Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
Princeton Theological Seminary, Summer Institute of Theology
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge June 28, 2004
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly...
God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life....
(Romans 5:6, 8-10)
A few days ago, I heard something on the radio about the young Korean Christian who was working in Iraq as a foreign contractor when he was captured and held hostage. As I’m sure you know, he was filmed pleading for his life in the most heartbreaking fashion. Finally he was beheaded in the hideous ritual that has become all too familiar. His funeral was held yesterday in South Korea. According to the broadcast I heard, the terrorist who announced the gruesome and barbarous deed said, “The infidel got his fair treatment.”
That got me thinking about what fair treatment is.
A few days ago a news report described the scene of chaos just after one of the many recent bombings in Iraq. American, British and French contractors were killed. Near the carnage, a young Iraqi man stood at his watermelon stand. The reporter wrote that, like many Iraqis, he seemed to have mixed feelings. He watched as a gathering mob looted and pounded the destroyed vehicles. He said, “That is wrong, that is disrespectful.” But a moment later, he said, speaking of the butchered victims, “They deserved this.”
A third episode: The Army recently released a number of internal documents reporting that five former Iraqi generals, handcuffed and blindfolded, were beaten until bloody by American soldiers. (Indeed, one of them died later.) A military analyst who witnessed this reported it to his sergeant, but the sergeant took no action. He said that the prisoners “probably deserved it.”
Who deserves what? And who decides? Isn’t it obvious to any thinking person that the whole matter of “deserving” depends upon your point of view, your allegiances, your priorities, your cultural conditioning? Whole histories are constructed around who deserves what. The Nazis fabricated a narrative about the Jews. The Serbs constructed a narrative about the Kosovo Albanians to justify the “ethnic cleansing,” and now that the Albanian Kosovars have returned home, they are retaliating against the Serbs, because “they deserve it.” One of the American hostages presently being held in Iraq is a young Marine, a Muslim born in Lebanon. Being an Arabic speaker, he joined the Marines to serve as a translator. He was displayed on video, blindfolded with a sword held menacingly above his head. As far as we know he is still alive. The latest news about him is that he had become emotionally distraught, deserted the Marines and then got picked up by the insurgents. This means that if he is killed, both sides will have reason to think that he got fair treatment¾the Marines will think so because he was a weakling and a deserter, and the insurgents will think so because he was enlisted with the infidels.
Who deserves what? And who decides? That phrasing comes from one of my favorite stories about a reunion I attended. It was the 50th reunion of some of the men who had served in World War II with the fabled Tenth Mountain Division. One of the men there, whom I knew, was a very bookish person, very unprepossessing physically, a lover of poetry and other quiet pursuits. He was the least military, least bellicose person you could imagine. Very few people in the community knew that he had won the Silver Star until this reunion when he was called up front for special mention. He gently but firmly brushed aside the homage with these deeply wise words: “Nobody knows who deserves what.” I think I know just what he meant. Many people are quiet heroes¾the person who learns to live with cerebral palsy, or struggles to overcome an addiction, or fights against despair in prison, or speaks out against injustice even though it costs him his job—these are often known to God alone.
Who deserves what? I have often quoted a line from the Clint Eastwood movie The Unforgiven. Clint’s young sidekick has shot a man. They watch him dying slowly and in pain. The young man is uneasy about this spectacle. Seeking to justify what he has done, he says to the Clint Eastwood character, “He had it coming.” Clint says, “We all had it coming.” A more recent movie is called, aptly enough, The Road to Perdition. It features a terrific performance by Paul Newman, playing against type in the role of a mobster. Here’s the scenario. Tom Hanks plays a young man who pretends to have a legitimate occupation but in fact works for Newman. On Newman’s orders, Hanks carries out a gangland-style execution of several men. Unfortunately, Tom Hank’s young son accidentally witnesses this event. A hit man is therefore dispatched to rub out Tom Hanks’ wife and son in cold blood. Hanks therefore goes to Newman to ask for justice. The two of them sit together in a room facing each other. Tom Hanks says to Paul Newman: “He murdered my wife and son.” Paul Newman leans across and says to Tom Hanks: “There are only murderers in this room.” With this memorable stroke, the story Hanks has constructed for himself is unmasked.
