by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 4.12-19 (click to see Scripture text)
Maybe you saw the story in the Washington Post last week. I read the digital version of it over my wife’s shoulder as she sat at our kitchen island. Over three sweltering days this summer, Rob Bliss stood along a roadside in Harrison, Arkansas holding up a sign that read Black Lives Matter. Rob Bliss is a white filmmaker from California, famous for creating viral video stunts that speak to social issues. With a GoPro camera strapped to his chest and peeking undetected through a hole in his T-shirt, Harrison spent three days documenting the spontaneous reactions provoked by a Black Lives Matter sign.
Bliss has been critical of many of the protests unleashed by George Floyd’s murder earlier this summer, saying that many of the protests— because they have occurred largely in progressive urban areas— have only “preached to the choir.” “These conversations should probably be happening in places where you wouldn’t expect them,” he told the Washington Post, “ if you really want to take that leap and get people to better understand what you’re fighting for.” Bliss also wanted to expose that racism is still very much a problem in America. “People in the U.S. believe that there is only institutional racism,” he said, “or [implicit, accidental] biases or subconscious racism… I wanted to demonstrate the extent to which racism is very much alive.”
For three days in July, Rob Bliss stood with a Black Lives Matter sign along a highway in Harrison, Arkansas. Bliss selected Harrison, Arkansas for his stunt, because of its particularly fraught racial history. In 1905 a white uprising in Harrison led to mass lynchings, driving out all but a single black resident. It established the community as “sundown towns” across the South. Signs were posted that “colored” people had to leave town by sundown. Today, Harrison, Arkansas is known as a haven for white supremacists and home to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Rob Bliss compressed three days of footage into a few minutes. The film was embedded in the online edition of the story in the Washington Post. I watched it over my wife’s shoulder. Car after car would stop or slow down and shout out at Bliss. “What about White lives?” A woman in a passenger’s seat yelled. “We matter, too!” “You’re a White man!” the driver exclaimed, adding an anti-Semitic slur as they sped away. “This right here is the biggest hoax there ever was, “an older man said, “It’s the next thing to ISIS.” Nearly every driver flipped him off. A couple of drivers threatened to come back with their guns if he didn’t leave town. Many of them hurled the N-word and other epithets at him.
“What’s the matter with those people?!” I grumbled to my wife.
“What do you mean those people?” she asked, “as though their problem isn’t somehow also our problem?”
I’m as guilty as the next person. When it comes to sin, particularly with the Sin of Racism, we draw lines between Us and Them, so that we can tell ourselves that their sin is a transgression of which I am not guilty and for which I am not responsible. Whatever else my faults may be, I’m not like one of those guys shouting the N-word in Rob Bliss’ viral video and, therefore, they’re not my problem. Nothing could be more commonsense and American than seeing sin as a matter of every individual human heart. Unfortunately, as the Apostle Peter reminds us today, this is not how the scriptures speak of sin and judgment. “The time is drawing near,” Peter writes, “for judgement to begin with the household of God.”
The household of God.
Just as Jesus indicates in his parable of the sheep and the goats, just as St. John prophesies in the Book of Revelation, the Lord’s coming in the final judgement will not be executed by forming a single file line of sinners, nor will it be decreed one individual heart at a time. It will be a collective and corporate judgement. When he comes again, there will be only us. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory and all the angels with Him,” Jesus says, “then He will sit on the throne of His glory. And all the nations will be gathered before Him.”
Look, I realize it’s difficult for modern people to believe in any Sovereign other than the self, but a theme that predominates the Bible from end to end, particularly the Old Testament, is that the Lord has a case against His People. That the Lord of the Covenant has a legal claim against His elect People is the central motif of the Hebrew prophets. Both pre- and post-exilic prophets warned God’s People of the looming future Day of the Lord when not only the unbelieving world, but also God’s chosen People would be brought before the Lord’s bar of judgement. “Behold, the Day of the Lord is coming,” the prophet Zechariah warned. Whereas, mainline liberal Protestants like ourselves recoil at the notion of a God who judges, the Bible simply takes for granted that the right to judge is constitutive of God’s very identity. “The Lord is coming forth out of His place,” the prophet Isaiah warns, “to punish all the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity.”
Key to God’s future judgement according to the Bible is the Lord’s righteousness— His holy power to destroy evil, to draw an end to injustice, and to bring perpetrators of it to account. We’re hardly the first believers to attempt to distance ourselves from the notion of a God who judges. Whenever the Israelites succumbed to complacency about their covenantal obligations— about what God expected of them as his elect People— the prophets lit into them with imagery that makes John the Baptist seem like Mr. Rogers:
“Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear.”
