Baby Jesus, baby-bashing, and the pursuit of happiness

20 Dec

A few years ago, I submitted this to Concordia Theological Quarterly but was rejected.  Not really their kind of standard fare.  : )   I still am pretty proud of it though, and so offer it here for the Christmas season:

Baby Jesus, Baby-Bashing, and the Pursuit of Happiness

In my opinion, there are very few hymn stanzas that have the compelling force of verse 2 from “What Child is This”, describing the nativity of Christ.

Why lies he in such mean estate Where ox and ass are feeding?

Good Christian, fear; for sinners here The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear, shall pierce him through, The cross be borne for me, for you;

Hail, hail the Word made flesh, The babe, the son of Mary!

The juxtaposition of the nativity of baby Jesus with His passion as a man always hammers home the point – Jesus became a human being that he might die for us.  Who needs beautiful music to move the heart when such profound words are present?

And this past Christmas season, babies were brought to my attention in yet another violence-laden context – one practically guaranteed to arouse the passions.  Last December [2006], on an Issues ETC. radio program (Dec. 11, hours 1 & 2, “Judgment Psalms), Pastor Todd Wilken interviewed Dr. Reed Lessing of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO.  Dr. Lessing had written an article in the recent Concordia Journal called “Broken Teeth, Bloody Baths, and Baby-Bashing: is there any Place in the Church for the Imprecatory Psalms?”  I noted at this time, that although Dr. Lessing did not directly address the issue of happiness, anyone who reads Psalm 137, for instance, will see that happiness seems to play a large part.  The text concludes with an Israelite crying out against the Babylonians:  “Blessed [i.e., “happy”] shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (ESV)

First of all, I believe Dr. Lessing has done a great service in bringing attention to these passages.  When I wrote a paper on Psalm 137 for a theology class some years ago, as best I could tell, this particularly troubling verse had not really been dealt with seriously by pastors.   Dr. Lessing, on the other hand, is getting right to the heart of the matter:  Cursing the enemies of the faithful is built into the very fabric of the Promise.  There can be no salvation without damnation.  There is no Gospel without Law.  There is no deliverance and mercy without justice.  Simply put: darkness cannot exist with light and evil and its offspring must ultimately be annihilated forever.  Helpfully, Lessing also noted that God’s anger lasts only for a moment, and host Todd Wilken added that God’s justice and vengeance – being his “alien work” – operate to serve his mercy.  With all of these points, I could not agree more, for on the last day, we who are in Christ will no doubt rejoice (Revelation 18:20 [all following passages are NIV]), shouting “hallelujahs” (Rev. 19:1), and saying “true and just are His judgments!” (Rev 19:2)  The fact that “with such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again (Revelation 18:21)”, is indeed a part of our comfort in the Gospel.  God will finally, as the Anglican scholar N.T. Wright notes, “set the world to rights”.  Here, there can be no doubt that this will be the pinnacle of happiness.

But there was something about this discussion that disturbed me as well – it was the things that were not said (one important thing that was talked about was how Christians were not to take part in such actions because “vengeance is the Lord’s” – I thought this assertion by itself was lacking in persuasiveness though, given that it is God himself who acts through human vocations) – what about this association of happiness with a specific act of brutal killing evidently born of pain and anger? – even if the historical context seems to make such desires more understandable?  Later, after hearing my pastor speak regarding similar issues that same week, I remembered an article for World magazine that Gene Edward Veith had written almost two years ago.  In the article, Veith quotes a general from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflict saying, “It’s fun to shoot some people.  I’ll be right up front with you, I like brawling”, and “You go into Afghanistan… you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway.  So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”  In short, the general seems to be saying that he enjoys killing these men because of what horrible people they are. Veith bluntly asks the question, “Should a Christian soldier take pleasure in killing people?”, and concludes that this is permissible (see “Onward Christian Soldiers: But is it wrong for a fighting man to enjoy his work?” )

At that time, I wrote to Dr. Veith and told him that I had no doubt that soldiers could enjoy their work.  I said that the aspect that the solider ought to enjoy and derive satisfaction from the most though, however, is his end goal of being a protector-hero who saves lives, thereby serving his neighbor. Even so, I could see how another protector, a fireman for instance, may enjoy the means (to this similar end of protection) – namely, the fighting of fires – and thought something could be true for the soldier as well.  I had in mind the fact that our military, rightly I think, trains soldiers to kill in a more detached and mechanical fashion, laying the emphasis on how they are helping their particular unit to survive and succeed in its mission, and not on the killing of the enemy per se (and when this is addressed, there is the desire to kill mercifully).  This said, I heartily second Veith when he quotes Luther from his tract “Whether a Soldier Too Can Be Saved”:  “It is not I that smite, stab, and slay, but God and my prince, for my hand and my body are now their servants.”  Veith continues, “Those who have the Christian vocation of being a soldier may fight ‘in good conscience’.  Before God soldiers should be humble and repentant. But before the enemy, they should ‘smite them with a confident and untroubled spirit.’ Soldiers, Luther says, should go ‘forward with joy!’ As in other vocations, so in the military, there is nothing wrong with enjoying one’s work.”  Luther also talked about the importance of the war being a “just war”, as did Veith in his article.  All of this above I can heartily affirm.  These statements from Luther are not at issue.  The key question, I believe, is this:  “Aware of the world’s horrible injustice, may we, evidently like the general, enjoy – take pleasure in – be happy with, the death of sinners?”

