[From lecture, Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University—12/1/08]
Dutch law professor Herman Bianchi has a sharp critique of criminal justice practices in Western nations (Justice as Sanctuary: Toward a New System of Crime Control [Indiana University Press, 1994]). He suggests that part of the problem has to do with a negative impact Christian theology has with its images of an angry and vengeful God. He suggests, though, that rather than rejecting the Bible wholesale, we should look more carefully at it. He uses the image of homeopathic medicine, suggesting that a careful does of what has helped make us ill might actually help us find healing.
I like this image of the need for a homeopathic cure for the Western world’s catastrophic embrace of retributive justice—an embrace all too closely linked with Christian theology. I recently read another strong, more up-to-date critique of the American criminal justice practices that lays out in devastating detail many of the problems (and their link with American Christianity) by an up-and-coming Mennonite theologian—James Logan, who teaches at Earlham College; the book is: Good Punishment? Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment (Eerdmans, 2008).
Now, I am not totally pleased with Logan’s own constructive theological response. I do think he has written a fine book and I highly recommend it. However, I don’t think he delves deeply enough into the positive resources we might find in the biblical materials, rather focusing more on theological generalities. In what follows here I will zero in on what I see some to be concrete and positive biblical resources that might apply to our philosophy of criminal justice.
The big context—God’s healing strategy
My starting point is the belief that we should first of all try to take the Christian Bible whole, to look at it as telling an at least somewhat coherent story, from start to finish. If we begin with a sense of this story—its basic plot, its points of tension, and its outcome—we will be in a better position to understand its treatment of the theme of justice, and to see how biblical justice might actually be good “medicine” in seeking to cure our culture’s descent into the myth of redemptive violence—a myth that blinds so many from seeing that all the violence in our criminal justice system is anything but redemptive.
We read of the original alienation in Genesis 4 (Cain murdering Abel), 7–9 (the descent into violence that leads to the Flood), 11 (the Tower of Babel). From the very beginning we see the centrality of violence; the cost in fundamental conflicts even within the first family (Cain/Abel). God’s initial response in the story is massive retribution—Noah and the flood out of God’s profound grief; but then “God remembers” Noah, the waters recede and God calls the human community back together, vowing not to destroy in this way again. How then will God deal with this alienation?
Genesis 12:1-3 gives us the model: God calls together a community to know God’s healing love and to be a channel for this love blessing all the families of the earth. I call this model, “God’s healing strategy” (see my book of the same name)—God purposing to respond to human alienation and injustice through a community of peace that will share the peace it learns to embody with the entire world.
I believe the rest of the Bible then tells the story of God’s healing strategy. It’s quite a story, with many twists and turns. But I think we can follow the thread from Genesis clear through Revelation. It is enormously significant for our reading of the Bible to note that in the final vision, the New Jerusalem that God establishes on earth contains at its core a river with trees on its banks providing leaves “for the healing of the nations.”
This original family, Abraham and Sarah, are gifted with children whose descendants form a community of people called (or elected) by God. The key to reading the Bible is to be found in how we understand this calling or election. Has God chosen a particular people to be saved out of many who will find themselves condemned? Is this the purpose of election? All too often, Abraham’s descendants have seemed to see it this way. However, if we take Genesis 12:3 as our key, “in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” we will understand election as a vocation. Election is for the purpose of this community of God’s people bringing healing to all the nations; a calling fulfilled in the end according the plot of the Bible where the community of God’s people (the New Jerusalem) hosts the healing trees.
A powerful expression of this sense of calling may be found in the famous prophecy that is included in two different prophetic books—Isaiah and Micah. In days to come, all nations shall stream to the Lord’s house, to be taught the ways of peace and to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
The story tells of this people, descended from Abraham and Sarah, in their early generations bound into slavery in Egypt, the world’s great empire of the time. Their God hears their cries and brings about their liberation under the leadership of the prophet Moses. After escaping from Egypt, the people receive another gift, God’s blueprint for ordering their communal life—for the purpose of serving as a “priestly kingdom” (Ex 19), a nation or peoplehood that will mediate to the wider world the justice of God. This blueprint, called “Torah” or “the law,” was a gift from God to help the people order their lives in ways that would foster general well-being, wholeness, and justice.
