Cruciform Justice 8: Getting Beyond Retribution

cruciformjustice1The Cross calls us to a justice that moves us beyond the law of retribution: “An eye for an eye.” As Moltmann observes, “If evil is recompensed with evil, then the one evil is always oriented on the other evil, because only in that way is it justified.”

While scoffed at by many, there is a lot of truth to the ole saying that “an eye for an eye eventually leaves everyone blind.” The law of retribution has served—and continues to serve—an important role in the legislating sinful people amidst a fallen world. Yet it was never designed to eliminate injustice, only to legislate it.

What is needed is a fresh creative act of God. The Cross and Resurrection inaugurated the in-breaking of God’s inverted kingdom and with it a radically different law: the law of grace and reconciliation. This law manifests itself in the hearts of believers as they are embraced by the grace and forgiveness of God—“we love because he first loved us.” According to Bader-Saye:

“For Christians, then, reconciliation names that central concern that unites all justice issues. The classical definition of justice as “giving to each his due” simply fails as a Christian formulation…We worship a God who does not count our trespasses against us, who gives us not what is due to us but rather what is good for us, and this, not as entitlement, but as grace. And so we understand that whatever else we say about justice it must serve this central good, this central goal, of the reconciliation of all things. For Christians, then, all justice must be restorative justice” (“Violence, Reconciliation, and the Justice of God,” Crosscurrents (Winter 2003): 539).

The law of grace and forgiveness and the call for restorative justice is the particular calling of the church. The systems of the world do not understand it nor can they without the empowerment of the Spirit. They are still called to wield the sword (Rom 13:1-7). Let it be clearly stated that we, however, are searching here specifically for an appropriate Christian response to the world’s injustice. This is no critique of or prescription for worldly politics.  Or, to put it more provocatively, Jesus would not do well in the White House. He said himself, “My kingdom is not of this world.” 

The first task then is for the church to be a unique sign to the world that there is another way to be human, a new way to live life together. We have an alternative to the self-centered system of striving and competing with one another for goods that cannot fulfill our deepest longings. The only law we have is the law to love one another. “Whoever does this has obeyed the Law” (Rom 13:8). The Uppsala Assembly refers to the church’s task of being a “sign of the future unity of mankind”:

“The church is called to be a visible sign of the presence of Christ, who is both hidden and revealed to faith, reconciled and healing human alienation in the worshipping community. The church’s calling to be such a sign includes struggle and conflict for the sake of the just inter-dependence of mankind.”

Paul understood the church’s communal responsibility to be a visible symbol of God’s reconciling love and forgiveness:

“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that I him we might become the dikiaosu;nh (justice/righteousness) of God” (2 Cor 5:17-21).

God has already poured out the new wine of the coming Messianic Banquet onto a dry and thirsty world, and new wineskins are needed to preserve it while we await the completion of the new heavens and earth. The church is called to become the new container for a new social ethic, the showcase of God’s dikaiosune, his restorative justice and forgiveness. We are the community where “eucharistic fellowship” invites others into a way of life not bent on securing one’s own existence at the expense of others. The church is set free from what Hauerwas describes as the “fevered search to gain security through deception, coercion and violence” (Community of Character, 51). For Christians ought to know who is really directing the course of history.

If Christians really believe God is wisely guiding the future of His world, and they accept the peculiar cross-shaped way He is going about it, then they can rest peacefully even while working diligently to faithfully bear witness to their crucified Lord.  This involves learning to live out of control.  More on that topic next time.

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