Starting with Justice

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I’ve taken a longer than intended break from blogging, but now I need to write again. Getting started, I’m combining my two blogs into one, now called “Faith Thinking Aloud.” Rather than explain, I’ll go ahead with it.

For starters, I’m going to think about some basic concepts of biblical faith that challenge us if we let them. Alternatively, to protect ourselves from their challenges and maintain our comfort, we over-simplify or ignore them. I’ll start with the biblical concepts of justice. No, the plural of concept is not a typo. The Bible evidences at least three concepts of justice, but the three are not equal, and so I’ll take them one at a time starting with the familiar and most widely accepted. Ironically, we are most comfortable with this one, even when it makes us uncomfortable. We approve this view of justice especially when it seems to favor us but also when it makes us feel guilty with what we tend to accept as proper guilt.

This one is called retributive justice. Many call it more simply payback, karma, or “just deserts.” It is the notion of getting what we deserve according to standards of right and wrong, good and evil, worthy and unworthy. Retributive justice works from linking fairness to merit and sees justice as a matter of evaluation followed by appropriate reward or punishment.

Forgiveness finds some room within the operation of retributive justice but mostly for those who have tried hard but fallen a bit short of the standards and are willing to try harder. Sometimes forgiveness is given slightly more leeway for those who may not have tried hard but who repent and promise to stop the behavior that violates the standards and so prove they can deserve better.

Retributive justice is named for retribution which is payback. Within its purview, retributive justice sees evaluation as the revealer of truth about the person being judged, so that the real truth about me is what I deserve, what I have earned, what I merit. Because God sees all, no matter how cleverly hidden, divine judgment reveals true truth.

Is retributive justice biblical? I must answer both Yes and No. People who want biblical support for this view of truth and justice can find what they seek within the pages of the Bible with plenty of verses to quote. They must, however, ignore very strong arguments for higher and better views of God’s truth and justice within that same Bible in both testaments. Defenders of strict retributive justice frequently follow this reasoning:

If justice isn’t based upon merit so goodness is rewarded and evil punished, then I suppose God doesn’t care how we behave or what choices we make (which cannot possibly be correct). Why do what is right if wrongdoers fare just as well or even better? Forgiveness is okay when someone has either tried hard but fallen short or else had a change of heart followed by a change in behavior, but eventually the truth must be told and each person rewarded or punished as deserved.

Forgiveness is here seen as a second chance and perhaps a third, but such forgiveness is merely the suspension of judgment and retribution for a time, and that time must come to an end. Hence the concept of final judgment after which reward and punishment become everlasting and unchangeable.

Hollywood makes a cash cow of retributive justice on the screen. Think of Dirty Harry and all of that ilk of payback heroes. Audiences cheer when the bad guys get their payback at last – their final judgment from the righteous if not always strictly law-abiding hero. The movies play to people’s sense that too often our courts fail at providing true payback, that wrongdoers get off, and that prisoners are coddled. Like the Mr. Filch of the second Harry Potter movie, they cry, “I want to see some punishment!” Of course, the evildoers in payback movies tend to be one-dimensional: they are bad guys and little if anything more. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and it gratifies something within us to see the bad get what they deserve.

Rather than argue the cases against limiting justice to the retributive – cases made by the book of Exodus, the prophets, Jesus, and the apostle Paul – I’ll stop for now except to name two higher biblical concepts: restorative justice and distributive justice. The former focuses God’s truth upon the individual offender and all those hurt by the offense, the latter upon groups within our societies. To my mind, both are more strongly biblical than retributive justice’s view of truth as evaluation (judgment) and justice as deserved reward or punishment.

Next:  restorative justice.

2 Comments on “Starting with Justice

  1. Debbi

    Retributive justice speaks most easily to folks I think, because we can see ourselves as, or closely relate to the victim. After feeling mistreated, there is no better satisfaction than feeling vindicated By Karma.

    Problem is we are reacting only to the bad action; we don’t often give consideration to what caused or motivated the action. But here’s what’s really hard, even if you understand and give due consideration to the causes behind the action, it still doesn’t negate the action…So there you are torn between compassion/understanding and consequences. Hard one for those who ruminate…lol

  2. Dick Sindall Post author

    Debbi, I’ll try to do some justice (!) to the truth of your comment in my next post on restorative justice. It opens the door for empathy with the victimized without the unsatisfactory gratification of retribution.

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