According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Meaning of Love and Justice, Part 2


The difference, theologically, between “justifiable” and “just”

by Roger Olson
posted May 6, 2011

Several people have asked me to clarify what I mean when I say that an act may be “justifiable” but not “just.” The background is my post about the killing of bin Laden which I suggested might be justifiable but not just. Someone said that it is okay to celebrate bin Laden’s death (something I denied) so long as one is celebrating the justice in it and not the killing per se. I cannot bring myself to celebrate something that is less than just. Hence the question.

I agree with theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr who argue that true justice is inseparable from love even if, in our sinful world, it is often at best an approximation of love. And in this sense, “love” is being defined by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and 1 Corinthians 13 (etc.) as selfless benevolence to the other.

In Christian tradition, going back at least to Augustine, love and justice are the twin and inseparable Christian ethical principles. Well, that raises the question, what about when there is a conflict between them? Ultimately, they cannot conflict in reality because they are both rooted in God’s character (from a realist, not a nominalist, perspective). However, from our finite and fallen perspective there does sometimes seem to be tension between them.

Niebuhr helpfully distinguished between “perfect justice,” which would be love in action (e.g., tough love) and “proximate justice” which is love compromised in the face of the reality principle. For example, in this fallen world there is such a thing as the “lesser of two evils” that must be done–at least by governments. (A difference between Niebuhr and Yoder is whether Christians can rightly participate in this practice. Niebuhr said so and Yoder said no.)

When I say that something can be “justifiable” but not “just” I mean in Niebuhr’s terms. A war can be justifiable but is never truly just in the highest and best sense of just. The highest and best sense of justice must be restorative and not retributive–if it is indeed inextricably linked to love. War is rarely restorative. Restoration may come after war (e.g., the Marshall Plan), but during the bombing one can hardly call it restorative.

I simply wish to preserve the distinction between true, perfect justice, which is, for example, tough love, and proximate justice which is something less than perfect love. It is love accommodated and may even be love approximated but not achieved.

I cannot call a killing “just” because when I think of something being or not being “just” I think of love as the norm. However, in this sinful, fallen world some killing may be justified–e.g., when it is absolutely necessary to preserve innocent life.

I cannot celebrate any killing or death. I can’t even celebrate the justifiable nature of it because that is, at best, a necessary evil. I can only celebrate true justice which I see achieved, for example, in rehabilitation of a criminal or restoration of a broken relationship.

I can think of one possible exception, but I’m not sure it’s really an exception to my rule. That is when someone lays down his or her life to be killed to save someone else’s life. But then it is not so much the actual killing I celebrate but the act of selfless love that was involved in it. So, for example, I celebrate the cross of Jesus Christ as the Son of God’s selfless sacrifice for us, but I don’t celebrate the act of the executioners. I realize that’s a fine distinction. Some will no doubt call it a distinction without a difference, but it makes sense to me. Even Jesus prayed for his executioners’ forgiveness, so he must not have thought their act was a good thing in every sense.

Now, having said all of that, the theologian in me kicks in and I have to say something that is not obvious but may be necessary: that there is really only one ultimate ethical norm and that is love. Since perfect justice is normed by love, it is not really a separate ethical norm. Love is God’s nature. Scripture says (in 1 John) “God is love.” It does not say “God is justice.” Justice, then, is always at best some manifestation of love. I conclude that restorative justice is love in action in the social realm whereas retributive justice is a necessary evil because of the fallenness of the world. Christians should always aim at restorative justice because of Jesus. When they have to participate in retributive justice (e.g., in the violent defense of a weak neighbor under attack), assuming that is ever the case, repentance rather than celebration is called for because of the “new law” Jesus delivered of indiscriminate, selfless love that includes non-resistance.

Where I find myself caught is between Niebuhr, who argued that Christians must not always avoid compromise of the law of love (because that would require withdrawal from society) and Yoder who argued that Christians ought always to keep the law of love even if it means a certain withdrawal from society (not geographic or physical withdrawal but social non-engagement). Yoder seems right ideally while Niebuhr seems right realistically. So far, anyway, the only way I can see to mediate this difference is to advocate and practice repentance when involved in doing the lesser of two evils to avoid withdrawal from social responsibility.

The case study is, of course, Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer himself, apparently, did not think killing Hitler was a righteous thing to do. He saw it more as a necessary evil and was conflicted about it. I cannot imagine him celebrating Hitler’s death if the conspiracy had been successful. I can only imagine him repenting while at the same time experiencing a certain satisfaction that a terrible evil had been removed.


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