Sunday, May 22, 2011

Does God Care about Justice?

I’ve been involved in a conversation lately that I think is rather important. It has to do with the relationship of justice and love. If God is love (as I believe) can God also be a just God (which I also believe)? It’s my view that there is a tendency to set love and justice at opposite poles, and we’re left to choose between the two. That is, God is either just or God is compassionate, but surely God cannot be both. I’ve been pondering this question, and reflecting on the totality of the biblical witness, which speaks of both love and justice in relation to the character/nature of God. I think too often our disagreements are semantic. We may find ourselves in disagreement because we’re using the terms differently. Thus, there is a need to define terms. I hope to do some of that defining in subsequent posts, but I want to start with a conversation about how love and justice might be related to each other.

Therefore, in regard to this question – does God care about justice? -- I decided to see what a leading Disciples of Christ theologian had to say on the subject. I’m not ready to call myself a process theologian, but I do like the ways in which Clark Williamson, who under Paul Tillich and takes a Process oriented view of theology, has to say on theological issues. I believe it is safe to say that Clark is on the left side of the theological middle.

In his book, Way of Blessing, Way of Life, Clark suggests that to be faithful to the biblical witness we must keep God’s love, power, and justice together. Thus, “God’s power and justice are the kind of power and justice appropriate to God’s love; God’s love, the kind of love appropriate to God’s just purposes and power” (p. 128). I can’t go into the full conversation that Clark offers concerning this issue, but what I think is important to grapple with is the concept that love and justice belong together. We must also understand these terms in biblical ways. That is, if we’re to understand what the scriptures mean by love and justice, we must hear how scripture defines these terms. In this regard, I want to provide some extended quotations to get the conversation going. Thus, Clark writes:

God is a God of love, justice (including judgment, wrath, and power. That God is depicted as profoundly disturbed by human sin shows how vulnerable God is to it, and how profoundly related to us. The oneness of God . . . requires that God’s love, power, and justice be understood so that God is not at odds with oneself. Unless our understanding of each of these terms is biblically informed, and unless each term is related to the others, our talk about God will be a muddle. (p. 129)

I realize it’s difficult to keep love and justice together, but they are related biblically.

So here is the key:

God’s love is against what is against love (Tillich); it is in radical opposition to evil and radically for reconciliation. God’s wrath is the “strange work” (opus alienum) of God, whereas God’s love is God’s “proper work” (opus proprium). . . . God’s wrath or anger is not aimed at the destruction of sinners but their transformation and redemption. . . . Justice as the will of God (not vengeance that seeks to destroy and is part of the way of death) is the form of God’s love; justice is the social form of love (Tillich, Niebuhr). Love without justice is empty; justice without love can become injustice (e.g., vengeance). (p. 129).

I bolded the final sentence, because I think it captures the essence of the discussion. So, does God care about justice? Yes, I do believe that the God who is love does care about justice! If God did not care about justice, then God would be willing to let evil and injustice have the final word. That does not appear to be the biblical message. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul tells us that God is in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self. That is, God is actively at work changing the realities of our lives that the alienation that separates us from God and from each other might be transformed.


Gary said...

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Romans 1:18

He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. John 3:36

John said...


I see "mercy" (forgiveness, compassion and restoration) and "justice" (retribution and restitution) and "love" as discrete concepts. It seems that you want to redefine "justice" as acts of mercy, compelled by God's love for humanity. You have argued that God's call for ministries of compassion is none other than God's call for justice. I think you have effectively conceded to my position that pure justice, as in retribution and restitution, is not all that important to God.

I don't think the differences are mere semantics, as stated repeatedly by Gary, justice means retribution and restitution, it means getting one's just desserts. When you redefine justice in terms of ministries of compassion and mercy, you replace retribution and restitution with forgiveness and restoration. In such event, one is no longer held proportionately responsible for ones deeds, no specific rewards for being good and no serious consequences for being bad. Instead, misconduct is forgiven and broken relations are restored. Culpability and guilt become unimportant, and are no longer seen as compelling adverse consequences. Instead, forgiveness and healing compel restoration and thereby overcome any imperative for adverse consequences.

Wingbeat said...

Other than through Christ, we cannot know the mind of God, but it looks as if God expects us to care for justice.

Brian said...

Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for restorative justice. That is what the Truth & Reconciliation Project was all about.

This is basically what Bob, and Clark Williamson, are talking about. It is how I was taught to understand Christian justice in seminary. It makes the most sense to me. Otherwise I could not in good conscience support social justice. If all social justice meant was retribution, I'd have to oppose it. Social justice is restorative justice. God's justice, IMO, is restorative justice.

John's post is the first time I've heard of anybody calling this a redefining of the word justice. Perhaps lawyers can't charge for restorative justice! (joking)

John said...

I don't see justice and mercy as opposing values, but instead, as competing values, each seeking its own resolution, justice seeking vindication and mercy and compassion seeking reconciliation and restoration.

I think that humans ascribe a high value to justice and vindication and God ascribes a high value to mercy and reconciliation.

I am not ready to say that God dismisses the claims of justice altogether, only that where justice and mercy come into conflict, mercy prevails. It may be that God actually dismisses the claims of justice but I find it hard to go that far in my thinking.

I wonder how the claims of justice with respect to the Holocaust can ever be met. How can genocide ever be vindicated, whether it happens in America, Russia, Turkey, Africa Yugoslavia or greater Europe? And, how can a victim of a crime such as torture, abuse, murder, or rape, ever be truly vindicated? What does justice mean to the victim, especially the dead one? That the evildoer is punished? Does punishment of the perpetrator accomplish anything in regard to repairing the damage done to the victim? The purposes and objectives of justice are illusory, as far as I can discern.

In Scripture, while the claims of justice are proclaimed loudly, in truth, justice is rarely accomplished. Alternatively, the claims for mercy and compassion are a consistent theme, and, more often than not, this comes to pass. So too in real life.

You cannot unbreak the broken, you can only pick up the pieces and mend it.

Injustice proceeds from prior injustices, and if you intervene at one point to vindicate a single injustice, you have not vindicated the whole stream of injustices.

For example, if you punish Hitler for the Holocaust, how can you ignore the injustices which were done to the younger Hitler which led him to become a mass murdering megalomaniac? And if you vindicate the younger Hitler, how will you vindicate the injustices which were done to those who did evil to Hitler, and on and on, ad infinitum.

Injustice proceeds from injustice and you cannot accomplish true justice by intervening at a single point in history. The best you can do is to stop the progression, break the cycle, and seek restoration for the survivors.

John said...

In the American legal system lawyers seek to compel the state to intervene to punish wrongdoers and/or compensate victims. The system has little to do with healing and restoration. We advocate for vindication, not restoration. It is the rare opportunity that we get to advocate for a restorative resolution - usually one side, or both sides, are just not interested.