Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Lifestyle impacts of no swearing

Imagine if Jesus really meant what he said about not swearing any oaths at all. What would be the real impact today if we refused all swearing?

We will take a quick look at the state law about swearing oaths to assess the impact today.

First we need to look at the definitions. Swearing is the verb, the action, and the oath is the noun, the result of swearing. Thus one swears an oath.

Secondly, let's look at the standard and traditional wording used and manner of administration of oaths.

Section 3 of the Oaths and Declarations Act 1957 (NZ) states:
3Form in which oath may be administered
An oath may be administered and taken in any of the manners following:
  • (a)the person taking the oath may, while holding in his hand a copy of the Bible, New Testament, or Old Testament, repeat the words of the oath as prescribed or allowed by law; or
  • (b)the person administering the oath may repeat the appropriate form of adjuration commencing with the wordsYou swear by Almighty God that, or words to the like effect, and concluding with the words of the oath as prescribed or allowed by law, and the person taking the oath shall thereupon, while holding in his hand a copy of the Bible, New Testament, or Old Testament, indicate his assent to the oath so administered by uttering the words I do, or other words to the like effect; or
  • (c)the oath may be administered and taken in any manner which the person taking it may declare to be binding on him.

So we see from here that oaths involve an appeal to divine authority -- the use of the name of God and of the bible -- and are intended to create binding obligations or declarations.

Now let's look at the state response to Jesus's prohibition of oaths:
4Right to make affirmation instead of oath
  • (1)Every person shall be entitled as of right to make his affirmation, instead of taking an oath, in all places and for all purposes where an oath is required by law, and every such affirmation shall be of the same force and effect as an oath.
    (2)Every such affirmation shall be as follows: I, AB, solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm, and shall then proceed with the words of the oath prescribed by law, omitting any words of imprecation or calling to witness.
    (3)Every affirmation in writing shall begin, I, AB, of [specify], solemnly and sincerely affirm; and the form instead of jurat shall be, Affirmed at [placedate] before me.

The state's response is semantic move of no legal effect. The state treats the issue of refusal to take oaths to be a matter of private or spiritual or religious belief, rather than as a form of legal or real spiritual or economic power against the power of the state itself. This can also be seen by the way the state law treats religious belief:

5Oath not affected by absence of religious belief
  • Where an oath has been duly administered and taken, the fact that the person to whom the same was administered had at the time of taking the oath no religious belief shall not for any purpose affect the validity of the oath.

So the state's stance is very clear: believe whatever you like, and we can even accommodate your religiously-motivated refusal to use particular words in particular ways, but the mechanisms of legal and state power are unchanged, and we expect Christians to participate and engage with coercive state power in exactly the same way as anyone else, that is to say they must accept and act on it as legitimate and unchallenged, and furthermore this shows there is no conflict between Christianity and state power and legitimacy. Jesus is Lord and so is Caesar. But Jesus rules the world of private, religious, personal and emotional beliefs, not the world of money and power and law and justice and public policy.

However, we shall examine the nature of oaths more closely to see what is their real nature and the kind of power that they invoke and uphold.

The state-created technical right to affirm instead of swear identifies the problematic elements of oaths that drove the objections and that is inherent in oaths (refer section 4, Oaths and Declarations Act 1957):

  1. The 'words of imprecation', and
  2. The 'calling of witness'  (i.e. the calling of God as witness)

The words of imprecation refer to the calling down on the jurat (the person swearing the oath) of a curse.

What is the nature of the curse and the purpose of using God as witness? Although on its face it would appear to be a reference to God's punishment after death, supposedly as a motivation to tell the truth and to discharge one's obligations, the reality is legal, political and ideological:

  1. The one who swears and oath, and yet gives false testimony invites the court to impose generally severe punishments on him.
  2. The calling God as witness is not only an appeal to God and his ultimate knowledge and justice, but the giving of divine imprimatur on such earthly punishment and enforcement action against him in this life.
  3. Thus the oath purports to bring God's ultimate sanction to the earthly litigation, prosecution, judicial and coercive action involved in the promises or proceedings. And administration of the state power apparatus here on earth. 

What if this were exactly what Jesus came to challenge and overturn? A closer look at his life and teaching reveals exactly this: Jesus came to challenge the coercion of the court and to teach a non-coercive alternative. Jesus came not to die as the ultimate sacrifice to the myth of redemptive violence, but to shatter that myth by giving his life to ransom us from slavery to the cycle of coercion and violence.

