By: Nichola Torbett
The wrath of God has been kindled and is pouring out of Baltimore in images of police cars on fire and CVS windows broken. It pours out of Baltimore as it poured out of Ferguson last summer. In the faces of chanting protestors there, I see the power of the life force refusing to be repressed any longer. The life of God is rising up and destroying the instruments of oppression like so many drowned Egyptian chariots. Praise God.
Praise God, but I think if we’re honest, it makes a lot of us American Christians, and especially white American Christians like me, uncomfortable. And if ever we needed to be honest, it is now.
In predominantly white progressive Christian circles, we are squeamish about this concept: the wrath of God. For instance, I have always wanted to celebrate the escape of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt while glossing over the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea. After all, the Egyptian soldiers were people, too. Didn’t God care about them?
I am grateful to Laurel Dykstra’s book Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus, in which she addresses this elision head on and argues that the drowning of the Egyptian army is about the destruction of the military that enables and protects the exploitation of God’s people, not so much about the killing of human beings (although certainly human beings would have died). She points out the heavy textual emphasis on chariots—symbols of militarism. I believe the ubiquitous and controversial chant of “Fuck the Police!” does exactly the same thing. It calls not for harm to individual people but for the disintegration of the uniforms they wear, the cruisers they drive, and the whole system of privatization of resources that they are recruited to protect.
And yet we know that in any liberation struggle, people may die, not because God wills it, but because people resist it. We need look no further than Jesus to see that.
How, acknowledging this, do I stand in the midst of God’s wrath at the murder and brutalization of God’s people? How do I relate to the uprisings now happening in Baltimore and destined to happen in cities around the country until the day that justice prevails?
Predictably, many clergy and church people are joining the chorus of political leaders calling for “calm” and “peace” and “restraint” among the protestors. Since at least the time of Jesus, God’s life has been crucified by religious leaders who, in an effort to preserve their own privilege, colluded with imperial forces while espousing piety.
The religious elders, scribes, Pharisees, and other religious leaders who colluded with Rome to have Jesus killed were, whether they admitted it to themselves or not, conspiring to preserve their own place in an unjust society. I am at risk of doing the same in this moment, even if I don’t want to admit it.
I have always thought my downplaying of the vengeful God of the Hebrew scriptures was about wanting other people to know that God loves them, forgives them, and will not willfully harm them, but when I contemplate the story of Freddie Gray or Mike Brown, or Alan Blueford or any of the other unarmed people killed by police, and when I look at the faces of angry black protestors, I come face to face with the truth: I myself have reason to fear an angry God who may well strip me of my privileges and more. I am threatened by the wrath of God because I myself have sinned against God’s life and have been living in that sin. It’s not just that I haven’t fully committed myself until now to the black and brown liberation struggle. It’s that I have willingly benefitted from the exploitation of other people’s labor, the forceful containment of other people’s desire for equal access to resources, and the violent regulation of black and brown bodies in public space, all of which has been held in place domestically through policing and internationally through American militarism. By virtue of my skin color, I have benefitted in untold ways from the police brutality now coming to light.
In the words of the old song, “Not my mother, not my brother, but it’s me, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” I am in need of God’s grace for my transgressions.
And having received that grace from God and from so many of God’s people, including people of color who have loved and taught and worked with me, I cannot withhold it from any other person. I can’t separate myself out as better than any other squeamish white person or falsely pious religious person, nor, on the other hand, should I be surprised or offended that people of color may not be just thrilled to see me coming. I have to stand in the knowledge that their anger toward and suspicion of me is justified (and my antiracist work doesn’t exempt me from it), and that, simultaneously, I am forgiven and am a child of God like any other.
I pray that if I can hold in my consciousness both of those things, I may be able to show up with the humility that befits my social location. Having received the love of an angry and compassionate God, I long to be in solidarity with the righteous wrath of God wherever it is pouring out. Amen.
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