I was thinking about that #NeverForget hashtag and wondering just what, exactly, we are supposed to remember. I think the instinct is to remember the attack itself along with the devastating personal losses along with the many acts of courage displayed that day and in the following weeks. We, the American people, are being urged to remember a day when we became victims of terror.
But – and I suppose this is a distinctly Christian concern – I wonder what else in our collective past is not so regularly brought before our memories. To only remember having been attacked while rarely discussing, or even acknowledging in some cases, our aggressions toward others seems to instill a selective, and sick, memory. I say this is a Christian concern because while Christians are certainly concerned about justice on behalf of the aggrieved, we are also always aware of our own complicity in someone else’s harm. That is, we are a people whose very identities are founded on a shared confession of captivity to sin and allegiance to a Savior.
A society that is intentional only about remembering its – real and tragic – histories of being victimized and not the damage inflicted by our aggressions isn’t healthy. Neither can it, in any accurate way, be thought of as Christian.
On the plight and hope of an angry people before the wrath of God.
Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
40 years later people still remember where they were when Mount St. Helens erupted. My grandma talks about watching the news from her Washington home, a few hours north of the blast. Later that year, in the summer of 1980, she and my grandfather would drive past the smoldering mountain on Interstate 5 and collect ash from the median to show the fourth-graders she’d be teaching in the fall. The bookseller on San Juan Island told my wide-eyed sons about being near the mountain when it happened, about the way daylight turned to dusk and then to night under the cover of the ash cloud spreading across the horizon. Later he would approach the mountain, working for the forest service, and see how some trees had been burnt to a crisp except for the bottom few feet which had been covered with snow. A friend on the east side of the Cascades told us about the ash drifting down like snow, covering the darkened streets with inches of the stuff.
Everyone who was near the blast has a story to tell.
There had been warnings in the weeks before the mountain erupted: hundreds of earthquakes, small bursts of ash, and, most ominously, a bulge on the volcano’s north slope that pushed outward like some festering wound, sometimes five feet in a single day. Maybe these signs allowed the onlookers to feel prepared. Restricted zones were mapped out and residents within them forced to leave their homes.
At 8:32 on May 18th, a Sunday morning, the heaving mountain triggered an enormous landslide. Mount St. Helens immediately lost 1,300 of its 9,600 feet. David Johnston, a young geologist observing the mountain from miles away, had about 45 seconds before the avalanche of boulders, trees, and tons of earth buried his ridge, just enough time to radio his colleagues in the nearby town of Vancouver, Washington: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”
A few minutes later, Mount St. Helens exploded. Not from the top, as was expected, but from its side. I’ve tried to picture this moment but I can’t; it’s beyond the capacity of my imagination. The blast swept down the opening crater at 300 miles per hour, leaving behind 230 miles of scorched earth. Towering forests were peeled back to bare rock. Combined with the landslide, the volcanic blast liquified the mountain’s stores of spring snow and ice to send churning mudflows down the valleys- overwhelming the streams, covering over rivers, and relocating familiar lakes hundreds of feet from their pre-eruption locations. Videos from that day show trees, houses, and bridges tossed aside, barely an afterthought to what appears to be the mountain’s singular purpose: total and complete devastation.
Jonathan Edwards began his famous sermon in 1741 by reflecting on Deuteronomy 32:35, “To me belongeth vengeance and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.” His focus is on that vivid description of demise – “their foot shall slide in due time”- and from there Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God goes on to describe the plight of the wicked before a holy God.
From these few words, the New England preacher derives four implications. The first is this: “That they were always exposed to Destruction, as one that stands or walks in slippery Places is always exposed to fall. This is implied in the Manner of their Destruction’s coming upon them, being represented by their Foot’s sliding.” God’s justified wrath against sin, says Edwards, is withheld by God’s love, but when it comes, as it surely must, it comes upon us so quickly that we are like those careening down a landslide, the sheer absurdity of our having long remained upright now undeniable as the mountain falls around us. On top of us.
This topic – the wrath of God – is an unfamiliar one to many of us. I suppose some find the idea of Edwards’ angry God repugnant, but my hunch is that most Americans, Christians included, simply don’t think about it at all. Ours are divinities of love, including the Christian God, who we imagine as benign and benevolent forces. We might occasionally get mad at God, but the American gods of our imaginations rarely get angry with us.
Our family of four recently spent two nights in the campground nearest to Mount St. Helens. We made the 200 mile drive south from the Puget Sound – our temporary home during our family vacation – because for the past two years our youngest son, now four years old, has been infatuated with volcanoes. His knowledge of the geological forces at work in these mountains far exceeds mine, and I was an environmental studies minor!
