Tag Archives: punishment

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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