Sunday, March 30, 2014

What is justice?

When I spent a year working to end the death penalty in California -- sadly unsuccessfully -- I was exposed to some deep lessons. One stands out: when we held telephone sessions into which people could phone to ask questions, repeatedly some perverse fate made me the individual who picked up the call from a person whose loved one had been murdered. Somewhat to my surprise, not all these trauma survivors wanted to see the victimizer executed. But all of them wanted "justice," whatever they meant by that. We ended up having long, usually inconclusive though amicable, discussions of where is justice might be found. I'd argue that the death penalty would not deliver it; sometimes they agreed, often they did not.

I was reminded of this when reading The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord's Prayer by that prolific chronicler of the historical Jesus, author John Dominic Crossan. I found this little book a challenging delight. It is neither history nor textual Biblical exegesis, but rather a wide-ranging meditation on the familiar prayer, drawing on Crossan's broad scholarship and faithfilled imagination.

Those discussions from the death penalty campaign came back to me when I read his effort to explain how the western Christian world has trapped itself in a theology written out of a very particular feudal metaphor, a worldview that met the needs of Norman overlords imposing themselves on a conquered Saxon and Celtic Britain. The doctrine of vicarious satisfaction or substitutionary atonement entraps us in a picture of God as a rather nasty father who expressed his "love" for humanity by requiring the torture and murder of his only son. If that's what "Jesus died for our sins" means -- and that is pretty much what Anselm, who became archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, argued in his influential Cur Deus Homo? -- no wonder we struggle to envision justice. Crossan explains what this hyper-rational medieval prince of the church was driving at:

Philosopher and theologian, monk and bishop, mystic and saint, Anselm preferred nonviolent debate to violent crusade. His idea was to defend the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus by confronting those he called "infidels" -- that is, Jews and Muslims -- with reason and logic alone. ... His purpose, as he tells us in the book's prologue, was to argue against "infidels, who despise the Christian faith because they deem it contrary to reason."

... Anselm is quite clear on why God must "will" the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus and why God cannot simply forgive everyone without punishment at all. That would mean, he says, that God is indifferent to evil, that God does not care about sin one way or another. But that would be impossible, he concludes, for a just God. ... His major argument was that God had to punish evil or else he was not a just God. ...

Without punishment, the order imposed by the feudal overlord on a rebellious society would be impossible. There's enough obvious experiential truth in this that it can still appeal. When people do bad things, somebody has to suffer -- or so we feel and a millennium of Christian tradition has encouraged us to feel, especially because in this form of shaping the story, Jesus's undeserved pain and death let the "good" ones (us?) off the hook.

Crossan wants to get across that we don't need to constrain our understanding of justice in this narrow frame. We can understand Jesus' life and death as pointing us toward another way of seeking "justice."

I take very, very seriously that the Bible's first mention of "sin" is not just fratricidal murder, but escalatory violence itself. Escalatory violence means that we have never invented a weapon we did not use, never invented one that was not surpassed by the next one, and never slowed down the speed of that replacement. We got, for example, from the first iron sword to the first hydrogen bomb in less than three thousand years.

The death of the nonviolent Jesus as the revelation of God's nonviolent character is a sacrifice (a making sacred) that atones for our sin of escalatory violence. ... Not just the Romans, but every government our world has ever known would have removed or silenced Jesus one way or another. ... God did not "will" the death of Jesus as a vicarious punishment for the human sin of escalatory violence. But did God "will" it as a consequence for that sin? The execution of Jesus was certainly a consequence of normal imperial violence and a witness against it on behalf of God. ...

If we decide to use anthropomorphic, or human-just-like-us, language for God, we should at least allow the same distinctions for God that we make for ourselves. Parents or householders, for example, may will something directly, deliberately, or emphatically for their children. They may also will some other things reluctantly. They may tolerate them, accept them, allow them,but positively not want them for those same children. There are, in other words, consequences of freedom that must be accepted even if never willed. So also with what God "wills." Every martyr needs a murderer and God's will allows such events as the positive and negative results of human freedom. God "wills" our human freedom. All else is consequence.

I find this a fruitful exposition of central Christian mysteries. Anselm's exposition may have worked for his time and place but it is repulsive -- leads away from truth and justice -- in mine.
As a I sat in church this morning, I realized I hadn't said the most important understanding which I brought away from all this plowing through Christian history: there is no necessity for us to believe that just because one very bad thing has happened that something else bad has to follow. We can come closer to "justice" by breaking the cycle than by extending it. Or so I am sure.

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