At the heart of Torah we find a self-conscious effort to create a way of life completely removed from the injustices and systemic violence of the slavery regime in Egypt. A key principle was that everyone in the community was to be valued, healthy relationships were to be cultivated, power was to be shared. So we find a focus on care for the most vulnerable people in the community, those most likely not to be valued—widows, orphans, resident aliens, and poor people in general. We may call this concern, in a word, a concern for “justice” (justice defined as wholeness, all people in the community living in right relationships with one another and with God).
The story, sadly, tells mostly of the community’s difficulty in embodying the justice Torah calls for. Justice comes to be defined, as much as anything, by its lack. King David, the greatest king, exercises the ultimate in injustice by taking Uriah’s wife Bathsheba as his own and causing Uriah’s death. King Solomon violates Torah’s expectations for the kings to live justly when he gathers foreign wives, takes the sons and daughters of the people for his army and for forced labor, and accumulates vast stores of wealth. Solomon’s son, King Rehoboam, intensifies the injustices leading to a revolt and the splitting of Israel into two separate nations, Israel and Judah. Then, with tragic irony, the northern kingdom, which broke away in response to injustice, becomes corrupted by oppressive kings—epitomized by King Ahab, who repudiates Torah’s inheritance laws (a major justice-fostering force that meant to protect future generations from being disinherited from the land).
Things only go downhill after Ahab, and in the end both the northern and southern kingdoms are destroyed by the might of the era’s great empires, first Assyria and then Babylon. According to prophets such as Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Jeremiah, a central reason for this destruction was the injustices that so characterized both societies.
Zeroing in on “justice” in the Old Testament
Keeping this big story I have outlined in mind helps us understand the specific references to “justice” in the Old Testament–the places where that term is used. For right now, I will focus on one text where “justice” is prominent, the book of Amos. Amos dates from the mid-8th century BCE, a couple of centuries past the time of King Rehoboam.
By this time it is clear at least to Amos that Israel, despite its chosenness and special relationship with God, faces judgment due to its injustice. The people with power and wealth in the society especially practiced injustice toward people at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, people deprived—systematically and purposefully—of their rightful status as full members of the covenant community.
Four texts in Amos specifically speak of “justice” (mishpat):
“Seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, O you who turn justice to wormwood, and cast down righteousness to the earth” (5:6-7).
Justice and righteousness are clearly associated here with the presence of God as the life-bestowing force. By calling the evil good (i.e., the so-called “justice” at the gate that had become injustice, and the people’s wealth, that was gained at the expense of the poor and weak) and the good evil (abhorring the one who speaks the truth, 5:10), the Israelites transform what should be sweet (justice) into something bitter (wormwood).
“Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil and love good and establish justice at the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (5:14-15).
When Amos 5:10 speaks of hating the advocate of the right and abhorring those who speak “the whole truth,” it apparently refers to personal opposition to the essence of the court-justice system. To do so, in God’s eyes, is to embrace death. True life in Israel can only flourish when God’s concern for the weak is expressed in its social life. One key way this happens is when the justice at the gate is truly justice, when it is truly corrective of wrongs done.
Concern for such justice goes back to the legal code itself as we see in this command: “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his suit. Keep far from a false charge and do not slay the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Exodus 23:6-8).
The key to experiencing the presence of God, according to Amos, is inter-human justice. It is not religiosity. This is emphasized in the next passage we will note.
“I hate, I despise your feasts and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream” (5:21-24).
Again, justice is connected with life. Water is the key to life existing in the desert. By doing justice is how the community exists. The worship of the cultic community is unacceptable because Israel does not live as the community of God. Thus it is without life. For there to be life, justice and righteousness must roll down like floods after the winter rains and persist like those few streams who do not fail in the summer draught.
“Do horses run upon rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood” (6:12).
The first part of this verse asks if the impossible could happen and the second part says that indeed in can, that it is, and (implicitly) that the leaders of Israel are doing it. It is incredible to Amos that the rich could be content in their luxury and grieve not over the ruin of “Joseph”—that is, the destruction of the covenant community (6:6), and that a place of justice (the court at the gate) could become unjust, poison. This staggers the mind and he can only compare it with some incredible perversion of the natural order of things.
