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The Offensive Justice Of Jesus

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There has been an increasing interest and engagement amongst evangelical Christians around issues of injustice over the last few years.  While this has been an encouraging trend, there have also been several aspect of it that have left me concerned.  Recently I came across a Facebook status update from a Christian justice ministry which linked to an article about human trafficking, specifically of children.  The story detailed how the linchpin of the operation was being prosecuted.  The status update affirmed their desire that this man be put away for life.

What concerns me about such examples is that they reveal an underlying mistake in our understanding of justice as Christians.  Without question, the man deserves to face the judicial system and I share in the hope that his punishment is adequate to keep him away from harming others for as long as is possible.  I even affirm that primary to the commitment of Christian justice initiatives should be a focus on the victims.  That said, I also believe that at the heart of true justice is the offensive and stubborn grace of God that desires the redemption of the offender as well.  Yet this emphasis is rarely addressed.

I am not suggesting that these people do not deserve to be punished, but rather that the justice that Jesus calls us to- the justice that we are to hunger and thirst for- is first and foremost about forgiveness and redemption.  Even the act of punishment is subservient to that purpose.  This is restorative justice, the same justice that transformed the Christian-killing Saul of Tarsus into the Apostle Paul, arguably the most influential Christian in our history.  We romanticize Paul’s story, but that he would become a central leader to the early church would have been a bitter pill to swallow for many of the other Christians.  Yet that is the nature of grace and restorative justice.

One of the central causes of this disconnect for many current justice orientated  Christian ministries is the lack of a solid, developed theology of justice.  The heart is right and the commitment to action is essential.  Yet lacking a right understanding of what justice is and why we do it, we risk missing the deeper implications that shape how we live it out into the world.  We risk parroting the retributive justice of the world rather than embracing the counter-intuitive grace of God that can transform even the worst of sinners into brothers and sisters in Christ.

There is an old rabbinical tradition which teaches that when the Egyptians chasing Moses and his people were drowned in the Red Sea, the angel in heaven rejoiced.  But God stopped them and said:

“The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and you want to sing songs?”

This is the heart of justice that I hope we as Christians can begin embrace and be transformed by.  It is the grace that allowed Jesus to declare that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  It is the grace that led Jesus, in the midst of the most unjust of executions, to declare, “Father, forgive them, for they know now what they do”.  It is the grace that is to characterize our lives in the world- not just to those who we think “deserve” it, but to all people.

This is the offensive and beautiful justice of Jesus.

16 Comments

  1. Well said. Thanks Jamie for your incite. It is easy to go straight to justice being done though punishment of purpatrater, but we need to ask for Gods righteous judgment and walk in His ways. Thanks again

  2. Thanks Phil.

  3. Important topic Jamie and, as always, you manage to express your concerns with grace. While I agree that forgiveness and redemption are of ultimate concern, and also agree that this would be offensive to many, I would quibble with their placement as “first and foremost.”

    Forgiveness, redemption, and restoration (the order is debatable, but important, I think) are dependent on several other preconditions, such as: exposure, capture, culpability, and so on. In short, repentance. These aren’t merely externally imposed hoops that offenders must jump through in order to “earn” forgiveness. Offenders of all kinds (including you and me) are internally incapable of processing restoration without moving through these initial phases.

    For example: Imposing forgiveness on someone who doesn’t need it is existentially identical to inflicting a punishment on someone who doesn’t deserve it. This is why the manipulative “grace” of certain religious people can be more toxic than honest judgement of others. You can spin this objectively (as I’ve done here) or subjectively (perhaps they actually need forgiveness, but just don’t think they do). Either way, but the issue is the same: people must be active partners in their own process of redemption.

    So, in a group, even if restorative justice is the explicit aim and goal – and it is in certain places – that goal is often miscarried, either because they refuse their own guilt or they refuse the forgiveness of others. In such cases, punishment is the only just course for the offender as well as for the group.

  4. As always, I appreciate your insights, Jason. I am not sure I fully followed all of what you put forward, so my response might miss the point. Feel free to come back with more if need be.

    I am not suggesting that the recipient of grace is passive. Nor am I suggesting that punishment is negated by a commitment to grace. Rather, I am pointing to the purpose of punishment. In that sense, as Christians, punishment should always be pointed towards the hope of restoration. I am not talking about primacy in the sense of order (i.e. grace first, then punishment), but about the very nature and intention behind the punishment.