We couldn’t actually see the mountain from the campground – we had to drive a few minutes for our first glimpse – but we were able to make the short hike to where the mudflow had overwhelmed the nearby creek. We saw it as we approached through the dense forest, a growing patch of sunlight that eventually became a sort of dusty river plain. The ground turned an ashy grey and was littered with pumice, carried all these miles from the volcano. Even now, decades later, it was easy to see how the eruption had sculpted the valley. The following day the road to Mount St. Helens followed the mudflow for miles, our imaginations recalibrating the power of the mountain we were on our way to visit.
We were lucky to awake to sunshine and clear skies on the morning of our visit. Wildfires are once again ravaging the western United States and the skies in Washington had been hazy, reducing visibility to a mile or two at times. At the Johnston Observatory the ranger told us that two days earlier, the same mountain that rose so clearly across the valley from us was invisible from where we stood. The millions of acres now burning around the country are not natural. A warming climate and increasing development in dry areas provide the flammable potential for human error: ninety-five percent of these fires are started by us.
The four of us gazed intently at the crater, pointing out the still active lava dome inside it and the way the downed timber pointed the same direction, away from the blast. We imagined the destruction, thankful that a different kind of devastation, at least on that day, wasn’t obscuring our view.
The biblical wrath of God that Edwards described comes rapidly and unexpectedly. The prophet Ezekiel describes it as a hailstorm, a spreading pestilence, a fire, and most often, as being poured out onto its recipients. But as surprising as it must always seem to those peering the other way, Scripture reveals God to reserve his wrath for two predictable human activities: idolatry and injustice. So the jealous God will not tolerate the lesser deities so often propped up on hillsides and valleys by his people, idols like Baal and Molech who demand sacrifices of human flesh and sexual exploitation. But neither will God turn a blind eye to injustice.
Execute justice in the morning, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed, or else my wrath will go forth like fire, and burn, with no one to quench it, because of your evil doings. (Jeremiah 21:12)
It’s a daunting standard. Injustice, in God’s eyes, is not only committing unjust acts; it includes the absence of justice, of failing to confront the oppressor and thief.
There is nothing arbitrary about God’s wrath. It erupts with fury, an “almighty merciless Vengeance” in Edwards’ words, but there is always a righteous logic when it finally rains down. God’s wrath is always instigated by his people’s idolatry and injustice.
According to the US Geological Survey, the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 released 24 megatons of thermal energy, about 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb that was dropped on the city of Hiroshima during World War II. We heard this horrifying fact more than once during our two-day stay near the mountain. We also learned that, compared with other volcanoes throughout history, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens was relatively very small.
But it’s the comparison itself with the atomic bomb that most interested me, a comparison between a natural disaster and one purposefully inflicted by people upon other people. The former, far greater in power, claimed the lives of 57 people; the latter killed tens of thousands.
The churches I’ve known have generally been hesitant to speak about God’s wrath. A caricature of Edwards’ angry God is so thoroughly instilled in our society’s imaginations that many of us have felt the need to round out the picture. Over time, we’ve simply stopped thinking about God’s anger. I think we’ve also stopped thinking – if we ever had – about our own anger. Yet the bomb dropped on the citizens of Hiroshima and the fires advancing throughout the American west have me wondering about our collective unacknowledged and unchecked anger.
Anger, or wrath, is probably not how we think about the infernos of our own making. We frame our disasters as inevitable consequences of our wars or the unfortunate costs of our freedoms. Some think of them as our selfishness enfleshed; others as catastrophes totally unrelated to our choices. The explanations for the ways we destroy one another and our planet are many, but I wonder if our anger – rage, maybe – plays an outsized role.
Human retaliation always exacts a higher, vengeful cost than is necessary. Our atomic bombs are the obvious example. We are capable now of inflicting total and final vengeance upon the entire planet. Similar observations could be made about how we incarcerate people and, despite so much room for error, execute them for certain crimes. Our judgements are not fair and they are not equally distributed. As a nation we respond to horrifying attacks by unleashing our own horror, trading our thousands of lives for thousands upon thousands of our enemies.
But I think the wildfires we ignite, along with other less obvious examples, are also expressions of our anger. We know why these fires burn hotter, longer, and more frequently. We know where we shouldn’t build our homes and suburbs. We know how we could slow the climate’s warming. Yet we don’t. For many reasons we don’t, but could one of those reasons be a simmering anger at being shown the limits of our humanity? Like Cain, we respond with fury at being told what we must do. The creation groans under our insatiable appetites and we, children of wrath as the apostle Paul says, will not listen.
