“My soul cries out, let the fires of your justice burn,” the congregation sings on this Sunday. I lean over to my wife: “What does that mean?” “Maybe it means God is passionate about justice,” she whispers with a twinkle in her eye.
True enough, but she knows that I think there’s more to it. She suspects my hidden-assumption alarm has gone off again.
The hymn reminds me of the unexamined assumptions we often make about biblical justice. Wrongdoing is a sin against God and God’s laws. Those who break those laws will get what they deserve: God will judge and punish those who sin. Justice is hard edged: lawbreaking must be avenged, wrongdoers will surely perish, the fires of justice will burn.
This hymn, like most of our references to biblical justice, focuses mostly on the wrongdoer and says little about the needs of the victims of injustice.
This is similar to what happens in our criminal courts and the legal dramas on television: presided over by a stern judge, the legal system decides whether a law was broken, who did it, and what punishment the offender deserves. Wrongdoing pits the offender against the governing authority. Justice is offender-centered, preoccupied with establishing guilt and meting out punishment.
The victim often gets little attention in this scenario because legally, the offense is against the state. It was Timothy McVeigh versus the US government in the case resulting from the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The hundreds of people who lost loved ones or were injured had to get an act of Congress just to sit in on the trial of the person accused of harming them.
The parallels between these secular and religious approaches to justice are no accident. Historically, Christian theology and the western legal system came of age together, mutually reinforcing each other. The legal system that began to emerge in the Middle Ages needed support and justification and so it turned to the church; this was, after all, an age in which the Catholic faith dominated the western world. But the church was at the same time influenced by concepts of justice that owed more to the non-Christian imperial law of the late Roman Empire than the world of the Bible.
Unfortunately, this interchange resulted in what one scholar has called an “historical short-circuit.” Concepts such as “an eye for an eye” that meant one thing in the biblical context came to mean something quite different in a punitive legal framework. Then these reinterpreted concepts shaped our reading of the biblical message, causing us to emphasize the punitive and often overlook the restorative.
In his important book, God’s Just Vengeance, Timothy Gorringe traces this story. He argues that retributive assumptions were mutually reinforced in both our faith and our justice system, resulting in a deeply punitive dimension to western culture.
Along with this reinterpretation of the quality of justice went a re-evaluation of who represented the victim. As in many traditional societies, a primary emphasis in western society had been upon repairing harm to individuals and communities. Increasingly, however, the state took the place of the victim, collecting fines and administering punishment. In the religious realm, wrongs came to be seen as primarily against God and God’s laws, with important implications for our understanding of forgiveness.
“Seek God’s forgiveness, then learn to forgive yourself,” prison chaplains often tell their listeners. True enough, but it’s interesting that this admonition does not mention any obligation to those who were harmed.
Julian Pleasants, in an article entitled “Religion that Restores Victims” in New Theology Review, notes that in the early church, as seen in Matthew 18, if you harmed someone, you needed to make it right with them. This was an important part of restoring your relationship with God. So in the early church, a wrongdoer was to make things right to and seek forgiveness from his or her sister or brother so that things could be right with God.
As in the secular realm, however, in the religious realm the “victim” eventually came to the governing authority and its laws. Wrongdoing came to be seen as primarily a sin against God and God’s moral order more than harm to people and relationships. Moreover, God came to be viewed as a stern or even angry judge dispensing harsh punishment. To avoid this terrible consequence, sinners were urged to make things right with God. The church began to focus on saving the sinner from his or her awful fate rather than assisting the victim. God’s forgiveness not only took precedence over, but often took the place of, acts of reparation and apology to the victim.
Those of us who are Christians rightfully understand that when we do something wrong, we need to seek God’s forgiveness. And we do need eventually to forgive ourselves. But there is a third, and essential, dimension: if we are truly repentant, we must also accept our obligation to the one we hurt. This obligation is rooted in the biblical concept of justice.
God does name wrongdoing, of course, as we must also. God does get angry at wrongdoing, as we should. There are consequences for wrongdoing, as there must be. But legalism, harsh judgment and punishment are not the predominant themes of the Bible.
Biblical justice is shaped by God’s intention for humanity: that we might live in what the Biblical writers call shalom – in right relationship with one another, the creation, the Creator. What matters about wrongdoing is that it harms these right relationships. What justice requires is that conditions for shalom be created or restored.
God is a God of love, a God who never gives up on us. That’s the essence of the biblical story.