    Further, it is with this insight that we recognize our own culpability. Or rather, our own sense of our own guilt should produce in us a mutual state of repentance that would, empathetically, make as drawn more to a restorative justice approach. We are not imposing restoration, but rather doing all that is in our power to make the restoration of all- the offender and the group- the most likely result.

  5. Daniel

    Jamie,

    I found this blog via Kurt Willems. This highlights such an important conversation for Emerging Christianity. You offer valuable insights here, as well. I shared on Facebook and Twitter!

    sincerely,

    daniel

  6. Thanks Daniel.

  7. excellently said. I recently read Christopher Marshall’s Beyond Retribution. At one point as he talked about the common “punish the criminal” mindset he referenced how that type of justice is a scapegoat for a vast array of societal ills. Yes, people are responsible for their choices. And, advocating for and protecting victims is of utmost importance – - but simply rejoicing that “the criminal has been punished!” allows us to wash our hands of that evil and not question the greater structures and influences they may have contributed to the injustice. It allows us to imagine that we have no part in injustice if we did not commit the crime. I believe that a better understanding of our part would help us to better offer grace and God’s desire for redemption of all.

  8. Well said, Nicole. Thanks!

  9. you say that the grace for the offender is rarely emphasized, and i would wholeheartedly disagree. sadly, grace often depends on high up a person was when they “fell.” the higher they start, the more chances they get at redemption. grace for abusers is often emphasized over accountability, healthy community boundaries, safety, or healing.

    this story comes from a church this week (with a trigger warning for abuse apology): http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/fate-of-baptist-pastor-accused-of-abuse-is-in-the/article_f4f2f71c-b0cf-555f-94b1-76d79cc191c3.html

    who gets quoted? who gets the microphone, the last word, the grace, the benefit of the doubt? the underage girls who were allegedly assaulted? or the pastor with the “good heart” whose penchant at the very least for spiritual abuse is right there in his own words?

    yes, our God is great, and he can redeem brokenness–but there is still much darkness, and only God know hearts. the Church can’t be a place that shelters abusers, silences the abused, or re-victimizes hurting people. justice and grace demand better.

  10. Suzannah, I would have to disagree with you on many fronts. First, let me be clear. The examples you cite are very real and certainly not uncommon failings in the church. I am not disagreeing with you that such things happen and that many Christians don’t handle them right. That is injustice.

    That said, I would still suggest that the overall emphasis- even if only in lip service- is on the victim. The general emphasis is not on radical redemption. Again, note that I am clear that restorative justice doesn’t negate the need for punishment. That includes the boundaries and consequences you mention.

    You say that the Church can’t be a place to shelter abusers. If you mean, it can’t be a place where abusers avoid responsibility, then I agree. But that isn’t justice and so I do not advocate for that. However, is the Church a place of shelter for abusers in that it provides a context best suited for redemption, then I believe that answer is yes.

    I am not sure if you intended to cite “Church” with a capital “C”, but that usage suggests the Body of Christ as a whole. Where else can an abuser go for redemption if not the Church? As for the local church, there are times where such abusers should not be allowed due to the risk they present to others. Therefore, the Christian response to such a reality would be to create boundaried alternative communities in which those abuser still had access to church without putting others at risk. That is justice- consequence and boundary, but not absolute.

  11. jamie, what good is emphasizing victims with mere lip service? in these discussions, it’s the people who’ve been abused and the women who’ve been raped who are often doubted, disbelieved, and even blamed. even if their abuse is acknowledged, they are often manipulated into keeping quiet or pressured to forgive in very specific ways that often include welcoming the abuser back into full fellowship (and they’re sinning if they protest). this is not radical grace or radical redemption–it’s privileging abusers and status quo (in the name of Jesus!) over healing or the kingdom of God.

    abusers can go to Jesus for redemption. Jesus’ redemption is radical (and i’m not saying there in no place in the Church for sinners), but much of what passes for grace among the people of God plays out more like spiritualized abuse apology. there is indeed grace for child molesters, but until we do a better job of showing grace to (and creating safe spaces for) people who’ve been victimized and are trying to heal, it doesn’t sound all that radical or just. we are to show the love of Christ to everyone, especially the hurting and most vulnerable.

    i appreciate your acknowledging the need for community boundaries and accountability. those crucial components often get lost in theoretical discussions about reconciliation.

  12. Suzannah, there is no good giving it lip service. Again, that is underlying point. We have an inadequate theology & practice of genuine justice. I have served as a pastor to the abused and abusers alike. I have seen the dynamics you describe and it is wrong. Again, this reveals a lack of true justice. We are not at odds with what we are stating.

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