Swearing oaths is an essential input to the power, ideology and sanction of social coercion and the power of the state. The state doesn't mind if we change the words from swear to affirm, because the state is not about words but about power. The state is the systematic and organised institution of coercion that is upheld both by propaganda/ideology, and by the application of coercion. So the state doesn't mind if a good minority of the people want to change the wording of their coercive power exercise instruments, so long as they have the same coercive effect the state loses nothing! In fact, by making coercive instruments compatible with the teachings of Jesus on oaths, the state neutralises its enemy.

So what is the real use of oaths today? What could not be done without the oath? What occupations would be off limits to the one who would not swear?

Firstly and most obviously the one who will not swear an oath cannot file a law suit against anyone for anything. Filing law suits requires swearing affidavits giving evidence of the complaint and presenting that evidence as sworn testimony in open court:
77Witnesses to give evidence on oath or affirmation
  • (1)A witness in a proceeding who is of or over the age of 12 years must take an oath or make an affirmation before giving evidence.
(Evidence Act 2006)
The High Court Rules require cases to be heard and decided in accordance with such witness evidence given under oath.

Secondly, one who will not swear an oath cannot take up many occupations involving state power. These include:

The Chief Justice
The Judges of the High Court
The Judges of the Court Martial
The appointed Judges of the Court Martial Appeal Court (other than retired High Court Judges)
The Judges of the Arbitration Court
The Judge of the Compensation Court
District Court Judges
The Judges of the Maori Land Court
Associate Judges of the High Court
Justices of the Peace
Community Magistrates
Referees of the Disputes Tribunals established under the Disputes Tribunals Act 1988
Every person who is appointed to, or is enlisted or engaged in, the Navy, the Army, or the Air Force
Member of Parliament
(refer Oaths and Declarations Act 1957, schedules referring to other Acts)

Thirdly, one cannot take up citizenship by grant. 

So, it is clear that one who took Jesus teaching about oaths seriously would indeed be a foreigner and exile, the one whose citizenship is truly in heaven is excluded from the exercise of coercive state power, and from enlisting it to vindicate their causes and to collect their debts. Now when you look at the New Testament description of the plight of Christians and their place in this world and approach to debt collection you may find that it may have been what Jesus was talking about when he prohibited his followers from swearing oaths after all!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Christian teaching and Romans 13, part 7

Recognising the tension

In reading Romans 13:1-7 we should be honest that there is a significant tension between it and Christian teaching. It does not seem to fit with the Christian teaching on redress of wrongdoing, commendation, the state, submission, payment of taxes or God’s wrath. Do we harmonise Romans 13:1-7 with the Christian teaching, or do we harmonise Christian teaching with Romans 13:1-7? How is it legitimately possible to harmonise such a stark contrast and such a strong tension? Whatever we shall do with Romans 13:1-7 we mustn’t pretend that the tensions do not exist or simply ignore the passages that don’t agree with our preferred result.


Firstly, we shall note that it is Romans 13:1-7 that requires an alternative approach to make it consistent with Christian teaching. We can’t reasonably make the entire Christian teaching depend on this one passage and force numerous other passages to breaking point to conform to it.
Secondly, we must make sense of the passage as rhetoric: it must fully mesh with the context and it must be plausible and persuasive as an argument. Paul is not, I submit, simply asserting propositions on the basis of his apostolic authority, rather there is a line of argument that must be followed. The interpretation must truly make sense rather than torture the passage until it confesses what we require of it. It must make sense in its historical, cultural and political context, and Paul should have a reasonable basis to use the technique he does.
Thirdly, I submit that irony is the only rhetorical technique that can make sense of this passage. The element of tension is intentional, and Paul expects his readers to apply their knowledge of Christian teaching to recognise it, and to take it in an opposite sense.

