My thinking has been engaged recently by a series of posts made by mofast entitled "The Myth of the Redemptive Bauer." As fellow blog-o-addicts might be aware, there was previously a series of posts (the origin of which I can no longer remember) that dealt with parallels between Bauer's vigilante-esque justice and the atonement of Christ. In his posts,

Mofast disavows any similarities between the two figures, arguing that the crux of atonement cannot be violence, as if God's response to human sinfulness would proceed along the same lines as the power and destructive quality of humanity's doppleganger nature. Mofast's comments are erudite and prophetic–I would suggest that all check them out.

But anyway, while reflecting upon Mofast's conclusions, as well as upon recent events, I have been compelled to think about the nature of "justice." So here goes.

Justice is an incredibly dense and complicated notion. To utter the word or allude to the idea is to conjure a thousand related issues that come to bear in maddeningly intricate ways upon the final notion of the original concept that is decided upon. In fact, one of the things that convulutes the meaning is the tendency to attempt to reduce the idea and meaning of "justice" to a simplistic mantra. To ignore the myriad ways in which the understanding of justice is built upon and influenced by a constellation of related (both near and distant) factors is to rend any discernible meaning, worth little more than a paltry linguistic symbol to be deployed only for truncated soundbites that only obscure and obsfucate.

One of the symptoms of such ruminations about justice, in my opinion, would be that which is represented in the typically Western model of retribution. In this approach, justice is seen as the action which is proliferated to "equalize" discrepencies between the moral law so-called and its violation(s). To accomplish this, the notion of "moral law" is absolutized and concretized, its actualization in reality conceptualized in a quasi-merit system. That is, each and every violation is measured against the absolute standard of the moral law, and merits or demerits are distributed based upon compliance (or non-compliance) with the same. It is not technically the primitive form of "an eye for an eye;" nonetheless, it does have equilibrium in mind, so "x" violation of the moral law requires a "y" response from the moral law in order for "justice" to be accomplished.

To most Westerners, this makes sense and it feels "right." After all, we have been raised to understand justice in these terms; from our earliest days, violations of the moral law met with retribution as we reaped the consequences of our actions in the form of punishment in its various and sundry forms.

Now pursuing the notion of justice in terms of unruly children seems a bit absurd, and to an extent, such a conversation probably is not that productive. After all, there are not major consequences (for the most part) with the admittedly mild violations of children. But our minds really get racing when we stop to contemplate the meaning of justice in light of the bigger issues such as murder, social oppression, racism, etc.

In particular, and to be as agressive as possible, I have Saddam Hussein's execution in mind. Admittedly, my post here is a bit late—his execution was over two months ago now, and the news of it has already passed from the consciousness of the populace. But one thing continually disturbs about Hussein's execution: time and again, I heard commentators note that with Hussein's execution, "justice" had been done.

Now don't misunderstand me: I fully recognize that Hussein was evil. He killed thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) and was a brutally oppressive dictator. These are all admitted. However, I am curious how we should understand that "justice" was accomplished in his execution.

Let me explain–let's go back to my above discussion about the nature of Western justice. If justice is about equilibrium, about the offences of the moral law being "settled," how is it that the death of Hussein accomplishes justice? Is Hussein's life worth the thousands of life that he took? If Hussein's death is what accomplishes justice, then why would his eventual natural death not lead to the same conclusion?

Of course, many would argue that it was not the fact of Hussein's death, en toto, that accomplished justice, but rather that his life was taken from him in the same way that he took life from others. I will grant this qualification for the sake of further discussion. However, I am still curious how this serves "justice." If justice is still understood as realizing equilibrium within the moral law, how does the violent death of one man equalize the violent death of thousands? If we are being honest, I think the answer has to be that no equilibrium can be enacted through this means. Just as the lives of the people killed by Hussein cannot be restored naturally, neither can they be restored by Hussein's violent death. No amount of suffering, misery or death-end struggle will do one iota to restore that which has been destroyed. In reality, all that will be accomplished through Hussein's death will be the perpetuation of violence and destruction. The very presumption that violence can restore, or bring equilibrium is in itself a validation of the very violence that is supposedly being condemned through the act of execution. Rather than bringing "justice," the violence that is perpetuated turns out to be simply a justification of the depraved, sinful violence that was the impetus for the execution to begin with. In such a system, nobody wins, justice is not done, and justice so-called continues to blind and proliferate itself in the frenzy of human sinfulness.

