I had gathered with Christians from all over the local area to celebrate Easter Monday at a big event. The Cathedral was full to bursting with Pilgrims who had walked for miles just to be there. The seats had been removed and a modest communion table was set in the middle of the nave. Gone was the finery of Easter Sunday. No shimmering robes, no bleach-white choir, no ladies in fine hats. This day was stripped of pretence as it was merely the gathering of those who wanted to celebrate the resurrection with their friends.
Hymns, readings and reflections led our thoughts as we prepared to share bread and wine. The story of forgiveness, of barriers brought down and hearts humbled became a real experience as we crowded into the church, smelling from our long walks and shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers and acquaintances alike. It was glorious.
Indeed it was a testimony to the reality that Christ’s resurrection inaugurated. Christ called people to himself and overcame death, demonstrating that there is no end to his reign and that all who follow him have nothing truly to fear. This is the foundation of Christian community.
One thing only threw me that day. I could cope with the authority exorcised by the Bishops, the fact that this event was steeped in Anglicanism and even that the Diocese of St. Alban’s has endured its own share of strife, disagreement and controversial opinions.
What threw me was that one line in one song had been altered.
Stuart Townend’s hymn “In Christ Alone” had been revised such that the line which was intended to say:
“Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied”
Had been altered to read:
“Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The love of God was satisfied”
Why did I find this hard to deal with?
This line is typically altered because the implication behind it is that Jesus came to save us from God’s rage. Therefore God cannot be loving, cannot be trusted and certainly ought not be worshipped. An angry God is not a good God and only a good God should be praised.
Now, the first thing to notice about such a decision is that it takes any objective content out of God and places him in the realm of subjectivity. Appropriately, the language of God can be altered to suit the mood of society and God has no response. It is also telling of the theology of those who would advocate such a change:
Imagine if you will that some researcher notices that a drug problem is intrinsically linked to sex-work in a deprived area. The fact of this research would keenly imply that the reduction of sex-work and the crime which surrounds it would be achieved by eliminating the cruel dependence the community has on drugs. But say for example that this is too hard. Why not just arrest every prostitute on a street corner. It’s easier and looks better to the Middle Class voter.
This would be philosophically bankrupt: The researching body knows what should be done, yet has chosen to do something easier. In the same way, those who jettison ideas of God on the grounds of expedience or comfort for the hearer are demonstrating their ideological bankruptcy because they have decided that Christian doctrine is a matter of opinion, or worse–marketing.
In order to appeal to the nice white middle-class churchgoers the notion that these people could be in any way worthy of God’s wrath must be not only diminished, but denied. It is a crude suggestion and I dislike the very notion that church leaders would indulge in this sort of crass revisionism, yet there is little else to justify such a transformation. Steve Chalke in his book “The Lost Message of Jesus” fiercely denies the teaching of preachers like Johnathan Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ on precisely these grounds. He speaks for a great many Christians, as his popularity testifies.
Yet the songs of the faith have not always been thus tamed. In days of trial, or suffering and persecution the songs uttered from the lips of the believer have been very different.
Oppressed black people in America sang their spirituals, calling for judgement, for mercy and looking forward to the day of justice.
He delivered Daniel from de lion’s den
Jonah from de belly of de whale
An’ de Hebrew chillun from de fiery furnace
An’ why not every man
De moon run down in a purple stream
De sun forbear to shine
An’ every star disappear
King Jesus shall-a be mine
De win’ blows eas’ an’ de win’ blows wes’
It blows like a judgement day
An’ every po’ sinner dat never did pray’ll
Be glad o pray dat day
From one sufferer, to another the Scriptures sing the same songs:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
It is the groan issued forth from the lips of those under the burden of slavery, genocide, poverty and oppression.
This is the song wealthy, secure Christians no longer want to sing.
Stanley Hauerwas speaks of Black slavery as a “wrong that is so wrong there is nothing you can do to make it right.” There is only judgement in store for those who participate in this ongoing exploitation. The abuse of women is a wrong that is so wrong there is nothing you can do to make it right. The neglect of the disabled is a wrong. The disenfranchisement of the poor is wrong. The manipulation of global economies by businesses for their own ends is wrong. These are so wrong there is nothing you can do to make them right. There is no way for a person’s actions to justify them to the people they have wronged.
I think this is why God’s wrath is kindled against humanity. Not that people have failed some abstract set of rules but that their actions trample on the lives of others. The Christian tradition, especially what it inherits from the Hebrew scriptures, testifies to a God who is moved by the suffering of humanity. In compassion? Yes. But what is God’s care for the suffering if not accompanied by wrath for those who cause it?
Hauerwas taught me that the ability to confess to sin is a theological achievement. This is to say that it takes time and effort and reflection to really grasp the fact of one’s own sin and indeed the sin of the world. That God should be angry at this sin is then a clear conclusion. Short-circuting this journey to get God off the hook, to apologise for the harsh language surrounding him, thus displays a lack of reflection on the part of the church and also a perverse denial of the wrongdoing with which it has participated.
Standing amongst the multitude who gather to share the body and blood of the one crucified by the Romans confronts secure western Christians like me with the truth: That I participate in this same oppressive violence every day. How can God not be consumed with wrath on account of the misery my life, my culture, my empire inflicts on the downtrodden? How can I stand there and take the sacrament after this wrong that is so wrong there is nothing I can do to make it right?
It must be because the suffering and death of Jesus is God’s choice to identify not only with the victims of this world’s sin. In his resurrection he confronts those who abandoned him, who caused his suffering, inviting them to be reconciled through him to his Heavenly Father.
In this way the wrath of God was satisfied: Jesus died because of sinners, but in his resurrection that death becomes *for* the sinner.
Standing in a cathedral in a wealthy city in suburban south-east England, it is plain to see why we don’t want the wrath of God to be satisfied. This impinges far too heavily on our life now. Yet I could not but sing and celebrate that the wrath of God was satisfied. There is no way for what I have done and participated in to be made right but by forgiveness and no way for me to participate in the life of God in faith and through the sacrament without his sacrifice on my behalf.
Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied.