Today is Human Rights Day in my country, South Africa, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss another problem I see in with contemporary Christian theology: the question of justice. I have spent the last three weeks trying to convince people to let go of the (historically speaking) relatively recent and logically flawed Reformation doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. My reason for doing so is not because I wish to dismiss the Bible. Far from that, I think that seeing the Bible for what it is is critical if we are to be freed to read the Scriptures properly. In short, if the Bible is the inerrant revelation of who God is, then God is violent, and thus when Jesus, who is demonstrably opposed to violence, claims that he is the full revelation of God, he must be lying.
A consequence of the view that the Bible is inerrant (and therefore that violence can be legitimated) is that it allows people to confuse vengeance with justice. The awful depiction of Lady Justice as a blindfolded woman with scales in one hand and a sword in the other is just one of the bloody consequences of this type of thinking. If justice is blind, and cannot see individual people, with individual needs and with unique relationships, and if justice means applying the same rules in the same way every time, regardless of context, then it is callous and loveless. And no justice at all, really. Any good teacher will tell you that you cannot apply the rules in the same way every time to every pupil in the class and still be fair. Circumstances matter. people matter. Because we ourselves do not recognise what true justice is, as is evident in this statuesque depiction of it, our theology is incapable of distinguishing between vengeance and justice. But vengeance and justice are poles apart. Granted, there may be times when the outcomes are the same, but that does not mean that the concepts are.
The difference lies in the aims. Vengeance is, at its core, driven by the need to restore a wounded ego. We want compensation for what we believe we have lost. Normally, actually, we will only feel “justice” is done if we are more than compensated – if the scales tip in our favour. Naturally, this translates as injustice to our opponent, who – if allowed – seeks a similar sort of “justice” for henself. And the violence escalates. The desire for vengeance is an intrinsically selfish one, linked only tangentially to the injustice that initiated the desire. The primary aim of vengeance, then, is to assuage the pain of loss. Some losses are too great to be assuaged.
Justice, on the other hand, serves society, not the individual. The primary aim of justice is to restore right relationships in society. Its primary consideration is not the loss suffered by the individual, but the construction and maintenance of a social structure in which individuals may relate appropriately. Sometimes that means addressing loss as part of the project. But addressing loss is not the primary goal of justice. Social cohesion is. There is more at stake than the compensation of the victim: there is the rehabilitation of the offender. There is the impact of the now dysfunctional relationship on broader society to consider too – hurt people hurt other people. How do we mitigate that? Social cohesion requires that everyone relates appropriately. Justice attempts create the conditions under which that is possible.
When we reduce the gospel message to one of Penal Substitution – God punishing Jesus in our place in order to maintain cosmic justice – we diminish the work of God. We reduce God’s motives to a petty desire for vengeance to assuage a bruised ego. And you can attempt to justify any way you want to, but the obvious moral flaw in the whole system is that it is never just to punish an innocent person for somebody else’s crime. Guilt is not transferable. More than that, though, Penal Substitution satisfies only the need for vengeance (although it doesn’t even do that – vengeance, being ego-driven, is never satisfied – God still apparently needs to subject enemies to eternal torment, which seems way out of proportion to even the worst of human atrocities); it does nothing to restore proper relations. Penal Substitution Theory speaks to vengeance, not justice. In the process, it diminishes God.
Jesus’ teachings, on the other hand, speak to justice, not to vengeance. The concept of Teshuvah, for example, which we translate as repentance, is not a term that speaks to personal holiness, but to one’s relations with one’s society. It is illustrated in Matthew 5:23-24, when Jesus teaches: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift”. So when Jesus teaches: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”, which Matthew 4:17 suggests is the heart of his message, he is essentially saying: “be reconciled to one another, because that is the key to living in a society ruled in the way God would rule.” He is not saying: “Turn or burn”.
Jesus places a premium on social justice, on siding with the oppressed, on assisting those in need. Jesus very clearly associates righteousness with the willingness to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to the sick and the imprisoned. And he aligns this with faith: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7: 12). Indeed, this is the expression of faith that takes root in the early church, where members of the growing church give up all possessions and live comunally, ministering to the poor. It is what prompts John (1 John 4: 20-21) to write: “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” And we all know who we ought to regard as our brothers and sisters: everybody, even our enemies. Jesus makes that abundantly clear. Establishing a just society requires that we create the conditions in which everyone can function appropriately.
This is where I think Christianity has universal applicability: the only way to restore right relationships is through love. And that doesn’t mean allowing others to use us as doormats; it does not mean silence in the face of injustice; it means doing what it takes to restore right relationships in society. Sometimes that means giving up the right to vengeance. Sometimes that means, even when we are in the right, to put our own needs aside so that we can find ways to restore the dignity of the enemy, because society only functions properly if everyone is relating appropriately. The only way a dysfunctional society can self-correct is if functional members do not contribute to the dysfunction, but actively seek ways to restore the dysfunctional to functionality. Repentance means not contributing to the dysfunction, and it means making amends for the dysfunction to which you have contributed. Remember Zaccheus?:
“And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:2 -10)
Do you notice that Jesus does not associate salvation with Zaccheus “believing in his name” or Zaccheus’ “washing himself in the blood of Jesus”, but with willingness to restore right Kingdom relationships? Salvation, as clearly demonstrated here, is not the act of God withholding due punishment, it is the act of embracing a relational paradigm that does not contribute to the dysfunction, and which actively seeks to restore right relationships. Salvation is about being “found”, not being spared.
So I can buy the idea of a God entirely devoted to justice. What I cannot accept is the notion of a God who equates justice with revenge. That smacks too much of humanity. True justice seeks restoration. A just God would not be content to punish an innocent scapegoat to assuage a sense of being wronged (essentially, ego), and let it go at that. A just God would seek the restoration of social order. And indeed, that is what we see Jesus preaching: surrendering his right to vindication in the hope of giving the offender the psychological space to heal and seek reconciliation, so that society as a whole can be restored. We see Jesus encouraging us to “pick up our crosses and follow him”, to “lose ourselves that we might find ourselves”, “to die that we might live”. Implicit in that is the recognition that we need others to be whole if we are to remain so ourselves. That means loving even when it hurts, forgiving because we refuse to contribute to the escalating dysfunction by seeking vengeance. It means conceding that perhaps if people were not conditioned adversely by their cultures, their life experiences, their educations, their genetics, even, they might make very different choices. It means not adding to the distorting lenses that prevent them from seeing why God’s way of love makes sense.
I agree that there is a lot about the cross of Jesus that speaks to justice. But don’t be content to diminish the power of the statement the crucifixion makes about justice by reducing it to God’s punishment. I dare you to rethink your understanding of justice, to broaden your picture of what a truly just God would try to achieve, and to look at the cross again. You might be surprised.