The Roles of Justice within Love and Mercy.


I like murder mysteries. Particularly, I tend towards the somewhat “old-fashioned” ones… at least old-fashioned British in attitude and convention. Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Dick Francis. I like have no interest in figuring out “whodunit.” I like to ride the rollercoaster of the story and see where it takes me. I want to see the short-term success of evil followed by the battle between good and evil, with the final triumph of good over evil. It satisfies some sort of visceral need.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do like stories that are set in the real world… at least the real world of human motivation. As such, I don’t really prefer the Dickensian idealization of characters. Evil people have redeemable qualities while the righteous have very human failings. Still I am not really interested in the telenovella-ish stories where the enforcers of justice are just as bad as the people they hunt. I don’t mind a short story where evil triumphs (we live in a fallen world and that is reality sometimes), but I hate to invest days reading a novel to end without clear justice for the evildoer.

OKAY… nobody cares about what I like to read. But why do so many people like to read stories about justice? Or further, why do so many people want to see justice happen. A cynic might say that we want justice for “THEM” while we want mercy for “US”… however we might define them or us. I suppose I am cynical enough to agree. But removing the subjective for the abstract… why do we want justice?

1.  Punishment.  Punish the evildoer… or the one who violated set law… or societal norms. It often feels good when people do bad and have bad returned to them (a bit of “kharma,” to pull a term loosely from a different religious context). There is a bit of moral accountancy about us at times. We want the books to balance out at the end where people who invested in that which is bad (especially bad to others) get a return on their investment in the form of what is bad to them. And we want the injured parties to be recompensed if possible.

2.  Rehabilitation. Some see justice as part of a restorative process. For some, they believe that punishment may in itself be enough to convince a person not to be on the wrong side of the law.  Others see it as a positive opportunity for training. If someone is incarcerated, it is a good time to train in new attitudes, skills, and behaviors to remove the desire or incentive to do that which is evil.

3.  Follow-Through. In a society, there are norms and consequences to violation of norms. The goal is to NOT have people violate these norms/rules. The justice system in this case is essentially preventive. It is not to punish, quarantine or rehabilitate the evildoer. Rather, the carrying out of the punishment is simply a necessary act to ensure that societal standards have teeth. In other words, punishment is not really for the perpetrator or the victim. It is seen as a failure of the system and done simply in the hopes that next time the rules of society will not be ignored. If you don’t follow-through on a promise, it becomes an idle threat.

4.  Quarantine. While it may be desirable in many ways to see punishment exacted, what may be punishment to one (such as capital punishment, imprisonment, restraining orders, or removal of privileges) provides a quarantine role for others. A thief cannot break into houses in his neighborhood if he is in prison.

5.  Reward. One could view freedom to move and act as independent agents in an open society as a privilege. Because a person decides to follow the rules of society, she is rewarded with the privileges associated with freedom.

If you look at these five purposes of justice… it starts with focus on the perpetrator… the violator, and then gradually shifts to focus on the law-abider. All five of these (and there may be more) are related to justice, and none should be ignored.

Why am I talking about this on a Missions Blog?

A.  God is a god of mercy and love, but this does not discount the understanding that God is also a god of justice. Arguably, Love is like a coin with two sides. One side is grace (or mercy) and the other is law (or justice). Godliness requires godly love and such love as that is not one-sided.

B.  God set up principles for us as Christians that balance mercy and justice. In the Bible, God calls for social justice… particularly for the weak, helpless, and innocent as He calls for mercy and love. We don’t just sin… we are also sinned against. What are the consequences of this? Forgiveness doesn’t necessitate forgetting or trusting.

C.  We live in situations where evil occurs. In these situations, there are perpetrators and victims. There is also the broader society. Application of love and mercy to one, may effectively be destructive to another. This is why there must be balance. Missionaries with a poor understanding of the balance of justice and mercy can make things worse… especially for the victim (creating “revictimization”).

D.  Often evil occurs not only when social norms are violated, but when the social norms are inherently flawed. Missionaries do not have the privilege on turning away and focusing only on “spiritual things” (read the book of Amos before thinking that we can ignore social injustice).  In the Philippines, there is governmental corruption (it varies considerably from region to region and from department to department). There is also sexual tourism and exploitation. There is human trafficking. There is worker exploitation. Laws are often applied unevenly depending on the social or financial situation of individuals. It is unjust, unmerciful, unloving to not address these. Of course every country has its problems… so in every country there is cause to stand for justice. 

Yes I see I have been rambling. Maybe I will clean this post up later.

In essence, missionaries must be sharers of God’s love. But God’s love is not a sugarcoated shadow of love. It seeks what is best/necessary for the evildoer, the victim, and the broader society (the broader society being a secondary or tertiary victim). Godly love also challenges the broader society, counter-culturally. Godly love seeks to find the challenging balance of mercy and justice for all parties. It may involve punishment, rehabilitation, quarantine, following-through, and rewarding of various parties. It may require forgiveness and reconciliation. It may be dissatisfying to all parties, but to fail to find such a broad and difficult balance is to not truly express godly love.

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