The Moral Ecology of Judgement
Michelangelo's depiction of Jeremiah, Sistine Chapel.
‘Take your Money Later! bugger off of my fb page !
So advised one prospective reader of my previous article when it landed on his Facebook page in May. It is pertinent advice which I will endeavour to follow, but it also nicely illustrates the highly combustible nature of the topic I am rather foolishly trying to open up.
In that first article, I predicted that choosing to write about judgement during a time of pandemic meant that there was a higher-than-usual chance that I would be misunderstood. Right on cue, once posted on Facebook, there was a rapid stream of abuse and ridicule in the comments section. This was, in part, a just judgement upon my incompetent use of Facebook, but, on the whole, it seems that most of the angry respondents assumed I was suggesting that those who suffered from the bushfires or coronavirus were being punished by God. One of them pertinently summed up the core anxiety in discussing the subject matter of judgement in relation to issues such as climate change and pandemic: ‘What sort of a kind loving god would subject his people to all these calamities? Why would he do this and for what reason?’. This has long been a question that has worried many who have read the Bible and it is a question we must address.
In my previous article, I raised the possibility that the difficult concept of ‘judgement’, rightly understood, may offer a powerful resource for understanding and even negotiating our difficult times. However, acknowledging that this is a term with a very negative historical baggage, I opted (perhaps unwisely) to come at the topic sideways rather than head-on, by drawing attention to more ordinary forms of ‘judgement’ going on around us continually. I observed that although everyone decries being ‘judgemental’, we are all necessarily involved in making moral judgements all the time. The question that is asked too little is, what do we base such moral judgements upon? Where do they come from? The two opposing caricatured positions are that, (i) morality merely describes the sovereign (and somewhat arbitrary) will of a God who at the beginning of time drew up a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’; or (ii) morality is simply a construct of ‘values’ that each human culture imposes upon ‘facts’. More recently, in the age of hyper-individualism, I think it is increasingly true to say that morality is increasingly self-referential: ‘Only I know what is right for me’.
The main purpose of that article was to propose another moral worldview, which I take to be the moral worldview of the Bible. Such a view of morality is indeed rooted in God, but it is not arbitrary; it in fact has a coherence that is written into the very fabric of the universe. Indeed, there is a certain sort of ecology to the biblical moral worldview, in which ‘ecology’ is meant in two senses. The first is simply that the biblical view of the moral cosmos is intimately concerned with the natural world and its health. The second sense is more profound: just as the science of ecology is the study of the interrelationship and interdependence of the great web of life, so the biblical idea of morality is predicated on the interrelationship and interdependence of all things. That is, the Bible reveals morality – what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ – as something that describes the relational structure of goodness that constitutes the created order. We never act as morally independent beings, but always as creatures defined by relationships, whether we recognise them or not. To put it another way, morality describes the shape of love that seeks to hold all things within its purview.
In this article, I will attempt to be more explicit about what this means for the concept of judgement as found in the Old Testament. How should we understand and interpret this difficult biblical terrain and how can it be constructively and responsibly applied today? (I had originally hoped to cover the whole Bible in this article, but, alas, that also was poor judgement.)
Judgement in the Old Testament
There is no way of getting around it, the language of Old Testament is very difficult for people with our postmodern Western sensibilities, especially with respect to the texts on judgement. In particular, the prominence of the language of ‘punishment’ and ‘vengeance’ clashes discordantly with our image of a loving God. These are texts from a very different time, culture, and worldview, so if we are not merely to dismiss them based on what C.S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’ (in which ‘the modern’ view of things is always superior), then our challenge is to try to get behind the cultural packaging of language and images in these texts to find the wisdom that may be present.
There are a few things we need to get over. The first is simply that, in the ancient world, there was almost universal agreement that wrongdoing required punishment and ancient civilisations tended to have a very severe view of punishment. Our modern embarrassment about the seeming crudity of this morality is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. An interesting digression might be to explore where our modern embarrassment comes from and examine its positive and negative aspects, but there is no space for that here. We do not need to either endorse or sanitise the difficult language of these ancients to nevertheless concede that they may have understood some truths to which we would do well to listen.