Now at this point, many will agree that Hussein's death cannot bring about "true" and "final" justice. Rather, they will extend the argument to assert that it is Hussein's presumed eternal damnation that will toll the final triumph of "justice" so-called. But again, this conclusion does not follow. According to classical beliefs in hell (notwithstanding Dante's imagination), all are treated equally. Hell is, according to this criterion, no respector of persons. The vilest murderer to the most harmless pickpocket are treated with equality. In this singular regard, it is difficult to understand how the transgressions of Hussein can be equalized with regards to justice when the potential suffering of Hussein would be the same as that of any other. ANd what of the hypothetical scenario where Hussein shares the final destination with one of his victims, be it heaven or hell? How is justice accomplished here? If Hussein "deserves" hell for his actions as the just response to the moral law; and if one of Hussein's victims shares this eternal location and consequence; how can Hussein be held accountable for the murder of his victim? If his victim "deserves" the same fate (as illustrated in this victim inheriting the consequences of eternal damnation and punishment), one could easily argue that Hussein's murder of one deserving of hell (i.e., the hell-bound victime) was precisely the same act symbolized in Hussein's execution. And what of the scenario in which Hussein partakes of eternal bliss? Clearly, in such a situation, there is no equalization of Hussein's actions. Rather, it appears that Hussein "gets away" with what he has done. No equilibrium is realized in terms of recompense and retribution, for the crimes for which Hussein has merited punishment and retribution are not attended by the ex
cted (and, as the lan
guage goes, "deserved") consequences. The only conclusion one could possibly reach in light of the above-mentioned considerations of "justice" is that 1.) Hussein's actions did not warrant a negative response based upon moral law (which would show that his execution was, in fact, not the accomplishmen of justice) or 2.) justice has little to do, or is at the very least, not reducible to equilibrium in the moral law.

The only retreat of Western-oriented conceptions of justice, then, is to absolutize every moral act in relation to God, necessarily leaving to the wayside any considerations of the implications of justice in the human sphere. In such a move, the violence-orientation is preserved and divized, as God becomes the final arbiter of violence and/or benevolence upon the throngs of humanity. Further, the sticky issue of final inequality in the moral law is conveniently resolved (well, partially resolved, for the thorny issue of Hussein's potential salvation is still without a compelling answer), for God is able to achieve such equilibrium through the final distribution of the damned and saved in the culmination of human history and the inbreaking of the eschatological rule of God.

To many, this "final" resolving of justice in the divine dissemination of punishment and reward makes sense. As said before, it "feels" right and nicely squares with Western conceptions of justice that have been ingrained in the populace for hundreds of years.

However, with what are we left? What is this final picture of justice so-calledthat we have uncovered? In my mind, it is quite disturbing. Throughout human history, the struggle for justice, the passion with which it has been pursued, has been for the elusive goal of "making things right." In a world torn by hatred, evil, violence and destruction, humans long for that which is right–humans long for the power of sin and death to be overturned and for life and newness to break forth. Yet, in our fervency for justice, we have pursued these noble ends through violence and increasingly brutal destruction. In a sad irony, the powers and perversions that we so despise have become the tools by which the noble and elusive goal of life and restoration are pursued. However, violence and human sinfulness are not unlike a raging fire–the more they are fed, the more powerful they become and the more they consume. By assuming that justice can be established through the very powers that require "justice," we do nothing but feed the very flames that tear apart and destroy. The perpetual cycle continues, and justice becomes merely another tool in the clutches of evil to further mutilate, destroy and annihilate. Sadly, this brutal and primal reality is left largely unnoticed, and human history continues to plunge into ever-escalting forms of violence and desolation in search of the impossibly elusive notion of justice so-called which it has constructed for itself.

But even more disturbing is when this sobering conclusion is infinitized, as above, to discussions of God. If this picture of justice–realized in the expression of violence and retribution–is extended to God, the eschaton is not the promise of hope and peace, but rather of only a greater and more terrible evil. That is, if the final eschatological victory of God's justice is realized only in violent destruction and annihilation, then the very powers that have created the need for justice have had the final victory. In another way, if the power and violence of human sinfulness and evil are overcome on their own terms, it must be concluded that God has capitulated to their tactics, thereby legitimizing their existence and authority. In such a scenario, far from creating justice, the eschatological "victory" of God is merely the replacement of one hegemony of violence, destruction and annihilation with a more powerful one, a violence infinitized and absolutized.

