Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (11) forgiveness and justice

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we continue within chapter 3 on ‘The Question of Justice’.

The question in view here is the relationship between the righteousness of God (justice, justification) and judgement (condemnation, destruction).

If the OT ends with hopes of a coming kingdom of justice (Jer. 23:5; Isa. 9:6-7), the NT begins with dramatic announcements that that kingdom of justice has arrived.

First Mary: Luke 1:46-48a, 51b-53

The Messiah himself: Luke 4:16-21

Rutledge’s observation

God’s justice will involve a dramatic reversal, however, which will not necessarily be received as good news by those presently on top of the heap (reader, that means us). (113)

So God’s justice is a deeply disturbing idea – it challenges the status quo, it up-ends the powerful, rich and well-connected, it liberates the poor and oppressed.

And this means that the idea of justice can often be side-lined – it is just too threatening and difficult to face.

Justice and Forgiveness

Rutledge explores this neglect of justice in relationship to forgiveness.

Let me give an Irish example – I grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. A school friend’s father was shot dead. A university lecturer and politician was executed outside our lecture room at College, another student was murdered as he waited to go into an exam. No one in ‘the North’ was untouched by violence, either directly or indirectly.

Decades later, after a long ‘Peace Process’, deep wounds remain, mainly, I think, because there has been huge political effort to reach a compromise settlement (The Good Friday Agreement, 1998) but little progress in facing the much harder questions of justice and forgiveness.

Or, to put it another way, a political settlement was reached largely at the expense of justice and forgiveness. A pragmatic political process intentionally left justice and forgiveness to one side in the hope that an absence of violence (not genuine peace) would ‘normalise’ society to such a degree that it would become unimaginable for violence to be ‘justified’ in the future.

To a large degree this political approach has ‘worked’ – but in these days of Brexit and political instability, the return of violence is a very real possibility. Divisions are perhaps as deep as ever.

The ‘hole’ at the heart of the Northern Ireland ‘Peace’ Process is the failure to make progress on justice and forgiveness. This is not to say that major efforts were not made – they were. But (and some who were involved on the ground may want to correct me) deep hurts have not been healed.

There has been a lack of forgiveness and subsequent reconciliation because there is little sense of justice.

Rutledge warns against ‘easy’ or automatic forgiveness where a victim is asked, while a loved one’s body is barely in the grave, ‘Do you forgive?’. Authentic forgiveness is hard work, it is costly and difficult. It does not exist in isolation from justice, as if deep wrongs can just be swept away under the carpet.

What do you think of this statement?

Forgiveness in and of itself is not the essence of Christianity, though many believe it to be so. Forgiveness must be understood in its relationship to justice if the Christian gospel is to be allowed its full scope. (115)

But what does ‘justice’ look like? Is it simply that the offenders pay for their crimes and end up behind bars for a proportionate length of time?

Here’s the thing – while such legal punishment for crimes may help, no legal system of law will ever bring about reconciliation of enemies. In the North, each side pursuing ‘justice’ on its own for past wrongs just perpetuates conflict.

So justice is essential, but it can also be a weapon against the other. So some deeper understanding of justice is needed than mere punishment for wrong.

Rutledge offers a clear-eyed assessment of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While it had many flaws – not least that people who did horrific violence to others benefitted from an amnesty – the profound achievement of the TRC was that Truth was publically spoken. Indeed, such truth would not have emerged without the ‘injustice’ of the amnesty.

Rutledge’s argument is that, however imperfect, the public acknowledgement of truth, compassion and lament for victims and public affirmation of their suffering is a form of justice in and of itself.

Rutledge quotes Michael Ignatieff

We recognise the past can’t be remade through punishment. Instead – since we know that memories will persist for a long time – we aim to acknowledge those memories [that] … something seriously evil happened to you. And the nation believes you. (120)

This sort of justice recognises something true and important

‘the impossibility of administering human justice that is proportionate to the offense.’ (121)

A Christian form of justice recognises this. Relentless pursuit of human justice will disappoint. As someone wisely said to me, in court you get the law, not justice.

Christian justice is not primarily interested in punishment but in new creation. In transforming situations of horror, not by denying that evil, but by acknowledging it while not continuing in the cycle of violence and hatred.

So then, what is the relationship between justice and forgiveness in Christian understanding?

We’ll come back to this in the next post.

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