On God and Justice

by Fr. Stephen Freeman

There are many who imagine theologically that at some later point, a final judgment, God’s justice, will be manifest. In this manifestation of justice, the punishments of hell figure prominently. Of course, this is simply poor theology. Eternity in hell is not a matter of justice nor can it ever be. Justice involves equality. For what failure or crime is eternity in hell an equal payment? And, of course, such justice is unsatisfactory at best. There is nothing that can be done to the murderer of a child that in any way creates a balance. Nothing satisfies. This is the point of Ivan in the chapter “Rebellion” in The Brothers Karamazov. This chapter is a tour de force demonstrating not the bankruptcy of belief in God, but the bankruptcy of the concept of justice interjected into the theological mix.

I belong to a family that has lost two members by murder. I am familiar with the grief and anger that accompany those experiences. I have also, for a time, been involved in “victim’s rights” ministry and been deeply aware of the pain of those involved and the hunger for justice that often accompanies grief. It is certainly the case that no punishment inflicted by the state ever satisfies this hunger for “justice.” I know, I have been there.

The truth is that this hunger for “justice” is, in fact, a hunger for the event never to have happened. The injustice is not created by the lack of punishment (for there are no truly “just” punishments). The injustice is created by the event itself an event in which an innocent is made to suffer for no reason whatsoever. That innocence is not restored by any amount of punishment inflicted on the perpetrator. Hell is not a scheme of justice any more than the American prison system is a scheme for justice. Any thought that either of them has anything to do with justice is a fiction and a dangerous fiction.

These deep wounds inflicted on us by the evil wills of others can only be healed by mercy and forgiveness.

Such mercy and forgiveness is nothing less than miraculous and does not come easily or naturally to us. It is something which belongs to the character of God, and only by being transformed by the grace of God can we become people who are capable of such extraordinary love and mercy.

I have seen such love and mercy. It is astounding and utterly without justification. To show mercy upon a murderer or someone who is guilty of inflicting deep injustice is an act of pure grace. It is a gift whose existence can only be explained by the love of God. It is the voice of Christ to the thief on the cross, “This day you will be with me in paradise.”

I wonder what the thoughts of those who had been the victims of this thief would have been had they heard the words of Christ? Would they have shouted that an injustice was being done? Would they have said that his death on the cross was insufficient punishment for all that he had put them through and that paradise was an unjust reward for the simple request, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom?”

Of course, the victims have justice (as we humans understand it) on their side. Justice has a voracious appetite that can never be satisfied. For no matter how much the thief were to suffer, the crimes he committed would not be undone. The money would not be replaced. The fear and shame inflicted on the innocent would not be undone. Once the passion for justice is awakened, it is insatiable.

There are many stories of political madness that have at their core the lust for justice. The insanity of the Bolsheviks was, in many ways, fed by the perversions of the human lust for justice. The crimes (real and imagined) of the Tsar and of those who held power in pre-revolutionary Russia, fed the imagination of those who were “setting things right.” There was no humiliation or crime that they themselves were forbidden to inflict in the name of a Marxist version of justice. By the time of Stalin this “justice” had murdered many more millions than had ever suffered in the entire history of Russia. Such is the insatiable appetite for justice.

On smaller scales, this same appetite has accompanied every revolution in the history of the world. Those who come to power feel compelled to administer justice. But no amount of blood-letting is ever truly sufficient.

The one revolution that stands apart is the revolution of the love of God who answered injustice with mercy, who answered hatred with love. Love does no harm and does not add to the madness of the scales of justice. It relieves the burdens created by our own sense of entitlement that we call “justice.”

The commandment to “love your enemies” is frequently a painful commandment for it asks us to forego our perceived rights. We renounce our claims to justice and give ourselves over to the hands of a merciful God. It is an act of faith which accepts that unless we become conformed to the image of Christ unless we can love as He loves we will never be free of the madness and the self-made hell that our lust for justice births in us. The Cross is the only form of freedom. Nothing less than its radical mercy will heal the human heart.

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Fr. Stephen Freeman is priest at St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. A convert from Anglicanism, where he was a priest for 18 years, he was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood in 1999. This first appeared on Fr. Stephen’s blog, Glory to God for All Things: http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com

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Fall 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 54

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