My brothers and I grew up in an emotionally and physically volatile home. Rules changed on a whim and often. You never knew when you might get smacked, screamed at, or ordered away from the dinner table to solitary confinement without good cause. Not that there is ever a good cause to strike, yell at, or isolate anyone in anger, children in particular.
With shifting rules and double standards enforced by outbursts of anger, I grew up longing for absolutes, justice, kindness, and tranquility. And until my early thirties, when we’d all ‘come to Jesus’, I nursed a paralyzing grudge against my parents.
It is bewildering to reconcile the commandment to honor your father and mother while carrying a justifiable deep root of bitterness. The process drives some to madness. And if I let my mind wander, I dreamt of payback, retribution. I’d plead my case before the Big Court in the Sky. They’d grovel at my feet in mortification, pleading forgiveness while I weighed the punishment for their recklessness. My own personal justice.
But that’s not The Way, is it?
Mirislov Volf, the Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, wrote “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans and myself from the community of sinners.”1
Man, it’s hard to forgive. I had no grid for it, no impetus. Forgiveness made no sense. Forgiving someone in a position of trust who’d betrayed me over and over seemed unfair, even irrational!
The Prophet Micah tells me what God expects. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. And the Son of David teaches, firsthand, “For if you forgive others their sins, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
So, how to forgive? Really forgive? Volf pulls the curtain back, revealing a liberating true truth:
“The practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance. When we know that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, we are free to rediscover that person’s humanity and imitate God’s love for them.” Id.
For us that means to treat others (like everyone) fairly and with dignity, as members of the human community. It means I must never marginalize or exclude another human being because all of us are made in the image of God.
No, I must forgive, recognizing the truth that there is justice from a just God who will ultimately hold our abusers to account and exercise retribution.
My job is to help restore people to God and one another. My job is not to make them suffer for how they’ve hurt us.
Retributive vs. Restorative Justice
Under our Constitution, anyone accused of a crime has the right to due process, a right with its roots in our Judeo-Christian heritage. It is the right to a fair hearing before a neutral tribunal where the accused has an opportunity to be heard, to state his case and present evidence. Without due process we’d live subject to despotic kangaroo courts, punished for thought crimes and independent opinions; or destroy each other in an endless cycle of personal and violent retributive justice known euphemistically to lawyers as self-help remedies.
Left to our own devices, we can go to far extracting a pound of flesh. That’s why retributive justice, i.e., punishment for crimes, for exploiting the poor and vulnerable, should be in the hands of responsible governing authorities whose job is to keep us safe by deterring crime and punishing criminals.
And ultimately, God is the one who, and ultimately who will judge all and sentence us at the end of time. Heaven wrote payback and violent revenge out of our job descriptions. “Vengeance is mine, and retribution…” thus saith the Lord. Deut. 32:35. And Romans 12:19 Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”
So, what does the day-to-day justice God calls me to exercise look like? It is a restorative justice. Restorative justice actively seeks orphans, widows, the poor and oppressed aliens, the sick and imprisoned to bring relief and make things right. Restorative justice makes other people’s problems my own. When I bring isolated people into my home, give money to folks in need, visit and encourage prisoners, welcome and honor people from other countries, and bring healing to the sick, and fight for the human rights of the oppressed, I am walking out my God given call to restore justice to the world.
Restorative Justice: The Evidence of Faith
Though not salvation itself, restorative justice is the hard evidence that we are in Christ and our faith is alive. It is the prison minister, the Good Samaritan spending his time and money to save the life of the traveler, Mother Teresa, and the retirees who deliver meals-on-wheels to shut-ins. It is inconvenient. It is God’s work.
When this truth dawned on me as a young adult, I realized my parent’s frail humanity for the first time. My dad, a Depression kid, couldn’t stand against my mother’s wiles with origins in her own abusive upbringing. And in fits and starts, bits and pieces, with counselling and prayer, I started forgiving them. The process took years and they are long gone. But the three of us, by his grace, finished strongly with great mutual respect and love. The bonds we formed as healthier adults were far stronger than the damaged ones of my childhood.
James teaches us, “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well… For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
Let’s get out there and do justice. Let’s make our neighbor’s problems our own. Let’s forgive our parents, siblings, spouses, betrayers and enemies. Let’s be generous and forgive and forgive again and again. Let’s do this recognizing that in Heaven, the folks we’ve forgiven and served will thank us, and that non-repentant bullies, torturers, murderers, racists, rapists and oppressors and their ilk will get their just desserts because God is just.
And vengeance is His.
1Mirislov Volf, Exclusion and Embrace. A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996