While we take comfort from much of the Bible’s message, the Bible is not always comforting news. It often carries a message of warning and danger. It’s good for us, during this Lenten season, to attend to the darker side of the Biblical message.
For example, when we read in the Old Testament about the pollution of the Lord’s Temple, it’s a familiar prophetic theme: the people have wandered from the ways of God, rendering impure what God intends to be just and upright. God sends prophet after prophet in order to bring his people back, but they are ignored, mocked, and rejected. Then God’s judgment falls on the unfaithful nation.
What is the instrument of God’s justice? One of the heathen nations, the Chaldeans, who come and destroy the city of Jerusalem, burn the Temple, carry off its most sacred objects, and lead the people into exile.
What is this? Dumb bad luck? Just the give and take of geo-political forces? No! The Bible insists that this should be read as God’s action—more specifically as God’s judgment and punishment. How at odds this is with the typically modern/Enlightenment view, according to which religion is a private matter, confined to the heart and the mind of the individual. For the Biblical authors, God is the Lord of history and time, and hence the Lord of nations and the Lord of nature. His works and actions must be discerned in all events.
Let me give you an example of such a boldly theological reading of political events. Karl Barth is considered one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the twentieth century. At the start of the First World War, he was a country pastor in Switzerland who had been trained in the confident liberal theology that was all the rage around the turn of the last century. This theology shared the common view that with the rise of the natural sciences, with the development of technology, and with political and cultural liberation, human beings could build the Kingdom of God here on earth.
From the quiet of his parsonage in Switzerland, Barth followed the horrors of the First World War, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, the devastation of nations, the collapse of the European social order. Then something dawned on him: the conviction that it was precisely the inflated self-regard and hubris of nineteenth century liberalism that led to this disaster!
He saw the European powers as descendants of the builders of the Tower of Babel, attempting to reach up to God on their own terms and in their own way. Behind the sunny confidence of the liberal period, he discerned arrogance, imperialism, and colonialism. The advances of science were made possible through the rape of the environment and economic comfort for some was made possible through the enslavement of others. In all of this, he read current events in light of God’s great plan.
As difficult as that sometimes is to do, it’s how we’re to read our lives as well.