Let’s Keep Bickering: Polemical and Patient

Part three of a series.

Eschatological continuity emphasizes fighting for justice, bearing prophetic witness against the darkness of the world, and exercising kingly and queenly authority in rooting it out from our own domains of responsibility. Eschatological discontinuity emphasizes moderating our ambitions to see justice and mercy vindicated, and waiting patiently for the Lord’s judgment upon the overwhelming majority of evil that we are either not authorized or not able to remove ourselves.

After the Chattanooga Campaign, in which the Union took Chatanooga in November 1863, victorious general George Henry Thomas was asked whether the Confederate dead should be buried separately by state, as was the southern custom.

“No,” Thomas replied, turning one hand over the other in a tumbling motion, “mix ’em up. I’m tired of states’ rights.”

What gave Thomas some leeway to carry out a burial practice that might otherwise have been seen as disrespectful mistreatment of enemy dead was that Thomas himself was a Virginian. After secession, he stayed in the U.S. Army and fought for the Union out of moral conviction. He also had some additional leeway, at least in the eyes of Union troops, as the man who won the first important Union victory in the war (at Mill Springs) and who had two months earlier showed so much courage under fire covering his men’s retreat at the Battle of Chickamauga that he had been dubbed “the Rock of Chickamauga.”

(By the way, if you haven’t seen it – or if you haven’t seen it since it was broadcast in 1990 – Ken Burns’ The Civil War is streaming on Netflix, and it really is as good as everyone said it was back then.)

In our daily work, we are engaged on the front lines of the holy war to reclaim the world from sin and Satan. That’s why our vocational Job Number One is, as Dallas Willard said, “a gentle but firm noncooperation with things that everyone knows to be wrong.” However, as I commented in that earlier series, one of the challenges we face is that the line between good and evil is not always one that “everyone knows” – we do not always agree about what is acceptable.

So one approach is called for when we really are dealing with something “everyone knows to be wrong,” like lying and theft or a #MeToo situation. Another approach is called for when there is real disagreement about boundaries, such as when a work situation is complex and ambiguous and people of good judgment might reach different conclusions about it.

Making this problem even more challenging, sometimes the right thing really is clear, yet it is still not the case that “everyone agrees” about it. When we are dealing with a sin that gets widespread cultural acceptance and affirmation, who is to say to what extent any given individual is really aware that the behavior is sinful? The darkness of evil really is darkness – foolishness, an impairment of the intellect. That doesn’t make it any less wicked but it does affect how we cope with it.

So how does eschatology help us cope with these challenges? There are two dangers here. One is to become complacent about fighting for justice, allowing evil to remain unmolested in the domains over which we have jurisdiction and left unchallenged elsewhere. The other is to forget the limits of our authority and ability to remove evil while the world remains fallen.

We commit an injustice ourselves when we reach beyond the bounds of our own sphere of responsibility and negate other people’s right to control their own spheres of responsibility in order to remove evils that it is their job to remove and not ours. And even within our own domains, we become oppressive when our zeal to fight evil leads us to become unrealistic about how much we really have the power to do.

Eschatological continuity helps us keep pressing into the edge of the war, pushing to get another inch of justice out of the world. The world is not now as it is going to be when it is fully restored, and our job is to live as if we knew that. Thomas, in his sphere of vocational responsibility, found himself uniquely positioned to push the world just a little bit closer to where it ought to go – to where it is going to go when Jesus comes back – and he took it. And, indeed, in this particular case the world got there a good deal sooner than the eschaton; as Shelby Foote points out in his multivolume history The Civil War, before the war people would say “the United States are…”, but after it, they always said “the United States is…”

Eschatological discontinuity helps us take comfort and wait patiently as evil seems to triumph for a season. In Romans 12, we are forbidden to take vengeance, not because vengeance is wrong but because vengeance is a good thing that has not been delegated to us. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Note the shift from present tense to future tense. We do not avenge evil today because vengeance is the Lord’s; vengeance is the Lord’s because he will repay. That is an eschatological promise.

George Henry Thomas’ story is a bittersweet one. None of his relatives ever spoke to him again after his decision to fight for the Union. After the war, with the south in ruins and starving, he sent money to his sisters in Virginia; they sent it back, explaining that there must be some mistake, as they had no brother. He never returned to the south and was ultimately buried in his wife’s hometown in New York. None of his relatives attended the funeral.

His story is not widely known because he refused to write a memoir (as most other Union generals did) and even burned his private papers. But the day of his fame is coming, for “nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.”

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