Preceding context

 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:
‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:17-21)
The alternative to revenge is explained by Paul with reasonable clarity here.
Firstly the response is to do generous good to enemies, in order to promote shame and guilt in the conscience of the enemy and to promote his repentance – the reference to heaping burning coals on his head is to this. The passage Paul quotes also adds the following ending ‘and the Lord will reward you’ (Pr 25:22) – as we have already documented, the reward of our Father in heaven is not earthly judicial vindication.
Secondly, the response is to do good rather than evil to wrongdoers. This is obviously inconsistent with the concept and practice of invoking the power of the state to help us extract financial compensation by force or threat of force, or to punish him in the name of God, justice or keeping social order. This can also be seen from the way the early Church fathers understood the Sermon on the Mount, as prohibiting litigation, for example, Athenagoras, writing in around 180 A.D.:
we have learned, not only not to return blow for blow, nor to go to law with those who plunder and rob us, but to those who smite us on one side of the face to offer the other side also, and to those who take away our coat to give likewise our cloak (A plea for the Christians, Ch 1)
Likewise the early Church fathers understood that the Sermon on the Mount and other Christian teaching applied absolutely:
Hence arose, very lately, a dispute whether a servant of God should take the administration of any dignity or power, if he be able, whether by some special grace, or by adroitness, to keep himself intact from every species of idolatry; after the example that both Joseph and Daniel, clean from idolatry, administered both dignity and power in the livery and purple of the prefecture of entire Egypt or Babylonia. And so let us grant that it is possible for any one to succeed in moving, in whatsoever office, under the mere name of the office, neither sacrificing nor lending his authority to sacrifices; not farming out victims; not assigning to others the care of temples; not looking after their tributes; not giving spectacles at his own or the public charge, or presiding over the giving them; making proclamation or edict for no solemnity; not even taking oaths: moreover (what comes under the head of power), neither sitting in judgment on any one's life or character, for you might bear with his judging about money; neither condemning nor fore-condemning; binding no one, imprisoning or torturing no one--if it is credible that all this is possible. (Tertullian, on Idolatry, Ch XVII)
Regardless of whether one accepts or rejects Tertullian’s argument that idolatry and other breaches of Christian teaching are inescapable activities of offices of the state, a review of Tertullian’s argument shows that he takes for granted that the Christian teaching against idolatry, oaths, judgment etc. in the Sermon on the Mount etc. were fully applicable even under colour of state office and state law. Needless to say the same approach would be taken to the question of revenge and redress of wrongs. For example the same Church father elsewhere wrote:
Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs? (The Chaplet, Ch XI)
Had Paul been referring solely to private and informal revenge, the obvious alternative to direct the wronged to use is the ‘proper’ legal process in the ‘proper’ forum of the law courts or the law enforcement department of the state. The alternative Paul actually mandates suggests that he is not solely referring to private and informal revenge but is proscribing the use of legal process as well. Needless to say, the legal process seeks to overcome evil with evil, as it dispenses asset seizures, debtor’s prison, bankruptcy, debt-slavery, jail, the death penalty and similar evils.
As noted above, the meaning of ‘It is mine to avenge, I will repay’ in its context in Deuteronomy, refers not to judicial punishment (whether directly or through an agent), but to allowing the poison of sin to corrupt and kill as its natural consequence.
The prohibition on private informal revenge is so obvious that it goes without saying. The standards of this world prohibit it as much as does the Gospel of God. If this was all Paul and Jesus were teaching, why make a big deal out of it? It’s not at all radical or even remarkable.
In addition, there is no suggestion that doing good to an enemy is merely a preliminary step in the process, and that should it fail to produce the desired shame and repentance, that the lawsuit or the law enforcement complaint is the next step in the process.

Submission injunction

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities
This injunction can be accepted at face value. There is no conflict with Christian teaching on this point at all. Being subject is the refusal to resort to violence to overthrow oppressive powers, it does not imply any endorsement or acceptance of oppressive powers.

