The Good News of God's Wrath
Jeff Sessions is on a path to face God's wrath. Maybe that's good news.
There's much that's scary about God's wrath, much that's convicting, and much that's just kind of upsetting. It's one of the parts of God's character I struggle the most with, and I don't think I'm insightful enough to provide a cohesive picture of the full tapestry.
But I do want to talk about something I've been finding more and more in the "fire and brimstone" passages of the bible, something I'd previously ignored but unmistakably there.
Not just "hope for us to avoid judgment", although that's certainly an important piece of the Christian mystery.
But hope that, as we see the rich and powerful abuse the poor and vulnerable over and over again with little hope of earthly justice, God will fulfill his promise to judge those who use their privilege and power to hurt others. Hope that the wicked and cruel who seem to prosper on earth will have their fortunes reversed when all is said and done.
Hope, in short, that God is king.
And therefore Caesar is not.
Even if it looks like they might get away with it for now.
In 2017, a group of US government officials led (among others) by Stephen Miller introduced a policy intended to deter undocumented immigrants and, for some reason, people legally seeking asylum. Under this policy, the US government forcibly kidnapped migrant children as young as three, falsely declared them to be "unaccompanied", and sent them to live in a series of "shelters" (essentially prisons, but often without luxuries like "adequate food" and "toothpaste") , often across the country from their parents. By all accounts this was intended to be permanent: no effort was made to record where children went or who their parents are, and as I write this there are hundreds of children who will likely never see their parents again as a the result of the policy.
Jeff Sessions, who believes himself to be a Christian, then went to Fort Wayne and gave a speech profaning the name of God in the worst way imaginable: tearing scripture out of context and twisting it to "call evil good, and good evil", using the words of a holy God to justify nightmarish atrocities for personal gain.
Here's an excerpt of the above speech, in which a man responsible in part for the trauma and suffering of thousands upon thousands of children, the effects of which will certainly follow them into adulthood, smiles and tells us that a Real Christian™ would support one of the most evil things imaginable.
How can a person go out, do such terrible, permanent things to people, and then go home to their families and live the rest of their lives like nothing ever happened?
And so I found myself, for perhaps the first time, sincerely hoping that a person would burn in Hell.
In the version of Christianity I internalized as a child, we are called to forgive so that everything can go back to normal. And this makes sense in simple situations! When somebody takes the ball you wanted to play with, you forgive them and play like nothing ever happened, which is much better than sitting around being mad at each other.
I think we sometimes forget that forgiveness looks more complicated in harder situations. People who have experienced trauma might forgive the people who hurt them, but they're still hurt, sometimes permanently. People who have experienced abuse might forgive their abusers, but they're still perfectly in the right if they choose not to see their abuser again.
The theology of forgiveness is raw and messy and beautiful and sad and we do it a disservice when we put it into a "just forgive and then it's like it never happened" box. Because the message, particularly to the marginalized and the beaten-down, isn't that we should forgive because evil is okay and we should just kind of ignore it.
One message is that God has forgiven us for our deep imperfections and we should extend the same mercy to others. This is important, and worth pondering deeply. But the other message is that we should forgive because God is the one who will bring justice when we can’t.
Indeed, in the book of Revelation, we see martyrs standing in heaven asking God for justice, crying out “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” because even for those who’ve reached heaven forgiveness doesn’t mean we just ignore what has happened, or that we don’t hope for justice.
This is where I think our theology of forgiveness can go wrong. It's certainly true that my feelings for Jeff Sessions are the combination of many factors, some of which are self-righteous and judgmental. But the underlying root -- the deep anger I feel at the mistreatment of children and the attempt to cover it up with Christian platitudes, the absolute rage at those who would use their positions of power to destroy innocent lives -- this is not a sin. This is not a failure of forgiveness. This is a deeply godly indignation, expressed throughout the bible (most clearly in the prophets, Luke, James, and Revelation) as a sign of holiness and the working of the holy spirit.
And the deeply hopeful message of the bible is that justice will be served. And that means one of two things.
One possibility is that Jeff Sessions will go to hell. This is, of course, what the "lizard brain" part of me wants, but in any case we should be clear that this is a very real possibility. Whatever the oversimplified theology of much of the American church says, the bible is clear that simply believing in Jesus does not guarantee salvation, and that failures of social justice are the sort of thing that can undo it.
We also know that, whatever my own motivations, the judgment God chooses to deliver will be perfectly righteous and perfectly just and that, like the martyrs in Revelation, it is not a sin to hope for this.
The other possibility, at once harder to accept and more beautiful, is that Jeff Sessions will repent. If this is difficult to swallow, it's in no small part because we've all heard too many stories of a person doing a terrible thing, superficially apologizing, and using church structures to force their victim to say everything is fine.
This is not what God has in mind.
For Jeff Sessions to repent does not just mean he would apologize. It would mean he sees the whole horror of what he's done and come to sincerely wish he could change it.
If he's still on earth, it means him working desperately to fix the lives he's destroyed -- either helping to reunite families, or paying their therapy costs, or speaking out against future injustices. It means wishing with every fiber of his being he could go back and fix it.
It doesn't make things right.
At least while we're on this earth, it's hard to imagine anything that could make things right.
But on the Day of the Lord -- that glorious day when every tear is dried, every body is renewed, every trauma is lifted, and there is no more pain -- things will be different.
And we will either see a chastened, remorseful Jeff Sessions asking those he once hurt for mercy.
Or we will see him burn.
Either way, we will see the righteousness of God.