Tag Archives: justice

On Justice Part 2

This is the second part of a series on justice that began quite a while ago here. In that post, I posed this question:  Why should it make sense to us to tie justice primarily to punishment when the gospels seem to tie it to liberation? To put it another way, why should God’s justice ultimately be a penal justice? I also acknowledged that the first post was leaving things a bit messy. We’re going to begin to untangle some of that here.

I want to point out up front that, despite the title, this post is not going to be primarily about justice; rather, I want to set up the current situation that gives rise to the questionable conception of justice I outlined in the last post–namely, the moralization of justice.

To do that, we need to first examine the concept of sin. In western Protestant traditions, sin has been conceived of in two partially related ways. First, it is the general condition of human beings (Original Sin) that we are born into and must “work” to get out of by accepting the grace offered to us through faith. Second, there are individual “sins” that are indicative of the more general condition but which can themselves be identified, outlined, placed in hierarchy, and appropriately condemned. This condemnation is a markedly different formulation than what we find in the Catholic tradition. In pre-Reformation Catholicism, acts of sin are counted against you in a sort of running tally with your works of righteousness; the more righteous you are, the less time spent in purgatory. But in the Protestant tradition, broadly, the condemnation of sin is tantamount to the rejection of the world which is always at odds with the kingdom of God. This was by no means Luther’s view. It doesn’t quite accurately describe Calvin either, but it was the Reformed movement that gave rise to a strong version of this understanding in America.

The Puritans, who were Calvinists, held two narratives together that deeply shaped the way they viewed the world and how God interacts with it. First, was the narrative of persecution–what is called a “jeremiad.” The Puritans (who really were persecuted in England) believed that they were the only truly elect. They saw themselves as a pure (hence the name) distillation of what it is to be a member of the elect and as the last bastian of morality and decency among a rapidly degenerating, horrifically evil world (which included Catholics, Anglicans, and other Protestants.) They fled to the New World in order to establish the City of God, free from the dangers that the evil outside world presented. Second is their understanding of how God acts in the world, which is also necessarily tied to their belief in election. While they believed in election, they also believed it was impossible to know for sure who was actually elect. But they thought that if a person had been blessed with election by God, it would be naturally reflected in the abundance of blessings that surrounded him. If one is a member of the elect, one would live a righteous life and be abundantly blessed. The righteous life necessarily includes abstaining from “the world” which requires a black-and-white knowledge of what is righteous and what is worldly. Thus, a life devoted to and focused on Christ is primarily about one’s own moral behavior.

Furthermore, if one were to err, punishment would be the only way to ensure a truly repentant heart and a commitment to returning to the right path. Those who do not repent are in danger of eternal punishment.

The effects of this sort of moralization of Christianity are numerous and far reaching. The most important effect is that the significance of Christ for our lives, “following Jesus,” is primarily about not doing bad stuff simply for the sake of not doing it. We hear a lot of sermons and sing a lot of songs about following Jesus, giving him control of our lives, etc., etc. However, we rarely hear about what that should actually look like. We’re left to draw concrete conclusions from the abstraction of Christ as “the center” of our lives, and that has predictably resulted in the separation of Christians from the “sinful world” strictly for the sake of “not sinning” itself. Separation is, after all, the safest way to be a Christian, since it allows one to live in a protective bubble safe from the dangerous world. I’m not just talking about families who homeschool their kids and only have friends from church, etc. Even those who live in the world can still take Jesus’ command to not be “of it” as a prescribed morality. You can live among the sinners, just don’t be one of them–simply because you shouldn’t. Jesus and God just don’t want you to. There is no other reason given. The focus of our whole Christian life, what makes us distinct from the world, becomes the fact that we don’t participate in activities that are rather arbitrarily designated as sinful because they correlate with some notion of “what the world does.” If we abstain, pray sometimes, serve others sometimes, read the Bible, and go to church, we’re devoutly following Christ. Christianity becomes a life of inward contemplation with its outward signs restricted singularly to church-going, occasional service projects and negative action (i.e. I don’t do a, b, or c.)

