Scales of Justice
This sermon was prepared by the Rev. Scott Wells for the Universalist National Memorial Church pulpit for August 26, 2001.
I’m a lot less sour on creeds now than then, but the facts are still correct.
2 Thessalonians 1:3-10
I am glad you have arrived this morning to consider the “certainty of just retribution for sin.” You may have read something about sin in the popular press – indeed, they make their living by it – or perhaps you’ve talked about sin with friends and you’re telling yourself, “How did sin arrive in a city as pious as Washington.” And perhaps you’ve wondered what we can do to address this sin. A committee will be organized during the coffee hour for the eradication of all sin, in all forms, in all places. But until then, let us attend to the sermon.
What is the Declaration of Faith
This is the first sermon of an occasional five part series on the clauses of our Declaration of Faith. Universalists have have had documents of this nature since 1790; this one dates from 1899, and a few words of explanation are in order.
It is not a creed.
Now first, it is my bounden duty to inform any visitors unfamiliar with our church that this is no creed. New members are not asked to pledge allegiance to it. When St. Peter greet you at the pearly gates neither he, nor his designated agent, will ask you to reel off all five planks from memory or to discourse eloquently on their merits.
What makes this something more important than other words, but less than a creed, is too involved for this sermon – yes, that means there’ll be a sermon on that later – so I ask you to take me on faith. Lest some scrupulous member of the congregation think I’m playing fast and loose with this profession of faith, let’s understand that this one, and the ones written before and after it, were written as works of theological flexibility. It has never pleased everyone, at all times, and in all conditions, but if I claimed it did, you would know I wasn’t telling the truth.
Universalists have always had a competing set of beliefs and ideas. These words were meant to provide a reasonable compass when explaining the faith, both inside and outside our churches.
So I’ve decided to start with the grizzly plank: the one, not only about sin but about retribution. So where does the declaration come from in the first place?
Where does it come from?
The Declaration of Faith, also called the Boston Declaration of 1899 or the “Five Points” profession, actually dates to the prior General Convention of 1897 in Chicago. Much ink had been split and many words said over a proposed revision of the venerable Winchester Profession, which was adopted in 1803, and is used in this church on Ash Wednesday. By 1897, many Universalists shared a painful awareness that the Winchester Profession was written in the denomination’s infancy, when miracles were seen as proof positive of Christian truth, and the rank and file believed in the six days of creation, however rationally they interpreted it.
I get a sense of embarrassment, or at least self-consciousness, like that seen by some American-born children of immigrants, who have distanced themselves from the “old country,” its language, and manners. One of the points of embarrassment was the notion that God would “restore” the entire human family to “holiness and happiness.” By this point, the belief in evolutionary theory and the disbelief in a literal Eden made it intellectually untenable that there was a pure primal state that we could be restored to. This was underscored, ironically, by the vote of confidence the Winchester Profession got from the conservative Georgia Convention. The rest were willing to come up to date.
Amazingly, the “just retribution” clause was not in the profession as it was originally presented to the convention but was added by floor action. This must have been because the accusations that Universalism was a gateway to immorality were still very clear in the Universalist mind. A public affirmation of the contrary must be made. Of course, there was opposition to the language, including a leading theologian of the day, John Wesley Hanson, but it carried the Convention’s vote, and was ratified in 1899.
The bone in the throat: retribution
I suspect the “retribution” plank is still the most controversial, and most prone to make some people uneasy.
On the other hand, in talking to people, I know for a fact that some members like it. Because it speaks of God’s restraint, I almost like it as much as the last one, “the final harmony of all souls with God.” Why like it, and how? Some people read the word certainty with special emphasis. When it is all to apparent that there are those who can get away with murder (literally), it is comforting to know that the final court of appeal is not on earth but with God. Somehow, someway, this understanding goes, each will get his or her just deserts. This is the great hope of biblical justice.
Perhaps the unpunished guilty will live in a state of dread, or fear, or anguish in proportion to the secret crime they have done. Perhaps God will test them, as if by purifying fire, to remove the sin, and leaving only the pure child of God.
This theme comes out well in Oscar Wilde’s poem, perhaps his best and certainly his most famous, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, named for the prison where he was a prisoner. The gallows loomed in this poem. Of the men who were there to be punished, both physically and spiritually:
The grey cock crew, the red cock crew
But never came the day:
And crooked shapes of Terror crouched,
In the corners where we lay:
And each evil sprite that walks by night
Before us seemed to play.
Whether true for all or some, the reality of remorse or regret is real, and its hope is necessary for those wronged.
On the other hand, looking at this profession, I tend to emphasize the word just. I encapsulate all I have heard, and all I have felt, and all I hope about God’s grace.
Again Wilde, writes
And thus we rust Life’s iron chain,
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God’s eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.
Secondly, time puts punishment into perspective.
What exactly is retribution? As used today, the word demands adjectives like swift and certain, so that the connotation of retribution is revenge. But how could God, defined by Universalists as essentially just, engage in an action as arbitrary and thus as unjust as revenge. This brings up a parallel issue. Isn’t the God of the patriarchs, as described in the Old Testament really the wrath-filled hurler of thunderbolts and slayer of pagan nations? Early Gnostic Christians were so horrified by the depictions of God in the Old Testament that they rejected them as scripture and the God described there as some kind of lower power, possibly even a demon. Without going into that thread of logic, we can see how that thinking is a set-up for anti-Semitism.
The problem with Victorian ideas.
I do have concerns about the word, retribution, too, particularly in a document from 1899. The ideas of sin were not so amorphous for them, and ideas long persisted about those who were thought to sin. Punishment was to correct the wayward soul. But what kind of punishment?
