So we’re in the second week of our series called “War & Peace” and the question that is driving the whole series, the question that we’re all wrestling with for the next month, is this: when it comes to war and peace—to conflict and violence and hostility and justice and forgiveness—what sort of story does Christianity tell? Over and against everything the world has to say, what does the Bible have to say about war and peace?
And so last week we started that conversation with this: the very first and last thing the Bible has to say about war and peace, is peace. Period. Violence was not in the beginning and it will not be in the end. We find violence fascinating, but God doesn’t. We find peace boring and naïve, but God doesn’t. The universe has always, does always, and will always revolve around the wild and unpredictable peace of God.
That said, we live in a world that sure does seem to revolve around violence. So how do we explain that? And perhaps more importantly, what does God’s peace do when it’s confronted with a world at war? Let’s turn to Genesis 3 and we’ll read 3:22-4:16.
East of Eden
Genesis 3 and 4 tell us the story of how God’s world of peace becomes a world at war. Adam and Eve have been cast out of the garden and they travel east of Eden—that’s an important phrase. In the Bible, to move east of Eden is to move away from God. Humanity has moved east of Eden, and the very first thing that happens is this.
Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. And if Adam and Eve are the primal, archetypal husband and wife, Cain and Abel are the primal, archetypal brothers. Cain is the firstborn and he’s a farmer. Abel is the younger and he’s a shepherd. And one day they bring their offerings to God, and for some reason, God accepts Abel’s offering and reject’s Cain’s. This rejection makes Cain very angry—with God and with Abel—and what happens next will reverberate down the halls of history. Faced with conflict and needing to resolve it, needing to find a way forward, Cain sacrifices Abel. In order to secure his own future, Cain takes somebody else’s blood. Cain lures Abel out into a lonely field and murders him.
And immediately, God’s ears are filled with a terrible sound, a sound he’s never heard before. It’s the sound of Abel’s blood, crying out from the ground—and it cries out for vengeance. So God marks Cain and sends him even further east of Eden and in the stories that follow, more and more blood is shed, and more and more vengeance is called for. And we’re left wondering: how is God going to deal with the world’s cry for vengeance and justice?
The courthouse in Nuremburg, Germany is sight of the most famous trials of the 20th century. In the aftermath of WW2 and the fall of the Nazi regime, it was clear to the world that justice had to be served for the atrocities of the Holocaust. The blood of many Abels, millions of Jewish men, women, and children cried out for justice. Even now, so many years later, our hearts can hardly bear to hear the stories of the gas chambers and death marches and grotesque experiments.
And so faced with so much spilt blood, the Allies dealt with the cry for justice with Nuremburg, a series of trials where prominent Nazi leaders were tried and given a punishment that fit the crime—a number were sentenced to life in prison and twelve were sentenced to death by hanging.
And I don’t know about you, but few things bring me more satisfaction than seeing justice served by revenge and retribution. When I see pictures of a pile of shoes a mile high—shoes stolen from the feet of Jewish victims—and I think about all the little bitty shoes that are in that pile, there is nothing I’d like more than to tie the noose around the neck of every single person responsible. Because that’s what they deserve.
Just a few months ago, three teenagers were arrested in New Mexico for beating two homeless men to death. When asked why they did it, they answered that they were bored and one of them was angry about a break-up with his girlfriend. They beat two homeless human beings to death because they didn’t have anything better to do.
And so help me God, when I hear stories like that, everything in me calls for Nuremburg—for justice via revenge and retribution. I can think of nothing more just than spilling the blood of someone who has spilt somebody else’s blood. I like Nuremburg. I like giving people what they deserve. I like justice by means of revenge and retribution. But here’s the problem with Nuremburg.
You Are the Man!
In 2 Samuel, we’re told the sickening story of David and Bathsheba. King David sees Bathsheba, the wife of another man, bathing, and lusts after her, has sex with her, gets her pregnant, and to avoid a scandal has her husband (Uriah) murdered. And David thinks he has gotten away with it.
