When Christians are Evil and Black Sabbath are “Moralists”: A Heavy Metal Theology of Retribution

By Jack Holloway

Day of judgment, God is calling

On their knees, the war pigs crawling

Begging mercy for their sins

Satan laughing, spreads his wings

Oh lord, yeah!

The United States had been bombing Indochina relentlessly for years, American troops were burning homes and villages belonging to Vietnamese noncombatants, and were raping Vietnamese women. The US government had created a system of horror, taking hundreds of thousands of lives, displaying humanity at its worst. Seeking a “breaking point,” when the destruction they caused would become so terrible and devastating that the North Vietnamese could no longer sustain resistance, US politicians and military commanders were hellbent on making as much damage as they possibly could.(1)

What was it that enabled these officials to disregard the destruction and devalue the tremendous loss of life they were causing? Black Sabbath calls it evil. The officials bombing the hell out of Indochina were “evil minds that plot destruction / sorcerers of death’s construction.” They cause only “death and hatred to mankind,” as they create a “war machine” that dehumanizes others and imposes their capricious and destructive purposes on the world. But, Sabbath promises, “Wait till their judgment day comes.”

Black Sabbath leaves no room for Blaise Pascal’s sentiment, “To understand is to forgive,” nor Gene Knudson’s, “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” The band harbors no sympathy for murderers, no interest in commiserating with those who destroy the earth, in hearing their side or extending empathy toward them. Relentless evil demands relentless judgment.

The theology in “War Pigs” is pretty hardcore. It assumes that the ones waging war know that what they are doing is evil. They know it, and they are nonetheless doing it, plotting destruction, lying about it, and manipulating others to their sinister ends. God said to the prophet Jeremiah, “Shall I not punish them for these things? Shall I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?” (Jer 5:29 NKJV). The abolitionist Frederick Douglass quoted this verse at the end of his first autobiography, indicting the American nation built on slavery.(2) Apocalyptic imagination maintains a commitment to a theology of retribution, which promises that God will have the last word and those who oppress people and destroy the earth will suffer terrible consequences.

Familiar with the apocalyptic literature in the Bible from his Catholic upbringing, Geezer Butler used its prophetic language to announce divine judgment on the US war machine. God will have vengeance on the war criminals, on a military-industrial complex that sacrifices human life on an altar of ideology.(3)

In an album review, music critic Lester Bangs called Black Sabbath “moralists”—a surprising descriptor given the band’s reputation.(4) But it is not untrue. Geezer’s lyrics are infused with a moral theology of retribution, akin to what we find in the book of Proverbs:

Prov 11:23: “The expectation of the wicked is wrath.” (NAS)

Prov 22:8: “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.”

Prov 29:16: “When the wicked are in authority, sin flourishes, but the godly will live to see their downfall.” (NLT)

Sabbath maintains this theology of retribution, insisting that evildoers will receive their just desserts. Theologies of retribution are not as popular as they once were. Many find it difficult to get comfort from the idea that the wicked will get what they deserve in the end when the wicked are so often blessed with what they do not deserve here and now. As Chris Rock commented in his 2018 comedy special Tambourine:

‘You know, some people never get theirs. Some people just fail up. People are like, “What goes around, comes around.” No, it don’t. Sometimes, it just keeps goin’ around.’

Indeed, the experience of watching a tyrant succeed in his evil endeavors is genuinely disheartening. It reveals that the worst is possible, that things can go horribly wrong, that goodness and decency are not necessary for success, and evil can get what it wants if given the opening.

And yet, this experience is also what makes a theology of retribution attractive. If good and evil are set for all eternity, and God ensures the victory of one over the other, then we can rest assured that, no matter what people do, no one will get away with evil in the end. It is perhaps because the idea of retribution is so attractive that it is so hard to believe—a too-good-to-be-truism. Gone are the days when it was commonplace to believe that evildoers will be punished in the end, that there is an undesirable place reserved especially for them, where Satan eagerly awaits the next batch of deplorables. Is this theology not a kind of wish-fulfillment, in which we outmaneuver reality and grant ourselves justice ahead of time?

Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the theology of retribution is “the cleverest revenge,” because it transforms a temporal loss into an eternal win. Morality, he said, is a “revolt of the slaves,” in which underdogs gain the upper hand by obligating their overlords toward charity. Accordingly, theology of retribution has less to do with promoting the good and more to do with demoting the powerful. It is the revenge of the weak against the strong.(5)

Nietzsche’s description is not far off from Black Sabbath’s theology of retribution. The band revels in God’s judgment of the wicked. “On their knees, the war pigs crawling / Begging mercy for their sins / Satan laughing spreads his wings.” This verse is striking for how unabashedly ruthless it is. Rarely does one encounter in modern Christian thought this kind of unrelenting condemnation.