Secondly, not only are we a world away from the more brutal morality of the ancients, we have a more specific difficulty with the literary form of the ancient Hebrew writers. Unlike the coolly rational dialogues found in Plato, with which we share a much stronger cultural affinity, the writings of the Hebrews are characterised by far wilder passions. We are shocked by the flaming hot anger that is frequently attributed to God, accompanied by those terrifying vows of retribution; but we completely miss the point if we don’t hold these texts together with all the equally frequent references to God’s grief at his people’s suffering, his yearning for reconciliation, and the extreme tenderness of his promises to heal and restore. As someone trained in Western rationalism, I long found it difficult to relate to this literature of passion; however, as I have grown older and more aware of the wild storms of emotions that sit beneath my own rationalisations, I have grown to appreciate this passion more and more. Although discomfiting, I find it more honest. Once again, the challenge for us is to try to see behind this very foreign mode of expression and grasp the deeper message.
Thirdly, at the heart of the Old Testament texts of judgement is a view of causality that has drawn the ridicule of we better-informed moderns. It is not too short of the truth to say that outside the choices of the main characters, almost everything that happens in the Old Testament happens because God did it. If Pharaoh’s heart was hard, it was because God made it so. If the rains did not fall, it was because God held them back. If the Assyrians invade, it is because God sent them. In the Old Testament view of the moral order, it makes complete sense that the failure to keep Sabbath might bring about a drought and worshipping idols might result in conquest by a foreign power, whereas to us this seems a laughable superstition: we know that drought is a meteorological phenomenon with physical causes in the earth’s climatic system. In their view of causality, they saw moral action (failure to keep Sabbath) lead to moral judgement (drought). We see physical causes (increasing CO2 in the atmosphere) and physical effect (increasing incidence of drought), and then we make value judgements about these ‘facts’. But what if these two perspectives are not contradictory? What if each only describes a partial aspect of the created order? Might it be that the ancient Hebrews saw more clearly the beginning and end points of cause and effect in a moral universe, while we moderns have grasped more strongly the middle aspects of causality in a physical universe, and that these together represent a single chain of effect in a created order that is characterised by relationality?
There is a relationship between morality
and the natural world; the fertility and
habitability of the earth is an indicator of
our morality. (Photo: Hunter Valley, NSW;
credit: Max Phillips)
What is striking about the Old Testament narratives is the extent to which the human world and natural world are bound inextricably into one moral cosmos. The essence of this world view is succinctly captured in Moses’ instruction in Deuteronomy 11:
If you will only heed [God’s] every commandment that I am commanding you today – loving the LORD your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul – then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. (13–15)
At the superficial level, this just looks like so much ancient religious superstition: keep the gods happy and they will reward you. But what was so distinctive about the religious faith of Israel was that it was not just a cultic practice, but an ethical way of life. Heeding God’s commandments, loving the Lord and serving him is shorthand here for referring to the whole integrated vision of life that is outlined in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). One way of summing up the fairly extensive instructions about economic life in the Torah is that they are a call to observe limits for the sake of a neighbourly community amongst humans and with non-human creatures (see Manna Matters, Nov 2018). When humans persist in ignoring the limits of health, then there is inevitably a kickback, as the Deuteronomy passage goes on to warn:
Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshipping them, for then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you. (16–17)
Here, there is a direct link being made between where worship is directed – literally, what we ascribe worth to – and ecological health. When humans begin to systematically ascribe worth to things that do not deserve it, such as wealth and power (other gods!), then they begin to pursue a course of action which leads to damage in the human community and to the earth. Ellen Davis, a Hebrew Bible scholar, has observed that if we take the scriptures as a whole, the best indicator of the faithfulness of the people to YHWH’s way is ‘the sustained fertility and habitability of the earth’.
As I stated in the previous article, it is now scientists who are beginning to make the connection between the orientation of the human soul and ecological crisis. Let me quote again Gus Speth, a US climate advisor:
I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.
Jeremiah as a voice of judgement
There is no better case study of judgement in the Old Testament than the book of Jeremiah. It is full of passion and white-hot anger. Perhaps one reason we struggle to identify with the anger that the Old Testament attributes to God’s judgement (or as Paul would put it, his ‘wrath’), is because we have such a petty view of what was going on: coming from a religiously plural society, we feel it is a bit harsh of God to punish people just because they choose a different faith or religious practice. But when the Hebrew writers talk about ‘idolatry’, they are never just talking about people’s ‘private spirituality’ (as if such a thing actually exists!). Reading through Jeremiah, complaints about foreign gods cannot be disentangled from complaints about exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, the corruption of the courts, and the silencing of truth by the powerful. We also get glimpses in Jeremiah that a society that is characterised by exploitation, corruption, and falsehood is one that inevitably abuses the land on which she depends. At one point, commenting on the failure of the rains and subsequent failure of the harvest, he cries out: ‘Your wrongdoing has upset nature’s order. Your sins have kept back her bounty!’. Jeremiah is saying the same thing as Gus Speth.