In this familiar version of Christianity, sin becomes the barrier that keeps us from abstractions like “being close to God” and “following Christ.” But I don’t think either are primarily about “not sinning.” Scripture makes it pretty clear that to follow Christ, to be close to or love God, to be “in relationship” with both, to [insert any other relationship to the trinity you can think of], is accomplished in loving others in a such a way that radically subverts the worldly order–the orders of power, privilege, and the oppression that those naturally bring. When I love and serve those that seem impossible to love and serve, I am loving and serving Christ. If that becomes the focus of the Christian life, then sin takes on a very different role. It is that which prevents us from that love and service. It is that which we seek after and prioritize over that love and service. In other words, it is idolatry.

This understanding of sin is not new. I’m following a whole host of people (thinkers as far apart as D.A. Carson and Peter Rollins, for example) in defining sin as idolatry. We typically think of idolatry as one sin among many, another moral guideline, but that sort of thinking (that there is a list of rules which, once broken, constitute a list of sins) is exactly what we’re trying to get away from. If we conceive of sin in this way, we can begin to see that our moralization of sin has actually prevented us from identifying some really pervasive sin barriers. Our own comfort and security. Our privilege. Our politics. The prioritization of our allegiance to the nation-state. We can easily imagine how these might impair our ability to engage in selfless acts of mercy, justice, and compassion to those who are poor, oppressed, and helpless (which we also might say represent the bare minimum as expressions of a life devoted to Christ), let alone to develop a posture of service and humility, one in which relationship and solidarity with the “refuse of the earth” becomes a part of our very identities as Christians. We too become the scum of the earth. In an interesting, ironic twist, the moralized view of justice has in fact prevented us from actualizing what I think is clearly biblical justice.

This doesn’t suddenly mean that activity we once saw as sinful is no longer sinful. The reason for its categorization as sin as well as the contingent consequences of sin have changed. While the elimination of morality from our conception of sin may seem like I’m watering it down, the contingent consequences of sin are actually far more severe. Under the view I’ve outlined, sin not only has damaging consequences for us, but  In the next post, we’ll begin to look at the cosmic

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A Brief Discourse on Justice

“When justice is divorced from morality, when rights of individuals are separated from right and wrong, the only definition you have left for justice is the right for every individual to do as he pleases. And the end of that road is anarchy and barbarism.” – John Piper

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t a post about John Piper or even fundamentalism per se. Taking them down is too easy, and frankly, they see enough abuse from other progressives. I say that because what I want to suggest in this post might at first sound rather pedestrian, some kind of banal plea for social justice. But stick with me. I intend to do a few posts about justice, so in this one, I’m just trying to lay out the primary tension and raise some really difficult questions.

I’ve been thinking about justice a lot since moving to Chicago. I now live in a city that suffers some of the worst systemic oppression in the country (not that Los Angeles is much better), and I live in a neighborhood (Rogers Park) that experiences a large portion of that. I live among people who, according John Piper’s understanding of justice, deserve some sort of punishment–not the justice that comes through the undoing of systemic oppression.

The understanding of justice posited above begs two important questions:

Is justice tied to morality, and if so, how?

Christians tend to think of justice in two fundamentally distinct ways: Legal and Social. Most Christians probably wouldn’t disagree with Piper, i.e. we need morality or else civilization degenerates into anarchy. I also don’t doubt that most Christians, including Piper, have a heart for the poor and oppressed. That varies widely in how it’s embodied, but I think most Christians today know that’s part of the program, and they want to participate, whether they really mean it or not. The problem is that these two categories aren’t divided so neatly. It’s not as if all those who suffer under systemic oppression are really saints with hearts of gold in desperate need of liberation. Many who would qualify under the Social probably also qualify under the Legal understandings of justice. So if we really want to stick to the legal/moral understanding of justice–that true justice punishes the wicked and vindicates the righteous–we have to shuffle a bit if we also want to be biblical followers of Christ and address the social. In other words, it’s really tough to love a homeless drug addict with the love of Christ when you also feel pretty strongly that he should go to prison for the stealing the money he needed to buy his drugs.