Reason for injunction

for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
This is where things get interesting. This proposition is found nowhere else in scripture, certainly not in the sense it is used here. Although there are scriptures teaching the ultimate sovereignty of God over political kingdoms and empires, God’s permission for them to exist or his use of them for his purposes falls short of instituting them as legitimate authorities. For example:
Therefore the Lord Almighty says this: ‘Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin. I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, the sound of millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.
‘But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will make it desolate for ever. I will bring on that land all the things I have spoken against it, all that are written in this book and prophesied by Jeremiah against all the nations.  They themselves will be enslaved by many nations and great kings; I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands.’ (Jer 25:8-14, emphasis added)
It is clear from this example that notwithstanding that Nebuchadnezzar was expressly described by scripture as God’s servant, and doing God’s work, the style of power wielded was nevertheless evil.
However, Paul strays significantly beyond this in his argument.
Even today we find this claim absurd and unacceptable. Pol Pot was ordained by God? Stalin? Nero? Mere existence as a power is a low bar. The one invading, betraying, overthrowing, killing or cheating his way into power most successfully is the one ordained by God simply because he came out on top and God allowed it?
So, it is here, I submit, that the irony enters the passage (refer T. L. Carter,  The Irony of Romans 13, Novum Testamentum XLVI 3, 2004, for an exposition of the basis for finding irony in this passage, albeit not specifically in this claim).
Such an approach is hardly novel in Christian teaching, for example Tertullian taught that the state power was not of God but of the devil:
Now by this time, you who argue about "Joseph" and "Daniel," know that things old and new, rude and polished, begun and developed, slavish and free, are not always comparable. For they, even by their circumstances, were slaves; but you, the slave of none, in so far as you are the slave of Christ alone, who has freed you likewise from the captivity of the world, will incur the duty of acting after your Lord's pattern. That Lord walked in humility and obscurity, with no definite home: for "the Son of man," said He, "hath not where to lay His head;" unadorned in dress, for else He had not said, "Behold, they who are clad in soft raiment are in kings' houses:" in short, inglorious in countenance and aspect, just as Isaiah withal had fore-announced. If, also, He exercised no right of power even over His own followers, to whom He discharged menial ministry; if, in short, though conscious of His own kingdom, He shrank back from being made a king, He in the fullest manner gave His own an example for turning coldly from all the pride and garb, as well of dignity as of power. … Therefore what He was unwilling to accept, He has rejected; what He rejected, He has condemned; what He condemned, He has counted as part of the devil's pomp. For He would not have condemned things, except such as were not His; but things which are not God's, can be no other's but the devil's. If you have forsworn "the devil's pomp," know that whatever there you touch is idolatry. Let even this fact help to remind you that all the powers and dignities of this world are not only alien to, but enemies of, God.  (On Idolatry, Ch XVIII)

Corollary 1

Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 
This corollary follows naturally from the reason for the injunction. However, the warning against rebellion would also apply if the state were evil and an enemy, as Paul has prohibited repaying evil for evil and required overcoming evil with good. This corollary does not provide any hint of irony in the reason for the submission, rather it acts as cover to conceal it with valid logic and an acceptable conclusion.

Corollary 2

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 
This is where the argument loses plausibility. Although the logic is flawless, the conclusions fly in the face of experience and Christian teaching. John the Baptist and Jesus both died at the hands of the rulers who supposedly held no terror to those who do right. Barabbas, the murderer, was released. Christian teaching on revenge prohibits the putting on the hat of the state or using its power to avenge wrongs. God’s wrath, in Christian teaching, is not at all represented by judicially imposed terror punishments. This part therefore, in its implausibility and clash with Christian teaching, suggests irony in the reason for submission to the governing authorities.
This part also contains an allusion to Nero’s propaganda of his idle sword – instead of saying rulers ‘bear the sword for a reason’, Paul uses a double-negative to refer to the idle sword. Nero claimed to be so merciful and benign that his sword was idle, so civilised was his rule. Paul appears to ask his readers to see through the propaganda and see the brutal reality of state power – something that would not have been difficult for them to do.
In the Christian tradition, the claim that the authorities actually punish those who do wrong and commend those who do good is not accepted uncritically, for example, Tertullian:
Let even this fact help to remind you that all the powers and dignities of this world are not only alien to, but enemies of, God; that through them punishments have been determined against God's servants; through them, too, penalties prepared for the impious are ignored. (On Idolatry, Ch XVIII)

Corollary 3

Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
Often the conscience does conflict with the ‘laws’ and actions of rulers, and this shows that the source of the corollary is false. We should do what is right even if we are punished for it – in fact Jesus told us to expect punishment from the authorities for obeying his commands. This is another sign of irony in the reason for the submission.

Corollary 4

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 
Of course the reality is precisely the opposite: we pay taxes because they are levied on us, and we wish to avoid the consequences of being caught failing to pay them, not because we assess them as fair in relation to the ‘services’ they procure.
The phrase translated in the NIV ‘give their full time to governing’ is literally ‘are devoted to this thing’ and refers back to the commending of the good and punishing of evildoers. The authorities spend a great deal of public money doing other things (wars, bread, circuses, canals etc.), and many they punish are innocent and many they commend are well-connected rather than good.
As a moral argument for payment of taxes in full, it does not work: at best it requires us to pay a modest proportion of the taxes levied on us.
The reference to tax collectors as God’s servants is highly provocative. How can Jesus say to treat those who spurn discipline of the assembly as you would a tax collector (Mat 18:17) if tax collectors are in fact to be honoured as God’s servants?

