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A Tangled Mess


During my listening time this morning, I saw a hedge that was made of a tangled mass of thin branches, something like dark green spaghetti. I have a feeling that this article is going to be a bit like that. It tries to unravel some fairly complex theological issues, but often when I try to do that, I end up feeling that I've revealed as many new issues to ponder as the ones I've hacked away at.

The thoughts start with the vicious assault on Reinhard by Jared and John Johnson, in Los Angeles, the father and brother of Joe Johnson, our newest member there. (A little update for those who receive our newsletter is that we now know that Reinhard was not conscious throughout the attack. His eyes were open and he was saying things, but he remembers none of it. Also, he has lost several teeth and is presently unable to eat because of the exposed nerves in his mouth. His glasses were smashed beyond repair, and his face is too sore to take the weight of a much older pair that he has.)

Much discussion amongst members of the community has centered around whether or not we should assist the police in their efforts to lay charges against the pair. A felony has been committed, but the police can only lay charges if they have enough evidence to convict them. If we were to refuse to give evidence, they would either have to subpoena us or find other witnesses. The issue we have been wrestling with centers around whether we contradict the things Jesus said about loving our enemies if we do this.

I feel that these questions go to the very roots of the controversy amongst many Christians about how God's love and mercy relate to his discipline and justice. I'm afraid that much of the teaching that claims to glorify the grace of God really strikes me as glorifying only a perversion of grace which would more accurately be described as teachings about 'licence' (as in 'licence to kill', the James Bond slogan). If God's only purpose is to tell us that we can do anything we like and he will still love and forgive us, then he would have started with such a message to the human race right from the beginning. But two thirds of recorded history and three-quarters of the Bible is spent teaching the world that God has standards that he wants us to measure up to.

God's grace has always been a type of 'seasoning' on his justice. But when we throw out the standards of his justice, then talk of grace becomes meaningless. And that grace has never been free. It's true that the sinner themselves (even in Old Testament times when an animal was sacrificed in order to obtain forgiveness) more or less walked away scot free (apart from the cost of the animal that was sacrificed), but someone had to die. The old saying, "Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins," means that forgiveness costs someone the ultimate sacrifice... even if it's just some innocent dove or lamb.

When we shift over to the New Testament, where Jesus becomes the Lamb of God, it isn't like God is saying, "I was a bit too hard on them in the Old Testament; I need to come up with something cheaper." Quite the opposite! He was trying to impress on us not only how great his love is (i.e. by his willingness to sacrifice his own son) but he was also trying to wake up some callous Jews to the seriousness of their sins. They had become indifferent to the sufferings of the animals that they slaughtered... a suffering that had been made necessary by their sinfulness in the first place. And God wanted them (and us) to be even more deeply shocked by the much greater suffering that Jesus had to go through as our payment.

Everything that appears in the Old Testament needs to be put into perspective with the New Testament, but there is no need to throw it out altogether. And even more importantly, everything that Jesus taught in terms of discipline and sacrifice in the New Testament is to be taken alongside of the message about his forgiveness and his sacrificial death.

Of course this seems to lead right into support for people saying that we should take no action against someone who is wreaking havoc as a result of being possessed by a spirit of hate and murder, such as happened with Reinhard. After all, Jesus did teach us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies.

But the mistake is still the same one, where someone tries to interpret the teachings of Jesus without reference to his understanding of justice. We have previously pointed out that he said to give to those who ask, but then he refused to give bread to the multitudes who chased him around the Sea of Galilee asking for more miraculous fish sandwiches. Was he a hypocrite? And are we hypocrites when we say No to someone who tells us that we should give to them because Jesus said to give to those who ask? No, I don't think so.

You see, the stuff about grace is there to be interpreted by the people who are actually living it. It's up to Jesus to decide how far that "give to those who ask" is supposed to go. It is not some kind of a mandate for someone to demand things from him or from us either. We are the ones who are living it, and it behooves us to take those commands very seriously, to be literally prepared to turn the other cheek, to lay down our lives, to give all that we own, etc. I believe that Reinhard has exemplified such Christian character in all of his dealings with Joe's family. But it is definitely up to Reinhard to decide whether it is really loving to let a totally unrepentant crazed family continue to preach that they have a right to kill anyone who teaches their son anything other than what they preach. It is up to Reinhard to decide whether or not he has fulfilled the instruction about turning the other cheek. He has a face full of stitches, a mouth full of broken teeth, and a clot on the brain as evidence of his right to say whether or not he should do his civic duty and support the police in their efforts to curb such lawlessness.

The Bible says that God has ordained that system authorities should be there to punish evil-doers. Obviously the system is not the kingdom of heaven, but that's because the people of the world are not followers of God. The system is imperfect at its best, and terribly evil at its worst; but the concept of arresting and punishing evil-doers is not contrary to the laws of God. We don't have to drive through red lights to prove that we belong to God's kingdom, and neither do we need to frustrate simple efforts by law enforcement officers to punish evildoers. In fact, it seems that the Bible teaches us to co-operate in every way possible with the governments of the world APART FROM those areas where they call on us to act contrary to the laws of God.

Now here is where I want to zoom in a bit closer to what is happening amongst us personally. Some people are saying, "We have no bad feelings toward Jared and John; we're just doing this to protect the world from further violence from these guys." I think that is very unlikely to be true. I have plenty of bad feelings toward these guys. I don't think it contradicts the fact that I love them, and that I can appreciate that there is that of God in them too. I certainly would have some serious concerns if I thought that the laws of the system were, for example, going to execute them, as can happen in cases where the victim dies from such an attack. But I absolutely hate what they have done. And the fact that they have shown not one single hint of repentance for their actions convinces me that they NEED to be locked up and made to pay through the nose for such things as Reinhard's $15,000 hospital bill.

I would, for example, rejoice to see George W. Bush impeached for killing thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq on the basis of absolute and deliberate lies. I would rejoice to see Australia's Prime Minister and Minister for Immigration jailed for crimes against humanity for the way that they have treated refugees fleeing to Australia. It doesn't mean that I would not feel love for them as children of God. I would love to see them change, but such willingness to forgive must be tempered with justice if it is to have any meaning at all. Sin is sin, and it must be confronted as such before we can even begin to talk about forgiveness. So far that has not happened in the hearts of Jared and John Johnson, any more than it has happened in the hearts of George W. or John Howard.

So let's not be put off by lectures from people who have not been through what Reinhard has been through, and let's not be bullied into thinking that there is something wrong with us when we cry out against injustices wherever we meet them. As we have said in the article "When Relations Break Down", there are times when common sense dictates that we shift from seeing the best in people (and just subconsciously recognising faults) to dealing with them at their worst and just hoping that some day that of God in them will come to the surface. At the moment, that seems to be the wisest approach to Jared and John Johnson.


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