Gut Reactions and the Heart of God: Reflections on the Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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While reading by a campfire last evening, I checked my phone and saw the news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. At first, I had a fleeting thought about the open seat on the Supreme Court. But then I was saddened—not by the thought of death, but by my own heart. Why was my gut reaction a political one? I suppose it’s in part because of our ruthless political climate, and also because we tend to forget the humanity of those who mean little to us besides a name in the headlines or a talking head on a screen. I remembered then that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a human being, made in the image of God, and that her family was no doubt grief-stricken.

Even the phrase “made in the image of God” can be lost in the political rabble. I hear it most often when referring to the unborn whom Christians are right to defend. But it’s easy to recognize this truth about an innocent child and far more difficult to remember that the same inalienable dignity belongs to those whom we count as our enemies. Although I never thought about Ginsburg as an enemy per se, I strongly opposed many of her views, especially on abortion. But whatever I thought or didn’t think about her politics, Jesus is clear about my responsibility to love her from a sincere heart:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

We ought to read Jesus’s words carefully, many times over, until they soak into our hearts and minds. They point us to the very heart of God. God loves his enemies. After all, he loved a wretch like me. When an unbeliever dies, we should take no pleasure in it—political pleasure or otherwise. In Ezekiel 33:11, God says, “As I live” (as surely as Yahweh is the living God!), “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” If our first thought after the death of an image-bearer is about scoring political points—filling her seat with a conservative judge as soon as possible—I think we’re missing the heart of God. “Grieve with those who grieve” (Rom. 12:15) does not mean “grieve with those who grieve if they belong to your political party.” There’s a time for everything, and now is not the time to stampede the elephants or rally the donkeys. Heed the words of the wise man: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls” (Prov. 24:17).

I’m reminded of David, whose gut reaction to Saul’s death was to tear his clothes, then mourn, weep, and fast until evening (2 Sam. 1:11–12). This is the same Saul who tried to shishkebab David to a wall with his spear, then chased David through the mountainside as a hunter pursues an animal. But in this important moment, when others were watching and his integrity was on the line, David did not mention that Saul forfeited God’s blessing by sacrificing without Samuel; that he made a rash vow and nearly killed his son Jonathan; that he spared Agag and caused the Lord to regret making him king; or that he consulted a witch and attended a seance. Instead, David sang a song about whatever good could be said about Saul: “You daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you luxuriously in scarlet, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel” (2 Sam. 1:24).

If our first thought after the death of an image-bearer is about scoring political points—filling her seat with a conservative judge as soon as possible—I think we’re missing the heart of God.

No matter how much we have against a person, it does not excuse us from showing them respect—and, where it is due, honor. In this moment, we should be asking if there are ways in which Ruth Bader Ginsburg can be honored, respecting the solemnity of death, and praying for the loved ones she left behind.

I can hear someone asking, “But don’t you realize what’s at stake in our country?” And I can’t help but think, “Don’t you realize what’s at stake in the church?” We are more responsible for our character and integrity—rightly reflecting God’s name to the nations—than we are for raising up or putting down kings or judges. Our desire for leaders who share our values should not cause us to forget God’s sovereignty over politics:

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
All the nations are as nothing before him,
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness. (Isa. 40:15–17)

God has authority “over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:10). Of course Christians should care who sits on the Supreme Court and do what we can to promote justice in the land. But if we care so much that we forget God’s sovereign care or dehumanize our enemies, we have become sounding gongs and clanging cymbals like the rest of our miserable and restless world. The nations are watching. What are they seeing?

During these times of political unrest and social upheaval, Christians cannot be silent. But we must be wise—wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Pray for wisdom. Pray for healing. Pray for justice. Pray for peace. Pray for holiness. And may God have mercy on all of our souls.

Lord, give us your heart, so that our gut reactions are reprogrammed by radical love, even for our enemies.

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Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.