After the Flood, God’s actions concerning the redemption of the world kick in. Man’s experiment of “human justice” had failed. It ended in self-destruction. Now it’s time for God to become more involved in human affairs. He makes covenant with man, giving God partnership with humanity, to act for our wellbeing. This partnership can’t be accused by satan, because it works by faith. It works by people agreeing to believe in God’s plan, not being coerced through special treatment. It works through people who desire a better world and who can see God’s vision of love and of a good creation.
And God says to Noah that he will not destroy the world again. This means that God can’t allow man to go his own destructive way anymore. God must step into human affairs and curtail human violence and destruction, before it does to the world again, what it did in the Flood. Here we have a whole new beginning in human history, but this time, with God taking an active role with humanity through covenant.
This covenant doesn’t progress far until God also calls Abraham and he responds by faith, a faith which satan demands to try. Abraham doesn’t have to be perfect, but what is tried is his willingness to believe God, ahead of his own interest: the test Adam and Eve failed. God covenants with Abraham’s seed to bless the nations of the world. This gives God even more involvement with his creation, as he participates in fallen human affairs.
This still doesn’t progress far until Abraham’s seed multiplied and also agree to God’s plan in Egypt. But satan contests God’s participation with these people. He is saying, God doesn’t have a right, because of Israel’s continued unbelief. This contestation works primarily in Israel’s nature, in which their belief in satan’s way, self-justice, brings about crises in their national and international relationships, in which vengeance grows and threatens to destroy them. This is where God must step into human affairs and limit these crises. So God adopts their systems of sacrifice, to quell vengeance, to atone for violence within their societies.
We see that if God is going to work through a chosen people, to redeem humanity, and lead them out of their vengeful condition, then he has to manage, or control, that vengeance within that chosen society, so it doesn’t lead to their total devastation. God is fulfilling his promise to Noah, to not let them and the world be destroyed again, by managing their destructive behaviour.
We looked at this vengeful condition of humanity in previous chapters of this book. We saw that this is the main condition God has to circumvent in order to bring peace. We are going to look at this condition, and how it works, a bit more closely here. As we saw, we are speaking about humanity’s warped sense of justice. This began in the Garden, when man falsely accused God of injustice and then also began accusing each other the same way.
We want to extend this and see that a warped sense of justice governs much of human crime. It doesn’t only provoke exaggerated revenge for murder, but it also provokes our actions of greed. People commit crimes, because they have some warped sense that their actions are justified. They claim that they have been wronged in some way and that this justifies their crimes against others. This self-centred justice system, that satan first sowed within the mind of Adam and Eve, permeates the total human condition. There is hardly a crime committed that isn’t “self-justifiable.” Self- justification eventually escalates into total carnage. God’s actions in Israel, and his actions in the gospel, are aimed at defeating this response in man.
We see that Jesus focuses on this human perspective of justice is his teaching. The Sermon on the Mount calls us to forsake this false sense of justice. Almost all Jesus says is aimed at this human condition. When sued for our coat, we give our shirt. When struck on one cheek we offer the other. When called to go one mile, we go two. When we go to a meeting, we don’t take the best seat. We don’t seek to give, or to say our prayers in public.
All this calls us against a self-justifying view of justice. The logic of Jesus makes no sense in a world of human justice. It only makes sense in a world of mercy, the mercy which God himself has shown to every one of us on the cross. It is calling us to reflect God, as he truly is. Justice kills, mercy saves. The cross of Christ finally exposed the human heart of vengeance and revealed a kingdom of mercy.
But let’s go back and see how human justice began to destroy the world. When I say human justice, remember we mean the false sense of righteousness and law that satan introduced in the Garden, accusing God of keeping the good things from man. This is self-justification.
When God told Cain he would live in exile, because of his sin, Cain complained it was too much for him. Instead of being sorry, he felt his punishment was unjust. He must have thought Abel was to blame in some way. Cain carried this sense of self-justification with him, when he went off and built his fortresses for his protection.
But in his fortresses, Cain couldn’t grow food. He had to go out into the country areas and raid farms. This probably led to more killings. But Cain felt he was justified in doing this. He believed he had been unjustly dealt with by God. His sense of vengeance and personal justice meant he became a thief. Cain’s sense of vengeance and self-justification led to all manner of crimes. All of this crime was legally based, in Cain’s mind, and this legal base for our actions against others was what Jesus dealt with in the Sermon on the Mount.
This highlights the importance of societal atonement. And this also was a large part of Jesus’ teachings. Like when Jesus said, when you go the temple with your offering and you remember that someone has a fault against you, drop your gift and go and make it right with that person first. This way, we are addressing injustices on the behalf of others, not on the behalf of our self, like taking the log out of our own eye, not out of our neighbour’s eye. Addressing injustices, we have caused, is essential to atoning actions in our society. It is essential to interrelationships and peace in our communities.