Generally, Christians are encouraged to, as Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). Conversely, Christians are usually discouraged from reveling in animosity or gloating over the misfortune of others. In accordance with these principles, worship songs rarely feature such contempt for the wicked as we see in “War Pigs.” But perhaps that is precisely one of the limitations of the liturgies we encounter in church.

The Bible bears no such limitation. It is full of animosity toward those who abuse power and oppress the vulnerable. As the rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, the Bible models “righteous indignation” as a positive manifestation of anger. The prophets especially embodied “impatience with evil,”(6) and nursed a belief in divine retribution:

Jer 21:14: “I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings, says the Lord.”

Isa 3:11: “Woe to the guilty! How unfortunate they are, for what their hands have done shall be done to them.”

The psalms, too, invoke this act-consequence theology. Especially in the psalms of lament, the psalmist cries out to God for justice, that the righteous will be exalted and oppressors will be cut down. Psalm 137, written by Israelites in exile in Babylon, proclaims,

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,

         Blessed is he who repays you as you have done to us.

Blessed is he who seizes your infants,

         and dashes them against the rocks. (vv. 8–9)

Damn.

The Bible is metal. Metal is intense, extreme, heavy, bitter, harsh, vivid, and dramatic. The Bible is all of these things. It makes space for the full range of human experience, including those aspects of life that the church tends to leave out—rage toward the unjust, profound grief in the face of devastation, and revulsion toward oppressors. So while the “War Pigs” lyrics might not impress Christian ethicists, they are biblical in their contempt for oppression and in the gratification they feel in prophesying a grim fate for all who make life a living hell.

And why not?  Nietzsche’s argument against morality rests on the assumption that the “strong” do not deserve the attack that the “weak” level against them. The strong, he said, see goodness in themselves, while the weak see badness in their plight. The weak grow to resent the disparity and so deem the strong bad and themselves good.(7)

But if the weak are “weak” precisely because they are the conquest of the “strong,” then the origin of morality is not in the resentment of the undeserving, but in the harm done by those who abuse power.

One does not have to invent “the bad” if one is the victim of it. When one suffers evil, it is certain that it is evil. To return to Frederick Douglass, as a formerly enslaved person, he did not need anyone to tell him that slavery was evil, for he encountered it himself as horrifying, harmful, detrimental to his life and flourishing, and therefore absolutely unacceptable. In this experience, Douglass discovered morality, knowing intimately and spontaneously that it is evil to deny another person’s humanity and enslave them, and it is good to honor the humanity of others and protect their freedom.

Douglass acquired moral authority, the ability to draw a line in the sand and say no to one reality and yes to another. He did not need to enter a philosophy program to have his assertions about morality assessed by the most critical Western minds, who only pontificate about slavery, and who might encourage Douglass to concede nescience on the inner workings of the universe. No matter what anyone would say to him regarding morality, Douglass knew that slavery is evil and freedom is good.

Black Sabbath has no need to blush when Nietzsche criticizes retribution theology for its vengeful character. It might be severe, but it is just. Morality is not a clever revenge crafted by underachievers, it is the complaint of truth and justice. As Heschel wrote, “There are moments in history when anger alone can conquer evil.”(8) If there will be no outrage when people use their power for evil, then there will be no resistance to evil and no abundant life. We not only should be able to protest the evil in the world and judge those who make way for it, it is paramount that we do so.

Jack Holloway is the author of Hands of Doom: The Apocalyptic Imagination of Black Sabbath. He is also a music producer and film director based in Brooklyn, New York. He earned an M.Div. in theology and critical theory at Union Theological Seminary (‘18). He is the lead vocalist and guitarist of The Heavens. Follow him (and his book) on Instagram @jack.amos.holloway and @doomtheology.

Endnotes:

  1. See Lawrence, Vietnam War, 91, 145.
  2. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (New Haven: Yale University, 2016), 88.
  3. Doug Rossinow described the Vietnam War as “perhaps the most purely ideological war in U.S. History.” Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University, 1998), 209.
  4. Quoted in Wall, Black Sabbath, 98.
  5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, trans. Horace B. Samuel (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003), 19–20.
  6. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 363.
  7. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, 10–11.
  8. Heschel, The Prophets, 381.

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