What is justice?
The greatest minds in human history have often pondered this challenging question: Plato in his Republic, Aristotle in his Ethics, Thomas Aquinas in his Summa. Wise women and men do not pretend to have all the answers, but they stir up our curiosity by inviting us to ask the right questions.
Justice is a theme that runs throughout the Scriptures. In God’s plan, justice is wedded to mercy (Psalm 85:10). He does not desire the sinner to die but to turn back and live (Ezekiel 18:23). He sends his own beloved Son Jesus to seek out and save that which has been lost (Luke 19:10). He does not desire to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17). When he acts justly, it is always ultimately with a view to heal and restore the creatures he has made – if we desire it. When he acts mercifully, it is never without an invitation to tell the full truth about the harm.
Think of Adam and Eve in the garden in Genesis 3. In their shame, they hide themselves – as though from an angry tyrant who is going to make them pay. He does bring Fatherly justice – holding them accountable and explaining to them the consequences. But he also promises eventual healing and restoration through “the woman” and her offspring. Adam and Eve are unable, at first, to tell the truth about what they have done. They try to shift the blame – anything to get the attention off the shame they are experiencing. God’s questions are for their good: Where are you? Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree? God exhibits both justice and mercy because he is a loving Father who ultimately desires our wholeness and our sharing in his glory. He never lies or ignores the truth, but he also does not desire our loss. Rather than make us pay in strict retributive justice, he sends his own beloved Son so that we can receive his mercy.
But there is so much more than a “not guilty” verdict! The Father and Jesus desire our healing, our restoration, and our wholeness! That is the primary motive for the Father asking his Son to die and rise. Jesus proclaims to his disciples that he came so that we might have abundant life (John 10:10). When he starts appearing to people after the resurrection, he brings life, joy, peace, healing, restoration, wholeness, and holiness – so much more than what they had hoped or dreamed!
How damaging it has been for some Christians to think of the death of Jesus only in the sense of paying the price for our sins. Yes, there is justice – God is a loving and truth-telling Father who does not pretend as though our sins never happened. We can only be healed and restored if we take seriously the harm that our sins have caused – the way in which we have ruptured relationships with him, with others, and with ourselves. AND the Father desires restoration, wholeness, and holiness.
Consider Jesus and Zacchaeus, the tax collector who has exploited many vulnerable people (Luke 10). Jesus eagerly seeks out Zacchaeus, who is stunned at being desired and delighted in. But Jesus also allows Zacchaeus to name the harm he has caused and work to repair it. Mercy and justice go together.
Consider Jesus and Peter in John 21. Jesus stokes a charcoal fire there on the seashore – fully knowing what he is going to do. Following the miraculous catch of 153 fish, he then invites Peter into a conversation that is simultaneously remembering, truth-telling, and healing. Peter stands once again by a charcoal fire, just like the night before Jesus died – only now Peter is allowed the opportunity to say three times that he loves Jesus. Peter experiences much distress in this experience – as Jesus knows he will. It is not a shaming of Peter, but rather helping Peter journey through and out of the labyrinth of shame as he begins experiencing healing and restoration.
Peter is much humbler in this encounter than at the Last Supper, when he boldly declared he would lay down his life for Jesus. In the Greek text, Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” – using the verb agapein to denote a self-sacrificing love. Peter responds (truthfully this time) that he loves him with philein – a brotherly love. Jesus foretells the eventual day when Peter will indeed love him so greatly as to lay down his life. For now, he simply invites Peter, “Follow me.” When we read the Acts of the Apostles, we see the restoration and transformation of Peter taking ever fuller effect. The risen glory of Jesus begins shining in and through him.
Repair and restoration take time. But they include a safe space in which both the one who has harmed and the one who was harmed can be heard, can tell the truth about what has happened, and can seek so much more than simply making someone pay.
I have friends who desire this kind of reform in our criminal justice system – which we all know to be broken and badly in need of repair! I am not an expert in those areas, but I hope we begin asking more of the right questions! Both Scripture and our Catholic Tradition have so much more to offer than a justice that only thinks about retribution.
As a priest, I am especially interested in how restorative justice can take root in our marriages, our families, and our church institutions. Too often, when serious harm has happened, we do not use our God-given creativity to open up a safe and healing forum in which all sides can tell the truth about the harm and seek full restoration for all who have been impacted.
Our families of origin and our church families have often failed in this area – especially when there has been sexual harm. Most people I know feel even more shame and awkwardness talking about sexuality – even though it is one of God’s most glorious gifts to us. Consequently, those who have been harmed sexually – whether by someone working for the church or by someone else – often find that neither their family of origin nor their church family is a safe haven to bring their story. I can think of more than a dozen individuals I know personally who suffered even greater betrayal because their story was not received with care. Simultaneously, our society currently offers no path of redemption or restoration for those who have perpetrated sexual harm – they are branded as permanent outcasts beyond the reach of mercy.
Our just and merciful Father says otherwise – he desires healing and restoration for all who will receive it. As with Adam, Eve, Zaccheaus, the Samaritan woman at the well, or Peter, such restoration is only possible if we are willing to be truth-tellers – both about the harm done to us and about the harm we have done to self and others. Jesus will invite us to follow him on a healing path that includes (sometimes awkward or messy) repair. We will die and rise with him as we come to full maturity in him. In the end, if we welcome this full encounter with his love and truth, his righteousness will shine in us.