What does justice look like? What does God’s justice look like? It is a huge question and the content of our very faith hangs in the balance.
Imagine that you are watching the news and you just heard a religious figure, say a clergyperson or the leader of a religious organization say, “Well, what I think we just saw here was God’s justice.”
What do you think the “what we just saw here” ? What event solicits that kind of response from religious folk who end up talking into the camera?
It probably wasn’t too hard to imagine an event. We hear those kinds of talking heads all the time. Over the past few years there have always been individuals or groups that voice (loudly) that God clearly pronounced judgment on some sinful person or group of people and that we best take heed or else we might be next. It happened after hurricane Katrina when sexual immorality and gambling were blamed, it happened after the Sandyhook elementary school shooting when “taking God out of our schools” was blamed, it happened after Hurricane Sandy when sexual immorality was blamed again, it happened recently when God’s judgment was pronounced on Kim Davis’ arrest (See, God wants her to perform her duties and marry gay couples!), and on her release (See, God wants her to resist the state and refuse to marry gay couples!).
As is evidenced by these over-confident pronouncements on God’s justice, we largely seem to view God’s justice as punishment to deserving folks. It is retributive. Do something bad and God won’t let it stand. When the sinner is punished, others will see and be too afraid to fall into the same sin. Many people defend the existence of Hell for many of the same reasons. People want to maintain that God is just as well as merciful. God can’t let sin rule, so God must punish it and therefore show that wages of sin are indeed death. Hell therefore becomes God’s very own weapon of mass destruction used as a deterrent to sin. If one does believe in a literal Hell, there are certainly better or more biblically and theologically sound reasons to do so, but this model is just false when we consider God’s nature.
We in the United States have modeled our own “justice” system off of this false understanding that punishment and retribution are the best ways to bring about peace and wholeness. As Christians this is a problem, because it is contrary to the way God seeks to do justice and as American citizens it is a problem because it just doesn’t work.
About two-thirds of people who are released after committing felonies (the vast majority for non-violent crimes) are rearrested within three years. The current model is retributive- do something bad, get punished. The idea is that you won’t want to do anything bad again because you won’t want to get punished again. Well, what actually happens much more often than we’d like to admit, is that someone is arrested, does time in jail, is sent out to the streets again with little to no resources on how to restart their life and serve their community, they carry around the black mark of “felon” perpetually and have a nearly impossible time getting hired for a legitimate job (why Ban the Box is so important…), they find illegal means of making a living (dealing drugs and the like), they get arrested again, and the vicious cycle starts all over again. It costs taxpayers lots of money, it doesn’t keep our streets any safer, and most importantly, it fails to treat our sisters and brothers with the respect and love they deserve as fellow children of God.
When we focus on hurting those who have hurt us individually or as a society as a system of “justice” we just add more hurt into the world and hurt ourselves more in the process. When we focus on rebuilding relationships, addressing the wrongs as barriers that prevent us from living in community in peace, we can truly have peace again. We would be more faithful to God’s restorative justice by caring for our neighbors, especially if they have committed a crime, and providing opportunities for their wholeness and peace instead of focusing on what punishments people “deserve” in light of their crimes. God’s justice is about reconciling the world to God’s self again.
God had every right to really let Israel have it. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God proclaims over and over again that the people of Israel had broken their covenant, or promise, to God. The terms and conditions of this agreement were pretty clear from the time God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. “Obey my commandments: don’t chase after other gods and take care of the weak, the poor, and the oppressed. If you do that, I will bless you and be by your side always. If you don’t, I’ll walk away and let you be destroyed by everyone and everything that could destroy you.” Over and over again, the people chase after other gods and take advantage of the poor, the weak, and the oppressed. God has every right to walk away from these promise-breakers and let them be wiped from the face of the earth.
But God doesn’t do that. It isn’t in God’s nature to let people “get what they deserve” even if they really do deserve it by our understanding. With the great and cruel sins of Israel before God’s very eyes, God announces, “The days are surely coming (“surely” means that there isn’t a darn thing you can do about it) when I will make a new covenant.” You broke the rules and deserve punishment and death? “Fine,” God says, “I’ll throw out the rulebook and we’ll start over. A new covenant.” God desperately wants to be in communion with us. God’s justice or law is about creating communion between us and God- that we might love and trust God (have faith) with a “free and merry spirit” as the reformer Andrew Musculus phrased it.
We are slaves to sin. When push comes to shove, we are all about taking care of ourselves long before we consider what God desires and what our neighbors need. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God or the lives God wants us to live. God’s solution to this predicament isn’t to pound us over the head with punishment until we are scared into submission. God just throws out the punishment we deserve and starts over. And God will do that every day for the rest of our lives until we finally find our rest in God.
Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, which started the Protestant Reformation nearly 500 years ago, were written as a response to the false idea that we need to do something to earn God’s favor and love out of fear that if we don’t we will be punished by God’s “justice.” The truth, however, is that God’s justice is aimed at restoring our relationship with God, so God frees us from sin and death without us lifting an undeserving finger so that we might freely serve God and our neighbor without fear of punishment from God, fear of the power of our own sins, or even fear of the power of death itself. God frees us so that we might have restful faith and trust in the God who truly has claimed us as God’s own beloved children.
In baptism God claims us as God’s own in a new covenant or promise that can never, ever be broken. Every time we fail to do what’s right, when we succumb to the pains of life, when we despair in the certainty of death, God looks at you as a new child born in these waters of baptism with forgiveness, grace, and abounding love, and God raises you up to new life. God’s justice is chasing us down when we try to run away, forgiving us when we hurt God or God’s other children, and embracing us when our hurts make us feel alone and lost. God’s new covenant is unbreakable and forever.
God’s justice is setting all things right. God’s justice is constantly reconciling us to God and each other. God’s justice is the building up of faith that sets us free from sin, death, and the devil so that we might love God without fear and love our neighbor joyfully.