Heaven to pay
A hostile culture should prompt a uniquely Christian response
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I write on the cusp of a momentous event—the most crucial midterm election of my lifetime. It replaces the previous most-crucial midterm of my lifetime, which occurred in 2014. Farther back in memory is the third most-crucial midterm of 2010. But no sooner will Nov. 6 come and go than the general election of 2020 will loom like a tidal wave of crucial importance. Every two years the stakes crawl higher, with more lives and futures at risk. Everything we hold dear is on the line, threatened with extinction if the other side wins.
Or maybe not.
Elections do have consequences, for good or ill. Even a decision to sign up for pottery class has consequences—how much more a national decision about the composition of Congress? Yet the life-or-death rhetoric that has come to define a routine political process is beginning to feel like a U.K. soccer match in the 1990s. Hooligans ruled; shouts turned to insults, thrown bottles escalated to thrown fists, and “Someone’s going to get hurt” became a self-fulfilling prophecy. People were hurt, even killed, at those games. In the United States, the game of politics, always tinged with an aspect of hooliganism, likewise threatens to turn deadly.
It’s happened before, but always with some well-defined danger in view: secession in the 1860s, labor wars in the 1870s, socialism in the 1890s, the Cold War in the 1960s and ’70s. The current “crisis” is not so well defined, and certainly not as cogently argued. After every ugly incident, furious fingers point at both sides: They started it. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind. Call down hell, and there’s hell to pay. This, pundits warn us solemnly, is a crisis of “civility.”
Civility, according to my dictionary, is “courteous behavior; politeness.” If you’re convinced, or repeatedly told, that the other side is a deadly threat to everything you hold dear, why bother to smile and ask about the kids before punching his lights out? No one is fooled by a politician who urges supporters to “get in [the opposition’s] face” today and “tone down the rhetoric” tomorrow. If your political identity is defined by your enemies, why make nice with them? Civility is just a town in Ohio. (Actually, it’s not. But it should be.)
I used to wonder about the “imprecatory” psalms in Scripture, until I encountered enemies in my own life. Then I could identify. Enemies can consume one’s waking hours and haunt one’s dreams. The captives who wept by the waters of Babylon in Psalm 137 had something to weep about: Having seen their own children dashed upon the rocks, they might naturally wish the same fate on their adversaries.
Those psalms remind us that God’s enemies are also ours. “If the world hates you,” says Jesus, “know that it hated me first.” If enemies haven’t showed up in your life, it’s because you haven’t showed up in theirs. “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Try living a godly life outside the Christian compound, and adversaries will appear. You may be the immediate target of their death threats, vile language, and possibly physical violence, but make no mistake: Their anger is actually against God. The more you identify with Him, the more ire you will draw.
And your response is to love them. Christ could not have been plainer about that, in word and in deed, and it’s the plainest truth we most often ignore. Since even unintended slights create instant hostility, loving our enemies poses a challenge. We’d rather pray with the psalmist to “pay them back.”
Since even unintended slights create instant hostility, loving our enemies poses a challenge. We’d rather pray with the psalmist to “pay them back.”
But whatever Christ commands, He supplies. No one faced more malevolence with less cause, but His mission was to turn enemies into friends. When they brought hell to pay, he offered heaven. Those who oppose a godly life in Christ have a much bigger problem than us. Today’s political firestorm will soon be history, but their problem with God remains. We who pray and work toward reconciliation have heaven to pay.
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