Culture At Large

Why are we embarrassed by God's violent justice?

Paul Vander Klay

"Justice" has come back into fashion for many churches today. That's a good thing. You can't read the Bible without seeing that God cares so deeply about justice he's willing to get violent about it. God in the Hebrew Scriptures is willing to let pagan Babylonians overrun his house because of it, and even normally non-violent Jesus lets loose on some money changer's tables.

Part of this irony over some church's new found passion for justice is our embarrassment over God's zeal for it. Miroslav Volf observed that many who are embarrassed by Biblical images of God's willingness to use violence in pursuit of justice, like in Revelation 14, don't seem to feel the same way about human violence as long as they experience it as evening the score in their estimation. That is of course an incredibly ironic contradiction.

People are historically very good injustice perpetrators and very poor justice doers. We regularly justify self-serving violence in the name of justice. We commonly over-punish or under-punish depending upon political or relational realities. Seldom are any of our violent justice doings universally judged to be fair, commensurate or appropriate. Often they simply fuel a downward spiral of retribution with both sides explaining how they have no choice, they have to settle the score and can't let their adversary get away with whatever injury that's been done. Does it really make a lot of sense to trust retributive justice to people?

The ideal resume for a judge isn't hard to imagine. We realize that we need a judge who would be all knowing. There can be no messing up due to lack of information. We need a judge who is all good. This judge would be immune to bribery or political coercion. We need a judge who is all wise. This judge needs to be able to weigh evidence, fully take into account shades of gray. This judge would also need to be all powerful. There can be no escape through suicide, bad health or exile in the developed world. Ideally this judge would also know what it means to be a victim of violence, racism, discrimination and oppression. We want a judge who doesn't have simply an abstract knowledge of what it means to suffer, but instead has suffered wrongly because of the evils of another.

Only a judge who fits this bill it seems can really be trusted to judge rightly. What I would really like is if this judge had not only these attributes but also a strong track record of identification with the victims of violence and a well published account of sacrificial giving on behalf of those would couldn't do for themselves. Really, only such a man could be trusted. But where could we find such a man? If such a man could be found we would want him enthroned to judge the earth.

When I follow this line of thinking to its conclusion I realize that my embarrassment with God's violence has nothing to do with my own sense of justice, but rather with my ability to trust God with justice. I don't believe he will bring justice to the earth, and so I imagine I must take matters into my own hands or empower others to do so on my behalf. Now human justice and divine justice are obviously not mutually exclusive otherwise the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures would have had few things to discuss, yet my ability to participate in human justice with both restraint and hope is enabled by my trust that even limited action on my part in concert with God's final judgments will finally bring peace on earth. Take trust in God's justice out of the equation, and our work of justice will always lack balance and final satisfaction.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, Justice