A couple of weeks after our visit to Mount St. Helens, our family drove slowly past a smoldering mountainside in northern Montana. Wisps of smoke gathered into small clouds and roadside signs warned of fire crews entering and exiting the highway. From our car, we peered up into the hazy forest not quite able to grasp the size of this one fire. The next day we read in a local newspaper that it was still relatively small but expected to spread rapidly.
I began thinking about the eruption of Mount St. Helens as a picture of God’s wrath at one specific moment during our visit. Most of the exhibits and ranger talks highlighted, with good reason, the volcano’s devastation. Our time near the mountain was filled with descriptions, photos, and short films showing the landslide and ensuing eruption from every possible angle. We heard eyewitness accounts of the the apocalyptic-like hours and days that followed. None of this made me think about God’s wrath.
That moment came during our second day. At the observatory looking across to the crater, my wife and I sat with our two young sons listening to a ranger. Almost in passing he told us that three days after the explosion, on the same ground covered by what would come to be recognized as the word’s largest recorded landslide, a small herd of elk were seen crossing the ash-covered slope. Their hoof-marks and droppings left behind the first seeds after the blast. Within 72-hours the mountain had begun to heal itself. Those elk are what made me think about the wrath of God.
Jonathan Edwards preached his sermon with the purpose of saving people from hell but maybe his intent can be widened. Despite his vivid descriptions of divine anger and judgment, Edwards does not hesitate to desperately urge his congregation to run to this same God, the source of wrath. “And now you have an extraordinary Opportunity, a Day wherein Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open, and stands in the Door calling and crying with a loud Voice to poor Sinners; a Day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the Kingdom of God.” The God of wrath, Edwards preaches, is the God of salvation. The God who cannot look away from idolatry and injustice will neither look away from those who flee to him.
The Psalmist believed the same:
Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Happy are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:11-12)
So did the prophet Nahum, in language that evokes an erupting, crumbling volcano.
The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it.
Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him. (Nahum 1:5-7)
I thought about God’s wrath when the ranger mentioned the elk because God’s wrath is so unlike ours. How else can we be urged, straight-faced, to take refuge in the mountain that has just exploded before our eyes? Why, given the experiential rubrics of our own collective expressions of anger, would we throw ourselves onto the mercies of a wrathful God? But the wrath of God is not like our atomic bombs, wildfires, or execution chambers. The wrath of God is not retaliatory, not vengeful in the way we express it.
God’s wrath is so different from ours because God is so different from us. Our collective anger is rooted in selfishness, ego, and pride. In simple contrast, using biblical language, the Lord is good. That is to say, God is always merciful, forgiving, and kind. And yes, righteous too. God’s wrath, then, is expressed not from the absence of goodness, but as an expression of it. And in its aftermath lies healing and restoration. Lakes and rivers are restored, meadows and forests take root again. What our own collective anger leaves behind couldn’t be more different: poisoned bodies and lands, disenfranchised communities, skies choked with haze.
Unrighteous people like us will, in our unacknowledged anger, turn to idolatry and run headlong into injustice. We will worship anything other than the one righteous God and our idol-worship will inevitably lead us to acts – individual but also corporate – of tremendous oppression. We articulate our sins against God by disdaining our neighbors and abusing the earth. We, an angry people, stand in want of God’s wrath.
In Romans 5:1-10 Paul tells us that Jesus Christ saves us from God’s wrath. His atoning death did so, in fact, even as our idolatry and injustice placed us deservingly under judgment. This good news is, I think, the extent to which most American Christians think about God’s wrath. If at all, divine anger is remembered in the past tense, something not especially relevant except, as Edwards exemplifies, as a means to urge others to flee to Christ’s salvation.
Yet those of us who claim Jesus as Savior must also accept him as Judge. When we diminish the wrath of God against idolatry and injustice to something that no longer concerns us, we are left vulnerable to an uglier kind of wrath- our own. And so we trade healing redemption for retaliatory vengeance. We seek refuge not in the mountain but in our weapons. We accept the warfare we’ve fomented, the prisons we’ve erected, and the infernos we’ve kindled as the reasonable price of vanquishing the wrathful God. In place of the divine Judge, our own unholy judgements inflict death, only and always.
We have become so accustomed to our own ruthless wrath that it can be hard for us to imagine another way. Paul helps us.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)
Here is a vision wherein a people have renounced their own wrath for God’s. A community that welcomes God’s vengeance is one that also renounces persecution, deception, and retaliation. They will be known for their orientation toward blessing, solidarity, harmony, humility, truthfulness, forgiveness, peace, and compassion. They will be a people of worship and justice. They will reject the death-dealers who levy ever more devastating judgements upon their enemies and their enemies’ children and their enemies’ lands.
This community will come to know that God’s wrath is better than theirs.