I know some might object to the idea that Jesus didn’t have a moral understanding of justice. He did, but not in the sense of bringing punitive justice to the rule-breakers. For Jesus, the true moral breach was living in a way that did not bring liberating justice to the poor and oppressed. That is his message to the Pharisees. (See Matthew 23:23, for example.)

Here’s the primary problem: Why should it make sense to us to tie justice primarily to punishment when the gospels seem to tie it to liberation?

Why is it that we’re perfectly comfortable with our notion of “God’s love” exceeding our wildest expectations and definitions, yet when it comes to justice, we seem to want to limit God to an exact replica of our own penal system? Why wouldn’t “God’s justice” be just as radical as God’s love? And why wouldn’t those two things be tied together?

The typical response to this sort of question is, “Oh, but they are! You see, when a parent loves a child, she disciplines that child for the things he does wrong. It is just that the child be punished for the things he does wrong.”

There are two glaring problems with this.

1) We don’t love our criminals. That isn’t why we punish them. When we think of the people who are “going to hell,” we think of the “bad guys” (probably because it’s too painful to think of some atheist relative, but that’s a future post.) We want the people who have done us wrong punished. We want them to suffer a bit–or a lot. Most of us have never been wronged in any serious way by a criminal, yet we still demand punishment, mostly because we sense that it will make us safer. That’s what the Piper quote at the beginning is getting at. If there’s not punishment, all us civilized folk are going to be forced into a state of anarchy. That might be the case for describing a practical social structure. But that has less to do with some notion of maintaining morality for the sake of morality than it does just making sure we can walk safely on our own street (and I recognize that even those points are debatable.)

2) People who make the above claim always forget the second part of it: Forgiveness. The punishment doesn’t work the way the parent intends unless the child is allowed to return to the loving arms of the parent. If you’ve been scouring the gospels this whole time for the place where Jesus tells the adulterous woman to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11),  you need to ask yourself: If the woman did continue to sin, would Jesus not continue to welcome her back regardless of whether or not she repented? And that isn’t even the whole verse:

10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”

11 She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” [CEB]

Jesus doesn’t condemn her, and I think it would be hard to make the case that he would change his mind regardless of whether or not she followed his final instruction to her. (Of course, this is all ignoring that John 7:53-8:11 is a disputed section of the gospel anyway. Critical editions of the Greek New Testament don’t have it. So if one really wanted frame Jesus as a moralist out to nab the rule-breakers of the Ancient Near East, one would need to look elsewhere.)

The extreme tension in understanding what justice is according to Jesus comes when we try to reconcile our moralist sensibilities with the fact that Jesus welcomes everyone and doesn’t condemn them. That starts raising all sorts of grinding, insomnia inducing questions about murderers, sex offenders… Questions that cannot be written off or taken lightly, but questions that we’ll have to cover later.

There is only one group of people Jesus says are excluded from the his kingdom. He says everyone except those who wield power against the poor and oppressed are welcome in the kingdom of God. And it isn’t because there’s some sort of “sin force field” keeping the power wielders out. It’s that the kind of thing that the kingdom of God is is the kind of thing that they absolutely despise. Those on the outside, in the outer darkness that Jesus speaks of in Matthew, aren’t weeping and gnashing their teeth because they’re being horrifically tortured–it’s because the kindgom of God is an absolute affront to the power they hold so dear, and they just can’t stand it. They can’t bear to see God’s justice being handed down–not against them but for those they were against. The powerless coming to power.

It might seem like our notion of justice is a bit of a mess at this point. There’s a lot I haven’t addressed yet. We haven’t really defined “sin.” As I’ve alluded to, we haven’t talked about justice for victims of crime, especially violent crime, about justice for victims of despots like Hitler or Stalin. We haven’t talked about what forgiveness is or might look like in any of those situations. Those are all very important points. What I want to do in subsequent posts is tease out the ways in which even our conceptions of what justice should be like in these situations is challenged by the nature of God as I want to suggest it. For now though, let’s think about what the implications might be for the sort of justice I’m suggesting. What do we lose if we remove morality from the equation? What do we gain?

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