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I used to think of justice as punishment for those who do wrong, (and sometimes, reward for those who do right). Justice was a quid-pro-quo reaction to a negative act. If you disobey your parent, you get spanked. If you kill someone, you go to jail. If you commit a violent act, then “doing justice” would mean imposing a violent act of greater magnitude as a deterrence from repeating the original act.
This understanding was reinforced through the interpretation of the Bible that I learned growing up. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was the just punishment for their homosexuality. The annihilation of the Egyptians was the just punishment for their oppression of the Israelites. The attempted ethnic cleansing of the Philistines was the just punishment for their worship of Baal over Yahweh. The overthrow of Israel by the Assyrians and Babylonians was just punishment for forsaking God. “Justice” means punishing evil. God is a loving God, but God sends people to hell for their disbelief, because God is also a just God–so I would have told you.
According to this understanding, “doing justice” means committing violence in response to violence. This understanding is based on the assumption that punishment can overwrite a wrong action–punishment redeems sin. For example, Christ’s punishment redeemed us from our sin. From such ideologies humans have rationalized all forms of violence in varying degrees including war, torture, the death penalty, spanking, incarceration, and speeding tickets.
This definition of justice troubles me. The violence is what bothers me most about it. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” I believe redemptive violence is a myth. I also believe violence begets violence.
It would seem that this definition is insufficient. Justice must be redefined.
“Doing justice” is the act of making right a past wrong. The works of justice are forgiveness, reconciliation and healing which lead to peace, love and unity.
The religious and political leaders of the day reacted violently to Jesus’ teachings, eventually culminating in his assassination. Yet Jesus refused to respond violently. He did not call for a coup d’etat by the people, nor summon an army of angels to protect him, nor pour down fire and brimstone as divine punishment for the violence being inflicted upon him.
Instead, Jesus responded with some of the most perplexing words in scripture: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
The crux of the story is the resurrection. Out of death springs new life. God’s justice, fulfilled in the resurrection, overcomes violence, hatred, oppression and fear with peace, love, unity and hope. Perhaps God’s justice is not eternal damnation to hell, but the hope and promise of abundant life for all.