I wouldn’t have chosen to visit Mount St. Helens. There were other places I’d have preferred to visit during our stay in the Pacific Northwest. I think the same is true for my wife and older son. But we each love the four-year-old and so we joined him in his pilgrimage to the mountain he’d been talking about since he began forming sentences. The car was full of our typical chatter on the morning we drove up to the volcano. And then my wife pointed through the windshield. “Is that it?” We all got quiet, watching as the blunt peak, larger by far than anything around it, rose through the haze. The road followed a creek up the valley and we began noticing how it had been widened by the torrent of mud, water, and debris decades prior. Soon we could recognize how everything around us, the entire landscape, had been shaped by the blast.
The silence in our car – a rare occurrence – continued and something in me changed as we drew near to the mountain. I was glad we had come. I wanted to get closer.
When human beings are reduced to criminals, it is time for the church to become criminal as well.
This country’s president and his supporters regularly criminalize entire groups of people, most obviously the immigrants who’ve been called murderers and rapists but also those from so-called shithole countries and the people the administration has labeled animals by dent of their association – actual or perceived – with gang activity. The repercussions of this consistent dehumanizing rhetoric is daily becoming more evident; the stories of children torn from the arms of their families – parents fleeing genuine violence and seeking asylum – are gut-wrenching. But when people are no longer people, simply criminals whose offenses against this country must be punished, we, the citizens of this aggrieved and apparently besieged country, do not have to consider the nuances of the actual human experience. We don’t have to admit our complicity in the violence that has forced these families to make impossible decisions. We don’t have to grapple with the Christian responsibility to love neighbors and welcome immigrants.
Remaking people into criminals allows us the deception that flesh and blood is no longer human. Our response to other image-bearers of the living God is to slander, cage, and expel them.
When human beings are reduced to criminals, it is time for the church to become criminal as well.
Paul writes that the church is the “body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” This body has a history of being criminalized. Jesus’ life ended as a criminal- arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. It is this identity that rationalized his crucifixon, that allowed the religious and political powers to wash their hands of any guilt. The Galilean heretic and zealot got what he deserved. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, notes that the Roman Empire reserved crucifixion for insurrections and rebels. “It was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame – one of the most humiliating and painful deaths ever devised by human beings.” Criminals were crucified and the body into which we are incorporated hung on a cross, as a criminal.
Jesus also commanded his disciples to follow his example by taking up their own crosses as they followed him. We interpret his instructions to be about the sacrifices associated with discipleship, but we shouldn’t miss the meaning of the cross to those first disciples. To them it was a symbol not of spiritual self-denial but of societal criminality. Rebels, rabble-rousers, and young Galileans who fit the description were hung from roadside crosses by the hundreds, their expiring bodies a permanent mark of their non-human status within the empire. By instructing his disciples to pick up their crosses, Jesus was making them criminals in their society’s estimation. As Fleming Rutledge writes in her book about the crucifixion, a church that lives into its true identity is one which understands “itself as the community of the cross, the community that suffers-with (com-passion), the community that willingly bears the stigma of the passion in service to others.”
The church, as Christ’s body, is criminal in the eyes of empires and powers and its members willingly pick up the symbols of dehumanizing criminality in the pattern of our crucified Savior.
Today, though, it seems that American Christianity, at least of the privileged variety, avoids any association with the empire’s criminals in one of two ways. Some have associated so closely with partisan politics that they’ve come to see, through the empire’s eyes, criminals instead of people. And so we hear pastors and ministry leaders rationalize and spiritualize the administration’s violent policies. Others have created a moral high ground, a respectable and seemingly prophetic perch from which to lob sanctimonious pleas about justice without ever drawing near to those who are being oppressed. Identities are created by opposing the president and his supporters without incurring any actual risk. Racial privilege and class segregation keep these Christians safe from being joined together with those who’ve been criminalized.
What is needed in this time of pervasive dehumanization is for churches to reclaim our criminal status. We must pick up our crosses – our border walls and jail cells – and follow the criminal messiah. We must trade our bland reputations for the fire of his gospel- freedom for captives announced by the crucified one. And we must associate intimately, to the point of being indistinguishable, with each person whose humanity has been made criminal.
A fundamental problem is that it is not at all clear exactly who God is. We have not become a secular society so much as we have become a generically religious one. Undifferentiated spiritual objects, therapies, and programs are widely marketed. Popular religion in America tends to be an amalgam of whatever presents itself. Discerning observers have noted that these new forms of spirituality are typically American; highly individualistic, self-referential, and self-indulgent, they are only feebly related to the history or tradition of any of the great world faiths. There is no more important calling for the church in our time than claiming the self-identification of the God who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.