I didn’t pick Oscar Wilde on a whim. I can’t help but think of the legal penalty and social scandal he faced in his 1895 trial for “the love that dare not speak its name.” That was 1898.
The ink was barely dry on this profession – and the blood of its sentiment was warm and ran freely – when Oscar Wile died, in 1900, in self-exile from home and friendless. There were all the signs of retribution: whether there was sin or justice seems a minor matter next to recrimination and wrath. And yet this is the Victorian solution to crime and sin. Paying for them robs you of your humanity.
This can even take on bizarre turns in the Victorian mind. Chris Willis, of the University of London, tied retribution for sin and a rather severe punishment: spontaneous human combustion A rather tellingly-named character in Dickens’s Bleak House was one such victim. His sin? Taking too much of strong drink. Herman Melville was not immune to making such claims, too. According to Willis.
Such incidents fitted neatly with Victorian Christian ideas of divine retribution. Christian temperance campaigners preached the evils of drink, urging people to sign a pledge of total abstention from alcohol. In a theology which held that the fires of hell were a punishment for evildoers, death by fire was a frequent form of divine retribution for sin. (C. Willis, Trial by Fire: Dickens, Drink and Spontaneous Combustion)
If Victorian theories of crime, sin, and responsibility don’t fit into our common notions today, does the idea of the “certainty of just retribution for sin” have any real meaning?
Yet, the threat of hell, is precisely what Universalists have preached against. Put in a larger context, we have railed against the use of force to shape faith and the idea that God’s essential nature is anything other than love.
Oscar Wilde’s case, in two ways, gives me more faith in our own profession, though. First, it recognizes that there is a price for actions, and simultaneously establishes justice for them. We can’t read these words with thinking of Hosea Ballou’s notion of parallelism. In this regard, Wilde was the victim of unjust retribution, for if anything, his sin was one of poor judgment and bad associations.
Of course, Universalists then assumed a different purpose for punishment than we do now commonly accept, and took the promise and prospect of punishment after death more literally then than we usually do now.
Rescue through imagination
Remember, the professions of faith were meant to be read liberally, that is, broadly, and to not read them liberally now is to get caught in the bonds of nostalgia, like a mastodon in a tar pit. So, let’s be free to use some imagination.
One option is to look farther back into history. Hosea Ballou, generally regarded as the first and best theologian the Universalists produced, adduced Universalist truths from both Biblical and philosophical foundations. The philosophy is more important for our purposes.
We might – indeed, should – look at sin as something broader than personal moral failure. Sin can exist in societies. This is the way the Biblical prophets looked at sin: the wrath of God was more commonly threatened against Israel the nation than against individuals. It is important to note here the threat of punishment more than the plagues of boils and locusts and raining blood that is less common but better fodder for Hollywood extravaganzas.
A threat of a wave of locusts is less severe than being hip-deep in them.
And this distinction is important because, at a deep level, it is hard to rationally accept that God uses natural phenomena to speak to the sinful nations. A lasting inheritance of our Enlightenment heritage, and one even shared (ironically) with some Fundamentalists, is that God does not violate natural law but moves through the Spirit that speaks to souls and psyches.
A way home through an unlikely passage
The readings today sound rather harsh, and they’ve been used either hesitatingly or with a sadistic zeal by those who read them for the surface value alone. The reference in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians to “the punishment of eternal destruction.” Now that sounds as un-Universalist as possible, and so this passage is tempting to overlook. Such overlooking would have never passed muster when our spiritual ancestors were engaged in their continual three- and four-day long debates. Instead, rather than giving up on the passage, they examined it and the validity of the translation, and came up with a happy response. Indeed, a response that fits better with Paul’s general elation with God’s goodness.
Let us then return to Paul’s worrisome words. The passage from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians includes a terrible passage: “the punishment of eternal destruction.” This passage is the only place in the Bible where the term eternal destruction is found. (It is found in the Apocrypha once: 4 Maccabees 10:15.)
What does this mean in the context of Universalist faith? We should not fall to the common understanding based on this translation. If we are conditioned to believe this sounds like the usual dogma of damnation, then we can blame our conditioning, but we may not fall for it. We must use our minds to look past this usual idea. Universalist optimism is with us.
The word, translated “eternal” here and in other places, is the Greek word for “age” and uses in other Greek documents to mean “era” or “of an indefinite period” or “for a lifetime” The words are aion and aionios. This is the same word translated age in the words of Jesus, “I will be with you until the end of the age.” The idea here is not one of endlessness. Destruction has been interpreted as meaning that elimination of the mortal to preserve the immortal; as in to give up the body to preserve the spirit. The same John Wesley Hanson who opposed the use of the word retribution in our Declaration of Faith wrote about this passage: “Everlasting destruction, olethron aiï¿½nion, does not signify remediless ruin, but long banishment from God’s presence. This is what sin does for the soul.” (J. W. Hanson, Aiï¿½n – Aiï¿½nios, Translated Everlasting – Eternal in the Holy Bible, Shown to Denote Limited Duration.)
The response, both ours and God’s, is love. “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called – that you might inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8) The just retribution of God towards our sin is love. The just response of God towards our good is love. Love is the gift we have to others’ actions and our own.
The key to the profession is understanding God’s time, even if it is more than a lifetime.
A prelude to “final harmony”
Yet the greatest hope I have follows the very flow of the document itself. We shall be brought into harmony with God. Indeed, we are like glaciers, ebbing and retreating with urgent certainty towards God. Again, we move as a great human family and singly. We move through our efforts, and at times, in spite of them. We come closer to God because of the age, or in heroic resistance to it. Wilde gets the last word:
And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
Became Christ’s snow-white seal.