To heighten our awareness of the stakes involved in this question, let us look at other examples that perhaps resonate more with the Psalmist’s grievances in Psalm 137.  My mind races back to the powerful movie Braveheart, for example, where William Wallace avenges the death of his new bride.  And what about the 3-year old girl who is kidnapped, raped, and murdered?  After the perpetrator’s apprehension, perhaps her parents understandably want not only justice, but harbor a vindictive spirit as well.  Certainly, they share with society the desire that the killer would not be able to do such things again.  And yet – there is also the bitter pain, anger, and sorrow of a fallen world which desperately aches for release – and the death of the wrongdoer is seen as crucial to some recovery (perhaps the more painful the better).  Full of anger and hatred for the sin and the sinner, only this, they believe, will satisfy.  Peace, comfort, and happiness may once again be attainable with this, and only this…  Surely, in such horrible circumstances these parents may desire the death of the wicked.  And surely, in such a case there is no requirement to forgive such a one as this from their heart – especially if he shows no repentance – is there?  They need not do so before men or before God, correct?  Can’t such a “lust for revenge” be a righteous and holy zeal, in some circumstances?

Scripturally, I don’t think that it ever can.

First, a biblical word that seems to apply to the general Veith referred to.  I note that in castigating the Edomites for their actions against Israel, God calls them on something very specific: “Since you did not hate bloodshed, bloodshed will pursue you” (Ezekiel 35:6b).  (to argue that the context shows that Edom only should have hated bloodshed in regards to the Israelites would be a bad argument, in my opinion).  These kinds of words seem to correspond nicely with the following words from the same book, which I believe would be particularly relevant for both the general and the hypothetical parents discussed above:  “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.  Turn!  Turn from your evil ways!  Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Eze. 33:11), and “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord.  Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Eze. 18:23).

After talking to Dr. Veith about these passages (and the other points above), I gave a negative answer to the question, “Should a Christian soldier take pleasure in killing people?”  He wrote back to me: “Well, Nathan, you may well be right.”  “You may be right…”  Surely, our hearts will all shift uncomfortably in their seats here, for God’s conception of justice, strangely, is also that we love our enemies and do things like forgive them seventy times seven – and our own forgiveness is bound up with this (Matthew 6, 18)  What does such forgiveness really mean?  For God, it means that from his perspective, the sinner is restored to Him in a right relationship for Christ’s sake.  Can forgiveness for us mean anything less?  There is a sense in which all people are one – in Adam all died, and in Christ all are made alive.  If the forgiveness wrought by Christ’s death on the cross does not avail for the neighbor who has sinned against us, how can we be sure it avails for us?  To think in such a way – that we need not forgive from the heart – is to think apart from faith.  Luther emphasized the “for me” aspect of the Gospel, but confidence that it is “for me” and that Christ shed his blood to reconcile the whole world to himself always go hand and hand.

Of course, for the Christian operating in the “Kingdom of the Left” (as Luther described it), this really changes nothing.  Certainly, it has been given to political leaders and soldiers to be protectors who wield the sword against evildoers.  And yet, at the personal level at the least, the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake must always hold primacy in our hearts.  This side of heaven, the importance of the Law-Gospel dynamic is ongoing, and does not cease.  Even as the Christian delegated to do so administers the violence necessary to help “put the world to rights”, he is also to desire the ultimate salvation of the one being executed.  Failing to desire that one’s relationship with the other would be rightly restored beyond the grave is a matter of grave consequence.  “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” is not a rhetorical question for the one receiving God’s sword of judgment, but is meant to lead the sinner home.  There is a good reason why his anger lasts only for a moment – it is because he came not to judge, but to save – mercy triumphs over judgment, indeed.  Perhaps there is no chapter in the Bible that gets to the real crux of the matter as well as does Hosea 11, where God contends that he cannot help but seek out his beloved – yet again – precisely because He is God and not man.

