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.