Most foundationally, Amos understands justice to be tied up inextricably with life. Do justice and live, Amos asserts; do injustice and die. An unjust society will die, it cannot help but collapse of its own weight. The goal of justice is life.
More particularly, justice seeks life for everyone in the community. Because life is for everyone, justice pays particular attention to the people being denied life. Justice provides for access by all to the communal “good life.” None can justly prosper at the expense of others, or even in the light of the poverty and need of others. Amos sees justice as something to be done: relationships established, needs met, wrongs corrected. Justice, in Amos, has nothing to do with meaningless religious rituals. Justice is to specific acts and people.
God’s justice in the Old Testament is not primarily retribution but salvation, not primarily punitive but corrective. The justice of God is saving power, God’s fidelity to the role as the Lord of the covenant. God created the earth and its inhabitants for harmonious relationships and continually acts, even in the midst of human rebellion, to effect those relationships.
“Justice” often is closely linked with concepts such “steadfast love,” “compassion,” “kindness,” “peace,” and “salvation.” The psalmist tells us that justice and peace will embrace. The prophet Micah’s famous summary statement shows how they all go together: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). Hosea spoke similarly: “Return to your God, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God” (12:6)
Biblical justice has to do with conformity with the will of the loving, covenant-making creator God. Thus it is part of love, not in tension with love. God’s justice is seen in that God’s intervention has always been intended for the salvation of God’s people and thus for the restoration of covenant relationships. God’s love works to set right that which has been corrupted. This is justice. One way of characterizing justice, therefore, is to say that justice is how love is expressed in the face of evil. Love expressed in the face of evil acts to stop the evil and to heal its effects; that is, to be redemptive, salvific.
God’s justice is seen in the creation of life and in every act that God has done to sustain and restore life. Human justice, in the Old Testament sense, would seem only truly to be justice when it also acts to sustain and restore life. Justice is thus more a relational concept than an abstract principle. The goal of justice is human beings in relationships with each other and God. Israelite law was for the service of this communal goal.
The biblical teaching ends up emphasizing the poor and needy so much because they, in their oppression, were being excluded from community life and from the shalom God wills for everyone. This destroys community and ends up lessening the well-being of each person in the community.
Jesus’ emphasis on justice
What about Jesus? At the core of his message, he asserts, “I have come to fulfill Torah, not to repudiate it” (Matthew 5:17). When he is asked, what is the greatest commandment, he replies with a direct quote from Torah: “You shall love the Lord God with all your being and you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” which he asserts is a summary of the message of Law and Prophets (Matthew 22).
We could say that in Jesus ministry we have two kinds of ways he related to “justice”—first would be his direct use of the term and the second would be themes from his general message.
Direct use in Matthew’s gospel: Scholars debate about how to translate the Greek word dikaiosune–some say “justice” and some say “righteousness”? This is the Greek word used to translate Old Testament terms for justice in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuigant. If we do consistently translate this term as “justice,” we will see that this is a major theme for Jesus. These are a couple of references:
From the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled” (Mt 5:6); “Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10); “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well” (6:33).
In Matthew 23:23, Jesus challenges the Pharisees for not caring enough about justice and asserts that it is central to Torah: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
Finally, Matthew 25:31-46 reports Jesus’ parable of the separation of the just from the unjust, a separation based on acts of caring and compassion for others in need.
General themes: When we look at Luke’s gospel, we find a clear statement of Jesus’ agenda at the beginning of his ministry. At 4:18-19, Jesus reiterates the message of Jubilee from Isaiah (and Leviticus). He announces a new day of compassion and healing—for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. That is, he draws on core elements of Torah’s concern for community wholeness, placing a special emphasis on bringing back into the community those who have been excluded. He gives a message of justice as whole-making.
Jesus also announces and practices the forgiveness of debts. He tells us that justice is about inclusion, not reciprocity or letter of law. We should forgive 70 times seven. Jesus’ practiced inclusivity toward “sinners,” outcasts, women, children, and others on the outside. He emphasized a sense of community based community knowing God’s peace and witnessing to the “nations” of it (alluding back to Genesis 12 and God’s healing strategy)
At the heart of Luke’s summary of Jesus message we find two famous parables. In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus presents a picture of neighborliness in response to a lawyer’s question about eternal life. First Jesus reiterates that the love command summarizes the message of Torah. So, who is my neighbor the lawyer asks? (that is. to whom do I owe justice?). Jesus tells a story with a radical message of inclusion even of Samaritans (Jesus’ listerners’ prime enemies) as neighbors. In the paraable of the Prodigal Son Jesus addresses the question, how do we treat offenders? The wayward son is welcomed back without expectation of payment—the point is reconciliation, healing relationships, and understanding God as merciful.