He is love and we are not.  All of us want a way out of this, but there is none.  Simply put – it never makes sense to talk about whether anybody “deserves” mercy – it is simply what God requires of us.   In the presence of God in Christ, we do what God Himself does – we forgive from the heart.  This does not necessarily mean that we should always audibly speak such words to those who rage without fear against the Gospel, for those without repentance will not receive the benefits of Christ’s forgiveness, but will trample God’s kindness, and perhaps harden their hearts even more.  Yet before his Father, Jesus certainly did not hold back one bit of his forgiveness for the Pharisees on the cross – “Father, forgive them…” – even though we have no reason to believe that he directly absolved them.  I believe the Formula of Concord’s (Epitome), (a founding document of the Lutheran Church), words concerning the doctrine of election, apply to the issue at hand as well:

We must learn about Christ from the holy Gospel alone, which clearly testifies that “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom. 11:32), and that he does not want anyone to perish (Ezek. 33:11; 18:23), but that everyone should repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (I Tim. 2:6; I John 2:2).

While not denying that faith can only exist in repentance, it is, paradoxically, only the Gospel that creates faith.  And the Gospel is the word of unconditional forgiveness in Christ from the hearts and lips of his servants.  Therefore:  Though our Lord’s sword may be gorged with blood and fat (Isaiah 34); though there is no deliverance without violence; though darkness cannot co-exist with light and must be destroyed – Christians must never think that they are allowed to desire the death of the wicked.

There are times in which we are anxious for redress, and I believe that all of us are capable of desiring to bash certain people across rocks (and for far less than what the Israelites suffered at the hands of the Babylonians).  Given our Lord’s warning that “the love of many will grow cold”, the temptation to do so may become even greater in the coming days, months, and years.  We wrongly think, in those self-righteous and fleshly moments, “that would give me satisfaction”.  But thankfully, Jesus is the rock that we stumble upon.  The Law kills us always, but even the Gospel – the description of Jesus Christ’s passion for us – kills us insofar as we remain in our flesh as Old Adam (Lutheran Book of Concord, cf. SD V:12).  Even words meant primarily for our comfort can kill us as well.  We may delight to realize that the famous passage about love in I Cor. 13: 4-8 does not first describe the kind of love we are to have for God, but is primarily about his love for us in Christ.  Therefore, according to the New Man created by this message, we go forth joyfully and do likewise.  Yet in our flesh, we stand accused to the hilt, for we know he means for us to be as he is – even though we are not.  Though it challenges the level of thinking needed to understand Psalm 137, I believe we must say that to enjoy the death of the wicked – to be happy because of the death of the wicked – is simply demonic, period.  Such attitudes and thinking are yet further evidence of our lost and utterly loveless state, but fortunately, our Lord is not like this.  Rather, though his death on the cross he conquers sin and death, praying for his murderers, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do”.  Such is the restrained strength of a Love that swallows up sin and death and brings forth new life and righteousness for all.

There is one final point that I’d like to make, perhaps bringing this even closer to home.  I think when we are in an atmosphere of opportunity and material plenty, it is far easier to simply ignore and suppress important issues like this and simply “go with the flow”.  There is the temptation to nod with actor Will Smith, who being interviewed by about his new movie the “Pursuit of Happyness”, said, “I’ve been reading a lot about what is happiness, and I feel Aristotle had the best idea… He broke it down in the ‘Nicomachean Ethics.’  Like for me, it feels directly and inexorably connected to self-esteem.  So I always explain it as: Think of yourself as two people and one of them is inside of you, and he’s a scorekeeper.  And he keeps score of your idea of the world.  …And when you have a conflict with your scorekeeper, that’s unhappiness.  Happiness is being completely in sync… with your own perception of goodness”.  (Caro, Mark, Chicago Tribune, in Star Tribune, Dec. 15, 2006, section F).

I think it’s a truism that for Americans, the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of God have often converged – though as we see from Smith’s comments above, this may be less so today.  Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church, for example, does not seem to be opposed to this kind of pursuit. On the one hand, I note that Rome seems to be moving further and further away from the Biblical concept that wielding the sword is a good, God-given function of the state.  So, here at least, there seems to be very little if no chance that the act of bashing babies of evildoers could ever be connected with happiness under any circumstance.  On the other hand, in line with Roman Catholic natural theology, Catholic apologists tend to support the notion that pursuing happiness (“the good, the true, the beautiful”) is one way that fallen man might legitimately prepare himself for the Gospel – perhaps even reaching salvation through the blessing of infused grace from Jesus Christ (CCC 1818).  Though there are very important differences, this does not appear to be altogether removed from the approach of the very popular TV preacher Joel Osteen (“Your Best Life Now”) as well.

