Thursday, 20 March 2014

Those who long for justice...

"And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." - Micah 6:8

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled" -Matthew 5:6

"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"- Matthew 5:44

"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."- Romans 12:21

"Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of justice."- James 3:18

Let’s play a game. I am going to ask you a few questions and you will immediately write down a few things that come to your mind in relation to word I provide you. So what words or images come to mind when you hear the following words: (think of a short reply to each)




Do you think that  a majority of people would agree about what these terms mean? Would there ever be contradicting and competing definitions of these terms? I want to explore this...

Let’s start first with mercy. I generally think that most people know what mercy means. I would be surprised to encounter contradictions in defining the word mercy. Yet, sometimes a full understanding of mercy can be lost in translation. As Dr. Scot McKnight comments, “‘Merciful’ does not describe the ubiquitous and shallow virtue of “niceness” or “tolerance” in Western culture but concrete actions of love.”[1] Mercy has nothing to do with ‘niceness’ and ‘fairness’. We show mercy to someone who has wronged us. Mercy is compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm. Mercy is refraining from the cycle of retribution. Mercy ends the cycle of violence through forgiveness and cancelling the debt that is owed. 

Now let’s talk justice. What did you come up with? What do you think others came up with? I want to let you in on a secret. I am never surprised when people have differing conceptions of justice. I am resigned to the fact that ‘justice’ has the unfortunate disposition of being defined in contradictory ways. I am not talking about the legal subtleties of enacting ‘justice’ between two parties. I mean there is a rift of understanding about what constitutes the nature of ‘justice’. This may surprise you. After all, we have entire segments of society united to bring about justice through legal systems, and political lobbying. You would think that there would be some agreement on the term. Let me explain.

There are two differing ‘umbrellas of understanding’ about justice: retributive justice & restorative justice. Whatever you believe about justice can fall into one of these two categories. These ‘umbrellas of understanding’ relate to the end goal achieved by each version of justice. 

Retributive Justice

Justice in this view, is righting wrongs, paying back what is owed, and punishing wrong doers. Retributive justice sticks to the letter of the law, requiring its pound of flesh, demanding compensation, quid pro quo, tit for tat, and satisfaction of the law in order to resolve conflict and bring about conflict resolution. Peace is achieved as an end result of punitive action. 

Central to this view is the notion of limiting retaliation by ‘balancing the books’ and going no further. A definitive example of retributive model is the justice of ‘an eye for an eye’. An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth was a law of limitation designed to prevent the overuse of aggression and conflict. If someone broke their neighbours tooth you could not slaughter his whole family. 

The Greek philosopher Polemarchus espouses this view when he defines justice as “to give each what is owed to him.”[2] When asked by Socrates to further explain his position, he replies, ““justice … gives benefits to friends and does harm to enemies.”[3]

Restorative Justice

Justice in this view, is the act of redeeming, reconciling, and restoring offended parties back to a state of peace through the processes of forgiveness, understanding, and responsibility. The goal of this justice is to repair damage and thus break the cycle of hostility, retribution, and violence. Peace is viewed not as the end result but as the means of justice and conflict resolution. 

Central to this view of justice is the acknowledgement that the cycles of violence and retaliation are counter intuitive to an ultimate goal of restoration and peace. Gandhi summed this up beautifully when he comments, “An eye for an eye, will leave the whole world blind”. Restorative justice seeks out alternative ‘third way’ options to conflict resolution. If my neighbour ‘sins’ against me I am within the law to retaliate or do nothing. But I always have a third option to name the sin, absorb the blow, and forgive in order to redeem.

Which justice is ‘just’? 

Penal actions are often constructed within artificial boundaries of our perceived justice and our judgement of what is just. Humans are fallible in our executions of justice. We can easily distort justice as American justice, Israeli justice, Palestinian justice. As my friend Rob Olson commented on my Facebook wall in reply to a thread about justice, “Justice for who?”Justice for some is not always justice for all. Justice as virtue can never be tribal and xenophobic. “If you want justice [as retribution] and nothing but justice, you will get injustice. If you want justice without injustice, you must want love. A world of perfect justice is a world of love.”[4] Pastor and author Brian Zahnd provides a brilliant example as illustration of our artificial constructions of ‘justice’:

“Imagine you are involved in a property dispute with your neighbour. The neighbour has constructed a toolshed that extends three feet onto your property. You don’t want a toolshed occupying three feet of your property. Attempts to rectify the impasse with your neighbour fail, so you take the matter to court. The judge hears the case, decides on your behalf, and orders the toolshed removed. You are satisfied. But has justice been done? Perhaps. Certainly you may think so. But whose justice? At what point in the past do we start keeping score in order to determine what is just? What if the judge issued an alternative verdict: “I have heard your case, considered your arguments, and I have decided to return both of your properties to the Native Americans from whom it was stolen a hundred and fifty years ago.” Is this perhaps justice ? One might argue it’s a different kind of justice. It might seem just in one perspective but patently unjust in another. When we talk justice, we often do so within artificial boundaries. We mean justice in contemporary context, not a historical context. We mean limited justice, not over all justice; we mean justice for me, not for everyone.” [5] 

