I spent this past weekend in Bend, Oregon at an incredible conference called the Justice Conference. I can hardly explain all that I came to understand there. Here are four things:
1. The local church is the hope of the world. (This may sound familiar, see I Didn't Know Until I Knew).
2. There are at least 1050 people who love God in a way that leads them to irrational love, self-sacrifice, and humility.
3. The best thing to do with the best things you have is to give them away.
4. Injustice is the norm.
The most important thing that happened, though, is that I came to a better, more palpable understanding of the Gospel. And this understanding came in struggling with the idea of justice. Something about it makes me queasy, uneasy, anxious. This seems weird to say for a couple reasons.
First, I am a lawyer. And some might say that lawyers exist to promote justice. Whether this is true I will save for another day.
Second, justice seems pretty easy to get behind. If someone asked me: what do you think about justice, I’d surely say: “I’m for it!” I don’t know many people who would say they aren’t. We do act in ways that undermine justice, either unintentionally, or in reckless disregard of the facts (to use a legal phrase). Example: we demand goods (coffee, chocolate, clothes, etc.) cheap and fast. This feeds the human-trafficking and sex-slavery industries. Yeah, it really does. As a concept, though, justice is hard not to support. So what is my issue? Why does justice talk rattle me?
In trying to answer this question, I reflected on the definitions provided at the conference. One speaker defined justice as “giving that which is due.” Another: relationships that are in balance. Another: “rendering to each person that which is his or her right.” Another: people experiencing what they have a right to. The dictionary says “rightfulness” or “lawfulness.” No argument on any of these.
I also attempted to examine the relationships between certain other concepts and justice. In other words, what is the relationship between the Church and justice? Jesus and justice? Worth and justice? Value and justice? Rule of law and justice? Love and justice? Mercy and justice? Grace and justice? And then it hit me. There are two sides of justice: the offender and the victim. I realize this seems quite obvious, but it was this realization that led me to understand my anxiety about justice. If justice means balance in a relationship and injustice means imbalance in a relationship, then to achieve justice, there must be a leveling. The offender must be brought lower, or humbled, or even punished. And it means that the victim must be lifted up, lifted out.
The Justice Conference was about understanding justice, identifying injustice, and determining how to lift the victim up. There was less discussion about the other side of the equation – the lowering, humbling, or punishing of the offender. This is okay, I am not complaining, justice is a big topic. But it is on this side of the equation that I came face to face with my anxiety about justice.
What made me uneasy was that grace – a concept I cling to, rely upon, hang onto desperately – and justice, seem inconsistent or incompatible. And what I need most of all is grace and forgiveness. But does grace undermine justice? Does it devalue the victim of injustice to forgive the offender? Who has the right to forgive or give grace to an offender? Only the victim? Who has the right to impose punishment and sanction? How exactly do these concepts fit together? Did Christ’s message remove justice from the lexicon altogether and replace it with grace? Very smart biblical scholars disagree about the answer to this question. I don’t attempt to answer it here and not because I’m afraid to venture my view, but because this conceptual debate is not the source of my justice anxiety.
The source of my justice anxiety runs deeper. You see, I don’t want justice, at least not in all circumstances. If I am a victim of injustice, I want to be lifted up, lifted out. In that circumstance, I want justice. And where I see others subject to injustice, I want to lift them up and out. But there is someone I have most offended. There is one upon whom I have foisted immeasurable amounts of injustice. There is one who has the ability to bring about the harshest, most terrifying rendering of justice. There is one who has the best claim to punish me. And from Him, I do not want my due. I do not want justice under these circumstances. It would be more than I could ever bear. Thus, my fear and anxiety about justice.
Turns out, the most offended and most unjustly treated one, instead of giving me my due, forgave me. The one who could punish me for all of eternity in ways that I could not imagine in my worst nightmare has cast my offenses, my transgressions, my injustices, as far as the east is from the west, buried them at the bottom of the sea. The one who has the best claim to punish me, died a most gruesome and painful death for me. All of this He did while I still sinned, while I still offended, while I continued to pour injustice upon Him. Jesus Christ has leveled my previously unjust, imbalanced relationship with God; he has made it just by punishing himself, humbling himself, lowering himself, the innocent, instead of me, the offender. This is the good news. This is the Gospel.
Justice, God’s way.