Archive for June 16th, 2009

A Slight Pause

June 16, 2009

I leave in the morning (July 17) to conduct a youth retreat in S.C. at Sts. Mary and Martha Monastery. I will have some chance, in the evenings to check the blogsite (clear spam and make some responses). Whether I’ll have time to post time will tell. Please don’t take my reduced responses in the next few days for lack of interest. The present topic is of deep interest (I’ve written on it before and will again). Your prayers are invited. I’ll touch base as I can. I should add that this post makes 1,003 since the beginning of Glory to God for All Things. There have been nearly 15,000 comments. Lot of words…

More on the “Justice” of God

June 16, 2009

refusing confession by RepinI will add an additional thought (related to the previous article) on the future “justice” of God. There are many who imagine theologically that at some later point, a final judgment, God’s justice will be manifest. In this manifestation of justice, the punishments of hell figure prominently. Of course, this is simply poor theology. Eternity in hell is not a matter of justice nor can it ever be. Justice involves equality. For what failure or crime is eternity in hell an equal payment? And, of course, such justice is unsatisfactory at best. There is nothing that can be done to the murderer of a child that in any way creates a balance. Nothing satisfies. This is the point of Ivan in the chapter “Rebellion” in the Brothers Karamazov. This chapter is a tour de force demonstrating not the bankruptcy of belief in God, but the bankruptcy of the concept of justice interjected into the theological mix.

I belong to a family that has lost two members by murder. I am familiar with the grief and anger that accompany those experiences. I have also, for a time, been involved in “victim’s rights” ministry and been deeply aware of the pain of those involved and the hunger for justice that often accompanies grief. It is certainly the case that no punishment inflicted by the state ever satisfies this hunger for “justice.” I know, I have been there.

The truth is that this hunger for “justice,” is, in fact, a hunger for the event never to have happened. The injustice is not created by the lack of punishment (for there are no truly “just” punishments). The injustice is created by the event itself – an event in which an innocent is made to suffer for no reason whatsoever. That innocence is not restored by any amount of punishment inflicted on the perpetrator. Hell is not a scheme of justice anymore than the American prison system is a scheme for justice. Any thought that either of them have anything to do with justice is a fiction and a dangerous fiction.

These deep wounds inflicted on us by the evil wills of others can only be healed by mercy and forgiveness. Such mercy and forgiveness is nothing less than miraculous and does not come easily or naturally to us. It is something which belongs to the character of God, and only by being transformed by the grace of God can we become people who are capable of such extraordinary love and mercy. 

I have seen such love and mercy. It is astounding and utterly without justification. To show mercy upon a murderer or someone who is guilty of inflicting deep injustice is an act of pure grace. It is a gift whose existence can only be explained by the love of God. It is the voice of Christ to the thief on the cross, “This day you will be with me in paradise.”

I wonder what the thoughts of those who had been the victims of this thief would have been had they heard the words of Christ? Would they have shouted that an injustice was being done? Would they have said that his death on the cross was insufficient punishment for all that he had put them through and that paradise was an unjust reward for the simple request, “Remember me  when you come into your kingdom?”

Of course, the victims have justice (as we humans understand it) on their side. Justice has a voracious appetite that can never be satisfied. For no matter how much the thief were to suffer, the crimes he committed would not be undone. The money would not be replaced. The fear and shame inflicted on the innocent would not be undone. Once the passion for justice is awakened it is insatiable.

There are many stories of political madness that have at their core the lust for justice. The insanity of the Bolsheviks was, in many ways, fed by the perversions of the human lust for justice. The crimes (real and imagined) of the Tsar and of those who held power in pre-revolutionary Russia, fed the imagination of those who were “setting things right.” There was no humiliation or crime that they themselves were forbidden to inflict in the name of a Marxist version of justice. By the time of Stalin this “justice” had murdered many more millions than had ever suffered in the entire history of Russia. Such is the insatiable appetite for justice.

On smaller scales, this same appetite has accompanied every revolution in the history of the world. Those who come to power feel compelled to administer justice. But no amount of blood-letting is ever truly sufficient. 