                       Justice as Mercy
Well, let me put my cards on the table. I have a problem with retributive justice. I think my major issue is this: Mercy is viewed as the opposite of justice. When someone is not payed or the law is not satisfied it can only be called injustice in the retributive view. Retributive justice ultimately must call God’s justice: injustice. To hold the retributive view, I am forced to side against Jesus in his pardoning of the woman caught in adultery, his lack of vengeance on the enemies of Israel, and his constant forgiveness and welcoming of sinners. I can understand why nations need a retributive view of justice. Paul outlines this in Romans 13. I have hard time reconciling how the church can call retribution justice, especially in light of God's justice towards sinners. “God’s greatest act of justice is to save the sinner- and God does so by the ‘injustice’ of grace. If we are ever going to understand and get along with the God revealed in the Bible, we are going to have to come to terms with the ‘injustice’ of his grace. This is precisely what the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son was unwilling to do.” [6]

I submit to you that true biblical justice and righteousness is full of mercy and longs for restoration and reconciliation as its goal. Mercy is not the opposite of justice. The Psalmist speaks of this type of justice when he/she writes, “Mercy and truth have met together. Justice and peace have kissed!” (Psalm 85:10) The Hebrew conception of justice is not divorced from mercy.“The Bible connects justice to righteousness and mercy. In fact, these three actions are so closely intertwined in Scripture that we might refer to them as a trinity of utility. If we want to live according to God’s will, in imitation of Jesus, we will utilize the three practices: justice, righteousness, and mercy.”[7] 

Let’s go a step further. Jesus’ teaching about justice, and therefore God’s clearest revelation, is the opposite of cold retribution. Let’s look at the Sermon on the Mount as primer for discussion. It’s a sermon directed at disciples who embody an alternative society that represents the breaking-in Kingdom of God. The Sermon on the Mount is not private instruction for individuals; it is the political platform for a new kingdom, a city on a hill. 

We can read the Beatitudes as a vision of justice. In the Beatitudes, Jesus describes a blessing upon the least likely people groups: the poor, the meek, the merciful…etc. These are types of personalities through whom God is starting to bring wise and healing order to the world. Scot McKnight suggests that we read the Beatitudes in three’s. “Three on the humility of the poor, three on those who pursue justice, and three on those who create peace.” True justice realizes it’s poverty of spirit (v3) and desperate need of God’s intervention. True justice mourns (v4) injustice on the earth and longs for comfort. Meekness (v5), as those quiet souls who trust in God for redemption, is a deep-rooted characteristic of those who long for justice//righteousness (v6). Justice is framed by mercy (v7) and purity of heart (v8). Justice is expressed through a peacemaking (v9) that absorbs persecution (v10) and insult (v11) but never retaliates. 

Jesus continues to refine his exclusion of retribution through the anti-thesis statements. "You heard that it was said, but I say to you.” Jesus is contrasting with the Old Testament through the use of six 'antithesis statements' in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount. In each antithesis, Jesus demonstrates how the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled, through Jesus' ministry and teaching. Jesus’ fulfillment is not merely an add-on to the Law, rather Jesus is the interpretative norm and prophetic fulfillment. So in shutting down the cycle of retribution Jesus excludes hatred and anger (v21) from the DNA of the disciple. Jesus is not deepening our resolve to not murder, he is establishing that we should never allow the thought of murder to exist within the fabric of our being. If I cannot even hate my enemy, how then could I ever aggress against them? If we are to express "fore-giving" love to those that offend us, as God in Christ expresses to us, how then can we say we are justified in retribution? Does not retribution eliminate the possibility of redemption through reconciliation? 

The clearest critique of ‘retribution as justice’ is Jesus’ approach to the Lex Talionis. An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth was a law of limitation. (c.f. Exodus 21:24) It prevented the overuse of aggression and conflict. It was given to provide the nations judicial system with a ready formula of punishment. "Don't use violence to resist evil”, says Jesus. (v39 KNT) Jesus counters this notion of limited retaliation. Where Torah restricts retaliation; Jesus forbids it all together. Jesus is introducing a Kingdom conception of justice as mercy. This was hope and the fulfillment of the prophetic tradition. The way to respond to evil is not with more evil actions, but with creative and non-violent action(s) whose goal is to make enemies friends. Jesus offers a new sort of justice, a creative, healing, restorative justice. The old justice found in the Bible was designed to prevent revenge running away on itself. But Jesus does better still.

