Byron C. Bangert

August 30, 1998

Micah 6:1-8; Luke 18:1-8

For my Old Testament text this morning I have chosen a familiar and favorite passage from the book of the prophet Micah. I understand that Mary McClellan used it just a few weeks ago in her Sunday sermon, but I decided not to let that stop me. The notes in my Bible describe it as "a perfect summary of the prophetic teaching on true religion" [The HarperCollins Study Bible, NRSV, 1388]: "[W]hat does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

As I was working with this text I realized that there is a very similar summary of the core of biblical religion in one of Jesus' controversies with the scribes and Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew. Pronouncing woe upon these religious teachers of Israel, Jesus says, "you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith" [23:23]. Here we have two compelling statements about biblical religion, about the nature of what God calls us to do, and both of them make it clear that we are to do justice.

A few months ago I noted that the ordination vows for Presbyterian ministers, elders, and deacons, conclude with this question: "In your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?" Most of us would say we know fairly well the love of Jesus Christ. We have heard many a sermon on the commandments to love God and neighbor. We can readily see in Jesus' ministry of healing and forgiveness a ministry of love. We recognize in several of Jesus' parables--the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Wedding Banquet, the Lost Sheep--an expression of love. This morning I would like to us to consider the matter of justice. What is the "justice of Jesus Christ?" What is the justice of God? What is the nature and meaning of justice so far as we are concerned? And what it might mean, from a Christian perspective, for us to do it?

The question of justice is on my mind in large part because of the seminar that Hayden and I attended a couple weeks ago at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. But the question of justice arises all the time. While we were on vacation there seemed to be little else in the news but the story of the President and Monica Lewinsky, and what ought to be done about that. Then came the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, with the question of how to respond and the task of bringing the perpetrators to justice. The headline of the SUNDAY HERALD-TIMES two weeks ago read "NO ROOM for more PRISONERS", and told about the growing problems with the disposition of criminal cases and the consequent crowding in the Monroe County Jail. This past week we read about local protestors who have publicly objected that bond has been set too low for a man charged with sexual abuse. Meanwhile, the resumption of school reminds us of the shootings of children that occurred in various places last year, the newspaper runs an article about crime rates on campus, and state executions continue throughout the country. In all of these and many other events the question of how to do justice is implicitly if not explicitly raised.

In our Ghost Ranch seminar we sat in a circle as we introduced ourselves, and for most of the 25 hours or so that we spent together. There were 33 of us, including four leaders. We heard some very poignant and sometimes painful stories. One woman told us that her daughter had been murdered at the age of 26 by two teenagers who wanted her car. Another related that her son had first been imprisoned at age 17 on drug-and-alcohol-related charges. He was gang-raped in prison. Over the years he never surmounted the problems that got him in trouble with the law, and recently he had committed suicide. A Presbyterian couple from California told of their son, now in Soledad prison for 11 years, who used a gun to kill another person. Later, they read a letter from him about what life is like in a prison in a system where family visitations have recently been terminated.

Our group included an attorney who has since become a Methodist minister and now works full-time in prison ministry. There was a woman whose friend was arrested and imprisoned several years ago for a crime he continues to deny. Because of his denial, he has been refused parole. A year ago this woman and this man were married, and now she waits for his eventual release. At least one young woman in our group had been a victim of incest. A young man described his active commitment to the campaign against capital punishment. One of the other Presbyterian ministers in the group has a son who had fallen asleep at the wheel with the result that his friend, a passenger in his car, was killed. A former Pentecostal minister who is now Presbyterian told about his prison ministry, including the two services he conducts every week. A young woman on the Washington staff of the United Methodist Church related that in her family there were both those who have been victims and those who have been offenders.

These and a number of others who were in our group have experienced what we call our "criminal justice system" first hand. Some have experienced it as what we call "victims." Others have experienced it as family and friends of those we call "offenders." They have few illusions about the justice of that system. They do not see that system working very well, either for victims or for offenders. They see the need for re-thinking the meaning of justice in the light of our Christian faith.

I have not said anything about why Hayden and I chose to be in this seminar group. Neither of us knew quite what to expect. Hayden was there largely because of me. I chose to be there largely because of my work with our local Citizens for Community Justice. It looked like an opportunity to enlarge and enrich my understanding of the ways in which our local efforts might be enhanced and strengthened by gathering new resources and learning from the experience of others. It proved to be that and more.