Conditional injunction

Give to everyone what you owe them: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.
This does sound like an injunction to pay taxes as they are morally owed, but ultimately it is merely a tautology. This is very much like Mat 22:21: although it sounds like an endorsement of taxation, in context to the enlightened it means the opposite. If we each were to calculate how much we owe based on our moral assessment of the activities of the state we are very unlikely to agree we owe the full amount levied, if any at all.

Contrast with the Law of Christ

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.
Although it appears to be a topical break, it is actually a paradigm contrast, the same contrast Jesus made:
Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant’ (Mat 20:25-26)
Paul’s exposition of the law of Christ is instructive: debts of money and of money’s worth should be paid, and payment discharges the debt. However, the obligation to love is never discharged, and it has no exceptions. Even if your debtor’s debt to you is due and payable, and he refuses to pay, your obligation to love him remains. You may not do or threaten to do any harm to your debtor to make him pay. You may not threaten to sue, you may not sue, you may not swear an oath to give testimony against him, you may not sit as a judge and award a judgement against such a man, and you may not use a court judgement against a man as the basis for taking his life, liberty or property by force. The ‘do no harm to a neighbour’ rule is absolute, notwithstanding the validity of unpaid debts, the formality of the ‘legal’ procedures and the presence of safeguards.
The contrast is also a contrast about the kind of moral and social obligations: under the law of the state, for the ‘services’ of the state taxes are levied and purport to be moral and social obligations. But there are no taxes to pay under the law of Christ, instead the light burden (Mat 11:28-30) of ‘do no harm to a neighbour.’ This one obligation fulfils the entire law, makes us children of our Father in heaven (Mat 5:44-45) and exempts us from taxation (Mat 17:26).

Political Reality 

After an adventure into political fantasy land, a teaching on the real law of Christ concerning debts and social order, Paul addresses political reality in Rome under cover of pastoral advice:
 And do this, understanding the present time: the hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
There is no pastoral reason for this material in this place. The deeds of darkness do, however, match Nero’s night time adventures around Rome quite well, and the references to ‘the present time’ and ‘waking up’ suggest Paul could be referring to the sensitive political reality in Rome. The armour language also suggests spiritual warfare against the state (compare Eph 6:10-20).


The sensitive topic of power negotiation does justify the cover of irony in this case. Provided the readers are familiar with Christian teaching on revenge, litigation, commendation, the state, submission, payment of taxes, and God’s wrath, and have reasonable political and social and legal awareness, the sub-text is reasonably clear. Even today we know that the words ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’ are, as Ronald Regan famously said, the nine most frightening words in the English language. Isn’t Paul meaning the same thing when he says ‘the one in authority is God’s servant for your good’?

Paul’s argument is a logical and persuasive reductio ad absurdum of the proposition that the governing authorities are ‘of God.’ Paul works through a chain of implications to show its absurdity in light of Christian teaching on redress of wrongdoing and God’s character and law. He also covertly refers to several aspects of the operation of state power that we can observe and experience that undermine the proposition. The result is that Paul affirms and upholds Christian teaching rather than legitimising the powers of this dark world. The boldness and tension are fully explained in favour of Christian teaching.

