In Joel 3:21, God says that he will treat Israel’s blood as innocent, something he had not done before. As a result, God will regard Israel’s Gentile oppressors as if they had shed innocent blood, which is a big “no no” in God’s sight. In effect, God will punish the sinful Gentile nations through destruction, even as he preserves sinful (yet repentant) Israel.
How should Israel feel in this chapter? Here are the Gentile nations, getting their just deserts. And here are the Israelites, who also deserve destruction yet receive God’s presence and favor. And the reason for God’s activity is that the Israelites are his chosen people. God values Israel, so he shows justice with respect to her enemies and mercy with respect to her.
If I were Israel, I’d be humbled. I’d feel grateful. It would be like being the sole survivor of an automobile accident or a burning building, only I’d know that my survival was due to God’s favor rather than blind chance. Would I mourn over the destruction of my enemies? I’d probably feel the same way I did as a child when I no longer had to deal with a bully (or, in one case, my grandparents’ vicious dog): relieved at my newfound safety. I’d be at peace. I know that sounds selfish, but that’s how I’d feel.
I’m sure you’ve seen the bumper sticker that says, “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven.” According to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, all people are sinners who deserve God’s wrath. Christians are no different from anyone else, for they too have sinned in the past. Maybe their behavior is better now, but all it takes is one crime to get a criminal record in today’s justice system (though, of course, many crimes can be expunged). In the eyes of God, Christians have a criminal record and deserve punishment, just like every other person on the face of the earth.
But God chooses to treat Christians as innocent, even though they technically are not. Calvinists say this is because God chose them before the foundation of the world, and Arminians contend that salvation is based on a decision to receive God’s free gift. But both sides agree that Christians are getting something that they don’t deserve.
So why do a lot of Christians act like they’re better than non-believers? Not all, or most, but a lot of Christians seem to have that attitude. Maybe they forget where they came from. We as Christians should remember that we too are sinners who deserve God’s wrath. We’ve been plucked from the fire. We should feel relieved and grateful, not smug and superior in the confines of our Christian cliques.
That’s why I get annoyed when I hear the cliche “Hate the sin but love the sinner” in today’s debates on homosexuality. I suppose that I agree with the slogan on some level, for I believe that homosexuality is wrong yet maintain that all people should be loved (though my love for others is far from perfect). But the slogan strikes me as rather patronizing, as if we righteous Christians should condescend to love those lowly sinners. Hate the sin but love the sinner? Christians are sinners. Not to mention the fact that I’m sick of hearing the cliche all the time, as if it’s the definitive answer to the homosexuality debate.
At the same time, I also don’t like the other extreme, which says that we can’t make moral judgments because all of us are sinners. I’ve heard homosexuals say to Christians, “Who are you to judge me? You’re not perfect!” But there has to be some room for moral judgment and outrage. And I’m not speaking primarily about homosexuality here. If I’m a criminal who stole a few pieces of candy from a grocery store, and I hear about a man who raped a child, killed her, and threw her corpse into a nearby dumpster, don’t I have a right to be mad about his actions? Sure, I’m not perfect, but does that mean I can’t have any moral outrage?
So there has to be a balance between humility and moral outrage, though I’m not exactly sure where the right point of balance actually is.
I want to make a transition to the next book that I’m reading for my daily quiet time: the Book of Amos. On at least one occasion, Amos discusses the same issue, only, in his scenario, the Gentiles are the ones evaluating the Israelites’ behavior. In Amos 3:9, we read, “Proclaim to the strongholds in Ashdod, and to the strongholds in the land of Egypt, and say, ‘Assemble yourselves on Mount Samaria, and see what great tumults are within it, and what oppressions are in its midst'” (NRSV).
God is putting the Israelites on display before two sinful Gentile nations: Egypt and Philistia. I wonder what the Gentiles’ reaction is when they see the Israelites’ sin. Here are some possibilities:
“Naughty, naughty. Look at that oppression! Those Israelites are always strutting around, acting like they’re better than the rest of us. But we’d never have oppression like that in our nation.”
“Yeah, the Israelites oppress people. So what? We do that in our own countries. It’s part of our culture.”
“The Israelites have sinned, and God is punishing them. Let us take that as a warning and an exhortation to ourselves. Let’s stop oppressing people in our midst and outside of our borders. Let us pursue justice!”
Of the three responses, I’d venture to say that the third is closest to the attitude that God would like us to have. And, of course, it should be mixed with compassion for the sinners, yet a compassion that is not patronizing and does not compromise moral outrage.