As a pastor and as a student of the Bible, I have long been aware that there are certain ideas of justice that simply are not in keeping with the best insights of our Christian faith. One of these is the idea of justice as retribution. People who believe in vengeance and punishment for punishment's sake probably think of justice in this way. For justice to be done, offenders must pay the price. And that price must be sufficient to equal or exceed the harm that they have done. It is perhaps natural for anyone who has been deeply harmed by another to desire some form of revenge. The ancient practice of blood vengeance, in which family members were obliged to engage in acts of retaliation against offending individuals and their families, is one way that societies of the past have legitimated such acts of revenge.

A more tempered view of retribution is embodied in the biblical rule of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This lex talionis, as it has been called, represents an improvement upon the unbridled lust for revenge, and probably arose as a restraint upon the practice of blood vengeance. Nonetheless, this rule of "exact justice" as a kind of payment for harm done still lends itself to the desire for revenge. It is still based, at least in part, on the idea that justice requires punishment for sin and crime. If someone takes a life, then it is permissible, perhaps even required, to take a life in return. In retributive versions of justice, the primary aim is to get even. You know what people say: We've got to make him pay! Let her suffer the way she made her victim suffer! He doesn't deserve to live! Prison is too good for him! Lock 'em up and throw away the key! These are the voices of those who think justice only means punishment or paying the price.

The rule of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth can be seen in a more favorable light, however. Its view of justice is perhaps less one of punishment than one of fairness. When an injury has been done, should there not be some kind of restitution? The idea of justice as fairness suggests that there are balances to be kept, or restored, in the social order of things. People simply must not be allowed to get away with murder, or with any other violation or harm. A proper ordering of society requires that something be done to restore the balances when they have been disturbed. In this perspective, it is only fair that people pay for what they have done.

Here the motive is no longer revenge, but a right ordering of relationships in society. Crimes or other forms of violation against persons dare not be overlooked. There are behaviors that must not be condoned, and this is why we must impose sanctions and penalties and punishments upon those who have torn the social fabric. The lex talionis, in this light, becomes a matter of taking injury and harm seriously and not allowing anyone to commit any transgression against another with impunity. The current popularity of "three strikes and you're out" legislation appears to be another expression of this kind of concern for the ordering of society. The aim of society is not primarily to punish criminal behavior, but to stop it, in this view. We may be able to afford measured forms of punishment for first and second offenses, but if an offender continues to offend, then society has the right to put that person permanently away.

Other sorts of concerns also figure importantly in our popular understanding of what justice requires. The idea of fairness is closely linked to that of equality, and the word equity is often a synonym for justice. "Equal pay for equal work" expresses this notion of justice as fairness and equity. Impartiality is another word we often link with justice. In the criminal justice system, equality and impartiality suggest that the law is no respecter of persons. All people will be subject to the same laws, treated according to the same procedures, protected by the same safeguards, and if convicted, sentenced according to the same standards for the crimes that they have committed. Most of the people in our group at Ghost Ranch, however, would tell you that that is not how it actually works. Race, color, socio-economic status, education, luck of the draw--these are all important factors in how someone accused of crime can expect to be treated. Most of us are aware that one of the compelling arguments against capital punishment has been that it is, typically, not equitably imposed. In proportion to their numbers, people of color are much more likely to be sentenced to death for their crimes. That hardly seems just.

The desire for revenge, I have admitted, may be only natural. The concern for the ordering of society is surely reasonable. But, wouldn't you know, the biblical perspective on justice diverges in sometimes startling ways from our popular understandings! In the first place, it is not about retribution or revenge. In the second place, even notions of fairness, equality, and impartiality fall short. And in the third place, the justice of God in Jesus Christ looks very much like an expression of love.

We can hardly understand the biblical perspective on justice except in terms of the justice of God. This justice of God has to do not only with fulfilling the law and the commandments, but also with living in right relationship within the community of God's people. Of course the biblical prophets proclaimed judgment against those who did not keep the commandments. They were not "soft on crime." They did not excuse murder, or theft, or false witness, or adultery, or covetousness. But their concern went beyond the keeping of the letter of the law. They understood God's justice to demand a concern for the ordering of their social existence. And this concern did not stop at the gate of fairness or equality or impartiality.