Time passes when one day a wild, old prophet named Nathan comes knocking on David’s door and he’s got a story to tell. He tells David a story of a rich man with a huge flock of lambs and a poor man with one little lamb who he loved very much. And one day a traveler shows up at the rich man’s house, but instead of taking a lamb from his very big flock, he sneaks over to the poor man’s house and steals his only lamb, killing it and serving it to his guest.
Nathan is barely finished telling the story when David explodes with anger and rage, swearing words of revenge and retribution and says, “The man who did this deserves to die!” And no sooner have the words left David’s mouth than the old prophet looks him dead in the eyes and says, “David, you are the man!” Or as Paul says it in Romans 3:23 and 6:23—everybody has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and the payment for that sin is death.
The Problem with Nuremburg
All of that to say, if it’s Nuremburg God is after, then all of us will hang in the gallows. The problem with Nuremburg—with justice served by revenge and retribution—is that all of us have sinned, and all of us have sacrificed others to save ourselves, and all of our hands have blood on them (even though some certainly have more than others). And so once the bloody cycle of revenge and retaliation and eye for an eye had run its course, the only one left standing would be God. If it’s vengeance we’re after, then all of us will pay.
And while this is a bedrock conviction of Christian faith, it’s hard for us to remember because it’s always hard to see the blood on your own hands. The blood of Abel, of all those we have trampled and wounded, both intentionally and unintentionally, cries out against all of us. We all bear the mark of Cain.
And yet in a dark and bloody world gone far, far east of Eden, a light came bursting forth in the wilderness in the form of a homeless carpenter, whose blood has something very different to say. Let’s read Hebrews 12:18-24.
There is a lot going on in these 6 verses, but we’ll focus in on verse 24. The writer is trying to describe this profound, cataclysmic new thing Jesus has done and ends his description with this: Jesus’ blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Now we know what Abel’s blood says, what it cries out for: it cries out for vengeance, it cries out for more blood to be taken, it cries out for Nuremburg. But what does Jesus’ blood cry out for? When it’s spilt and poured out, what does the blood of the God-man say? Let’s read Luke 23:13-34.
Give Us Barabbas
Again, there’s so much going on in this passage. As Jesus stands before the crowd, the crowd is faced with a very fateful decision. They’re frustrated at Jesus because he’s claimed to be the Messiah—the one sent by God to deliver the Jewish people—and so they expect him to come and spill the blood of their enemies (the Romans) because the Romans have been spilling their blood. They expect justice by vengeance.
But Jesus has rejected justice by vengeance—he’s told them to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile and put down their swords. So they reject Jesus and choose Barabbas and the decision could not be more telling. Because Barabbas is in prison for insurrection and murder, which means Barabbas is in prison because he wanted justice by vengeance, he had killed Romans. They choose the murderer and murder the one who refuses to murder in the name of justice.
And if we listen closely, we can hear our own voices in the crowd, shouting out, “Crucify Jesus and give us Barabbas! Give us vengeance! The only way forward is to spill somebody else’s blood! And so if Jesus’ won’t spill the blood of our enemies, then we’ll just spill his blood.”
Father, Forgive Them
And amidst all the noise and clamor and cries for vengeance, we can barely hear Jesus whisper the 3 words that will stop the world in its bloody tracks. He hangs on the cross, blood dripping from his brow, and as he looks down at his executioners, he says “Pater, aphes autois” …Father, forgive them. And it’s as if the world stops spinning on its axis and reverses its rotation. In a world crying out for justice by means of vengeance, Jesus speaks a word more powerful and creative and innovative than anything Cain and Barabbas can come up with: Jesus speaks justice by way of forgiveness.
And at this most crucial moment, it’s remarkable how prone we are to miss the point. And to illustrate this, I’d like you to look at this ancient painting of the crucifixion and ask yourself, “Where do you see God as Jesus is crucified?”
Over the years, I’ve found that our tendency is to see God hovering over Jesus, in the black sky, pouring out wrath. And this causes us to forget that the primary place we should see God at the crucifixion…is in the Jesus who hangs on the cross. Where is God at the crucifixion? Hanging.