“If your concept of justice is to make sure that everyone gets ‘what they deserve,’ you are going to have a hard time getting along with Jesus. This is the very kind of justice that Jesus stands against and came to save us from. A world bent on the justice of giving people ‘what they deserve’ is a world that is endlessly cruel and marked by alienation, violence, and war. The concept of retributive justice is what fuels the endless escalation of violence in the worst places on our world- from troubled inner cites to the troubled Middle East. Retributive justice has the horrible tendency to degenerate into my justice. And my justice is inevitably someone else’s injustice. This is not the justice that saves- this is the justice that kills.” [9-emphasis original]

Summary Thoughts

‘Justice as punishment’ is very appealing when I have been wronged. There is something  deep within myself that craves payback. I want them to pay, to feel my pain. I want satisfaction. I know that the desire to return hate with hate can be so easy, so convenient, so human. BUT… What about when I am on the receiving end of ‘justice as retribution’? Do I really want ‘justice’ then? Do I want my eye gouged out as well? Am I treating my enemy as Jesus would? 

I think God’s justice is Good News for the world. It’s a justice that is full of mercy. It’s a justice that makes enemies friends (Romans 5). It’s a justice that wants to heal, redeem, and transform the sinner. God, in Christ, reveals God’s justice on the Cross. 
“How, then, does God deal with death-producing sin in its full reality, as both transgression of law and oppression of life, through the cross of Jesus Christ? Regarding sin as transgression of law: God deals justly with sin, not by satisfying the law of retribution for sin, but rather by forgiving our transgressions, cancelling our record of wrongs, and nailing the death-demanding law of retribution to the cross - thus nullifying the power of sin to produce death through the law. Regarding sin as oppression of life: God deals decisively with sin by dealing death a final defeat through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ - thereby making a way for us to participate in God's victory over death and enabling us to participate in God's immortal life through resurrection and new creation in Christ (Rom 6:5-11;1 Cor 15:20-28, 50-57; 2 Cor 5:17). It is thus God's own law-nullifying retribution transcending, life-redeeming, creation-restoring work of faithfulness through the cross that discloses and demonstrates the justice of God.”[10]

Justice looks like a bloodied and bruised Saviour stretching his arms out on the Cross of his execution saying, “Father forgive them.” When God should have been pouring out punishment on humanity for the murder of Jesus, God instead absorbs the blow of injustice and responds in forgiveness. “In answer to Jesus’ prayer, there would be no retribution, no reprisal, no vengeful reckoning. Injustice has found a place to die- it died in Christ… The resurrection of Christ was not only the Father’s vindication of his Son; it was also the dawn of a new world founded on the the justice of reconciliation and forgiveness. The first Easter Sunday saw justice and peace kiss so that the risen Son of God could say, ‘Peace be with you.’ Ultimately, God’s justice is found in God’s mercy. This is how we are reconciled with one another. This is how we are saved. ”[11]

A prayer for those who long for Justice

Almighty God,
We praise you for all you have done.
Help us will all that you want us to do.

Come, Holy Creator,
And establish Your justice on earth
So that we do not labour in vain without you. 

Come, Holy Saviour 
And heal all that is broken
In our lives and in our streets

Come, Holy Spirit
And inspire us with energies and willingness
To rebuild the ruins of our cities to Your honour and glory.

(so be it) 

Thanks for reading....

Works Cited

1. McKnight, Scot. The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 132, (e-version) 
2.  Plato, Republic , trans. G. M. A. Grube, revised by C. D. C. Reeve
(Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992) 331.
3. ibid. 332
4.  Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville:Abingdon, 1996), 223.
5. Zahnd, Brian. Unconditional? (Lake Mary:Charisma House, 2010) 116-117. 
6.ibid. 124
7. Baker, Sharon. Executing God: Rethinking everything you’ve been taught about salvation and the cross (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 239 (e-version) 
8. McKnight, Scot. The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 134, (e-version) 
 9. Zahnd, Brian. Unconditional? (Lake Mary:Charisma House, 2010) 126. 
10. Snyder Belousek, Darrin W. Atonement, Justice and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2012) 846. (e-version) 
11. Zahnd, Brian. Unconditional? (Lake Mary:Charisma House, 2010) 129. 


  1. Great post, Paul. I'm actually working on a similar post but with 1 John 1:9 as my starting point: "if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive." Understandably we usually just pay attention to the value of confession, but it says something amazing about God's character, precisely what you are saying here: God's faithfulness and justice includes forgiveness. They aren't opposites, and when we act like they are we are usually acting at cross purposes to God.

    1. Ryan, I am looking forward to reading your post on 1 John 1:9.

  2. Wow. There is definitely a lot here to chew on. You working on a dissertation. ;)

    But serious. Great post! I may be quoting you some at Bold Cup of Coffee. ;) I'll keep you posted.

    1. Thanks Drake. I must admit that I tend to drone on bit!! Hope this post was of some help to you.