Hannah Andret famously said “the Nazi crimes … explode the limits of the law.” There are crimes that are too large, too inhuman, too evil for them to be understood within the human idea of “the law.” The crimes are so horrific that any punishment or recompense seems inadequate, paltry. Justice covers her eyes not because she is impartial, but in order to not weep. This sort of evil poses a question to which there seems to be no answer.
Throughout human history, the chaos of evil comes again, and again, and again. And evil’s main goal is to create more of itself. Evil wants more. More graves. More tears. More orphans. Less life. Less hope. And in these moments where the law does not have the words to describe the actions that have occurred we are tempted to mistake our revenge for God’s justice.
I took a class on the “healing arts” at Duke Divinity School. It was mostly about medical ethics and a theological understanding of the human body—a great class taught by two practicing doctors. During one of the opening lectures they brought up how their culturally maligned counterparts, lawyers, were part of the healing arts as well. This was an odd statement at the time, but one that has slowly made more sense. Lawyers, like doctors, seek health, they seek to repair the ruptures that occur within the body politic. The pursuit of justice is an activity oriented to life.
The hope is that if one sees the work of justice as part of the healing arts—for both oppressed and oppressor—one will recognize the connection between justice and grace. However, the legitimate fear is that words like grace, mercy and forgiveness are not cut out for the hard work that justice requires. Grace has no place when disorder reigns in the public arena, invoked by those who have not stared evil in the eyes. That such words will lead us to say: “‘Peace, peace,’…when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14). But the gospel story leads us to say otherwise. That justice is not just about retribution, but also reconciliation, restoration. As N.T. Wright says:
“But the whole point of the Gospels is that the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven is precisely not the imposition of an alien and dehumanizing tyranny, but rather the confrontation of alien and dehumanizing tyrannies with the news of God—the God recognized in Jesus—who is radically different from them all, and whose inbreaking justice aims at rescuing and restoring genuine humanness…”
God’s justice is about the establishment or re-establishment of trust, the formation of peace, the mending of brokenness. God’s justice is about forming and transforming humanity into the form of life and relationship we were created for.
Christians believe that God has something to do with the work of justice; that all justice is eventually about faithfully praising the creator and redeemer. But what does theology and God’s justice have to do with the practice of the law? At the most basic level, the practice of justice will be about life only if it is about grace. For only through grace, through the seeking of peace, do we prevent evil from determining who we become. Being a victim is not meant to provide us with the opportunity to make others into victims. As Miroslav Volf says: “If you want justice without injustice you must want love.” Augustine demonstrated the crazy idea that love and justice are synonymous in the new heavens and new earth. This justice seeks the good of everyone, hoping to place them in reconciled relationship with God and others. This justice aims to have former enemies “embrace,” to live in reconciled communion with one another. But we do not live in the new heavens and new earth, so our justice will always be imperfect. Our imperfect justice will always include restraint, protection, punishment, sorrow, and anger. This justice should hope to become obsolete.
This yet to come reality still means something for the Church’s work now—calling God’s people to pursue justice and reconciliation through the works of mercy. Only when mercy and justice are seen as inseparable, when mercy provides flexibility to the stiff movements of justice, can the institutions of justice engage in activities of justice that at their core are about healing.