On the other hand, I, as a Lutheran, must question the “pursuit of happiness” as a legitimate way for any man to pursue God.  In fact, in our view, the joy of salvation is arrived at only by seeing how our attempts to reach happiness are tainted with selfish motives and sin.  Even when people connect happiness with an idea of human goodness that resembles the biblical picture of goodness, they try to be good for all the wrong reasons (this might be a good definition of “civil righteousness” that Lutherans emphasize).  Truly, those who pursue happiness apart from Christ and his guidance will necessarily cause people to suffer – not necessarily by worldly standards of success – but certainly in the life hereafter.  The hard word all need to hear is that it is only Jesus Christ who can actually give us a happiness which is not necessarily tainted with sin that destroys the “little ones” (Matthew 18) – leading them away from the true knowledge and worship of Christ.  Only from the holiness found in Christ can any true and God-pleasing happiness – for the individual and for the community – proceed. Truly, the Christian believes there are certain things we need (legitimate self-interest) in order for us to be fit for service to our neighbor – and often such things also happen to make us happy.  They are however, never to be a focus by themselves.  Rather, when we talk of happiness (blessing) our laser-beam focus is this:  With him, there is the forgiveness of sins (Rom. 4:5-8).  And: With him, “all things hold together” (Col 1:17).

Again, faith cannot exist apart from repentance of course, and I daresay that repentance means that we constantly “hate our lives”, as our Lord said, in some sense.  In a passage discussing the Christ-child, I think Luther brings all of this together in a profound way:

But mark this well, that it is impossible for the heart to receive the Child and taste His sweetness, unless it has first cast out all earthly joy, all things that are not Christ’s.  The Child will never suffer that the heart cares for anything else, for He would dwell therein alone.  We must part with all things which are good in our sight: voluptuousness, love of property, fame, our life, and piety, and wisdom, and all our virtue.  And when we have thus fully abandoned all that we have, and have denied it to ourselves, then the Babe comes to us, but He brings with Him everything that slays our old Adam. (W.A. 7. 190 f)

So despite what Will Smith, Aristotle, the Roman Catholic Church, Joel Osteen, and perhaps even the Psalmist* may think, it is only through this that we can even begin to know the true happiness of the “life that is truly life” (I Tim. 6:19) – the happiness of this life that will survive the wrath to come.  For in truth, we will not die, and the bodies of those who have already “died” in the Lord are only sleeping – peacefully with their Heavenly Father now like the baby Jesus at his mother’s breast.  And, in a sense – the following analogy breaks down if carried too far – we to can identify with the condition of these departed saints:  Being citizens of heaven, this world – though very real – is more like a dream when compared to the reality of the new creation which is coming.  Therefore, let us look forward to all of our being made fully awake in the consummation of all things – where the glorious fruits of Gods forgiveness in Christ will finally bloom unmolested by the tears, pain, and suffering of this world.  Come, Lord Jesus!

* Postscript:  And now, after I have made the main points and proclamation that I wanted to make, let me address one final issue.  The reader will note that I had said “perhaps even the Psalmist may think” above, indicating that the Psalmist may very well have intended to convey the notion that it is the means (brutally killing the babies), rather then the end (“putting the world to rights”), that would bring about happiness and pleasure.  In short, their pain and anger would in some sense be quenched – they would be blessed – by desiring and enacting the death of the wicked.  But what if this interpretation of the passage is the result of reading it through more of an Aristotelian lens – his very popular idea of happiness – and hence, the whole premise that this paper is built upon is actually false?  A pastor friend of mine pointed out to me that Psalm 149:6-9 might offer a clue – perhaps the blessedness, or happiness, here, is the honor that those who execute God’s judgments on the nations receive from others.  In other words, we will bless our enemy’s slayers.  And then, completing the circle back to our Lord, my pastor friend says it the best:

Christ destroyed all his enemies when he died on the cross [–] sin, death, devil, [and the] world. These are our enemies too. Should we not bless Christ for doing that? And when our old Adam gets drowned and finally destroyed by baptism and physical death, if both are received by faith in Christ, should we then not rejoice in God for having dashed this implacable “child of Babylon” against the hard rock of Christ’s Word?[i]

Now that is something for us to think about next Christmas season when we see the happy pictures of the sweet baby Jesus lying in the manger.

[i] Pastor Holger Sonntag.  He also credits Luther here:  (On Good Works, AE 44:104f.): “Above all these aforementioned good works, the strongest defense is prayer and the word of God. When evil lust begins to stir, a man must flee to prayer, call upon God’s grace and help, read the gospel and meditate on it, and thereby behold the sufferings of Christ. Psalm 137[:9] says, “Blessed is he who seizes the young of Babylon and dashes them on the rock.” This means when the heart runs to the Lord Christ with its evil thoughts while they are still young and in their infancy. For Christ is a rock on which these thoughts are dashed to pieces and come to naught.”

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Posted by on December 20, 2010 in Uncategorized


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