February 15, 2009

Justice and the Higher Law

I grew up in a fishing village called Kenai in Southcentral Alaska. It’s an idyllic place with a history rich in interesting anecdotes and colorful people. One of the town’s more fascinating stories dates back to 1778 when the British sea captain, James Cook, discovered the rocky bluffs and the quiet bay at the mouth of the Kenai River.

At the time of his visit, a tribe of Athabascan Indians were living there. When they saw Captain Cook’s ships, Resolution and Discovery, the natives thought the vessels were whales of some large breed they’d never seen before. So, a few of them approached in seal-skin canoes to investigate. When they got close, they were met by an awful stench. Shipbuilders at the time sealed the hulls of large ships with tar to protect the timbers against the caustic effects of salt water. The Indians had never smelled anything like it before and the scent made many of them sick. A few brave souls, however, ventured onto the ships and were immediately amazed by the things they saw.

In particular, two observations had a lasting influence on them. First, the Athabascans had never seen people smoke tobacco before and they found the habit fascinating. Second, they were amazed by the unusual clothing that Cook's men wore and they were especially impressed with the rows of brass buttons sewed onto the men's sleeves. Later that day, the natives returned to their village with an astonishing, but perfectly understandable, story. They had met a fire-eating and smoke-breathing breed of men, who had arms like octopi and lived on the dead and decaying carcasses whales.

I tell you this story to illustrate a point: It’s quite easy to create and perpetuate a myth. And I hope you forgive me when I say there are many myths surrounding our views of justice. In particular, the way it intersects with our concept of the atonement is contrived in such a way that it causes Christ’s followers to live a lesser Mosaic Law. Consider the following question:

What’s the purpose of justice?

A. To protect the innocent?
B. To rehabilitate the guilty?
C. To prevent crime?
D. To restore a cosmic order to the universe?

I’m certain most people will say the right answer is some combination of A through C, but now consider another question: What does our concept of the atonement say about the purpose of justice? Follow that line of thought and see why it makes me want to pull out my hair.

Most descriptions of the atonement follow a logical argument similar to that which Anselm of Canterbury proposed in his treatise Why God Became Man. His reasoning is as follows.

  • The existence of sin wounds God's honor, a condition that demands justice
  • Because God is infinite, any acts to satisfy the demands of justice must also be infinite
  • Since humans are not infinite, they are unable to satisfy such demands
  • Satisfaction is only possible through the sacrifice of Jesus, who is sinless and exempt from punishment due to sin
  • Since Christ’s sacrifice is voluntary, the merit of the act is therefore infinite and God's justice is thus appeased, allowing mercy to be extended to humankind.
If that seems contrived and confusing, it is, at least for me. It’s an example of apologetic thinking, which first assumes a set of axioms as factual and only then seeks a way to explain them logically. I’ll let you decide whether the argument accomplishes the latter, but consider a similar analogy proposed by a general authority of my church. Though it seems to clarify the argument, its implicit conclusions remain troubling.

There once was a man who wanted something very much. It seemed more important than anything else in his life. In order for him to have his desire, he incurred a great debt. He had been warned about going into that much debt, and particularly about his creditor. But it seemed so important for him to do what he wanted to do and to have what he wanted right now. He was sure he could pay for it later. So he signed a contract. He would pay it off some time along the way. He didn't worry too much about it, for the due date seemed such a long time away. He had what he wanted now, and that was what seemed important.

The creditor was always somewhere in the back of his mind, and he made token payments now and again, thinking somehow that the day of reckoning really would never come. But as it always does, the day came, and the contract fell due. The debt had not been fully paid. His creditor appeared and demanded payment in full. Only then did he realize that his creditor not only had the power to repossess all that he owned, but the power to cast him into prison as well.

"I cannot pay you, for I have not the power to do so," he confessed.

"Then," said the creditor," we will exercise the contract, take your possessions, and you shall go to prison. You agreed to that. It was your choice. You signed the contract, and now it must be enforced."

"Can you not extend the time or forgive the debt?" the debtor begged. "Arrange some way for me to keep what I have and not go to prison. Surely you believe in mercy? Will you not show mercy?"

The creditor replied, "Mercy is always so one-sided. It would serve only you. If I show mercy to you, it will leave me unpaid. It is justice I demand. Do you believe in justice?"

"I believed in justice when I signed the contract," the debtor said. "It was on my side then, for I thought it would protect me. I did not need mercy then, nor think I should need it ever. Justice, I thought, would serve both of us equally as well."

"It is justice that demands that you pay the contract or suffer the penalty," the creditor replied.

"That is the law. You have agreed to it and that is the way it must be. Mercy cannot rob justice."

There they were: One meting out justice, the other pleading for mercy. Neither could prevail except at the expense of the other.

"If you do not forgive the debt there will be no mercy," the debtor pleaded.

"If I do, there will be no justice," was the reply.

Both laws, it seemed, could not be served. They are two eternal ideals that appear to contradict one another. Is there no way for justice to be fully served, and mercy also? There is a way! The law of justice can be fully satisfied and mercy can be fully extended—but it takes someone else. And so it happened this time. The debtor had a friend. He came to help. He knew the debtor well. He knew him to be shortsighted. He thought him foolish to have gotten himself into such a predicament. Nevertheless, he wanted to help because he loved him. He stepped between them, faced the creditor, and made this offer.