– Fleming Rutledge in The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. She’s not so much lamenting these shifts in our society as she is the inability (or unwillingness) of the churches to maintain our particularly Christ-centered distinctions.
St. Augustine on why the USA will never be good for all.
In chapters 21-24 of Book XIX in City of God, Augustine reflects on whether Rome, or any empire, can be thought of as a commonwealth. He’s asking, in other words, whether an empire can exist for the common good of its citizens. First he takes up a definition from Cicero’s On the Republic which identifies a commonwealth as the “the weal of the people” – or, the good of the people – wherein people are defined as a group “united in association by a common sense of right and community interest.” This right and interest, according to Augustine’s interpretation of Cicero, “cannot be maintained without justice.” In short, a commonwealth exists for the good of those who are united by justice.
Without justice, according to Augustine, the whole thing unravels and rather than a commonwealth the empire is actually “some kind of a mob, not deserving the name of a people.” A few pages later he suggests a different definition of “a people” as if to explore whether an empire is ever capable of pursuing the common good of all of its citizens. Perhaps a people should should be defined as “the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love.” In this instance the focus is on love rather than justice, particularly on the common objects of the multitudes’ love. In this case, to determine the quality of the people we must observe what they love. “Obviously, the better the objects of this agreement, the better the people; the worse the objects of this love, the worse the people.”
By this second definition Augustine is willing to concede that perhaps Rome is a commonwealth, but only barely given the direction of its loves: “bloody strife of parties and then to the social and civil wars, and corrupted and disrupted that very unity which is, as it were, the health of a people.”
When he considers both expressions of a state that exists for the common good, Augustine ultimately finds each lacking because of their disregard for God. The first disdains justice and so “takes a man away from the true God and subjects him to unclean demons.” Similarly, the second cannot acknowledge God as ruler “because it disobeys his commandments that sacrifice should be made to himself alone.” Both visions of commonwealth ultimately fail because they do not recognize the lordship of the one God. Any attempt at justice or love apart from the One who embodies them will be a shadow of the common good at best, oppressive at worst.
Augustine, it should be said, does not sound especially judge-y about these two inadequate expressions of the common good or the disappointing states and governments they represent. It’s not as though he expects anything different; he concedes that these are the best empires can do. The City of Man, in contrast to the City of God, is severely limited in its capacity to be just or to inspire love because it does not submit to the God who is the definition of justice and love.
Within our own American expression of empire we have a version of Christianity that seems hellbent on establishing its particular vision of the City of God using tools from that other city. I doubt that Augustine would be impressed, seeing the willful association with injustice and disordered loves as a pathetic attempt to grasp what can only be fully known within that future city wherein God alone will be worshiped, when justice and love will be defining characteristics of his people forever. No empire can ever be good for all, something the representatives of this grasping Christianity probably know full well. In the meantime, I fear they appear to their neighbors as nothing more than some kind of a mob.
A sermon about the empire’s money, the exile’s hope, and the Savior who would not be bought.
14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” [Revelation 3:14-18]
11 “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore— 12 cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13 cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves. 14 They will say, ‘The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your luxury and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.’” [Revelation 18:11-14]
During Lent we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness and the Israelite’s 40 years in the wilderness. The wilderness experience was a common experience for God’s people in the Old Testament, as was its corollary of exile. Exile, the experience of being sent or kept from one’s homeland, is something the early Christians experienced as well, something they anticipated from Jesus’ teaching and, later, from the Apostle Paul.
“You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” [John 15:18]
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. [Philippians 3:20]
Exile is a normal part of the Christian life. And how we engage with money in exile is incredibly important because, as we’ll see, money is a spiritual force that competes with God for our worship. Money, according to the Bible, is different than we tend to think of it, as a neutral object that we can use for good or ill. According to the French sociologist Jaques Ellul, money in the Bible is seen as “a power which tries to be like God, which makes itself our master and which has specific goals.”
The warped spiritual power of money is nowhere exhibited more strongly than within the context of empire and exile. If the Christian experience is one of regular exile in this life, then we need to pay special attention to the power that the empire’s money exerts over our desires and decisions. Otherwise we’ll think we are using money when we are being used by money.
Laodicea sat at the intersection of two major trade routes, had fertile grazing land, and became a center of banking and finance. It is of the church in this city of which God says, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. Why? The Laodicean church had forgotten their exile and thought of themselves as being comfortably a part of the empire. They saw themselves as citizens of the Roman Empire rather than exiles of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let’s look more closely at why this provoked such a fierce response from God.
The letter to the church in Laodicea is found in Revelation, a letter from the Apostle John to churches throughout the Roman Empire. Revelation was written to people who knew the particular exilic experience of one of the most powerful empire’s the world has known. The Emperor Domitian called himself “Lord God,” demanded worship, and brutally persecuted Jews and Christians who refused to do so, taking their property and executing them.