When it comes to deciding who deserves what, the universal human tendency is to declare oneself innocent. Then this is followed by a sense of personal injury and a wish to strike back. If there is a conflict we see only our own wounded innocence, or the wounded innocence of our own family, friends and countrymen. We feel the pain only of those who are like ourselves. I most certainly include myself here. I am disappointed in myself when I catch myself in an involuntary reaction against some of the people I see in the subways in New York City. Everyone has these kinds of thoughts sometimes. We have great difficulty understanding the lives of those from cultures that are strange to us, so we don’t have empathy for them. We have recently learned from news reports about the numerous innocent people who have been held in our federal detention centers for months on end. They have suffered because of their cultural strangeness; simply being short, or dark, or speaking no English opens the door to a degree of abuse and mistreatment that seems antithetical to everything that our country is supposed to stand for. Someone in power, sometimes a very petty and small kind of power, decides that these people do not deserve the same sort of treatment that more privileged Americans take for granted.
Is something happening to our American values? Where is the Christian Church in all this? I have recently collected testimony from three witnesses, not one of them a practicing Christian. The first is a prominent writer, Michael Ignatieff of Harvard, who gave a long interview on C-Span two weeks ago. He had been a strong supporter of the invasion of Iraq, but now that we are talking about torture and quite probably engaging in it, Ignatieff is having second thoughts. He has written a new book and is on the circuit talking about torture. He states his belief that it can never be justified. The second witness is Ron Reagan, the son of the late president. He is emphatically not a Christian and says so, but he has some challenges for us. In an interview last week he said, “If you are going to call yourself a Christian...then you have to ask yourself a fundamental question, and that is, whom would Jesus torture? Whom would Jesus drag around on a dog leash? How can Christians tolerate it? It is unconscionable.” The third witness is Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. In an interview he recounted the ghastly histories of some of his patients who survived torture, and then he said, “How could people do such things? I’m scared that it’s easier than we think.” Since that interview his words have proven distressingly prophetic. He opposes torture to extract information from terrorists. “We mustn’t go there,” he said; “It cheapens who we are.”
Who is competent to decide whether to torture another person? Rowan Williams, in his little book called Christ on Trial, recounts an experience of Jean Vanier, the man who founded and directed the L’Arche communities for people who are developmentally disabled. He had made the choice to step down from his position as leader and live alongside one particular disturbed young adult (Henri Nouwen did this also). The young man screamed and ranted in a very aggressive way. Jean Vanier testified that the young man’s behaviour was deeply disturbing to him. He discovered that he had within himself deep deposits of anger that he had not known were there. He wrote, “If I had been alone with him, not in community, I could have been tempted to hit him.” Notice two things here: one is the subterranean potential for punitive violence that lies within each of us, and the other is the need for communities committed to the mind of Christ, communities of mutual accountability where the darker urges of its individual members find no place to grow.
The mind of Christ. What does that mean? Here is some of what Paul writes in one of his key passages:
While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly...God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life....
While we were helpless, while we were weak, while we were sinners, while we lay in bonds under the sentence of the wrath of God, while we were God’s enemies and enemies of one another¾those were our circumstances. Those were the circumstances in which Christ came into this world and offered himself up to death by torture. While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son. This is the mind of God, this is the mind of Christ. This is what God did for his enemies. What did we deserve? The passage is quite clear; we were deserving of God’s wrath. For reasons not entirely clear to me, people love to sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but we never seem to entertain the idea that “the fateful lightning of [God’s] terrible swift sword” might have been turned against us. Instead, God deflected it, taking his own stroke himself.
I’m going to read something that Augustine of Hippo wrote about this passage from Romans.