Every good liberal Christian loves Micah 6.8, the verse of about doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with the Lord, but have you ever read past verse eight to the next verses about the Day of the Lord?
“Hear, O tribe and city!
Your wealthy are full of violence;
your inhabitants speak lies,
with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
Therefore I will strike you down…
I will make of you a desolation.”
The Bible most often envisages the Day of the Lord as a courtroom trial where Almighty God is both plaintiff, judge, and jury, what Markus Barth calls the “great and final litigation.” And the charges against God’s People most often concern God’s People acting with injustice and neglect towards the poor. Listen to how the prophet Isaiah indicts God’s elect:
“The Lord rises to argue his case;
he stands to judge the peoples.
The Lord enters into judgement
Of his People:
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts.”
Notice, it’s the whole People of God who are summoned before the bar of the Lord’s judgement, not simply the “guilty” but everybody. Today in our culture those on the right tend to think in terms of individual sin, while those on the left think in terms of systemic sin, as though they’re mutually exclusive. But in scripture it’s both/and, it’s both/at once, as the prophet Isaiah laments, “Woe is me…for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”
Isaiah places himself as an individual within the whole which God will judge.
The Bible even indicts God’s People for wanting to individualize guilt and protest their innocence over and against the apostasy of others. As the word of the Lord declares to Jeremiah:
“Also on your skirts is found
the lifeblood of the innocent poor,
though you did not catch them breaking in.
Yet you say, ‘I am innocent;
surely his anger has turned from me.’
Now I am bringing you to judgement
for saying, ‘I have not sinned.”
The shocking, counterintuitive witness of the Bible is not only that we will be judged along with those captured on film in Harrison, Arkansas. The prophets bear the sobering message that we, too, will somehow be held to account for their sin in the world.
Now I am bringing you to judgement
for saying, I’m not racist.
When the Son of Man comes again, there will be no Us and Them.
When He comes again in glory, we will discover there is only us.
It would improve our reading of both scripture and the newspaper if we could remember that when it comes to God’s judgement of sin, the Bible is thinking collectively. When it comes to guilt before Almighty God, the Bible thinks corporately, not individually. This is why Protestants confess our sins not in the privacy of a confessional, but all together in front of each other in corporate worship. The cosmic reckoning of all that is wrong in the world will fall not upon each solitary human heart, but upon the whole world. Indeed, we do not find anywhere in the Bible any suggestion that God will pardon or redeem sinners apart from this great and final litigation. There is no indication whatsoever in scripture that God will apart from judgement and sacrificial expiation.
That the final and coming judgement of Almighty God is inexorable and inclusive of us all does not explain why the Apostle Peter here today or the Apostle Paul in the Letter to the Romans declare that the great and final litigation should begin with us, the household of God. Judgement is coming to us all, okay. God will not pardon and redeem us apart from sacrifice and judgement, got it.
But why does Peter proclaim that God’s judgement begins with us?
Three years ago this month, my oldest son and I milled around Charlottesville. I went to college at UVA and now we have a house not so far from there where we spend a great deal of time.
Alexander and I walked around Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall and UVA’s Grounds just before the alt-right mob bearing tiki-torches descended from the Rotunda shouting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”
“Dad, don’t make any jokes about discovering you’re Jewish,” Alexander whispered to me. I laughed, not sure if I should be laughing.
We saw the empty Emancipation Park snaked with metal barricades and draped with police tape. We saw homeless men looking dazed and curious about the stage craft and street theater setting up around them. We saw the lonely-looking white men— boys— wearing white polos and khaki cargo pants, whose faces, illumined by flame and fury, we’d later recognize in the Washington Post.
We grabbed a coffee and a soda just off the side street where Heather Hoyer would be murdered the following day. There’s an elementary school near the park there in Charlottesville, mostly African American kids. I used to work there in their after-school program, Monday through Friday, when I was an undergraduate student.
Walking around the park with my son, I thought of Christopher Yates, the boy who had no father at home, whom I took with me to Long John Silvers on occasion. Back then, he had no idea there were people in the world who looked like me, who hated people like him, simply because they looked like him.
Walking around that park on Friday with my son, who is not white and was then growing into an ugly, but necessary awareness of that fact, I thought of Christopher. And I got angry— righteously angry— at those who would fill the park the next day. “God damn them all,” I whispered, making sure my son could hear.
The following Sunday I led the long pastoral prayer in my congregation.
And I prayed about them.
I beseeched Almighty God to bring His judgement upon them.
It was a good prayer, I thought.
But one worshipper took me to task for my prayer.