It’s important to remember that John’s letter to Laodicea is contained within Revelation, a letter written as apocalyptic literature. This form of literature is foreign to us but it had important characteristics that help us understand why God threatened to spit the Laodicean Christians out of his mouth. First, apocalyptic literature revealed the spiritual realities behind physical events, like pulling back a veil between the natural and spiritual worlds. Second, apocalyptic literature described current events through the use of symbolism. By using dense symbolism and metaphors, John was able to warn the churches about life in exile without antagonizing the wrath of the empire. In this way is less like gazing into a crystal ball to see the future and more like the spirituals sung by enslaved women and men in the American South, their songs serving as coded and subversive instructions for the long and dangerous journey to freedom.
God’s harsh words to the church in Laodicea were written in this strange, apocalyptic style. But we need to jump ahead a few chapters to understand how God’s anger with these Christians was connected to their relationship to money.
The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore. [18:11]
Who is the woman over whom the merchants are weeping? Between the letter to the Laodicean church in chapter three and the weeping merchants in chapter eighteen, Revelation tells us about three layers of evil that are violently opposed to God’s people. The first is God’s enemy, Satan, who is described as “an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns.” [12:3] The second is the beast, or monster, who is, as N.T. Wright puts it, “the dark power of pagan empire.” This monster derives its power from the dragon – Satan – and is the spirit of empire that violently chases God’s people into exile. The third layer of evil is the prostitute who is the particular expression of the monster, the spirit of empire expressed as the Roman Empire. Of his vision about the empire John writes:
3 Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. [17:3-4]
The image in Revelation of the prostitute is not of a person exploited or trafficked as we might think of prostitutes today. Rather, this is a person who derives power from the beast, from the spirit of empire, to lure people with glittering promises to their destruction.
As Wright notes, the prostitute, “in it of her own volition can dress up fine, can put on a great show, and (not least) can hold out a wonderful golden goblet as though she’s inviting you to a rich banquet. But the eye of faith, not merely of cynicism, recognizes that the goblet is full of urine, dung, and blood.” The language Wright uses is harsh, meant to offend our sensibilities and provoke our gag reflux. But it’s an accurate description of the wickedness inflicted upon God’s people by the empire: I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. [17:6]
This personification of the Roman Empire is who the merchants mourn in chapter eighteen. They grieve because John’s vision looks ahead to the day when the Roman Empire would finally collapse. And now we’re getting closer to seeing how money is a spiritual power that competes with God for our worship. Those who’ve made their money from the empire will grieve over their losses, but John wants the church to remember that this empire gained its power – as all empires do – from the monstrous spirit, a spirit who receives its potency from Satan himself.
The monster of empire is drunk on the blood of God’s holy people. In fact, the entire system of empire is built upon the exploitation and destruction of human beings. The business people grieve over the long list of resources from which they will no longer be able to profit now that Rome has fallen – precious stones, fine linen, expensive spices – and at the end of the list of things they will no longer be able to profit from: human beings sold as slaves. The monster of empire – the demonic spirit which chases God’s people into exile – expresses itself by exploiting and destroying women and men.
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. [3:17]
It’s not just that the Laodicean church was depending on their wealth rather than on God, though they were. Their real problem was that they had built their security upon the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, including other Christians whose blood cried out from the empire’s cup. Their financial security came from the very empire whose wicked power derived from the dragon, a power that fueled itself by treating image-bearing people as resources to extract, exploit, and eventually extinguish.
It’s not that they were intentionally profiting from the slave trade or had as part of their financial portfolio government bonds built on the bloody persecution of their fellow Christians. No, the problem was their tacit acceptance of the empire’s monetary regime of buying and selling everything, including people. The problem is how they embraced and benefited from a system of exploitation and death.
Do you know that thirty-five percent of mutual funds contain investments in a maker or retailer of guns and ammunition? Do you know that after the president’s election the stock price for two publicly traded for-profit prison and immigration detention corporations went through the roof? As one financial analyst said, The deportation crackdown is doing very good things for these companies. On a personal level, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth, but I guess business is business.
Like Rome, our American expression of the beast of empire assumes that exploitation and death are the reasonable collateral damages of our wealth. Indiscriminately imprisoning black women and men, massacring children with military-style weapons, building economic bubbles on the backs of the poor… all are the cost of doing business with the beast. I guess business is business.
The particular expression of any empire is always built on the monstrous spirit of empire and so the way the empire engages with money will never be neutral. Money, in the empire, will always be wielded as a spiritually oppressive power. The option to wash our hands of responsibility simply does not exist for those who have been exiled within the pagan empire… whether that empire is Rome in the early 100’s or America in the early 2000’s.
