“The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
The Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and keeps wrath for his enemies.” – Nahum 1:2
This Saturday, I took a mental break from the stress of preparing a sermon series through the R-rated little book of Nahum by going to see Captain America: Civil War with some buddies of mine. Civil War is my second favorite comic of all time and so even though I’ve grown a bit weary of the whole super hero thing (I didn’t even bother with BvS), I knew I had to see this one. I was not disappointed. It explored complex questions through well developed characters, somehow juggling an impossible amount of heroes without feeling bloated. The fight scenes were terrific, the villain was subtle, and the plot was rife with surprises. And of course, it was just so much fun (thanks mostly the new Spidey and Paul Rudd). But anyways, this isn’t a review. Just go see it already.
The reason that this sermon series has been uniquely stressful to prepare is not simply because Nahum is one of the most notoriously difficult books of the Bible, but because it is first and foremost about Israel’s God, Yahweh, as an avenger. If you haven’t heard, God’s jealousy, vengeance, and wrath aren’t exactly beloved topics among anyone in the West, churched or unchurched, outside of a few nutters with pickets. So how in the world do I interest a congregation in a supernatural avenger?
Do you sense the irony yet?
Captain America is, of course, one of Marvel’s “Avengers.” In fact, he is the first Avenger (which is the name of the first Captain America film). So there I am, a preacher, sitting amidst a congregation *ahem* audience early in the morning on the weekend audibly cheering for a supernatural “god” of vengeance in order to take a mental break from wondering how to interest Americans in a God of vengeance. Ironic, indeed.
The basic premise of the movie is that because of increasing collateral damage from the Avengers’ “judgments” on evil, the world is demanding that these heroes be brought under the authority of the UN. Iron Man, who originally nursed dreams of policing the world himself, opts in. He has seen the effects that his eccentric brilliance, when left unchecked, has had on others (see Avengers: Age of Ultron). Captain America, on the other hand, having witnessed SHIELD be infiltrated by Hydra along with other fiascos, has lost his naive trust in the system (see Captain America: The Winter Soldier). So he opts out. Conflict ensues and the viewer is invited to ponder: which side am I on? And crucially, there is no right answer. It’s the age-old vigilante question writ large. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen? 1
I guess I could stop here and simply say: “See? There is a need for a supernatural avenger and you know it. Now wouldn’t it be wonderful if this avenger was both all powerful and totally good? Well that’s who the God of the Bible is. If you love the Avengers, you should love Yahweh, the true First Avenger. (Captain) America is not the hope of the world; God is.” And maybe there’s something to that. But it’s certainly way too easy. And it says nothing of Jesus. When Yahweh actually did show up on set for his key scene, he didn’t come wearing tights and beating people up.
And actually, the film went deeper than the age-old vigilante question. Instead of settling for tired end-of-the-world scenarios with aliens and magical staffs, Civil War introduced Zemo, who is not a super-villain at all. He is a man who has lost his family because of the Avengers’ wars and is bent on vengeance. Knowing he doesn’t have the power to take on the Avengers directly, he assumes a more subtle tactic: he pits them against one another by playing on their own needs for personal vengeance and effectively splits them in half. It is the Black Panther who gives the moral of the story in his conversation with a sulking Zemo: “Vengeance has consumed you. It’s consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me. Justice will come soon enough” to which Zemo responds: “Tell that to the dead” and attempts to kill himself. Black Panther grabs the gun and declares that “The living are not done with you yet.”
Now there’s some great dialogue! Whether we believe in the avenging God of the Bible or not, vengeance is consuming our world. We inhabit an age of terror and outrage, of tribes of keyboard warriors and of politicians who know how to fan the flames of anger to garner votes. It is a time where we have watched the state, entrusted to bear God’s sword against the evildoer, wield it instead against the innocent. In this wasteland of injustice, Black Panther (ironically?) encourages us to lay down our need for personal vengeance and put our trust in public justice. But of course we reply: tell that to the dead.
What justice? What justice is there for the victims of collateral damage in drone warfare? What justice is there for the dead victim of the suicide bombing? What justice is there for the dead suicide bomber? Are our overcrowded prisons justice? Is the death sentence simply justice, end of story? Why not just take personal vengeance for the simple fact that it is efficient and it feels good? “He killed my mom,” Iron Man blurts out helplessly. What resources does the state have to fight that? What resources do the seemingly invincible Avengers have? Both the UN and the Avengers come up empty, which is part of what made Civil War so honest and compelling.
But this is why the cross is even more honest and compelling, why it has not been forgotten as this movie one day certainly will be. In the Bible, God repeatedly commanded his people not to take vengeance. 2 Why? Because vengeance belongs to him; he will repay, and so they are to trust him that “justice will one day roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” 3 But when the avenging God showed up to bring justice and righteousness to Israel and to the nations in the person of Jesus Christ, this righteous One was unjustly crucified by them instead. In reflection upon this monumental event, the biblical writers and the early church fathers recognized what was going on: God was giving human beings a way to pass safely through his judgment by absorbing judgment in Himself. God was giving humanity the resources to forgive others by forgiving us; Jesus was consumed by vengeance so that we wouldn’t be. 4 Furthermore, Jesus Christ was exposing the all-powerful state for what it had become: a Beast willing to condemn the innocent to serve their own power interests. 5 He then descended and, in Zemo’s words, told it to the dead, and rose to take his throne as Lord. 6
Jesus is Lord is not a bumper sticker subtly suggesting that you vote Republican (or Democrat); Jesus is Lord means (among other things) that true power is found in humility and meekness, in being willing to serve instead of demanding to be served. 7 Jesus is Lord means that all parties must work together to compromise and sacrifice for the public good. True power is Jesus-like and the church’s task is to testify, to speak these truths to those in power. Jesus therefore doesn’t only give us the resources to deal with personal vengeance, but the resources to keep the state in check as well. Both Iron Man and Captain America are right. But without the reconciling power of a crucified Lord, it doesn’t really matter.
On the surface, we are hungry for a God of vengeance. We know the world is messed up and that we don’t have the resources to fix it. But deep down, the real God of vengeance makes us uncomfortable because we know that we are complicit in the violence and injustice. Our lives leave collateral damage. The heart that dwells in the terrorist, the spirit that rules unjust systems, dwells and rules in us as well. As Jeremiah said, the heart is desperately sick. But the Good News is that the God of vengeance came not to judge the world but to save it. Will you not turn to Him, receive His grace, and walk in His way of truth and love?
As the Scriptures and the Creed attest, He will come to judge the living and the dead. So take heart: apparently the living God is not done with you yet.