not said that anything with four legs is a dog. And those who rush past careful distinctions in order to accuse are driven by rage.
Many of those who create new abuse victims were victims themselves at an earlier point in the story. And so this means that the mere fact of having been a victim cannot be used as a defense for whatever comes next. Simply being a “survivor” cannot be used as an all-purpose justification for whatever you decide to do with the rest of your life. This should be obvious because such decisions might include continuing the “tradition” of abuse, it could include lying about who the abuser was, and it might include slandering people who had nothing to do it, and so on. This is why the rules of justice and evidence may not be set aside on the basis of a compelling personal story.
Such an assertion makes many people angry, and may even be against the law in some municipalities. But such anger is just another way of refusing to think seriously about the problem of human evil, and it is—not incidentally—also another way of perpetuating human evil. One aspect of the problem of human evil is the ubiquity of it, and the creative ways in which we help the contagion to spread.
That said, of course there are victims of sexual abuse, many of them, who are not to be faulted by us at all. They should face no social stigma of any kind, and should receive all the help that we can muster. Of course when sin mangles, those who believe the gospel should be in the forefront of bring the gospel of healing to bear, and where necessary, forgiveness to bear.
“But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter” (Deut. 22:26).
In all such areas, mercy ministry reveals the heart of God (Matt. 25:34-36). This includes mercy to victims in the first instance, but does not exclude mercy to victims who have become perpetrators, and it does not exclude perpetrators who have no apparent reasons at all. The grace of God is not deserved by us, and if it were deserved by us, it wouldn’t be grace anymore.
But with that said, we still need to give an account of the fact that we live in a world where we do this sort of thing to one another, and this brings me back to rage.
We have been paying the rage forward at least since the time of Cain. What this means is that when we have been hurt (whether we really have been hurt, or we made it up in our own imagination), we want to make someone else pay. We want to lash out. It is easy to think that paying the perpetrator back is an understandable temptation, but much more is involved than simple revenge in paying the rage forward. But bitterness is a root, and roots gather nutrients in order to grow. When the rage of man grows to maturity, the whole point is to hurt someone who is comparatively innocent, someone who had nothing to do with the offense against us.
Some abuse victims are even envious of those who have not been abused—a lack that can obviously be rectified. An abuse victim who has been treated like dirt, and who feels himself to be dirt, is still capable of resenting someone who is obviously virginal. Thinks she’s so prim and proper. The point of rage is to inflict, to hurt, to damage, to destroy, and to include those sanctimonious people in the misery.
Sometimes rage comes boiling out in other ways. We are very creative in the ways we have devised for paying the rage forward. Suppose someone—entirely in good faith—proposes a particular way of dealing with the scourge of sexual child abuse. He hates child abuse and clearly wants it to end. That person is attacked online with piping hot vitriol. “How dare you suggest what you just suggested? I was abused by my stepfather when I was three, and you are disgusting excuse for a Christian.” This is just another coping mechanism, and unfortunately it is a coping mechanism for rage. It is unfortunate because coping mechanisms don’t work very well at all on rage. Rage eats coping mechanisms for breakfast.Rage eats coping mechanisms for breakfast.
Please Note Well:
Nothing I can say will prevent some people from saying that I am simply blaming the victim again, and falling into my customary and regrettable habit of defending pedophiles. But this is not the case at all. I believe in strict and swift penalties for pedophiles (Ecc. 8:11), regardless of what you may have read. But I believe those penalties should be applied by judges who know their own capacity for evil, by men accustomed to speaking the strict truth, regardless of what it might cost them. The woman caught in adultery apparently was guilty of adultery (Jesus did tell her to “sin no more”), but the self-righteous men standing around her with rocks in their hands represented another problem (John 8:1-11).
“Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (Ex. 18:21).
Men of truth. One of the characteristic signs of complicity is the gravitational pull into self-justifying delusions. Ready accusers are characterized by inauthenticity, and inauthenticity is marked by an eagerness to accuse somebody.
Also please note that complicity does not mean that every person has committed every sin. But we are not utterly detached from every sin either.
A Brief Parable:
An Arkansas prophet walked onto the campus of the state university straight out of the hill country. No one was quite sure how they knew he was a prophet, but somehow, everyone knew. He wore a simple white t-shirt, and a pair of overalls, worn threadbare but clean. His face was weather beaten, and he had a grizzled and very short beard. He walked without speaking to the center of the campus, where there was a fountain outside the library, and a crowd gathered behind him as he walked. By the time he got to the fountain the crowd following him numbered in the hundreds, and hundreds more arrived within the first few moments of his arrival. After standing quietly for those moments, he climbed up on the fountain, and as he turned to face the assembled crowd, a hush fell over them all. “I have a message from God,” he said, and if it were possible everything at that fountain grew quieter still. He then raised both hands over his head, and solemnly declared, “At least some of your troubles are partly your fault.”
And the crowd erupted, stopped their ears, and rushed upon him.
Complicity and the Christ:
The biblical gospel is that in the entire history of our sorry planet, there has only ever been one genuine victim. There have been many typological victims, but only one Victim proper, only one Victim in the antitype. When Jesus, the sinless one, died on the cross, it was the only time that the person who died did not personally deserve to die. He had no complicity in our tangled web of iniquity whatever. And yet, He went out to John the Baptist at the Jordan, and began His ministry by receiving a baptism of repentance. He identified with us in our wickedness when the only possible motive for doing so was ineffable grace. He began His ministry by making Himself complicit, an incongruity that was not lost on John the Baptist (Matt. 3:14).
God made him who had no sin to be sin on our behalf so that in him we might be made the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). God made the one who had no complicity in our web of sinfulness to become complicit, so that in Him we who were entirely complicit might be liberated from that complicity. There is no other way out. There is no other solution.
Those who know themselves to be complicit can look to Christ and be freed from that complicity. Those who deny that they are in any way complicit already have the reward of their own self-righteousness.
“Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9:41).
Every attempt to engineer our own plans of salvation for victims will simply perpetuate the problem, and will always create new victims. The only way to cut the Gordian knot created by our lies and self-deceptions is to look to the sword of the Spirit—the only sword capable of cutting through the deceitfulness of our own hearts.
“Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: For I am God, and there is none else” (Is. 45:22).
What must we do to be saved? We must look to Christ. And there is no way to do that without looking away from our own lame excuses.
Before this is dismissed as an interesting mashup of Girard and Rushdoony (which would not be entirely false), let me just conclude by saying that the gospel is scandalous. It always has been, it is now, and it always will be. “For they stumbled at that stumblingstone” (Rom. 9:32). The gospel is a scandal because it confronts our own complicity, and it flatly denies our attempts to center all the complicit culpability on the designated others—those untouchables over there. It does this by placing it all on the flayed shoulders of Christ.
And let me say again that the untouchables really are untouchable. They are vile, insolent, and they are inexcusable. So this is not a defense of the scapegoats. The point is not that they are not vile. The point is that we are more like them than we want to acknowledge in the midst of our accusations.
Whenever a frenzy of rage-fueled accusations breaks out, as it certainly has in our generation, our first reaction as Christians should be to lift up the impaled Christ where all the nations can see Him plainly. The devil is behind all of this hatred—both the sin and the rage engendered by the sin—and we need to respond to his machinations in a way that will make him regret the strategy. Every wave of hatred is an opportunity for us to proclaim the Christ who crushed the head of all such hatred.