God’s justice isn’t the same as ours, explains George Pitcher
An instinct for justice seems to have been at the heart of our public life recently.
Indeed it seems always to have been so, as if it’s hard-wired into our social psyche.
Lately, there’s been widespread approval that a US civil court found that former president Donald Trump had sexually assaulted a woman in a New York department store. Only a significant hardcore of self-delusive, right-wing Republicans will believe an injustice has been done.
In the UK, a sense that an injustice must be corrected is at the heart of the widespread public reaction to the arrest and protracted detainment of peaceful anti-monarchy protesters from the campaigning group Republic.
It’s difficult to know where to stop with this public desire for justice. Migrants facing deportation to Rwanda? Young voters barred from local elections by lack of photo ID? Abuse of minors by the Church of England?
Almost every day, every one of us will have our sensory perception of justice triggered by something. Perhaps the queue-jumper, the child stealing sweets in the playground, the person wearing the big hat in front of us at the cinema. We’ll even get worked up by what we might deem to be rigged voting patterns in this week’s Eurovision song contest.
We might simply be calling out things that we think are unfair. But really it’s about people getting away with these things. And that’s about justice being good and injustice bad.
This instinct may be ascribed to the rule of law in a democracy. We have laws to keep us safe and, allegedly, everyone is treated equally. Any transgression of that principle is felt deeply. We believe, rightly I think, that our sense of justice is rooted in millennia of tradition.
Our judiciary is steeped in Judaeo-Christian ethics.
The Hebrew Bible shows retributive justice, delivered by a wrathful God, angered by his errant people, whose justice for their transgressions is famine and plagues and death. But it’s also worth acknowledging that the Psalms are full of imprecations to a deity who is just and who will deliver justice for the righteous and save them from the oppression of their enemies.
This is partly true of the Christian gospels. But only partly. There’s all the stuff about salvation and redemption for the righteous, those who have put their trust in God. And much of this is centred on the cross and the atonement of the Christ.
the Christian faith is rooted in restorative rather than retributive justice
There, we have the idea of penal substitution, that the Christ, God incarnate, suffers and dies for our sins so that, to put it bluntly, we’re let off. In all honesty, for many of us this is a weird sort of justice, through which a retributive God is satisfied only by the sacrifice of the innocent Lamb, his own son.
The theology of the satisfaction of God seems unsatisfactory. And it’s a puzzle. The answer to that puzzle may be that the Christian faith is rooted in restorative rather than retributive justice.
The Nazarene has done nothing wrong. On the contrary, all he has done is spread universal love and healing, indiscriminately, to everyone. This is such a threat to the established order that it has to do away with him. This is the greatest injustice ever perpetrated – but it reveals a different kind of justice.
When Pontius Pilate, as a Passover tradition, offers to release a prisoner, the beaten-up Jesus or the bandit Barabbus, the crowd overwhelmingly demands the latter (Mark 15:6-15). There are two points to observe here. First, it is wholly “unfair”; Barabbus is the mortal sinner and Jesus is innocent. The second is that public referendums don’t always deliver the right result.
But what we’re witnessing is that God’s justice isn’t the same as ours. It’s not punitive or retributive, nor is it even distributive, in the human sense of being “fair”. It is only and completely restorative.
And that flies in the face of our human instincts for justice. Because it seems unfair. And being beyond our comprehension for justice it provides this warning: We need to be very careful of who we expect to meet in heaven.
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