Forgiveness IS the Justice of God

I recently ran across a fascinating article by Dr. Samuel Wells, dean of Duke University […]

JDK / 10.1.10

I recently ran across a fascinating article by Dr. Samuel Wells, dean of Duke University Chapel, entitled “Forgiveness and the Justice of God,” on the relationship between justice and forgiveness that is right up our law/gospel alley. Although our ruminations can, at times, seem like abstract speculation, forgiveness is the concrete act where these ideas take flesh. Of course, following Derrida, we have to admit that “pure forgiveness” is impossible, but, then again, so is rising from the dead 😉 Here are some excerpts:

One feature of American life that has always fascinated me is the degree to which the Supreme Court has become the focal point of its culture. Most Americans seem to believe that the best place to discover right and wrong, to identify good and bad, and to resolve ambiguity, is through legal judgment.

The risk is that the attention given to getting the rules right can distract from the fact that a healthy society is always primarily about relationships and only secondarily about rules. It is only when both of these dimensions are working harmoniously that we might say that we have reached a point that could be called justice. . .

So this is what the story of Naboth’s vineyard is comprehensively showing us. Justice unravels when we lose sight of who we are in relation to God, and, once justice has had a great fall, it’s a tall order to put it back together again.

There really is only one thing that can make things better. There really is only one thing that can make any difference in a situation where you can’t bring Naboth back. There really is only one thing that can prevent an act of merciless force and the crushing of an innocent life turn into a spiral of retribution, a vendetta of vindictiveness and a cascade of vigilante revenge.

And that single thing is forgiveness. . .

Forgiveness says, “You can hurt me, but you can’t take away my allegiance to Christ. You can be cruel to me, but you can’t make me become like you. You can crush me, but you can’t put yourself outside the mercy of God.”

Why do we forgive? Because we don’t want to turn into creatures of bitterness locked up in the past, and we don’t want to be given over to a hatred that lets those who’ve hurt us continue to dominate our lives.

Why do we forgive? Because unlike Simon we know we’re sinners too and we can’t withhold from others the forgiveness we so desperately need for ourselves. That’s why in the Lord’s Prayer we say “Forgive us … as we forgive those …”

Why do we forgive? Because Jesus in his cross and resurrection has released the most powerful energy in the universe and we want to be part of it and be filled with it.

Why do we forgive? Because we know that every form of justice, all the systems for setting things straight, have failed.

Why do we forgive? Because Jesus is dying for us to forgive. Jesus is dying for us to stop our shame and secrecy and beg for forgiveness. Jesus is dying for us to end our enmity and hard-heartedness and offer the hand of mercy.

Why do we forgive? Because forgiveness is the justice of God. . .


9 responses to “Forgiveness IS the Justice of God”

  1. L.R.E. Larkin says:

    Yes! Jady and Yes again. This is great (esp. from an ontological view). From Jungel's Justification book: "This hope [God being back in the divine office of 'ruling] extends to our human yearning for earthly justice a promise that makes bearable the burden of ruling and judging. That is why any yearning for earthly, even human justice that has a right understanding of itself will keep coming back to the worship that proclaims God's righteousness as being justification of sinners. In earthly matters those who live by this righteousness will never cease to pray: 'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us' (Matt. 6:12 [av]). For human activity that is consistent with divine action will always be dependent on this prayer being answered. Despite all disappointment and despondency, from the answer to this prayer, justified sinners will ever gain the freedom to start their human activity all over again. But the most important thin is that when we pray for forgiveness of our sins we trust in the righteousness of God that makes us righteous. it is indeed more wonderful than the evening and morning star [reference to Aristotle]. Or, to say with the metaphor: it is the Sun of Righteousness that outshines all other stars" (276-7).

  2. Mr. T says:

    hanks for the post Jady. When I came to believe the truth of the Gospel the argument about justice and love was a strong one to my non believing self. I had never heard that Love couldn't exist without Justice. Love has been a feeling or a sentiment – I had never considered the logical fallacy to the way I’d been thinking. Essentially, the premise that Love cannot exist in the absence of Justice is something I’d never considered. God in His mercy paying the price for all the injustice blew my mind – and logically seemed the only way that vast gap between brokenness of the world (and my life, shortcomings, etc..) and the perfection of God could be bridged. If there was no Justice then logically we’d all be nihilists – and nothing would matter; we’d be subject to arbitrary measures of justice – e.g. justice as defined by the winners; the strong; the loudest; the most powerful, etc… The preacher at the time said – If you came outside and someone had smashed up your car with a baseball bat and a policeman came by at the time you discovered the damage to your car and the person standing there with baseball bat in had and told you – ‘hey man – you need to have more compassion here’ – it wouldn’t negate that someone had to pay for the damage to your car – b/c the damage was real…. Blew my non-Christian mind when he said – in all those moments when you’ve felt things aren’t as they should be – it’s because they aren't’ as they should be – b/c the world is broken by sin + the fall…It was God coming down in Christ who paid for this and all the damage + brokenness on our behalf – even as we spit in his face and drove nails in his hands – @ that moment I realized there was no other way to rectify this idea of material damage – the need for restitution (justice) – with love other than the Cross.