"I will pay the debt if you will free the debtor from his contract so that he may keep his possessions and not go to prison."

As the creditor was pondering the offer, the mediator added, "You demanded justice. Though he cannot pay you, I will do so. You will have been justly dealt with and can ask no more. It would not be just."

The mediator turned then to the debtor. "If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?"

"Oh yes, yes," cried the debtor. "You save me from prison and show mercy to me."

"Then," said the benefactor, "you will pay the debt to me and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible. I will provide a way. You need not go to prison."

And so it was that the creditor was paid in full. He had been justly dealt with. No contract had been broken. The debtor, in turn, had been extended mercy. Both laws stood fulfilled. Because there was a mediator, justice had claimed its full share, and mercy was fully satisfied.

What is it about Anselm’s argument and the preceeding analogy that bothers me? Here are my reasons, in reverse order of their significance—the first I see as mere logical inconsistencies, the last is more problematic.

  • The basis of the argument—which John Calvin first referred to as penal-substitution—indicates that justice can be accomplished through an injustice. I can think of nothing more inherently unjust than punishing someone who is innocent, but that’s exactly what is said about the atonement. Christ, according to common thinking, volunteered to be punished—I understand that—but such punishment could not have been a requirement of justice. Not only is it improper to punish an innocent person, it is also improper to forgive a guilty person based on the suffering of someone else. If the existence of sin causes justice to be satisfied, the penal-substitution theory has an odd approach, since its solution runs counter to the basic premise of what is just.
  • At first glance, the analogy explains why God cannot forgive the sinner by introducing a creditor, who would not receive money that he was rightly owed. We take comfort in the argument, because in a financial transaction there is no injustice in someone paying the debt of another. But the analogy contains a subtle sleight-of-hand that breaks down when we map it to the real world. The debt—which represents the punishment required for sin—can be paid justly by another, but punishment should not. Why? Because there are real world debits and credits associated with financial transactions. To assume the same about the transferability of punishment is problematic. How would you like a court of law to incarcerate your mother, for example, because you broke a law?
  • There seems to be no real-life analog to the creditor. Is it Satan? To assume so would indicate that Satan has a vested interest in our repentance. Is God the creditor? To believe He is wounded by our sins (aside from the sadness a parent feels) is to believe He isn’t much of a God. The alternative—to claim there are cosmic debits or credits that we rack up by our actions—leads to a similar conclusion, since it points to a construct that even God must obey. Furthermore, saying God only forgives the debt after it is fully paid is tantamount to saying God does not forgive, which runs counter to Christ’s higher law (see below). Finally, is justice the creditor? That seems to make no sense, because the conclusion brings us back to the idea that justice demands an injustice and that there are demands that supersede God’s will.
  • Finally and most importantly, our notion of justice is an Old Testament, rather than a gospel, requirement that stands apart from what Christ teaches about the nature of God.
Since the last point is critical, let me develop the argument further. The idea of justice was born out of a different time and comes from the Mosaic requirement that can best be described as an “eye for an eye.” Recall the history of the Jews prior to the time Moses received the Ten Commandments. They were a people who were first slaves to the Egyptians, then led through the wilderness as vagabonds. As slaves, they'd lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Their only laws, enforced by the whips of bondage, were based upon survival of the fittest. Punishments, at the time, far exceeded their attendant infractions—steal a crust of bread, for instance, and off came your hand. Under such conditions, an eye for an eye was less a requirement than a restriction meant to insure punishments were reasonable.

Christ, however, wanted his followers to exercise a higher standard. Jesus expressed this idea in the Sermon on the Mount by saying:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
This is consistent with other utterances He made. For example, when Peter asked how often we should forgive a brother’s sins, Jesus answered, “Until seventy times seven,” a euphemism that meant always.

It would be easy to wonder, therefore, why God would demand one standard for His children (forgive all) but employ another for Himself (justice without exception). The answer is, quite simply: He doesn’t. To understand why this is the case, go back to the Sermon on the Mount and chapter 5 of Matthew. Christ ends His discourse regarding lesser and higher laws with an interesting admonition that sheds light on the true (not the Mosaic) nature of God:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

By this directive, Christ says His description of the higher law—the gospel that includes forgiveness—is the same variety of perfection that God practices. Accordingly, I believe He forgives in all instances and does not demand any cosmic rebalancing of sin’s debits and sacrificial credits aside from our truly repentant hearts. Though repentance may require restitution when it’s feasible, I cannot believe God requires a justice that is based upon an apparent injustice. Yet, even while I write this and understand what it implies about the atonement, I remain in complete awe and reverence for what Christ did for us. It does not diminish my love for Him.

A final note: Human society is imperfect. Earthly justice, therefore, continues to be necessary in order to protect the innocent, rehabilitate the guilty and discourage criminal acts. Anything more than this, however, is inconsistent with Christ’s teachings. In particular, to demand justice only as payback for crime is little more than revenge.

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