Frank, a retired Old Testament Professor, shuffled up to me, hunched over with a knobby cane in one hand and a floppy Bible in the other.
“Well, Pastor,” he smiled, “you certainly were bold to pray for judgement on them.”
I was already beaming.
Ignoring my self-satisfied smile, he added: “You just weren’t nearly bold enough.”
“Professor, I don’t know what you mean…”
He cut me off with a “Tssskkk….” sound between his teeth.
“You only prayed for them. You didn’t pray for our judgement.”
“But…” I started to protest, “we weren’t the ones with tiki-torches.”
“Everyone in this country is sick with judging,” he said, “judging and indicting, posturing and pouring contempt and pointing the finger at someone else,” he said, pointing his finger at me.
He raised his voice a little as well as his hunched-over posture: “As Christians, we’re supposed to put ourselves first under God’s judgement, because we’re the only ones who know not to fear the Judge. Christians like to say that every Sunday is a little Easter, but, every day—every day— is Ash Wednesday where we bear the judgement of God on behalf of a sinful world.”
He tapped his cane on the carpet and lifted up his Bible as if to say, It’s all right here if you’d just read it.
Judgement can and should begin with the household of God, because of all the people in the world we are the ones who have been elected to know that which cannot be known apart from revelation: in the Cross of Christ, the just judgements deserved by us all converge. On Golgotha, the verdict of the Father upon sinful humanity has been rendered with finality, “It is finished!”
Because Jesus Christ is Lord, He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Therefore, what happened on the cross of Jesus Christ [God’s grace for you] still happens and, as such, will happen. He will come again as the person He was. He shall come again as the person He is right now, who sits at the right hand of the Father and intercedes for you as your Advocate and Mediator.
Judgement starts with the household of God, because we are the ones who know, by the electing grace of God, that the one who shall come to us in glory is the same one who was for us in suffering. Judgement begins with us, because we are the ones who know by faith that when He comes again, His “It is finished” for all will be revealed in full clarity to all. As Karl Barth says, “the Christian perfect (“It is finished”) is not imperfect, and those of us who know this good news, like Elijah, we wander the present world on the strength of this food.”
The Apostle Peter writes that judgement begins with the household of God, because we have been elected to know that the Judge who is to come has been already judged in our place. And remember your Bible— God’s great and final litigation is a class action lawsuit not a case-by-case judgement of offenders.
Therefore, the Judge has been judged in your place, yes. But the Judge has been judged also in the place of your neighbors, including, say, those goats in Harrison, Arkansas. When we say the Judge has been judged in our place, they are a part of our us. Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it, Christ died for the justification not of the good, but of the ungodly.
Rob Bliss staged his film in Harrison, Arkansas while standing in front of a roadside billboard that depicts a happy white couple and their children smiling while sitting together on the sofa in front of the television. Above and below the image of domestic tranquility, the billboard advertises White Pride Radio and AltRight TV. Bliss was standing in front of that sign, which stands next to a McDonalds’s, when a driver crept by in a white Chevy SUV with his window rolled down and shouted that a Jew like him needed to find Jesus Christ.
Does the Christian perfect (“It is finished”) mean that God turns a blind eye to all that is imperfect in us, all that is imperfect in our world? When we say that the Judge has been judged in everybody’s place— that the great and final litigation against us has already been decided and on account of Christ and His shed blood, we who are guilty have been declared totally innocent— Do we mean that when He comes again he will just leave us as we are? Even that guy in white Chevy SUV? Because if so, the Christian perfect would seem to be imperfect.
When thinking of that clause in the Apostles’ Creed (“…He shall come again to judge the quick and the dead…”) Karl Barth advises that we would do well to remember the other way in which that term Judge functions in the Bible. “In the thought world of the Bible,” Barth says, “the Judge is not primarily the one who rewards some and punishes the others; [as in the days of Samson and Deborah] the judge is the one who creates order and restores what has been destroyed.”
The biblical judge is the one who rectifies what is broken.
He will come again to rectify the quick and the dead.
He will come again to make right those whom he has declared right.
In Jesus Christ, He will come again to make right those whom, on account of Christ, He has already declared right.
Or, as the prophet Malachi says at the very end of the Old Testament, God is a purifying fire.
That’s a frightening thought…for those who might not know any better.
But by God’s grace we do know better, and therefore we can thrust ourselves to the front of the line knowing that before God’s Judgement Seat, we will hear the first words spoken when God came to us.
“Do not be afraid.”
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory,* which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.* 15But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief-maker.16Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. 17For the time has come for judgement to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18And
‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?’
19Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.