Revenge, Justice, and Grace

While in the car yesterday I turned to NPR, which was airing its daily show World Have Your Say, a broadcast of BBC World Service.  A question was asked on the show… “What purpose should justice serve?”  On it, a contributor argued that there was a distinct difference between revenge and justice, and that the two need to be kept within their distinctions, particularly in light of two related world news topics, the death of Osama bin Laden and the sentencing of Ohio worker and Nazi death camp collaborator, John Demjanjuk.  Whether an assassination or not, few (at least in the US) would object that Osama’s death was “justice,” for even if he were to be detained he would have no doubt seen a death sentence faster even than Saddam Hussein.

“Justice” is a relative term despite there being national and international definitions laid out in stacks upon stacks of books.  Judges often disagree on interpretations of the law  and even rule against one another.  Laws are also changed, some even frequently.  Also, in times when the law was carried out successfully, some may say that the law failed them and that justice was not served.  Such was the case with Demjanjuk, who was sentenced to only 5 years by a German court despite being guilty of far more deaths than bin Laden (nearly 28,000 in fact).  I’m not suggesting we not have laws and systems of justice, what I’m saying is that “justice” is tricky business from the human perspective.

Then, from the faith perspective, you have to wonder about justice in terms of the afterlife.  If we believe that God is omnipotent (all-powerful), then we must assume that God knows what God is doing in the area of justice.  But how does God judge?  Are the punishments exactly as we portray it, burning flames and all?  And if we believe God judges, and that each person will be held accountable for their lives on earth, can we the bystanders simply trust a person (like bin Laden) into the hands of God to be judged?  Or do we…if we’re honest…also want revenge?  “Eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth.”  After all, I don’t remember students taking to the streets to cheer over the end to genocide in Rwanda.  9/11 became personal for many Americans for a variety of reasons.  For many Americans, justice was served…but so was revenge.

It’s important for human beings in all areas of the world to have a system of justice according to their values, but it seems we’ll never get it down perfectly.  Ambiguity of the law and our propensity for wanting revenge are two of many examples of that.  That is why, I believe, we need a God who judges with perfect equity.  And yet, this omnipotent God who is quite simply the perfect judge has already shown Himself to be quite inequitable in our human minds.  After all, we are a creation that has rebelled time after time; only to still have available to us the propitiation for our misdeeds.  That’s the kind of God I believe in; one that is “slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.”  So although God may judge differently than us; that’s really a very good thing indeed.  Perhaps that’s why Jesus says in Luke 6:37: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”  In other words, God says, “Leave the judging to me; I’m much better at it.”

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One thought on “Revenge, Justice, and Grace

  1. Very interesting…I am going to pass it along on the law school wire 🙂 I agree that justice is a quite tricky concept and nearly impossible to define according to all the different social mores out there. I personally think that the Demjanjuk verdict in the German court was pure nonsense. Never did the court show once bit of proof that he actually killed anyone in the camps. Nazi war criminals in the past were prosecuted when direct lines of evidence pointed back to them (Nuremberg, Eichmann, etc). According to the logic of this decision perhaps we should prosecute and sentence every German soldier still alive from WWII? I doubt that the panel of this court would be eager to hand over their grandfathers but that is the precedent they have set. You and I disagree somewhat on the theological views of course. I think that eliminating osama was not a revenge killing but in fact goes toward our responsibility as human beings to actively make the world a better place. Just as we recycle, curb carbon emissions, and drive Hybrids so must we also eliminate lifeforms that cause death and destruction (along the same lines as killing mosquitos that spread malaria).

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