The one revolution that stands apart is the revolution of the love of God who answered injustice with mercy, who answered hatred with love. Love does no harm and does not add to the madness of the scales of justice. It relieves the burdens created by our own sense of entitlement that we call “justice.” 

The commandment to “love your enemies,” is frequently a painful commandment – for it asks us to forego our perceived rights. We renounce our claims to justice and give ourselves over to the hands of a merciful God. It is an act of faith which accepts that unless we become conformed to the image of Christ – unless we can love as He loves – we will never be free of the madness and the self-made hell that our lust for justice births in us. The Cross is the only form of freedom. Nothing less than its radical mercy will heal the human heart.

St. Isaac – Mercy and Justice

June 16, 2009

IsaacTheSyrian-headerThere is a strain within some forms of Western theology that is deeply concerned with the “justice” of God. Some even go so far as to say that God is constrained by His justice – that He cannot deny its demands (to do so, they argue, would make Him “less than just”). It is common for Orthodox theology to find this problematic. Here St. Isaac of Syria states the case quite clearly:

Mercy and justice in the same soul is like the man who worships God and idols in the same temple. Mercy is in contradiction with justice. Justice is the return of the equal. Because it returns to man that which he deserves and it does not bend to one side neither is it partial in the retaliation. But mercy is sorrow that is moved by grace and bends to all with sympathy and it does not return the harm to him who deserves it although it overfills him who deserves good. … And as it is not possible for hay and fire to be able to exist in the same house, the same way it is not possible for justice and mercy to be in the same soul. As the grain of sand cannot be compared with a great amount of gold – the same way God’s need for justice cannot be compared with his mercy. Because man’s sin, in comparison to the providence and the mercy of God, are like a handful of sand that falls in the sea and the Creator’s mercy cannot be defeated by the wickedness of the creatures.

I understand that many have a passion for the justice of God – believing that in the end everyone will be requited in the proper manner and this “balancing” will somehow make right all of the evil that may have been tolerated for a while. There is no doubt that many times our evil actions bring evil consequences on us (not as punishment from God but as our own self-willed estrangement from His Divine Life). But the vision of the Fathers and the vision of Christ’s revelation of the Father as received in the Church is of the infinite mercy of God. 

Abba Ammonas states:

Love is not in enmity with anybody, it does not abuse anybody, it does not detest anybody neither believer nor unbeliever or foreigner or fornicator, or unclean. On the contrary it loves more the sinners and the weak and the negligent and for their sake it toils and mourns and weeps. It empathizes with the wicked and the sinners more than it does with the good, imitating and drinking with them. Therefore when He wanted to show us which is the true love he taught saying ‘be then compassionate as your Father is compassionate'(Luke 6:36) and as he sends his rain on the good and the wicked and makes His sun rise on the honest and the dishonest, the same way he who truly loves, loves everybody and has compassion for all and prays for all.

This sort of discourse can provoke anger in some readers – particularly those who demand that justice must, in the end, be done. I cannot help but feel that those who demand justice of God are like those who stood about the woman taken in adultery and demanded her stoning. Christ rebuked them, seeking to show them the sin in their own heart (“he who is without sin let him cast the first stone). By a strange quirk of Christian theology, there are those who feel “righteous” in their own heart, arguing that, having accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, they now have the righteousness of Christ (“imputed righteousness”) and thus feel safe in calling for justice to be done to others (thinking, I suppose, that this threat will provoke repentance). But justice is a very dangerous thing indeed. Though it may be called for in the interest of provoking someone to repentance, it can quickly become a thing in itself, and gather us up into the company of those who are outwardly righteous but inwardly “full of dead men’s bones.”

Spiritually, it is of far greater benefit and safety to simply beg the mercy of God for those who are trapped in sin, and see and treat them with the mercy of God. We are commanded to love even our enemies. I can think of no commandment that says we are to judge the unrighteous. 

By the same token, I think it becomes theologically dangerous for us to project this judgment onto God who has shown us His mercy in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” This unbounded love of God is limited only by theologians who seek to set requirements on the reception of the love of God. Let them return to His mercy and first determine where it ends before they suggest the beginning of something else.


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