So where does this leave us? If ultimate, divine justice cannot be understood through the paradigms of violence, punishment and retribution, what is left that might characterize this much longed for, yet desperately elusive concept? Although it appears ridiculously counterintuitive, I would suggest that divine justice, rather than being qualified by violence and retribution infinitized, is actually realized in reconciliation and forgiveness.

To this suggestion, the antagonist surely objects. After all, how can one imagine the possibility of reconciliation between Hussein and his victims? More importantly, how is it conceivable that this sort of reconciliation could be in keeping with propriety? After all, does not the notion of justice which has been ingrained within us scream loudly in objection to such a suggestion? Our internal measures of eternal, lawful equilibrium malfunction at the very notion, for surely, they argue, not only is reconciliation impossible, but, more properly, those like Saddam deserve punishment and retribution. But such considerations lead one back to the previous conclusions. Our internalized sense of justice balks at the thought of reconciliation precisely because we have been conditioned in our violent sinfulness to lust for retribution and punishment. Reconciliation, we imagine, is for family members separated by disagreements and lovers torn by minor relational infidelities. It is for those offences that cannot be solved by violence. Surely it cannot be for the vile, the murderers, the inhumane.

But what are we saying by such conclusions? If reconciliation is only for the problems that cannot be solved through violence, then we have merely capitulated the game to violence and human sinfulness. If the hope of reconciliation cannot extend beyond the most minor and insignificant breaks in human relationships, we unconsciously, yet with infinite and devastating volume, assert that the ultimate paradigm for eternal relationship with God is that of violence, separation and retribution. In light of this reality, those that exist in eternal relationship with God are not, then, those that are reconciled, but rather are those that are merely fortunate enough to not be the objects of God's divine violence and retribution against sin.

But perhaps the biggest reason that the suggestion of justice-as-reconciliation is rejected is simply because it has not been tried. We are so conditioned towards violence and the propriety of retribution-modeled forms of justice that the value, meaning and scope of reconciliation is an entirely foreign notion. Because we allow the sinful patterns of human violence to not only determine our relationships with others, but even more poignantly to color the way in which we imagine the justice of God to exist, we deny the reality and power of reconciliation to pervade, influence, and ultimately transform the relationships in which we are engaged, both personally and globally.

When it comes down to it, these reflections are not profound, nor are they new. The Scriptures testify powerfully to their reality, notwithstanding the ways in which they have been perverted to prop up the violent paradigms in which we live and, unfortunately, thrive. For example, the story of the Incarnation poignantly illustrates the truth of justice-as-reconciliation. Even though sinful humanity has aligned itself in hostility towards God, severing its relationship with the divine persons, the God incarnate in the person of Christ proves that God's intentions for sinful humanity are not destruction. As the ancient fathers assert time and again, God saw that it would not be meet for humanity to be destroyed and left to non-being. However, rather than pursuing such a course through violence and retribution, the story of God in Christ is that of God choosing reconciliation. Though God could have condescended to participate within the struggle of human sinfulness and the attending patterns and cycles of violence (and in doi

ng so
, win dramatically), God in Christ chose to submit to the judgment of sin and violence rather than to capitulate to its claims of legitimacy. In this way, the cross is no show of divine violence; rather, it is the combined energy and lust of human sinfulness deployed against a God who would not participate in the same. In the cross, Christ does not crush the powers of human sinfulness and violence through a greater show of violence, for to operate according to these categories would have been to capitulate to the legitimatcy of the same. Rather, in humility, Christ submitted to the powers of sin and death, their violence, power and energy being absorbed fully in his person.

However, this is not the end of the story. The Scriptures testify that God did not leave Christ to the powers of sin and death; Christ was not abandoned to their judgments. Rather, in a show of true power, God raised Christ from the dead. In this act of resurrection, a dramatic event transpired. Though Christ has been judged and executed at the hands of human sinfulness and violence, he remained excluded from their clutches. While all other human persons exist and persist within these cylces and patterns of destruction and self-annihilation, Christ deliberately refused to participate in the same. Although he could have obliterated these oppressive powers through an act of greater power and violence, he refrained, thereby rendering their claims of legitimacy entirely moot. In his resurrection, the full force of human sinfulness and violence was definitively extinguished, for the judgement of God in raising Christ from the dead revealed the illegitimacy of the judgments of human sinfulness. Though their claims took Christ's life, they held no power in the resurrection, for their methods and very existence were shown to be entirely depraved and ultimately illegitimate.

