Seeking Justice – Take Two

mediationI’ve had some trajectories that I’ve been working on cross paths since the previous post. A reading of a chapter 15 in Scot McKnight’s book The Jesus Creed, entitled  A Society for Justice (p143ff), provided some insight and dissonance. 

The first trajectory is that we aren’t looking just for justice, we should be looking for Kingdom Justice. I began to realize this when I started reading what McKnight had to say in this chapter, which parallels and tracks many of the conclusions I arrived at.

He starts by saying that

Justice is a faded entry on a dog-eared page of our society’s lexicon (p145).

This means that most justice is self-centered and self-serving. We cry out at some injustice that happens to us, or something that stirs our self-interest, and we want to reap our share of rewards as recompense for it. Justice is about recompense, getting our pound of flesh, and so on.

A quote from The Jesus Creed is apropos here:

"I think we grab the whole business of justice by the wrong end of the stick," he says. "Currently we ask who did it and how we can punish them. But it makes more sense to ask who was hurt and how we can restore them…." (p149)

Kingdom justice is interested in restoration of the other and society to a relationship with God, not to satisfy some overweening sense justice that I might have.

The second trajectory is that most of the references to justice in scripture is restorative. Justice for the sake of punishing the wrong-doer is minimal, if it exists as all.  Let me explain the difference.

Retributive Justice

Retributive Justice is a matter of giving people their just desserts.

  • In cases of wrongdoing, someone has lost certain benefits, while someone who does not deserve those benefits has gained them.
  • Punishment will set this imbalance straight.

What Is Retributive Justice?

Retributive justice maintains that proportionate punishment is a morally acceptable response to crime, regardless of whether the punishment causes any tangible benefits. Central to retributive justice are the notions of merit and dessert. People who work hard deserve the fruits of their labor, while those who break the rules deserve to be punished. People deserve to be treated in the same way that they voluntarily choose to treat others.

Immanuel Kant discussed the idea. People enjoy the benefits of a rule of law. According to the principle of fair play, the loyal citizen must do his part in this system of reciprocal restraint. An individual who seeks the benefits of living under the rule of law without being willing to make the necessary sacrifices of self-restraint has helped himself to unfair advantages, and the state needs to prevent this to preserve the rule of law.

In some cases someone who merits certain benefits has lost them, while someone who does not deserve those benefits has gained them. Punishment "removes the undeserved benefit by imposing a penalty that in some sense "balances the harm inflicted by the offense." It is imposed as a debt that the wrongdoer owes his fellow citizens.

Retributive justice is in this way backward-looking. Punishment is warranted as a response to a past event of injustice or wrongdoing. It acts to reinforce rules that have been broken and balance the scales of justice.

This concept of justice seeks to regain an equality that the injustice overturned. Some think that it is  most simply summed up in the principle of revenge ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Matthew 5:38-39 (ESV)

But for some, there is a short slide from retribution to revenge. Vengeance is a matter of retaliation, of getting even with those who have hurt us. Like retribution, revenge is a response to wrongs committed against innocent victims and reflects the proportionality of the scales of justice. But revenge focuses on the personal hurt involved and typically involves anger, hatred, bitterness, and resentment.

Deuteronomy 19:17-21 is the passage that Jesus refers to in his teaching above. The problem is that this is often seen as the standard to guide justice, when the best understanding is that this is the minimal level of justice that God desires.

This is similar to the discussion about building codes in the United States. When someone says that a project is up to code, what they are actually saying is that the project meets the minimum level of safety standards. So, this passage serves to limit retaliation, and is not necessarily meant to deal with the standard by which society is to aspire to justice. 

On the other hand, I believe that most of scripture is about restorative justice.

Restorative Justice

  • Restorative justice is concerned with healing victims’ wounds, restoring offenders to law-abiding lives, and repairing harm done to interpersonal relationships and the community.
  • It seeks to involve all stakeholders and provide opportunities for those most affected by the crime to be directly involved and to respond to the harm caused.

In a restorative justice process, victims take an active role in what takes place, as well as defining the responsibilities and obligations of offenders. Offenders also participate in this exchange, to understand the harm they have caused to victims, making efforts to set things right, to make amends for their violations, by committing to certain obligations, that may come in the form of reparations, restitution, or community work, and to take active responsibility for it.

This means while fulfilling these obligations may be painful, the goal is not revenge, but restoration of healthy relationships between individuals, and in the communities that have been most affected by the crime.

An example of this is the reconciliation process in South Africa.

For Kingdom justice, the essence of this consists in God’s love for humankind, such that he came to humanity in the person of Jesus (i.e., the incarnation). Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God demonstrated his merciful and suffering love in response to our wrongdoing, thus making forgiveness and restoration fundamental to how we should respond to human wrongdoing. The background to this understanding of Jesus is in the Hebrew concept of shalom (understood sometimes as the word for salvation, justice, and peace"), and in the ethical and messianic insights of the Hebrew prophets.

McKnight gives two examples of inaugural addresses that focus on Jesus’ concept of justice. The first is Luke 4,


18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19 (ESV)

and the second is Matthew 5.

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Matthew 5:3-5 (ESV)

In Luke 4, Jesus gives his inaugural address, which has a focus on restorative justice, i.e., Jesus sees his mission as restoring the poor, the prisoner, the blind and the oppressed to community with God and others.

Matthew 5 continues along the same theme where he shows that God’s intent is to restore everyone to a relationship with him and with others.

The poor Theirs is the Kingdom
The hungry They will be satisfied
Those who weep They will laugh
Those who are hated, excluded, are insulted, rejected because of Christ Great is their reward in heaven

As McKnight says, "Jesus is concerned with restoring humans so that things are just plain right. (p147)."

At the end of his earthly life, Jesus shows that justice is not retributive, but restorative. Judgment is part of the process of restoring people to God’s kingdom so that they can enjoy a relationship with him and others. But the judgment process is not what we expect:

35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:35-40 (ESV)

The basis of judgment is not whether or not we prayed the right prayer or believed the right thing (see the discussion in McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, p45-49), but how the followers of Christ have lived out the mission and commands of Christ in their lives.

Next time, what is the goal of justice? 

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