As one author says it, “At Golgotha we learn that the God who pours out wrath is the God whose hands are nailed to the cross; that the God who punishes sin is the God who takes the punishment; that the God who judges is the one who looks down at his executioners and says, ‘Father, forgive them.’”
(Not) Divine Murder
In other words, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is not God murdering Jesus. It’s not God joining Cain and Barabbas, it’s not God spilling somebody else’s blood to find a way forward. No! The crucifixion of Jesus is God being murdered by us, is God judging our vengeance and violence (not participating in it), is God taking all of our endless cycles of hate and violence and sin up on the cross and down into the grave and putting them to death in the divine mystery of forgiveness. At the cross God says, “Enough of this!” And instead of taking blood, God gives blood.
The cross is where we rise up like Cain, lead God out onto a lonely hill, and kill him. A place where all the vengeance and violence we can muster conspires to nail God up on a wooden stake. And yet God looks down at us and with the blazing fire of forgiveness in his eyes he says, “Is that all you’ve got?”
As David Bentley Hart says, “The sacrificial outpouring of God cannot be brought to an end by crucifixion because it continues to be given even in surrendering to the violences of the world…our violence ends in powerlessness and finds itself impotent against a God who makes violence the place of his bounty; violence shows itself to be weak and exhausts itself upon the gift of God.”
And if you’re anything like me, I step back from this scene—of the Creator murdered by his creatures, of a very strange justice that chooses forgiveness instead of vengeance—and I think to myself, “Why would God do such a thing? Why not just give us what we deserve?”
A Friend Of Mine
Years back, a close friend of mine had her life turned upside-down when she found out her dad had been cheating on her mom. And as if the pain of that wasn’t enough, she soon discovered her dad had no intention of stopping the affair. In the blink of an eye, her family was torn to shreds and her life hasn’t ever been the same.
And the whole thing has made me very angry with her dad. And so I was really frustrated when she told me that they had been talking again and even met up for dinner a few times.
“Is he still dating that lady?” “Yea.” “Has he said he’s sorry?” “Not really.” “Then why in the world would you speak to him, why in the world are you trying to forgive him, why aren’t you giving him what he deserves?”
And I’ll never forget what she said: “If I give him what he deserves, we can never have a relationship. And despite everything he’s done he’s still my dad, and I want a relationship with him more than I want him to get what he deserves.”
And here it is friends—the thing we have got to understand. In a world at war, filled with people who follow in the footsteps of Cain, God’s justice takes the form of forgiveness instead of vengeance because God’s goal is not revenge, but reconciliation. I’m going to say that again because you just can’t understand Christian faith until you understand this: God’s justice takes the form of forgiveness instead of vengeance because God’s goal is not revenge, but reconciliation.
God is not like us—God is not some calculating, calloused executioner, obsessed with dealing out the proper amount of punishment. God is a father who hikes up his tunic and kicks up a trail of dust as he dashes out to meet prodigal sons and daughters.
At so at the heart of God’s justice, there’s a desire, not to give everybody exactly what they deserve, but to give everybody what nobody deserves. At the heart of God’s justice, there’s a desire to bring all sinners and enemies around a common table, where we can celebrate the grace of God in a raucous cosmic party that will last forever and ever and ever. As Miroslav Volf says, “There is a profound ‘injustice’ about the God of the Bible. It is called grace…So if we want the God of the prophets and the God of Jesus Christ, we will have to put up with the ‘injustice’ of God’s grace.”
In a world at war, far, far east of Eden, a miracle was set in motion. God looked at a violent world, filled with people who are both Cain and Abel, and decided that instead of killing for justice, he would die for it. And that is what Christians mean when they speak of forgiveness, flowing from the heart of a God who would rather die for his enemies than give them what they deserve; whose last words were not revenge, but reconciliation.
 I must thank Brian Zahnd for making this connection. Check out ch. 4 of Beauty Will Save the World.