Yet the expression of God’s anger is only one movement in Jeremiah’s prophesying. We do not have to read retrospectively with New Testament eyes to see that, in Jeremiah, the anger of God is entirely a product of his love. It is the only proper response when God sees that which he cares about so deeply being treated so worthlessly. It would be a distant God indeed who was not angry about the Atlantic slave trade, or the genocide of Australia’s indigenous peoples, or the Nazi concentration camps, or the clear-felling of the Amazon. But it is an anger that is at one and the same time a profound expression of grief – an outpouring of emotion that threatens to overthrow the human vessel giving it voice. ‘My anguish! I am writhing in pain, my heart bursting.’ The grief is two-fold: it is firstly a grief about the turning away from what is good, and, secondly, a grief about the calamity that such a turning away inevitably brings. ‘Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom; how bitter it is! It has reached your very heart.’
Jeremiah saw that the trajectory of his society was ultimately to bring destruction upon itself. In his prophetic imagination, he saw a connection between the internal corruption of his own people and the geo-political stirrings of the Babylonian Empire. We cannot necessarily follow his logic, but that should not lead us to deny its existence. Once again, this is couched in the language that it is YHWH’s doing, but the sense of inevitable cause and effect is strongly present.
What of Jeremiah’s role? What of the human vessel who is the voice of God’s judgement? More than anything, the prophet is someone who has been gifted with clarity of sight. Jeremiah has seen the conduct of his people and he can trace the inevitable progression of cause and effect like a series of ricocheting snooker balls. Perhaps he can see so clearly because he, too, has been drawn into God’s love, and therefore also into his grief and anger. The end result is that, seeing reality, Jeremiah must speak of it: ‘it is like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in and I cannot’. Perhaps, in the final analysis, this is what judgement is: it is merely the word of truth that uncovers the full nature of reality and communicates it, no matter how overwhelming or terrifying such knowledge is.
This brings us to the final, and perhaps the most important, point about the judgement that is spoken in Jeremiah, and which holds true for the whole Bible. When Jeremiah prophesied the inevitability of calamity, it was not for the later satisfaction of an ‘I told you so!’ moment, or to smugly contemplate just deserts. The whole point of making judgement known is to seek repentance: a new mind, with new insight, turning in a new direction. We have always tended to imagine that judgement is a final word, when throughout most of the
Bible the function of judgement is to offer the chance of a new beginning, a new hope. What God, through the prophet, is seeking to call forth in the people is not the self-flagellation of self-loathing, but rather the sober assumption of responsibility for one’s actions, which is ultimately an empowering responsibility to bring forth a new future.
The core insight of the Hebrew lawmakers and prophets was that human action, and especially corporate human actions (the shape of social, economic and political arrangements), all of which are undergirded by religious outlook (that to which we give worth), abound with multiple and surprising consequences, whether positive or negative. These, if they persist over time, cannot be avoided. Thus, practices such as predatory lending or failure to rest the land are not simply ‘immoral’ because God has thus ordained it, but rather, in a profoundly interconnected cosmos, they represent ruptures in relationship, and such ruptures produce cascading effects beyond anything anyone envisaged, and which can ultimately only be judged ‘bad’. Likewise, sustained practices of hospitality and care for the land also produce cascading effects whose healthful impacts (‘blessings’) extend well beyond what was envisaged.
As we enter a century of dangerous climate change, and as we begin to uncover the human causes of pandemic (more on that next article), perhaps one of the hardest things to face is that things must inevitably get worse – the train of events we have set in motion within the biosphere is now beyond our control. But that is not the same thing as saying that we cannot influence the outcomes. The lesson of the Bible is that such moments of judgement are moments of new possibility. Judgement and good news are not two separate things in some strange tension; they are each a necessary condition of the other. The deep truth of the gospel is that there must always be a kind of dying for there to be new life. It is to this New Testament message and our present predicament that we will turn in the next article.^ back to top