It is the resurrection, then, that the Scriptures speak of when it is said that God's justice was shown forth in the cross. It was not divine violence against Christ, or even against sin, that are in view. The justice spoken of is not an abstract "equalizing of scales," as if God extracted the infinite "pound of flesh" from Christ to sate divine offense against sin. Rather, justice is manifest in the new way which Christ paves for humanity, one which–in opposition to the patterns of human sinfulness–is based not upon violence, but rather upon reconciliation. You see, when Christ was raised from the dead, his resurrection served as the legitimizer of God's purposes in creation, the reconciliation of this very creation. When the powers of sin and violence were extinguished in Christ's resurrection, God showed that the way of reconciliation, not violence, is the ultimate form of reality, the ultimate form of justice.

In light of these considerations, it is not at all surprising that the notion of justice-as-reconciliation is foreign and absurd to us. The Scriptures testify that the cross is foolishness to persons dominated by the patters and cycles of human sinfulness and violence. So it is with justice. If the cross reveals that God's purposes in creation are reconciliation, not judgement and retribution, it should be no wonder that we balk at the propriety of such. As sinful, violent people, we do not see value in any methods outside of the hegemonies of thought in which we persist. To suggest that violence is an illegitimate paradigm is ultimately identity-defying, and is impossibly difficult to stomach. Let's be honest: deep down, in our sinful hearts, we want–we lust for–the cross to be violent. Why? Well, if we can imagine that God is violent in the same ways that we are, and that God's justice operates in accordance with our earth-bound conceptions of it, we have created the highest legitimizer of our sinful and violent ways. In such a justification, we have conveniently created loopholes for the persistence and expansion of our violent tendencies dressed in the clothes of justice so-called. In short, if God's response to violence is really not that much different than ours, we need not worry about changing our behaviors towards others, so long as we are on the right side of God's violence in eternity (even as we struggle to be on the right side of human violence now).

So what does this all mean? Should we simply let criminals walk free to continue to terrorize their victims, old and new? Should the actions of mass murderers simply be looked over? Surely not. While such questions are important to work through, they represent an all too comfortable association with the illegitimate conceptions of justice so-called. We want the resort to violence against others because we see it as a form of over-power, a way to assert ourselves over and against their designs upon us. No, reorienting our understanding from justice so-called to justice-as-reconciliation will be costly. If the cross represents the reconciling purposes of God in the world, it also represents the painful cost of the same. Reconciliation does not come without its costs. It is no simplistic, blind embrace of perpetrators. In the cross, Christ faced down the powers of human sinfulness and violence in the most dramatic showdown in human history. His stance was courageous; any weakness on his part would have resulted in his resorting to the power of violence to assert his own self-justification over and against his judges. Yet instead of grasping for this power, he submitted to the judgment of sin and evil. However, his stance against sinfulness and violence was also prophetic. Christ's submission was not an act of weakness: rather, it was made in the power of faith that believed in the justice of God and the power of reconciling love. Though he stared death square in the face, Christ believed that God would justify, legitimizing his stance in the face of the full force of human sinfulness and in spite of its indictments of him.

As followers of Christ, then, we are called to the same radical faith. We are called to a faith that believes not in the power of the sword, or the dollar, or even the ballot. All of these things, when trusted in to produce justice, produce nothing more than the exponential increase and proliferation of violence. Rather, we are called to radically embrace the divine mission of reconciliation in our own lives. In this world of ever-worsening violence and oppression, Christ beckons us to eschew these patterns and behaviors, choosing rather to follow him up the lonely road to Calvary.

Some say that reconciliation is a pipe dream, and that the only thing that violence understands is more violence. In a way, this is true: violence only knows violence, and can only lead to more of the same. But this is exactly why reconciliation works. When demonstrated prophetically in the face of human sinfulness, the violence of the human spirit is conquered for the power upon which it feeds is utterly extinguished. Let us pray that we can be ambassadors of God's reconciling love, that through our lives the demonic spread of violence might end, and that the kingdom of God—the kingdom of reconciliation—might be made manifest in our midst.