When Donald Trump was asked, during last night’s debate, how he would address the obvious racial tension in our country, he responded with tone deaf comments about his recent endorsement by the fraternal order of police, stereotypes of “war-torn” black and brown neighborhoods, and promises of salvation. There were a few words that lodged themselves in my memory (probably because he kept repeating them): “bad”, “tough”, “strong”, and of course “law-and-order”.
But this article is not about Donald Trump.
It’s about the appeal of his type of language to evangelical Christians, and the inherent contradiction: that we sing to Jesus as the Ruler of God’s Universe, but want Hammurabi to steward our cities.
[Getting What They Deserve]
Hammurabi is the guy who is famous for his "eye-for-an-eye" law code. Hammurabi is "tough" on crime. The punishment for theft? Death. The punishment for perjury? A permanent mark engraved in the skin of your forehead.
If you're a "bad guy" [sic], Hammurabi ain't havin' it. You'll get what you deserve. That's the guy it seems many Christians want.
I’ve seen this in the many conversations I’ve had about police brutality. Whenever there is news of some victim of police violence, there is almost always an effort to show how the victim provoked it. In so many cases, the reason cited for abuse or death is simply “noncompliance”. Noncompliance is, apparently, a legitimate reason to slam civilians on the pavement, to pepper-spray teenaged girls, and even to kill. I’m not categorically saying that using force is bad; but, we’re seeing children being maced after already being handcuffed, and men and women being shot after they’re already subdued.
And we are easily pleased (too easily, in my opinion) with allegations that these victims were “bad” enough to deserve the “law and order” being so “tough” on them.
I think that much of this is connected to a deep desire for justice (among other things). There is something maddening about feeling like people get away with badness. A part of that frustration might actually be a bit of jealousy, but the other part is probably our desire to know that the “bad guys” [sic] get what’s coming to them. C’mon! You know you’ve felt a satisfied release when a movie villain dies. I’ll be honest: I waited four seasons for sadistic Game of Thrones villain Ramsay Bolton to get his just desserts. Watching him get punched in the face by fan favorite Jon Snow was a damn near transcendental experience.
There’s just a couple of problems with waiting for the “bad guys” [sic] to get what they deserve: (1) People are not so one-dimensional, and (2) God is incredibly reluctant to give us what we deserve.
[We are all the "bad guys" (sic)]
In his book, Just Mercy, social activist and lawyer Bryan Stevenson shares moving stories from his work advocating for the release of prisoners from death row. Many of these people have done things that we would think warrant the death penalty. But Stevenson has a compelling core belief:
In painful detail, Stevenson recounts the circumstances that brought many of his clients to prison, and the abuse they endure because they’d been labeled a “bad” person—stories of accidents, abuse, mental illnesses, and more, that forever strip the dignity away from poor people, the mentally ill, children, pregnant mothers, and even innocent men. What we find in each story, underneath the horrors they’ve endured and the mistakes they’ve made, is a human being.
We find that people are too complex to be shoved in a neat little good-bad binary. We’ve all made mistakes or bad decisions, and none of us want to be defined by them.
But whenever we’re not the sinners in question, reducing people to their most unpleasant traits or actions is all to easy. So is sentencing them to harsh punishment. When did any of us become so good that we can judge so many people we’ve never even met? Where did we get these high horses, from which we can say that this or that person was “bad” enough to deserve to be brutalized?
None of us would exact that type of justice on ourselves; even though there is probably somebody, somewhere, who would take great comfort in knowing that somewhere down the line—after you snubbed them, or hurt their feelings, or broke their heart, something!—that somebody (maybe even life itself) punched you in the face. We are all, to some degree, the “bad guys” [sic].
[God's Greatest Weakness]
And the frustrating thing about God--say the prophets--is that God is not “tough” enough on “bad” people. At times, it takes generations of offenses and all-pervasive injustices for God to finally lay the smackdown on "bad" people. To an Israelite, the Assyrians were "bad" people. It was bad enough that they were pagans, but they were also vicious and oppressive conquerors, that took pleasure in flaying the victims of cities they overthrew. They'd sacked the royal city of Samaria and violently deported its citizens. They were the Boltons of the ancient Near East, and God was sending Jonah to preach in Nineveh, their capital city.
Jonah knew that this assignment was ultimately an opportunity for the Ninevites to escape divine punishment, and so he tried his best not to go. When God predictably spares the city, Jonah gets understandably upset that God would not be punching any Ninevites in the face for his viewing pleasure. He rails at God's mercy! The words describing God's patience and compassion, usually invoked as praise, are actually Jonah's complaint! God should be "tough"-er on these "bad" people, so thinks Jonah. But God sees the Assyrians in a more nuanced way, even with their unequivocally heinous acts of violence:
Jesus embodies the same frustrating divine mercy in eating with tax-collectors, and prostitutes, etc. But how about that whole episode with the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8)? A crime punishable by death, and He just lets her go, telling her to do better! Everyone standing around there seemed to know that this woman was "bad" enough to die, except for Jesus! It seems that the only sins that Jesus comes down very hard on (in the gospels, anyway) are self-righteousness and hypocrisy, especially where religion is concerned. Otherwise, His compassion for people and desire to give redemptive correction, for restoration, for mercy is downright infuriating.
We like to sing about this Jesus at church, but we would hate Him in a police uniform, or having Him running our courts, or serving as a lawyer. He's just not "tough" enough on "bad"-ness. In fact, He probably agrees (with his disciple Paul) that God's kindness leads to repentance (Romans 2:4). He even has a reputation among the poets of "not treating our sins as they deserve" (Psalm 103:10-14).
He probably thinks that, even when people are not at their best, that they still bear inherent dignity and value that deserve to be honored. He probably wants to see them become the best version of themselves, and would probably take measures (even if they are disciplinary) to help them become the person they were always created to be.
And get this: Jesus seems to be under the impression that His disciples should also embody God's anger-inducing mercy. He tells this story about a guy who owed a King a lifetime's worth of debt, but the King graciously forgave him; but when that servant found a colleague that owed him a debt, he violently demanded payment. When the King heard about the mercilessness of the forgiven servant, he had him thrown into prison. And we all know what that means. It's just words. It's all sound bites. It's just Jesus trying to say again, in coded language: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Now, I'm no mind reader, but it seems as though Jesus doesn't mean this in some sentimental, hypothetical, please meme these words, sense, but that Jesus actually expects for His disciples to be merciful: even if you work at McDonald's and your customers are annoying, even if you're a single parent of teenagers with attitude, even if you're a police officer and police work is hard.
So, since you wanna' be really "tough" on "bad guys" [sic]; even though in some ways, we're all "bad guys" [sic]--since you want to be "strong" on "law and order", maybe Jesus is going to frustrate you with the whole "gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love thing". Consider Hammurabi.
**Hammurabi has been dead since 1750 BCE, and so it is unknown to the author whether or not he approves this message**