Of the Laodicean Christians, theologian Brian K. Blount writes that they “comprised a wealthy, self-sufficient community of faith. They believed that their wealth was an indication that they were recipients of God’s favor. John believed that their wealth was an indication that God did not favor them. Because one could only gather wealth in that Greco-Roman context by blending into the very culture that denied God’s lordship, wealth was a sign of accommodation.”
God was angry with the Laodicean Christians because the money and wealth in which they had put their trust came from the monster’s ravenous appetite for human flesh. Their comfortable homes, secure borders, respectable jobs, and secure bank accounts were evidence not of God’s favor but of their collusion with the demonic forces of empire, the same forces that had exiled members of their own Christian family at the knife’s edge of persecution unto death.
How could the Laodicean church miss it? How could they mistake wealth that was built on the backs of enslaved and exploited people as God’s blessing? How could they ignore that the same empire that had made them wealthy was literally killing their Christian family? And what about us? We miss the same thing those early Christians missed, that money is a spiritual power that the evil one exploits for his destructive purposes, purposes that are heightened and hidden within the machinations of the empire.
Once we understand the satanic power behind empire we can better understand the Laodicean church’s captivity to money, and perhaps our own as well. The Bible tells us two important things about God’s enemy, the red dragon of Revelation who animates the beast of empire. First, his desire is to destroy. So of course the spirit of empire – whether the Roman empire of the past or the current expressions of empire that we experience today – of course empire will destroy human life. And not just as a matter of occasional policy, but as the fundamental rationale for its very existence. There is no way to profit from the empire without profiting from someone else’s exile; there is no way to take the empire’s money without being complicit with the empire’s bloodthirsty violence- human beings sold as slaves.
Second, Satan is a liar. The Laodiceans show us how the dragon who animates the monster of empire is a deceiver. Not only have they been blinded to how their wealth has been squeezed from the bodies of others, blood pooled in the prostitute’s cup; they’ve also become convinced that this wealth is a sign of God’s love for them, rather than proof of their complicity with the empire’s wicked agenda. Standing on the security of their money, the Laodicean church proclaims “we don’t need anything.” In fact, they are in danger of being spat from God’s mouth along with the other filth that has collected in the prostitute’s golden goblet.
Jesus warned his followers in similarly stark terms. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” [Matthew 6:24] We are tempted to think of money as an object to be used. But Jesus warns us, as does John in Revelation, that money is a spiritual power that competes with God for our worship. The empire’s money is a spiritual power opposed to the Kingdom of God. If we choose to play by the rules of the empire we will never simply use money; money will always use us, and we will get used for the enemy’s deception and destruction. Or to put it slightly differently, when we get used by the empire’s money, someone else is guaranteed to be abused.
Is there any hope for us? If exile is our experience until Christ’s return, is there any way we can stand against the monster of empire and its oppressive use of money? Each of us has been ensnared at some point by this monster. Many of us are like the complacent Laodiceans, mistaking our relative wealth and comfort for God’s favor when in fact we are reaping the rotten empire fruit of exploitation and dehumanization. Others of us today know genuine poverty. We’ve had money squeezed from our bodies in the form of payday loans; court and legal fees collected by justice system that privileges the wealthy and the white; Chicago water fees that are higher in black and brown neighborhoods; Chicago property taxes that are adjusted at higher rates in lower-income neighborhoods; and on and on it goes.
As much as we’d prefer to think of ourselves as the masters of our money, if we can stomach the truth than we must admit that the Biblical view of money as a spiritual power that demands our worship and brokers no rivals is a far more accurate description of reality.
Is there any hope for an exiled people?
18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. [3:18] God urges the Laodiceans to repent, to turn from the Mammon of the empire and worship the God who is the only source of true wealth. If there is hope for them, there must be hope for us too.
There is hope for us, even in a place of exile, even as our world groans under the oppressive regime of the monster and its dragon. There is hope because God did not abandon us to the empire.
The God of grace subjected himself to the monster’s regime of buying and selling, of exploitation and greed; the Son of God took on the flesh of our frail and vulnerable humanity and subjected himself to an empire where everything was commodified, including the very creatures created in his image.
The God whose character it is to give, to forgive and then to forgive again; the God who cancels debts and liberates captives; the God who makes covenant with his people and then agrees to uphold both ends of the promise; the God who came to proclaim good news to the poor; the God who came to to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for blind Laodicean and American eyes; the God who came to set the oppressed free… this God – the very definition of grace and gift – this God subjected himself to the greedy empire and this God – for us and our salvation – allowed himself to be sold for thirty pieces of silver.