The vision of Micah and the other great prophets was a vision of a society ordered in faithfulness to God, and for the well-being of all. This translated into a special concern for those in society who were weak and defenseless, summarized over and over again in the Old Testament as the poor, the widow, the stranger, the orphan. It is such as these, persons on the margins of power and status, persons of limited resources and exceptional needs, for whom justice requires a special regard. To put the matter in contemporary terms, the biblical prophets understood that the playing field is not level. Moreover, they would have rejected our contemporary view that our social and political existence can be regarded as a competitive game. For them, it was a matter of justice--not favoritism or charity or special pleading or affirmative action--that special provision be made for those we call disadvantaged. The biblical vision of justice transcends what we ordinarily consider to be equal and impartial and fair.

When we turn to Jesus, an even more disorienting vision of what God's justice requires confronts us. This vision is so disorienting that even Luke may not always have understood it! Our text from Luke is typically described as the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, and so it is. Luke introduces it as a parable about the need to pray always, and not to lose heart. A careful look at the parable, however, suggests another interpretation. Is this not a parable about the justice of God? The parable accents the justice of an unjust judge who, if badgered sufficiently, will finally respond to the widow's complaint. Surely the point is to be made by contrast: If even an unjust judge will grant justice, then God will do so all the more. The lesson is not that we must pray hard to get God's attention and secure God's favor. The lesson is that God's justice surpasses all our human standards.

So Jesus tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in which, at the end of the day, everyone gets paid the same. That's God's justice! No one is cheated. Those who have worked all day get what they were promised. But so do those Johnny-come-latelys who have only put in an hour or so and have not borne the heat of the day. Their need is no less. They also require a day's pay to live. Likewise, the parable we call the "prodigal son" portrays the loving father receiving his errant son back into the family without any sanctions, indeed, with a big party, while the loyal elder son is still out working in the field. Unfair treatment? Not according to Jesus! The elder son is deprived of nothing. All that the father has will be his. But the younger son is also welcome again at his father's table.

These are not parables about criminal justice, but they are parables about God's justice. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses the traditional teaching about the lex talionis: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" [5:38], and then goes on to propose a posture of non-retaliation. Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies" [5:43], and then goes on to say, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" [5:44]. These are verses that present us with an understanding of the justice of God, and that call us to live out this justice in our relationships with others.

I would not want to suggest that any of this is simple or obvious. It surely is not! It seems quite clear, however, than in the biblical view, and especially in the teaching and ministry of Jesus, God's justice is not about punishment and retribution, nor is it simply about fairness and equality and impartiality. It is about the bettering ordering of our life together. It is about restoring relationships. It is about overcoming the wounds of injury and violation by a new and different perception of the identities and needs of even those we count as "enemies". It is about a kind of justice that does not show up in most of the moral and political philosophy textbooks. We call it "restorative justice." Restorative justice is what the seminar we attended at Ghost Ranch was all about, and restorative justice is the goal of our local Citizens for Community Justice board.

Right now, prison-building is a growth industry throughout the United States. Support for punitive, retributive forms of so-called justice seems very high. The death penalty has been re-instituted in many places despite the lack of convincing evidence that it serves as a deterrent to capital crimes. From the perspective of restorative justice, little is being done to address the real wounds that criminal behavior inflicts upon individuals and society.

Restorative justice is not about letting criminals off the hook. Restorative justice understands crimes to be violations of people and interpersonal relationships. The victims and the community have been harmed and need to be restored. This restoration is not accomplished, however, simply by imprisoning and punishing offenders--as many as 95% of whom will some day be back on the streets. Victims have needs that our current criminal justice system typically ignores. Moreover, although offenders may incur punishment under our current system, they typically can avoid coming to terms with the injuries they have inflicted. Restorative justice emphasizes the need for admission of wrongdoing, and acknowledgment of harm done. Violations create obligations--obligations on the part of the community to address the wounds of the victims, and obligations on the part of offenders to provide means of restitution. Restorative justice believes that bringing victims and offenders voluntarily together with trained mediators can help accomplish healing and reconciliation as well as identify constructive alternatives to imprisonment--helping victims to overcome their sense of victimization, setting conditions for offenders to make amends, enabling the community to re-gain its sense of safety and order.

Restorative justice is not a panacea. It is a serious, thoughtful attempt, richly informed by our religious faith and tradition, to provide a constructive alternative to prevailing, popular practices that aim primarily at punishment. The Divine justice is not meted out as punishment, nor is it parceled out according to what we deserve. Divine justice aims to restore us to right relationship with others and with God. Human justice must aspire to the same. AMEN.