If we correct other people, other groups, races or faiths, it actually makes them angrier, because of the injustice of it. Correcting others escalates trouble. We mightn’t see the injustice, because we don’t see our own faults. But when we correct ourselves, then that spreads and others start doing the same. Social atonement doesn’t happen through correcting others, but by correcting ourselves. This is what the honour killings were aimed at; a group’s self-correction. Honour killings are wrong, but self-correction and apologies are good. This is the most valuable currency in an atoning society.
In societies today, we often settle issues with legal cases in courts. I remember once hearing in Nigeria of a doctor who made a mistake when delivering a baby and the baby died. Later, the doctor went to the house of the mother and father and apologised for his mistake. The parents forgave him. I loved hearing that story. The doctor went and put things right with those people. And when we do this, most people are happy to forgive.
In other societies a doctor would not normally do this. He would be sued if he admitted fault. Therefore, there is no confession of faults and atonements within relationships often don’t happen on a personal level. Life becomes professional and legal, not merciful. Where atonement can’t be made on the level of caring personal relationships, people feel a sense of growing isolation and injustice. The result of this is bitterness, that permeates the society, until society divides and relationships become harsher. People form groups to address their grievances and these groups further fragment the larger population. Finally, people adopt vengeance and violence, often through politics, trying to get “justice” their own way.
Jesus spoke about the absolute necessity of atonement within society. We must be able to confess our faults to one another and receive forgiveness. If we can put things right with those we have offended, we need to do so. The teachings of Jesus, about loving our neighbour, showing care to the poor and sick, inviting others to our parties, who can’t repay us, and showing care to our enemies, are all aimed at bringing atonement to hurts and injustices committed against people in our communities. These are community healing and bonding exercises, that are essential to our common good. Without them, no atonement for wrong is made, and vengeance will erode minds and lead to destructive paths.
In Nigeria, it is often the case that when a Christian has offended a Muslim, we say, “What, shall I apologize to that demon? Aren’t they Ishmael, the cause of all our problems? Am I not a child of God?” And we then organise a prayer meeting against “our enemies.” This is tearing our societies apart. Unless we are able to go to one another and make things right, when we wrong people, then there will be no atonement in society. There will just be escalating bitterness.
And the offences we are asking forgiveness for aren’t just for things we have done wrong. They are also for things we haven’t done. Maybe a Muslim neighbour has died and we haven’t visited the family, because they aren’t of us. This is wrong. We owe every neighbour a duty of care and if we don’t show this, we need to go and put things right with our neighbour. If we don’t do it, and vengeful attitudes and behaviour grow in our societies, then we can’t call it religious fighting. It isn’t religious fighting. It is normal bitterness. Jesus told us what to do about this.
I read a story this morning of an Australian retired soldier. He was speaking about Australia’s role in Afghanistan. He told of times when Australian soldiers mistakenly killed innocent people. This happens often and is hard to prevent in military conditions. It causes a lot of bitterness and resentment in the nation, to the point that it becomes impossible to bring peace through military means.
The soldier concluded that they couldn’t “atone” for the mistakes they had made. It’s interesting that he used the word “atone.” When nations like Australia and Afghanistan work together, it is necessary that we do so in genuine partnership for the wellbeing of the people, not for our special interest. Soldiers are told they are working for the common good, but often find out in the end this isn’t true. This is when atonement within communities become impossible. The result is factions of bitterness take root and destroy the land.
As we saw in a previous chapter, this is exactly the type of bitterness and outcome that the Law of Moses was trying to avert in Israel. This is what charam was for, in the founding of their nation. It was to bring atonement for crimes committed, to restore the balance of trust and cut off human bitterness and bloodlust.
These laws were not because God wished to punish people, but to cut off the build-up of resentment and human forms of “justice” and violence that would result. It wasn’t just charam that Moses legislated, but also just treatment of others, which cuts off the need for charam. God doesn’t want charam, sacrifice. He wants mercy and justice for our neighbour.
This is why Jesus taught so much about social atonement, dealing with our neighbour in a merciful and loving way. Jesus didn’t speak of atonement in the violent ways of the Old Testament, not about capital punishment. He spoke of atonement in terms of free forgiveness, because we have been forgiven, and of acts of kindness towards people we may consider to be our enemies. Jesus said that such acts of atonement are essential for making and keeping peace in human relationships, for building the type of Promised Land God spoke of.
I heard of an Islamic teaching that says we should love our neighbour 40 houses to our north, 40 houses to our south, 40 houses to our east and 40 houses to our west. This is symbolic of a far distance. It doesn’t stop at the 41st house. And it said that we should know the name of at least one person in each house. And it didn’t matter who lived in these houses, someone of our faith, or our race, or otherwise. This is similar to what Jesus taught about “who is our neighbour?” This teaching is speaking of atonement.
If we love our neighbour we make atonement for the general wrong that people have experienced throughout their lives in different ways. Through common courtesy and support, we bring down levels of bitterness, vengeance, and “justice” fuelled crimes, in our nations. It is very simple.