There is hope for exiles like us whose minds have been colonized by a greedy empire because this God allowed the monster to crush him; allowed the beast to display his cheaply purchased body from Calvary’s tree.
There is hope for the exiles who have forgotten that we are exiles; who have acculturated ourselves to the pleasures and luxuries of the monstrous empire. And there is hope for the exiles who are this empire’s scorn, the ones whose blood and bodies have long sustained the crops of America’s ill-gotten cash. Despite the dragon’s power behind this ravenous monster, there is hope for the exiles because though he subjected himself to the empire’s marketplace, Jesus would not be bought. Though he allowed his body to be purchased, Jesus would not be owned. Though he subjected himself to the enslavers, Jesus would not be captured. Though he allowed the spirit of money to lay claim on his life, Jesus would not be commodified.
The Son of God was sold, but he could not be bought. And so in God’s divine reversal, the purchased Son of God gave himself away and with his death freely given he purchased our salvation.
There is hope for us because the One who subjected himself to our exile is now leading our exodus from the empire. The one who allowed the monster to crush him has defeated the dragon.
Money is a spiritual force that competes with God for our worship. This power is amplified within the empire, causing some of us to forget our exile and others of us to suffer greatly under its destructive power. But Jesus, by allowing himself to be purchased, has opened the way for our salvation; he has exposed the ultimate powerlessness of the empire’s money. In a nation that buys and sells everything and everyone, Jesus has made us free.
We are free to confess how we have suffered the monster’s lies: the shame we have been made to feel by our financial poverty; the false sense of blessing we have been made to feel by our wealth.
We are free to sell our stuff to provide for the poor.
We are free to give generously from whatever abundance God has provided.
We are free to admit our financial addictions without shame to those who will walk with us, holding us accountable, cutting up those unnecessary credit cards.
We are free to tell our community that we don’t have enough to pay the rent this month. And we are free to tell our community that we have too much money and that we need help giving it away.
We are free, in other words, to reject the false god of money, to scoff at its weak power, and to worship instead the God of Grace.
The Laodiceans thought they were wealthy, not realizing they were wretched; thought they were powerful, not realizing they were pitiful; they misunderstood their poverty for wealth, their blindness for sight, their nakedness for luxurious cloth. May it not be so for us. May we see through the destruction and deception of the monster and its dragon, so that we might know the freedom that is ours in Christ Jesus, whose body and blood freely given forever purchased our freedom.
On Sunday I began a preaching series called Thriving in Exile. The premise is simple: Much of the time in Scripture God’s people are experiencing exile – having been sent or kept away from their homeland – and must wrestle with the inevitable theological and practical questions of an exilic experience. While the exile’s desire is always to return home – or, for the Christian, to experience finally what Paul calls our citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20) – often God promises not a quick exit from exile but a flourishing life in exile. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon is probably the best-known example as seen in Jeremiah 29.
Preaching about the experience of exile in a multi-racial church provides an interesting challenge for the different ways members have experienced their place in this country. For many of us who are white, our general posture toward the USA has been hopeful. We have felt at home in the land of the free. Our experience of Christianity has usually done little to challenge our deep affinity with the country. If anything, certain types of white Christianity have, at different times, identified certain moral concerns as a means of describing our cultural marginalization. Public school desegregation, school prayer, and contraceptive mandates have each functioned as rallying cries for communities that perceive themselves to be besieged.
Then there are those in our congregation who’ve never once mistaken this country to be their homeland. More than once, mostly from black members but not only, I’ve heard laments about how this nation has communicated dangerous disdain toward certain of its citizens. The biblical description of exile – in the cries of the psalmists, the questions of the prophets, and the experiences of the early Christians – resonate with their own experiences in a land that has made of them permanent exiles in this world.
There’s a difference, then, in how we hear Jesus’ promise in John 15:18 that his followers will experience the same hate he knew. Those who’ve made this nation our home, despite its deadly treatment of those who share our faith but not our race, will be tempted to hear a vague spiritual threat to our individual rights or happiness. But to those who’ve known their exilic status in this place, Jesus’ warning holds the potential for great peace. The one who outlined our exile in this life was himself despised, rejected, and made to suffer. Those who’ve never been confused about their homeland are the guides to thriving in our exile, to identifying with the despised One who makes available to us the abundant life, even here and now.
Thinking this Babylon to be our home has led many of us to fight for power in ways that damage not only our Christian reputation but the very lives of our fellow Christians. Our long battle to Make America Great Again has been a mistake greater than many of us are willing to imagine much less one for which we will consider repenting. But time remains and friendship with the crucified Lord and his exiled children remains a possibility for all who will come to embrace exile.