Modern Western Christians largely ignore the biblical texts relating to divine judgment. One need only look at the neglect of preaching on the Old Testament in American churches, particularly the prophets, or the carefully edited Jesus who only ever seems to preach the Beatitudes and never anything related to the defeat of evil and eschatological judgment upon the corrupt powers, human and non-human, that have distorted God’s creation. We do not like talk of judgment and we cannot understand why something like the imprecatory Psalms exist.
Until we experience real evil. Until we see men in power—men like prominent megachurch leaders who use their position to gain sexual favors from employees or bishops who protect priests that abuse and exploit children—destroy lives of the innocent and powerless, then we begin to understand why the Psalmist can say something as harsh to our ears as this:
1 Do not be silent, O God of my praise.
2 For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
speaking against me with lying tongues.
3 They beset me with words of hate,
and attack me without cause.
4 In return for my love they accuse me,
even while I make prayer for them.
5 So they reward me evil for good,
and hatred for my love.
6 They say, “Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand on his right.
7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin.
8 May his days be few;
may another seize his position.
9 May his children be orphans,
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children wander about and beg;
may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.
11 May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.
12 May there be no one to do him a kindness,
nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.
13 May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation.
14 May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the Lord,
and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out.
15 Let them be before the Lord continually,
and may his memory be cut off from the earth.
16 For he did not remember to show kindness,
but pursued the poor and needy
and the brokenhearted to their death.
17 He loved to curse; let curses come on him.
He did not like blessing; may it be far from him.
18 He clothed himself with cursing as his coat,
may it soak into his body like water,
like oil into his bones.
19 May it be like a garment that he wraps around himself,
like a belt that he wears every day.” (Psalm 109:1-19, NRSV)
Of course, you probably know that I am referring to recent events surrounding Bill Hybels and American Catholic officials like Cardinals McCarrick and Wuerl. American Christianity, both in its Protestant and Catholic forms, has been experiencing something of a reckoning over the last several months. Indeed, one could argue that it has been happening over the last several years if you really look at the scandals that seem to reappear in American ecclesial structures, where men of power and prominence have been left without checks on their power. Lord Acton’s dictum remains, sadly, as true as ever: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The abuse of such power is inherently disgusting. It is even more so when it is supposed representatives of Christ who engage in such evil. And it is evil. One cannot read the recent grand jury report on Catholic sexual abuses in Pennsylvania without having your stomach churn. Indeed, it is almost impossible not to believe in the demonic when one reads the following: “One victim in Pittsburgh was forced to pose naked as Christ on the cross while priests photographed him with a Polaroid camera. Priests gave the boy and others gold cross necklaces to mark them as being “groomed” for abuse.” Behavior such as this is nothing short of Satanic in its cruelty and mockery of God and those innocent children made in His image.To look at such evil—such sadistic, cruel, and completely bent actions inflicted upon the weak and innocent—and not to be enraged is actually to be morally deficient. Such anger is the righteous anger of God at the perversion of His good world. It is the anger that says evil will not be allowed to stand forever.
At times like these it is normal to ask “How can men of God perpetrate such acts? How can this emerge within the very ranks of the people of God? Among those who are ordained to shepherd His people?” I have asked it myself and am asking it now. And while there is no easy answer (and indeed, there should not be, because dealing with actual evil is not a trivial matter), I am reminded that clerical appointment and position is no guarantee of protection from the dark powers that Christ defeated upon the cross. Indeed, in the history of God’s people it is often the “official” religious leaders who are most infected with corruption and darkness. It is not to pagans whom the prophet Amos declares the coming judgment of the Day of the LORD. Rather, it is to an Israel (the people of God), that has itself taken on the very characteristics of the evil, exploitative empires it was rescued from:
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19 as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:18-24, NRSV)
Likewise, Jesus reserves some of his harshest words of warning not for pagans but for his own disciples:
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! (Matt. 18:6-7, NRSV)
Indeed, it is because of the corrupt actions of the religious leaders in Jerusalem that Jesus declares the coming destruction of the city in 70 A.D.:
34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ” (Luke 13:34-35, NRSV)
At times like these, Christians can be left reeling. We wonder what has happened, then we wonder how it happened. We cry out to God looking for answers. Sometimes we get them; sometimes we don’t. I do not say all of this as an indictment upon my Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ. Far from it. I weep with them and share in their cries for justice for the abused innocents and judgment upon corrupt power structures that helped to perpetuate such evil.
God doesn’t really provide the answers to our questions of “why?” in situations like this. What He does say though, is that judgment is coming. The Day of LORD will happen and all the evil that has infected the world and infected Christ’s Church will be laid bare before the judgement seat of the Lamb. And woe to those false prophets and corrupt prelates who have used and stepped upon the widows, orphans, and the powerless innocent. For on that day when, as Amos says, justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, when all the evil of the present evil age is made untrue, on that day it will be better for them to have had a millstone tied around their necks and been thrown into the sea.