Reiterating Jesus’ message: Paul
As with the gospels, so in other NT writings, if we tend to translate dikaiosune and related terms more as “justice,” “just,” and “injustice,” we will see that this theme remains central for the rest of the NT.
Of course, the most important NT theologian is Paul. Justice turns out to be a central category for Paul. He begins his most elaborate letter, Romans, with this thesis statement: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile. For in it the justice of God is revealed.” (1:16-17)
Paul then develops an elaborate argument to show how the justice of God has been revealed—first in the alienation caused by the idolatry both of the pagan Romans and of religious people in their use of the law as a means to put themselves above others. However, the revelation that truly matters is that the justice of God is disclosed through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who makes access to God’s mercy available for all sinners (Jew and Gentile alike), freeing all who trust in Jesus from their idolatrous alienation. And, Paul emphasizes, this revelation of the justice of God is attested by the law and prophets—he’s simply underscoring the message given to Abraham and Moses of God’s healing strategy.
So, Paul directly links justice and salvation, they are near synonyms—just as they were for Amos and Micah. The justice of God is the work that God does in disclosing God’s healing mercy to all creation so that we all might find healing from our broken relationships—with God and our fellow human beings. The central manifestation of such healing work, according to Paul, is the reconciliation in the faith community of former enemies, Jews with Gentiles.
The term Paul uses for this reconciliation is “justification”—making “just.” The heart of justification for Paul is the tearing down of walls of hostility that separate people (paradigmatically for him, Jews and Gentiles) and healing their interpersonal relationships—producing one body out of the fragmentation caused by social enmity. The healing that matters for Paul is not simply individual human beings with God—but more so, really, human beings with other human beings.
In this sense, Paul thought links with Jesus’ response to the lawyer’s question about eternal life that triggered the Good Samaritan story. What must I do to gain eternal life? Love God and neighbor (including, especially, the Samaritan enemy). This is justification—the making right of relationships—the core concern of Torah from the very start—that which was so egregiously violated in Israel’s injustice condemned by Amos and the others.
So, the justice of God Paul cares about is restorative justice—justice that makes salvation, doing so by bringing about reconciliation among previously alienated human beings.
Bases for Restorative Justice
To conclude, let’s summarize the main elements of biblical justice:
(1) Justice is a main characteristic of God—who creates out of a wish for relationships with creatures and who seeks endlessly to restore those relationships when they are broken.
(2) God responds to the alienation and brokenness that came to characterize the human situation with a long-term commitment to bring healing through the formation of a particular community of people who would know God’s shalom and share that widely, blessing all the families of the earth.
(3) This community gained concrete guidance from the giving of Torah, a detailed blueprint for the faithful society that had at its center strong concerns for the inclusion of vulnerable people as full participants. Justice has to do with caring for the vulnerable when they are treated in hurtful ways—and with directly challenging social dynamics that are hurtful.
(4) Jesus emphasizes that living as part of his people involves seeking justice, even to the point of facing persecution for doing so. Such “seeking justice” for him included at its heart caring especially for vulnerable people (as Torah commands), acting to restore them to the community, and opening up the concept of “neighbor” (meaning, in part, one who deserves being treated justly) to enemies.
(5) Paul directly links “justice” with “salvation”—arguing that Jesus’ faithfulness brought about healing of brokenness and alienation as a manifestation of God’s justice. “The justice of God” is all about restoring wholeness in relationships—with God and with other human beings.
(6) One of Paul’s central themes, “justification,” deals with God’s work of making humanity whole. A person is “justified” by trusting in and following Jesus’ way—including, at its heart, reconciliation with a wide variety of other people and creating community with former enemies.
(7) “Justice” in the Bible is restorative, through and through. The Bible’s God is “just” especially in that God seeks to bring about healing in relationships, transform alienation into community, restore offenders into God’s family, and bless all the families of the earth.