Reflection: Judgment and Justice

by | Jul 15, 2019

“I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 

Acts 9:16  

There are many reasons that we humans fall into discord and disagreement.  Sometimes this happens simply because the same word means different things in our minds, but we assume we all think the same thing.  Personally, I believe this is a big problem with the word “church.”  When I used to do a lot of church transformation consulting, I would talk about the act of “discovering” the church’s vision.  An important part of this discovering is the realization that everyone has a vision of what church is supposed to be and do, but they often don’t articulate it and aren’t even aware that their visions differ—so people regularly run up against each other’s unspoken visions.  So an important part of the visioning process is to “un”-cover, or “dis”-cover, our particular visions of church, and come to a shared understanding so we can all move in a more coordinated direction.

Every once in a while I am reminded that we run into similar pitfalls with the word “justice.”  I believe that one way people differ theologically is based on how we understand God’s justice. 

When I think of “justice,” I think of three different forms (this is not an academic paper, so please forgive this amateur’s thoughts on the subject):

  1. Retributive justice, which requires punishment and restitution to neutralize the guilt of the offender.  When Christians talk about the crucifixion of Jesus as “buying” our freedom, it means that God’s retributive justice against the sinfulness of humankind had to be satisfied with punishment that Jesus took upon himself, for our sake.
  2. Distributive justice, which seeks to allocate resources more evenly across all people.  This was described multiple times in the account of the Acts church, where “they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:45)  Note that the distribution is not measured by who deserves more or less; it is just based on need.  (In fact, the judgment was directed against those who attempted to withhold personal wealth from the community.)  When you think of the early church members giving their all to a community that came to include ex-slaves and slave masters, Jews and Gentiles, women and men, the radical nature of this vision of distributive justice is pretty amazing—our efforts at multiculturalism has nothing on our early church ancestors!
  3. Restorative justice, as I mentioned in my column on May 28th, attempts to provide healing for both victim and perpetrator by bringing them together for a facilitated conversation that enables them to speak their truth and come to see each other as people who can forgive, accept forgiveness, and reconcile.  I am most inspired and challenged by this work, which is so often carried out by Christians who are seeking to forgive, as Jesus forgives us, and as Jesus commands us—and in this forgiving, other children of God are given healing mercy that is the manifestation of the grace of Jesus Christ.

This probably reflects my personal bias, but I believe that the mistake we make is our focus on retributive justice.  Worse, we may think it is our job to mete out retributive justice.  However, my reading of the Bible says that it is only God who should choose to enact retributive justice—and that sometimes God chooses NOT to, often to the dismay of God’s vengeance-seeking children.  The words in Acts 9:16 come from Jesus, who directed the believer Ananias to receive and heal the stricken Saul, whom Ananias knew to be a persecutor of Christians.  Ananias initially resisted the order to open his home to this murderer, but retribution is the sole responsibility of the Lord, not of Ananias.

Frankly, it would be easy and even satisfying (in a broken human way) for us to practice our form of retributive justice—which may be why God wants to keep that to the judgment of Jesus Christ, “who has already offered himself to the judgment of God in my place and removed the whole curse from me.”  (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 52).

Instead, we are told repeatedly that our job is to practice distributive and restorative justice, as God has shown to us.  The prophets through the millenia, Jesus in feeding the five thousand and reaching out to the outcast, the calls for mercy to the widow, the orphan, and the least of these point to our call to offer mercy and tangible help to all, especially those in need.  And perhaps the most effective witness of Jesus’ claim on our hearts is the ability to forgive, which is the foundation of restorative justice.  We know restorative justice is possible because of the world-changing willingness of Nelson Mandela to reconcile with members of the Apartheid government in South Africa that imprisoned him for 27 years, and more locally we remember the Amish families of schoolgirls killed at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and survivors of the saints killed in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The forgiveness offered by those who have faced evil unleashed on the innocent—but also countless other, more personal, acts of forgiveness and reconciliation—help to make visible God’s kingdom of heaven.

Even as we continue to call out injustice in our world, and seek to prevent the abuse of the most vulnerable in our midst, let us seek to practice distributive and restorative justice, as we live as bearers of Christ’s mercy for this broken world.  What an awesome responsibility, and a most amazing opportunity to reflect God’s glory.

In Christ,