Last Sunday, we heard from the prophet Zephaniah in church, who tells us in chapter 3, verse 15, as part of his prophecy for the future restoration of Israel:
The Lord has taken away the judgements against you.
The word “judgement” has been invoked recently by James Dobson, who says that Newtown is God’s judgement for a nation that has gone off the tracks. It’s not that I think Dobson misunderstands God (though I do), but that I think he misunderstands judgement.
When I was about 14, my family had a dog, a little beagle named Sparky. Each day after school, either my brother or I had to walk her. This usually provoked some bickering since, while we were both keen on owning a dog, neither of us were actually keen on walking her. So my parents came up with a solution: every Sunday, we sat down at the kitchen table, looked at the week ahead, and assigned each day’s after-school dog-walk to one of us. This was written on our weekly calendar and put on the refrigerator.
This worked fine until I came home from school one day a bit earlier than my brother and decided that, although it was my day, I could not possibly walk Sparky that day. Since our infallible list was written in pencil, I erased my name and—in my best imitation of my father’s handwriting—wrote in my brother’s name. He duly came home and asked if I had walked the dog. “Why, no,” I said, smiling sweetly, “it’s your day” and pointed at the calendar.
I’ll spare you the details of the verbal brawl that erupted but it reached such a point that my brother called my father at work. I was summoned to the phone. My father is the kind of person who almost never raises his voice. But on this day, I heard a voice that was quite loud on the other end of the line: “Did you change the calendar?”
In that moment, I realized I had absolutely nothing to say. Not one word. Instead, I wanted to sink into the floor. My father asked again, “Did you change the calendar?” Still, I said nothing. I just stood there, mute, holding the phone in my hand.
That moment of me standing there in silence, wanting to sink into the floor, was a moment of judgement. But it wasn’t my father doing the judging, it wasn’t my brother, and it wasn’t God. It was me. I had come face-to-face with my own wrong-doing, my own inability to do good, and I knew it. This is only one of many, many times that my own actions have led me to the equivalent of crippled silence. I know judgement well; I bet I’m not alone.
If we think about judgement in this way, then Zephaniah’s prophecy is a piece of incredibly good news: “The Lord has taken away the judgements against you.” In Christ, we learn that God’s love and mercy is constant and steadfast. That means we can always turn again to God and the crippling judgements we inflict on ourselves are taken away. This is the act of repentance, a word that is closely related to the word for “turn.”
So I agree with Dobson: the shootings in Newtown are a judgement. But they are a judgement we have inflicted on ourselves in contravention of the will of God. In those shootings, we see clearly the nature of our society: overly violent, unable to care adequately for those with mental illness, too lenient with our gun laws. The shock and grief that so many of us have felt since last Friday are a sign of the judgement contained in the Newtown shootings.
So what to do? We repent of our failings as a society and turn again to our merciful God; the burden of the judgement is, as Zephaniah tell us, taken away; and we are enabled to work towards the kind of society in which we do not so routinely inflict this particular form of judgement on ourselves. (I’m making this sound like it’s a one-off kind of thing. Of course, it’s not; it’s part of the pattern of faithful Christian living.)
It’s very easy to inflict judgement on others: that’s what Dobson has done, and it’s what others have done in response to him. It’s lot harder, however, to acknowledge the judgement on ourselves—I don’t like crippling silence—and repent of our failings as a society. But it’s the first step in creating the kind of world we want to live in.
I’ve been singing this song a lot to myself lately. Would that it were true: