God's Wrath

He is tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

-- Julia Ward Howe, "Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Overlooking New Haven, Connecticut is a large bluff called East Rock with a tall monument at its summit built more than a century ago to memorialize the city's war dead.  The monument's large granite pedestal includes a plaque with the names of all the soldiers and sailors who died in the Civil War.  There are more than 400 names listed in three columns, surrounded by a border with a list of the battles where they fell.  When I first visited the memorial more than 30 years ago, I remember being struck by the sheer number lost in that war.  New Haven only had a population of about 40,000 when the Civil War broke out, which meant that virtually no neighborhood was left unscathed.

The price paid in lives and blood seems almost unimaginable today.  George W. Bush's presidency foundered over a war that cost 3,000 lives in something less than four years.  New Haven's Civil War recruits fought in battles where 3,000 lives were lost in a single day.  Since regiments were organized by locality in those days, the impact on a single community could be severe.  Over four years, the cumulative toll on both sides was greater than all other American wars combined.  In Connecticut alone, there are 137 Civil War monuments like the one in New Haven, each bearing witness to a community's grief.    

Early in the war, the poet and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe traveled with her husband to Washington, DC, where President Lincoln accompanied them to a Union encampment across the Potomac in Virginia.  They heard troops singing "John Brown's Body," and a friend urged Howe to write new lyrics to the song.  Howe awoke at dawn the following morning, and the words came to her even before she got out of bed to write them down.  "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which was published on the front page of the Atlantic Monthly, became enormously popular and helped to rally anti-slavery sentiment during an increasingly bloody conflict.

Howe's song bristles with moral certainty and with an unmistakable sense that God was on the Union side.  Little did she (or anyone else) realize that God's "terrible swift sword" would cut both ways.  By the time Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address in the closing days of the war, both sides were so steeped in gore it was nearly impossible to tell which was the instrument of God's justice and which the object of his wrath.  Lincoln shared Howe's belief that slavery was a great moral evil, but he also believed that neither side had escaped God's judgment.  In the last great oration of his life, he told his countrymen that God "gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came."

From biblical times onward, there has been a strong tendency to read God's judgment into human calamity.  When Israel was overrun by more powerful neighbors, the Old Testament prophets were quick to see divine retribution for the waywardness of God's people.  Conversely, when Israel triumphed over its enemies, they believed God had requited them.  In more recent times, both the terrorist Osama bin Laden and the evangelist Jerry Falwell saw 9/11 as God's judgment on the sins of a nation.

War and natural disaster strike me as extraordinarily blunt instruments for meting out God's justice, sweeping up the innocent along with the guilty.  To cite one recent example: Hurricane Katrina was viewed by some as divine retribution for the debauchery in New Orleans.  Yet the storm largely bypassed the French Quarter and devastated the city's poorest neighborhoods.  Jesus assures us that not a single sparrow falls to the ground apart from God's will and that even the hairs on our heads are numbered.  So why would God resort to a meat axe?  It seems to me if God wants to use a broad brush to lay down judgment, there would be no need to intervene in human affairs.  He could simply leave us to our own devices.  Then again, if one judges solely by human history, perhaps he has.

Matthew 10:29

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