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My Job

January 9, 2015

Not so long ago, my daughter introduced me to Pinterest. I had of course been aware of this popular mobile application, but had not been sufficiently interested to investigate it. Now that I have, I am both delighted and disturbed by it—delighted at the wealth of ingeniously creative ideas I find there, and disturbed at how addictive this addition to our culture of distraction can be.

A couple of days ago while glancing through the latest pins I came across this inspirational message:

Your job is not to judge. Your job is not to figure out if someone deserves something. Your job is to lift the fallen, to restore the broken and to heal the hurting.

The quote is attributed to televangelist Joel Osteen, Senior Pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church, the largest Protestant church in the United States. Although I am not particularly enamoured with the man, I immediately recognized the depth of wisdom embodied in those words. They brought to mind ideas I have recently been pondering, and some very spirited recent discussions with family and friends. Most significantly, they stuck a chord with something that runs deep within my very core.

Anyone who has been acquainted with me for any length of time knows that justice is a burning issue in my life. On the flyleaf of my Bible, penned there years ago, is my watchword, Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” My passion has brought accusations that my sense of injustice is perhaps too sharply honed, my preoccupation with the injustices of the world perhaps a bit too consuming. Perhaps, but by standing fore-square against injustice and not averting my eyes, I see the human anguish. I see the faces of the victims, look full into their eyes. There I see my suffering saviour, understand in some small way his pathos at injustice. For me, faith without indignation at evil is impossible.

The word justice is a chameleon, taking on the colour of the mind in which it resides. I have come to be convinced that the vision of justice one holds is a reflection of the God in which one believes.

For some, justice means vengeance, payback. That’s Lamech’s justice, The Song of the Sword (Genesis 4:23-24). Though not many would wish for a justice system based on vengeance, the idea is regularly applauded. Revenge is one of the most popular themes in cinema, where it is frequently characterized as “justified”.

Our legal system operates primarily within the framework of retributive justice, the theory that the best response to wrongs is punishment of the offender. The system focuses on satisfying abstract legal principles, and naming the government as the primary victim, relegates those harmed to the status of witnesses for the prosecution at best, and at worst, helpless spectators of the courtroom dramatics. It attempts to overcome evil with evil, imposing hurt to remedy hurt, requiring violence to balance the scales of morality. This form of justice best serves to keep power in the hands of the powerful and privileged, the laws, policies and punitive practices they put in place maintaining the “peace and order” necessary for the perpetuation of a self-serving status quo founded on injustice. It does little to make anything “right”.

The pervasive lust to punish reaches beyond the parameters of our justice system. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 11, states: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”. Section 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is similar: “Any person charged with an offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal”. Yet despite being fully entrenched in statute, the presumption of innocence seems to be in short supply. Consider the accusations leveled against high-profile personages over the past few months. In many minds, the assumption of guilt was instantaneous, and arbitrary punishment began to be meted out immediately, with shrill calls for more severe punitive measures hard on its heels. Trial and conviction in the court of public opinion. All in the name of justice.

The majority of Christians are staunch supporters of retributive justice. They believe it is what the Bible not only advocates, but indeed mandates. They believe God executes retributive justice on his wayward children and that we are to do likewise. I disagree on both counts. Confident that I am on pretty solid ground here, firmly anchored to one of the core themes of the Biblical narrative, I am not afraid to speak my truth no matter how unpopular it may be.

My reading of the Bible tells me that God’s ways are not man’s ways, that his vision of justice is very different from ours. That vision is delineated not only in isolated texts, but also through an ongoing theme that flows from Genesis through Revelation. God’s great mission is to restore his creation, a creation that he dearly loves and desires to bring back into relationship with him. That is God’s justice—making all things right—for all of creation.

For just as the Holy Trinity made all things from nothing, so the Holy Trinity shall make all well that is not well.            

– Julian of Norwich

The message of God’s justice was on the lips of the Prophets and its echoes reverberate in Psalms. Jesus was God’s justice incarnate. He clearly restated his Father’s vision as he opened his ministry, and reflected it through both his words and deeds throughout his ministry.

God’s justice is relational. It is always about bringing us closer to him and to one another in community, restoration of whole relationships. It brings hope into broken contexts, opening the possibility of healing for those injured. It compassionately confronts those who have caused injury and encourages the turning toward life that is repentance. It liberates victims and offenders alike through the merciful offer of forgiveness. It is the creative transformation of evil into good, making things right. It is inclusive, addressing the needs of all involved—victims, offenders, and the community at large. It is not about strict fairness, but rather a spirit of generosity that reaches beyond fairness to self-sacrifice. It is, as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it, the “impossible possibility” of loving our neighbors, and—heeding Jesus—turning Lamech’s threat on its head, forgiving seventy-seven times.

Since this kind of justice cuts diametrically across the grain of normal human behaviour, it is impossible without God being part of the equation. Despite man’s best efforts, without God, justice runs roughshod. With God, justice becomes inextricably tied to mercy, and ultimately forgiveness. It is about grace. It is about redemption. It is about love.

Restorative justice emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behaviour, attempting to identify and meet the needs of victims, offenders, and everyone else touched by the crime. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders, for often the truth is not in the facts, but lies hidden between them. Truth and reconciliation commissions and First Nations healing circles are excellent examples of restorative justice in action. There have been a few halting moves in the Canadian legal system toward restorative justice, but the prevailing system is jealously territorial, relegating these initiatives to the fringes, restricting them to cases deemed “less serious”. I have long been convinced through my intensive involvement in our euphemistically labeled correctional system that retributive justice does more harm than good, and have supported and participated in restorative justice initiatives.

I learned long ago through bitter experience that I cannot change the system substantially. Canada’s justice system is a multi-billion dollar business with many vested interests, all determined to defend their turf. All I can do is change myself, how I think, what I do. I can keep in mind what I am called to do, what my job is. I can lift the fallen, restore the broken, and heal the hurting. I can do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God. That’s what the Lord says is good.

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