Justice and Love

I’ve been reading and thinking about justice, because I’m heading up a major new project–a Bible with notes that call out God’s justice, his “setting things right.”

One persistent doubt about justice is whether it is opposed by love. By all that’s just, the criminal should be punished; but love forgives him. Love undoes justice.

This is the fundamental conflict in Les Miserables. Javert, the police inspector, represents justice. As such he is obsessed over Jean Valjean, the criminal who is freed by a bishop’s forgiveness and who learns, more and more, to extend grace to others–ultimately to Javert. There is no possible resolution between Javert and Valjean–only death to one or the other.

Victor Hugo dramatized what we feel as an inner tension in our relationships. If we truly forgive a wrong done to us–choose not to hold it against the offender–it’s painful. And we are not 100% sure that we have done the right thing. Shouldn’t we have taught him or her a lesson? Shouldn’t we have stuck to our principles, making him or her pay? We all have an inner Javert, I think.

In this way of thinking, the only just ground for forgiveness is what theologians call substitutionary atonement: Jesus was punished on behalf of sinners, so they could be forgiven. Somebody has to pay for wrong–so Jesus suffers in our place.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his book Justice in Love, makes a case that this misunderstands justice–or understands it in a narrow way that Jesus specifically abjures in the Sermon on the Mount. If justice is an eye for an eye, a kind of accounting-style double entry system that balances one offense with another, then indeed forgiveness disrupts the system. But Jesus spoke specifically for another kind of justice, the justice of forgiveness–even forgiveness of an enemy. And Jesus specifically offered this kind of justice as superior to the justice of retribution. (See Matthew 5:38-48)

Wolterstorff points out that forgiveness actually depends on a concept of justice. If there were nothing owed, then nothing could be forgiven. Justice tells us that you have wronged a certain person and owe him or her to make it right; forgiveness, working within that conception of justice, decides not to make you pay for it. Forgiveness is grounded on another kind of justice: that the offender has great worth because he is created by God and loved by God. That worth should be honored. It is fundamentally just to honor it.

That is the story of the Prodigal Son. The Father was wronged, and has a right to see his son punished. But the Father also has every right to forgive. The older brother was not wronged; in trying to hold on to “justice” that he thinks his father should impose, he is actually wronging his father. And so with us: if our Father sees the sins of the world forgiven to all who repent and live in the Messiah, we are wrong if we try to hold them to account. The party who was most wronged–God himself–is willing to forgive.

Here, perhaps, substitutionary atonement comes into it. For the Father, in clasping his son in his arms, absorbs the full pain himself. He has been wounded, and he takes the wound instead of putting it on his son. There is a substitution, a suffering on behalf of another, but it is a relational one, not a judicial one.

These are deep waters. Who really understands forgiveness? But the point is, Javert was wrong. Forgiveness may be a kind of justice, indeed the best kind.

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