“Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Isaiah 35:4 is part of the traditional scripture reading for the season of Advent. This verse tells us strangely that God’s “vengeance” and “terrible recompense” are good news. They are a reason not to be afraid. In fact, according to this verse, God’s people are saved through his wrath, not from his wrath. How can this be?
Throughout the Bible, God’s wrath is his response to injustice in solidarity with the oppressed. God takes sides. As Mary sings in her Magnificat, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). Indeed Isaiah 61 equates the “the year of the Lord’s favor” with “the day of vengeance of our God.”
The fatal error that most of the white American church makes is to detach God’s wrath from his solidarity with the oppressed as though humanity’s sin is an abstract offense against God’s honor that has nothing to do with the harm it causes to other people. When God’s wrath against sin is equated with the meticulous sanctimony of a middle school assistant principal who ruthlessly punishes minor rule infractions, then divine judgment becomes a farce. Too many white Christians see Jesus’ salvation as getting out of a trip to the heavenly principal’s office. It’s understandable that this would be the version of salvation taught by people who have never faced major injustices in their lives.
But God’s judgment against the sins of oppressors is relevant to Judy Scott, the mother of Walter Scott who was murdered by South Carolina cop Michael Slager. When Slager’s trial ended in a mistrial despite indisputable video evidence, Ms. Scott said she wasn’t sad because she knew that she had a just God and he would hold Michael Slager accountable for his deeds. Isaiah 35:4 is God’s promise to Judy Scott. She basically paraphrased that verse in her press conference. Her salvation is not solely her ability to “get into” heaven. Her salvation is the justice that will be shown when Michael Slager has to face the truth about his wicked sin.
Salvation will happen when God completely overthrows the world order where people like me are completely comfortable while billions of others live in misery. Salvation will happen when the rich brats who sneer at attempts to raise the minimum wage are ripped down from their thrones and have to find blue collar jobs for the first time in their lives. Salvation will happen when the well-being of the most vulnerable, marginalized members of our society becomes the non-negotiable priority upon which all decisions are based instead of the will of the market.
I’m not sure that God’s salvation is going to be entirely nonviolent; it sure isn’t depicted that way in the Bible. My wonderful, well-intentioned pacifist friends try valiantly to rescue God from his wrath, but I think that’s partly because they have uncritically adopted the white evangelical understanding of wrath as punishment for abstract rule-breaking rather than the cataclysmic uprooting of injustice depicted in the Bible. The Bible promises is that there will be a “day of the Lord” when all the impossibly intransigent injustices and toxic social systems of our world will be obliterated. For some of us, that day is going to be very dark and terrifying. For the marginalized, it will be a day of salvation.