  3. Michael Cooper says:

    True forgiveness is extremely rare, as far as I can tell. We can't really "decide" to forgive. No one "forgives" because they think it's a good idea, or a Christian thing to do, or a "just" thing to do according to some exaulted notion of true "justice" or even, dare I say it, because "God has forgiven me in Christ, so I should do likewise." Tell any victim of child sexual abuse any of those reasons to forgive and good luck to you. Real forgiveness, the kind that totally forgets the wrong and wants only the best for the wrongdoer, doesn't seem to be a reasoned-out position that the victim takes. Instead, it seems to just come over a person like a wave of love for the wrongdoer that neither the forgiving nor the forgiven can explain, like it did for Jesus on the cross. Guess that's why it's called divine.

  4. bls says:

    I wonder if the "Supreme Court as focal point of our culture" is about something different, though.

    I mean, look at the image itself: "Justice" is blind. The Supreme Court – any court, really – is the place in America where there is, ostensibly, no prejudice – no "pre-judgment," that is. It's the place where one's station in life is not taken into account – only one's status as citizen. That is, any person can get a fair hearing there.

    I'm not sure the attraction is really about "getting the rules right," but more about the fact that a last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court can trump the influence of those with money and power. Justice is quite like God, in this way, actually. ("He hath put down the mighty from the seats, and exalted them of low degree." And etc.)

  5. Todd says:

    When i'm feeling particularly critical, i wonder if the belief in a blind just lip service and a roundabout way to justify one's own opinion as "blind justice". . . As if one can have a truly impartial opinion. I doubt whether justice from a human standpoint is ever blind.

  6. bls says:

    Well, I think you're probably right about that, Todd, in many cases.

    I'm just saying that this is, I believe, what people are thinking about when they idealize the courts' function. It's not really about "rules"; it's about neutralizing power and leveling the playing field. It's about the hope of finding some neutrality in a partisan system, too.

    I'm not sure that the Supreme Court, in particular, is about "rules" so much, anyway. Appeals often go there, in fact, when "rules" contradict one another, are in some obvious way unfair, or are unclear. And at that point, we're often in the territory of applying principles, or finding some precedent to apply. The court was given equal footing with the other branches precisely for this reason – and to neutralize the "tyranny of the majority." (Of course, I'm taking my life in my hands talking about this here, with lawyers all around! 😉 )

    But then, I'm not sure I agree with the idea that "the Law" is always offensive and contrary to the Gospel. Psalm 119 is part of the canon, too….

  7. bls says:

    However, I do like this post! And the idea that "Forgiveness IS the Justice of God," too – that's a splendid and wonderful thing….

    And I wanted to say, too, Michael Cooper, that while I agree – I think – that we can't necessarily "decide" to forgive, I believe we can "decide" to forget an offense, on the basis that we ourselves are sinners. We might have been offended by what another person did to affect us negatively – but the fact is that we might have done the same thing ourselves, and we might yet do it, in fact.

    The example you give is of course a very difficult one – but the hard cases make bad law, so to speak, and there are many less difficult situations where I believe we can indeed put "willful amnesia" to work as a start on forgiveness.

  8. Ken says:

    Wells writes that
    One feature of American life that has always fascinated me is the degree to which the Supreme Court has become the focal point of its culture. Most Americans seem to believe that the best place to discover right and wrong, to identify good and bad, and to resolve ambiguity, is through legal judgment.

    As an aside to the real point of this post, do most of us really in fact believe that? At best the Court seems to resolve legal questions, but ask a conservative evangelical if Roe vs. Wade is settled law that can't be overturned. Ask a liberal if corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals. The legality of same-sex marriage will eventually reach the Court in a manner that forces them to confront it head on instead of ruling on a technicality. Are we prepared to accept their ruling as a moral judgment no matter what they say?

    Anyhow, as for Well's list of reasons why we forgive, surely it's a list of reasons why we should forgive. As invaluable and often indispensable as those reasons are in leading us up to the moment of forgiveness — or the start of the process — I can think of only one reason why we actually do forgive when we do, and that's because we've learned to love. Which is to say logic has prepared the way for grace. It's 100-1 Wells knows this, but I don't think his wording reflects it.

  9. Michael Cooper says:

    There are many fine Christian, non-Christian, evolutionary social theory, or whatnot you pick 'em reasons to forgive, but no amount of reasoning is going to produce forgiveness in the heart of Dr. Petit of Cheshire, Connecticut, or anyone else who has been wronged in any significant way. That's why it is purely a divine act.

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