Is justice our only concern in Christian ethics?

metallica-and-justice-for-allIt seems to me that, given mercy was so prominent in the teaching of Jesus, we have to say either justice is not the only important consideration in Christian ethics or ethics is not the only important consideration governing Christian action.

Or to put this another way, restorative justice trumps retributive justice in any form of social engagement that can meaningfully be called Christian.

What do you think? And what could be some of the potential implications for Christian discussions on civil law, commerical law, international law, professional and personal codes of conduct?

6 Comments

  1. I think the issue is to stop assuming justice means “retributive justice.” That’s cultural not biblical. If we use language rightly then the justice we discuss will encompass the themes of love, mercy, and righteousness as it does in the bible.

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  2. How do we communicate this to non-Christians though? I think it is unavoidable that non-Christians will be operating out of cultural assumptions, not biblical ones. That suggests to me that even where Christians do understand the distinction between restorative justice and retributive justice, it may be a moot point as far as public communication goes. If we take a missional-incarnational approach, and begin where unbelievers are at, communicating the good news may mean beginning with an aenemic understanding of justice but challenging the completeness of ethical systems based on justice alone.

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  3. Maybe it’s just the non-Christians I tend to hang out with, but my experience suggests that non-Christians may have a more expansive understanding of justice than you realize. After all, if you say the word “justice” to mos of my friends, they’re going to start talking about things like poverty, suffering, hunger. Even when you talk about criminal justice, they’re likely to include a discussion on what factors go into some people’s decisions to act criminally. (This isn’t to say we’re all soft on crime or willing to give criminals a walk, mind you. We just want to find a better solution than just stuffing more people into overcrowded prisons that more often than not seem to make criminals come out even worse than they went in.)
    Like I said, maybe it’s just the non-Christians I tend to hang out with. But most of us tend to find the seemingly popular Christian understanding of retributive justice way too narrow. We’d welcome hearing about a kind of justice that is far broader. Just don’t be surprised if a few of us occasionally think you guys are “finally catching up with us.” 😉

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  4. Jarred, I am thinking of New Testament stories like the woman caught in adultery, where Jesus says “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” In her culture she was a criminal, Jesus was willing to give her a walk, and on what basis? The suggestion that deep down we are all criminals. That flies in the face of some understandings of justice.

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  5. One of the major mpediments to many Christians having a more expansive view of justice is the penal substitution model of the atonement. If you teach/ are taught that this is the dominant model to expalin the Cross and what was achieved there, then it is almost inevitable that justice is seen to be principally retributive.
    Ideas like restoration and reconciliation, which are directly linked to the atonement, seem to have been deliberately abandoned by many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. The question is, what kind of justice is it that demands punishment and ignores peace (shalom – wholeness)?
    Also, what a pity that “… And Justice for All” was so badly mixed. And how sad that a heavy metal band could speak so eloquently twenty years ago about issues that many in the church are only just waking up to.

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  6. You could be right. Though I see a place for scape-goating metaphors, if Christians are taught nothing else it is easy to see how it can leave them with significant gaps in understanding. I would go further here and suggest overemphasis on penal substitution can also lead to overemphasis on the crucifixion, to the neglect of the resurrection, which is where shalom is to be found.

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