Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (12) forgiveness is not enough

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 in 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).

A couple of discussion questions:  If you have suffered a grave injustice, what reactions and emotions went with it? What place did anger and a desire for justice have? 

Christians are called to forgiveness. But what is forgiveness? How does it work? And how is it connected to justice?

How much should we expect or seek justice in this world? Or is justice to be left to the next?

We’re going to focus on where Rutledge returns to the connection between forgiveness and justice. In the light of the horrors that stalk our world,

Forgiveness is not enough. There must be justice too …. ‘The cross is not forgiveness pure and simple, but God’s setting aright the world of injustice and deception’ [quoting Volf]. This setting right is called rectification. [also called justification]  (126)

When we speak of setting right, we are not talking of a little rearrangement here and a little improvement there … From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that the fallen predicament of humanity is so serious, so grave, so irredeemable from within, that nothing short of divine intervention can rectify it. (126)

When it comes to injustice, Rutledge argues that we humans have a deep sense that

  1. there should be some accountability
  2. a just resolution of the offence should have some sense of proportionality.

However, most of the time our outrage is directed at others who infringe our rights. We pursue justice for ourselves –  ‘The public is outraged all over cyberspace about the things that annoy us personally’ (129) but much less often about injustices that affect others.

Rutledge moves here to the ‘outrage of God’ or the wrath of God.  If ever there is a theological idea that is ‘out of step’ with the culture of the Western church it is this one (my comment).

Quick aside – in writing about love, I found myself talking much of the wrath of God. The two cannot be detached. The same is true with justice and forgiveness.

To try to have love without wrath, or forgiveness without justice, is to deny the cross.

If we think of Christian theology and ethics purely in terms of forgiveness, we will have neglected a central aspect of God’s own character and will be in no position to understand the cross in its fullest dimension. (131)

Rutledge tells several stories of terrible injustice and the victims’ desire for justice. See this link for the story of Sister Dianna Ortiz and the American Govt involvement in supporting Guatemalan security forces that kidnapped, raped and tortured her, their crimes aided by American stonewalling of the truth.

Outrage is sparked when perpetrators like this act with a sense of impunity – few things are worse that having no hope of justice and that the guilty, the powerful, the exploiters and oppressors will ‘get away with it’.

The consistent message of Scripture, OT and NT, is that those who act unjustly do not do so with impunity. Rutledge quotes Volf again,

A non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception and violence. (131)

So if our blood does not boil at injustice, can we said to be serving the God of the Bible?

But here is where God’s wrath at justice takes a revolutionary turn. What Rutledge calls ‘a shockingly immoral and unreligious idea’ (132)

No one could have imagined, however, that he would ultimately intervene by interposing himself. By becoming one of the poor who was deprived of his rights, by dying as one of those robbed of justice, God’s Son submitted to the utmost extremity of humiliation, entering into total solidarity with those who are without help …

Even more astonishingly, however, he underwent helplessness and humiliation not only for the victimized but also for the perpetrators … Who would have thought the same God who passed judgement … would come under his own judgement and woe? … the crucifixion reveals God placing himself under his own sentence. The wrath of God has lodged in God’s own self.

In the next post, we will finish chapter 3 with further discussion of the justice and righteousness of God.

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