Christian teaching and Romans 13, part 6

Comparison with the Christian teaching on God’s judgement, wrath and punishment

Romans 12:19-13:7 contains a discussion on leaving room for God’s wrath and vengeance, and introduces the governing authorities as wielding the sword and as God’s servants and agents of wrath. The apparent implication is that God’s wrath is expressed by the sword of the state, and that God legitimises the state’s use of the sword for redress of wrongs.
Before accepting this at face value, we should examine the Christian teaching on God’s judgement, and wrath, and the relationship between wrongdoing and God’s punishment of it and check for consistency with the apparent implications of this passage in Romans.
From the beginning it is the presence of God that gives and sustains life. Living in the presence of God is paradise, the garden of Eden where God’s presence is the tree of life. But God warns men that if they do evil, that they shall suffer not to be slayed by God but to be forsaken by God and left to return to the dust. God will hide his face from us and to hand us over to corruption and ultimate death (Gen 2:8-17; 3:1-19).
When Cain killed Abel, God heard Abel’s blood crying out from the ground for justice and vengeance. God’s response, however, is to warn Cain:
Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’ (Gen 4:10-12)
Cain understands that God is not judicially imposing a punishment on him, but removing his mercy and grace from him by withdrawing his presence:
Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’
But the Lord said to him, ‘Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. (Gen 4:13-15)
Paul in Romans 12:19 quotes Deut. 32:35 concerning God’s repayment of evil: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’ This comes from the song of Moses, where Moses teaches the people of Israel about the consequences of breaking the covenant and rejecting God and his laws:
And the Lord said to Moses: ‘You are going to rest with your ancestors, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.  And in that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and calamities will come on them, and in that day they will ask, “Have not these disasters come on us because our God is not with us?” And I will certainly hide my face in that day because of all their wickedness in turning to other gods. (Deut 31:16-18)
Note the consistency: God’s wrath is expressed passively, by the withdrawal of his presence, just as with Cain. Moses teaches the people that sin is like poison and that God’s repayment of sin consists of him allowing them to drink it:
Their vine comes from the vine of Sodom
    and from the fields of Gomorrah.
Their grapes are filled with poison,
    and their clusters with bitterness.
Their wine is the venom of serpents,
    the deadly poison of cobras.
‘Have I not kept this in reserve
    and sealed it in my vaults?
It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
    In due time their foot will slip;
their day of disaster is near
    and their doom rushes upon them.’ (Deut 32:32-35)
Jesus suffered the cup of God’s wrath in his death (Mat 26:39) for our sins. The contents of the cup are the poison of sin referred to above. Jesus was judged and died for our sins. But the penalty of sin is not a judicial penalty, imposed as an external evil visited on the sinner by God, rather it is the evil of the sin itself corrupting and harming. The wrath of God is the withdrawal of God’s protecting presence (Mat 27:46), or God’s mercy, and his allowance for sin to take its course. For example, it was violent human beings who judged and crucified Jesus, the Father did not slay his son, rather he forsook Jesus and allowed him to be handed over to sinful men (Mat 26:45). The death of Jesus was not to appease the wrath of his merciful Father, who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6:35). Nor was it to satisfy cosmic justice, or a judicial result that the Father was compelled to carry out on the sinner or someone in the sinner’s place, and that could not be forgiven. The scriptures are explicit on this: God does not desire blood to appease his wrath against sin (Is 1:11-17; Heb 10:4-8). The Father simply releases the debt (Mat 18:27), receiving payment from no one. The Son’s life was a ransom paid to the one who held us captive to purchase our freedom (Heb 9:15), and it was not the Father holding us as captives, rather it is sin and Satan who held us in slavery (John 8:34; Acts 26:18; Rom 6-8, Heb 2:15, 2 Pet 2:19).
The wrath of God is God withdrawing his protective and merciful presence from us and handing us over to the sins we have done and their fruit. For example, Paul writes that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven, rather than judicially imposed (Rom 1:18). Therefore God ‘gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity’ and ‘gave them over to shameful lusts’ and ‘gave them over to a depraved mind’ (Rom 1:18-32). The punishment of sin is not imposed as a judicial execution, rather it is the natural product of the sin, for ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom 6:23). Paul also taught:  ‘A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction’ (Gal 6:7-8).
God’s heart towards sinners who are suffering his judgement and wrath can be seen from the heart of Jesus towards Jerusalem as he prophesied its destruction:
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.’  (Luke 19:41-44).
Note that the wrath of God was carried out by the brutal Roman army, and that it pained God’s heart to withdraw his protection and allow this bloodbath. God did not approve of or impose the bloodbath, it was the will of sinful men to oppress, to rebel, to fight and to kill. In allowing this evil God’s character is not impugned by willing it or approving it or legitimising it. God is but giving us a taste of our own evil, rather than engaging in it himself by proxy.
Even in God’s church, it is by withdrawal that sin is judged: For example, Paul teaches that serious sin in the church can lead to a person being shunned by the church, but he describes the action as handing the person over to Satan (1 Cor 5:5, 1 Tim 1:20). It is not God’s will to allow Satan to torment his children, rather it is the will of the sinful to cut themselves off from God’s grace and from communion with his church that leads to them being tormented by Satan, and it is the will of Satan to accuse, to torture, to kill and destroy .
So the concept of God setting up a legitimate earthly agent of his wrath to judge and punish those who do evil judicially is inconsistent with the Christian teaching on God’s wrath. Judicially imposed punishment as a means of creating social order through fear is not a demonstration of the character of God at all. God is love, and ‘there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.’ (1 John 4:18) Judicially imposed social control is, as Paul wrote, ‘the lion’s mouth’ (2 Tim 4:17), a symbol of the devil and the devil-controlled beastly state (1 Pet 5:8; Rev 13:2).
We should heed the warning of James about attributing to God what belong to ourselves and to the devil, also his teaching about the organic rather than judicial relationship between sin and death:
When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;  but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:13-17)