Grandpappy told my Pappy back in my day, son,
A man had to answer for the wicked that he’d done
Round up all the rope in Texas, find a tall oak tree,
And hang up all them bad boys for all the people to see.
‘Cause justice is the one thing you should always find,
You gotta saddle up your boys, you gotta draw a hard line.
-Willie Nelson, “Beer For My Horses.”
Justice is fundamentally about equal distribution of suffering and deprivation.
Lawsuits for pain and suffering. You hurt me, I’ll have you put in jail to even things out. If you steal my money, I’ll make sure I get it back.
And our desire for justice is rarely about justice being executed upon us. We never want justice done to ourselves. We want justice done to other people. (Remember, we’re the good guys). It’s usually about making someone else pay for the wrong they’ve done, though occasionally it’s about making us pay for it. Social justice means that we ask those who are oppressing others to cease doing so. It doesn’t cost us anything to sign a petition trying to convince those horrible people to stop using slave labor while they’re making the clothing we’ve shopped to find the best price on. Mostly we want them to stop being evil so that we can go on living our lives and buying inexpensive shirts. Evil corporations have plenty of money; they’re making ridiculous profits! Let the money to pay the workers fairly come out of the CEO’s pocket, not ours. He’s making more per minute than they make per year. (Wait. That doesn’t sound like a bad idea). The point is that evil is somewhere else.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere [else] insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Evil is in us, we the protagonists of our own stories. We try to tell ourselves that in our stories we are the good guys, and good guys fight for justice. We’ve been told that fighting for justice is great, but how rarely do we realize that when we fight for justice, we also fight against the injustice in ourselves?
Jesus said we can do better than justice. Jesus said love is the best way.
If justice is about equal distribution of suffering and deprivation, then love is about unequal distribution of joy and provision.
In justice, if I have two coats and you have none, I am forced to give one to you. In love, if I have two coats and you have none, I freely give one to you. In both narratives, you get a coat. In the love narrative, I get something as well: I get the thrill of being a good guy in my own story, instead of having someone else be the good guy by making me (as the bad guy) give you my coat. I get to be the hero.
Or if I have the last piece of cake and I give it to you because I want the joy of seeing you enjoy it. Or if I take my fiancée out to dinner, and I pay, because I want to enjoy the thrill of giving her something that she wouldn’t buy for herself.
Jesus’ love is creative. It goes further than finding some outside force (as we often attempt) to execute justice on the person acting unjustly; it places the force of justice inside the unjust and compels them to act justly; or, failing that, awakes the conscience of others who are acting unjustly and brings them alongside.
That’s why I think confession is important. It’s easy for me to recognize evil in others, much harder to recognize evil in myself. But if I am (in some sense) like everybody else, that means there is a part of me that is evil, and a part of me that deserves justice – deserves to answer for the wicked that I’ve done. I don’t want to answer for it. I want to be shown grace – which Jesus offers.
But then somehow I believe that someone needs to suffer for the sins I’ve done. Something about equal distribution of suffering being just and justice – but Jesus hijacks my justice in a tour de grace of love on the cross! Jesus says (effectively), you have to answer for the wicked that you’ve done? Fine. I’ll answer for it in your place.
But that will never do! For now the person against whom Psalm 51 suggests we have all sinned (whom we have caused to suffer) chooses to suffer even more on our behalf! If justice is about the equal distribution of suffering and deprivation, this isn’t justice; it is gross and horrible injustice! And that’s the point of love, I think: it’s unequal distribution of joy and provision. Scripture says that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him. Joy in what? Joy in giving.
On the cross, justice was thrown completely out of whack, irrevocably broken. An eye for an eye?! Jesus seems more to be saying “You’ve taken my eye? Here, have the other one, too.” Love and generosity. We have Christ’s grace, and Christ has the satisfaction and joy of knowing that we have it.
Perhaps in another sense, the cross is indeed about justice in the deprivation sense. We all suffer. We all die. We all sometimes feel the abandonment of God. And Jesus on the cross suffers, dies, and feels the abandonment of God. He experiences equal distribution of suffering and deprivation with us.
So on the cross, God (as Jesus) experienced justice (as deprivation) executed upon himself, and showed us love (as unequal distribution of joy and provision). He both accepted justice (in the deprivation sense) upon himself, and distributed love to others. Or, as that first-century hymn has it,
[Jesus,] though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Disclaimer of likelihood that I’m wrong:
I’m painting in broad strokes. I’m confident that I’m wrong about much that I’ve written, but I’ve written it just the same, because it made sense at 2 am. Maybe there’s something there that will resonate with you.