...The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to [God] so that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather,...“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” [Romans 5:8]. Therefore he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvellous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.”
That, I think, is one of the most wonderful things I have ever read about any passage of Scripture.
Who deserves what? What is fair treatment? Who decides? If only we can rise up and act according to our baptismal identity! May it happen in us! May we be convicted in this truth! We were saved from the Wrath of God. We who were God’s enemies have become his friends by reconciliation through Christ. We have been saved by the intervention of the One who had the power and the right to obliterate us but instead pitied us in our enslavement to Sin and Death. We were saved “by his blood,” that is, by his life-offering poured out in pain and abandonment as One who had no power and no standing in the world, One who took his place along with the least and last of us ¾no, even more than that, One who was numbered with the transgressors, with the perpetrators. And in this way we who were God’s enemies were clothed with a new righteousness, the righteousness of the Son of God. None of this had anything whatsoever to do with our deserving. Who among us alone in the middle of the night with insomnia, or awakened by a sudden stab of physical pain, or suffering from a grief that won’t heal¾who among us is comforted with the thought of our deserving? Deserving has nothing to do with it. The gospel is not about who deserves what. The Kingdom of God is like a man who works one hour in the cool of the evening and then receives the same wage as those who worked all day in the heat.
Fair treatment? Who wants that? “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son. How much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life...”
ome, Almighty Word, we pray, and give voice to your Church in the crisis of our time. O Lord of all the nations, we pray for the soul of Western civilization that we may not fail in this hour of testing to embody the highest that you have called us to be. We, your people called by your name, beseech you to strengthen in us what is right and true, reform what is false and wrong, purge what is cruel and heartless, and give us the grace to grant us true repentance when we are in error. Give moral courage to all Christians serving in the armed forces, especially the commanders, granting them wisdom for their mission of forming young hearts and minds for what is humane and right even in the midst of war. Give courage to those who feel called to protest against injustice, and increase their numbers. Be merciful to all prisoners and give patience to those who must work as prison guards. Give us hearts of compassion toward all families who suffer from the horrors of war. Help us to look for your hidden presence among those who are presently our enemies, and turn the hearts of all those who plan evil. Grant wisdom and insight to our leaders and O Lord, do not let us fall away from our vocation to be a people willing to sacrifice for the freedom of all your creatures in every kindred and tongue. We pray in the power of the Holy Spirit, who together with you and our Lord Jesus Christ reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
 Jeffrey Gettleman, “21 Killed in Iraq and Dozens Hurt in Bomb Attacks,” The New York Times 6/15/04.
 Andrea Elliott, “Unit Says It Gave Earlier Warning of Abuse in Iraq”, The New York Times 6/24/04
 There is a story illustrating this in a sermon called “Adam and Christ” in my book Help My Unbelief.
 Jeffrey Gettleman and Nick Madigan, “Abducted Marine Had Reportedly Deserted,” The New York Times 6/30/04. This man was later released, as it turns out, but that does not cancel the point.
 I have left out some details of the plot (the hit man is the Newman character’s biological son, for instance, and Tom Hanks has two sons, not one) because I wanted to concentrate on a single point.
 See for instance the front-page article about a Nepalese who spoke no English and was arrested, detained for months, kept naked and incommunicado in a tiny cell, and finally freed¾the final humiliation¾with no clothes except his orange prison jump suit.
 Jan Hoffman, Treating Torture Victims, Body and Soul,” 7/30/03.
 In October 2004. I added this footnote:
The New York Times reports that Vice-President Cheney, explaining the new policies developed in secret by a small group of Bush administration officials to allow extraordinary powers of detention and interrogation after 9/11, said “We think it guarantees that we’ll have the kind of treatment of these individuals that we believe they deserve.” Tim Golden, “After Terror, A Secret Rewriting of Military Law,” The New York Times 10/24/04.
 Augustine, John’s Gospel, cx.6 (emphasis added). Quoted in Calvin’s Institutes, II/xvi/5