This post is me in process, OK? I’m still thinking through whether or not I understanding Rutledge (or Anselm for that matter). When Anselm says “justice must be seen to be done,” I sense there is an important truth being expressed though I’m sure this rarely gets expressed truthfully, especially when we interpret it as requiring an offering of proportionate value and magnitude to the crime; the idea being that we’ve offended an infinitely worthy God and so an infinitely valuable consequence suffered is how justice is satisfied.
Does it make sense to calculate the magnitude of our offense as infinite because God is of infinite value? I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I think not. God is infinitely valuable, of course. But does the severity or magnitude of a finite agency’s offense derive from the value of the offended party? Get caught stealing from a poor beggar and justice is satisfied with you’re being reprimanded. Get caught stealing from the King and you pay big-time. How much you deserve to suffer is proportionate to the value of the one you offend. That’s certainly the sense of justice in the Middle East I lived in for half my life. Steal from me, do public serve. Steal from King Hussein, go to jail. So, as the logic goes, steal from God and suffer infinitely.
I think this is wrong-headed. I agree all value is God’s, diversely reflected in created things and that, ultimately, it is God against whom we sin. But it seems as clear to me that the severity and magnitude of an offense is judged based on the understanding and context of the offending party. The magnitude of my offense against God derives (at least in part) from the depth of my understanding. It is not simply convertible with the value of God. And since no finite perspective could possibly comprehend the infinitude of God’s value, no offense against God can be as great as God.
This is important to Anselm, because he understands our inability to make satisfaction as derived from the infinitude of our offense. But it isn’t obvious to me that only infinitely offensive failures render us helpless before God. The view I’ve propounded here for some time is that we’re helpless by nature. Sin doesn’t render us unable to satisfy our calling to “honor” God (to go with Anselm’s word), we are by nature absolutely in need of grace to participate in the happiness God created us for. We are poverty stricken as such. That we are also fallen and wrecked certainly complicates our predicament, and it does call for a just and proportional moral order that links consequence to choice, but it is not our sinning that marks the point at which we begin requiring the grace of God to satisfy our destiny. It is our finitude that constitutes that need.
I suppose one could argue that the only offense against God that approaches being infinite would be the utter rejection of God by one in possession of the beatific vision, for only here could one be thought of as sinning “with eyes wide open” so to speak. But it’s also true that the beatific vision makes offending God inconceivable, for in order to misrelate to God responsibly one has to be able to construct some reason for doing so. The beatific vision, however, is epistemic closure regarding the ends and values of things. So, I take it that infinitely offending God is in fact impossible. But there’s no need to think this a Pelagian mistake. We are by nature absolutely destitute of the ability to secure our truest happiness apart from the undeserved grace of God.
That said, what’s it then mean to say that in “setting things right” (“rectifying” the fallen world, to go with Rutledge’s translation) justice “must be seen to be done”? Rutledge writes:
Forgiveness is too weak a word to embrace the full scope of what Christ has done and what he calls us too. How can we begin to speak even of forgiveness, let alone transformation, in the worst of the worst situations? The extermination of millions does not cry out for forgiveness. Never mind millions; what about just one baby burned up in a microwave over by its own father? After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Forgiveness is not enough. There must be justice too…
Something is owed to the victims of such atrocity. No one needs to have it explained to them what is meant by the language. It is common human expectation that there should be justice, and that justice should be in some way related to the magnitude of the loss…
If when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not yet understood the depths of God.
I sense something amiss here, because what is also “common human expectation” regarding justice is that forgiveness is not part of the deal. What’s expected is that those guilty for the most heinous crimes ought to suffer the equivalent to what they’ve done to others. This is no different than (lex talionis) ‘eye for eye’ and ‘tooth for tooth’ justice Christ calls us to not participate in. He calls our “common human expectation” and “blood boiling” into question. It is also not a part of our “common human expectation” that someone else suffer what I deserve to suffer on my behalf, even if such suffering is freely chosen. So there’s good reason to check our common human expectations.
What about justice for all the innocent babies abused and monstrous evils done to the poor, the weak and the defenseless? How is that “put right”? How’s it accounted for? It gets accounted for by Christ who is the only truly Innocent One suffering torture and rejection, not as a substitute for the punishment perpetrators of violence deserve, but as the consummate instance of the violence they perpetrate – consummate on account of Christ’s unique innocence – being forgiven in this case by the victim. As David Hart says, it is Christ’s innocence that saves us. Let us consider saying in addition that this would remain true had we, hypothetically, never fallen. It’s not only sinful human beings who are united by grace and faith to God through Incarnation. We don’t need God more as sinners than we needed him in any imagined, originally righteous state. Christ’s humanity was perfected by grace too. Let that sink in.
Moreover, it is what Christ does as victim of the guilty that sets the world right. Because he suffered as did all innocent scapegoated victims (moreso because he alone is truly innocent), he is in a place to offer us a means of both receiving and extending forgiveness through participation in his suffering. Only Christ as the Innocent One can offer victims a mode of identification with him that can contextualize their victimization within his own (rather than, as typically understood, by contextualizing his victimization within theirs) and thus empower victims in the forgiveness of others. At the same time, only Christ as the “forgiving victim” (thank you James Alison) offers victimizers a mode of identification in his suffering which identifies and exposes both their guilt and forgiveness. But the world is not, I don’t think, “put right” by Jesus suffering “what the persecutors deserve.” Justice is served when Jesus suffers what victims experience and forgives in return. So to answer Rutledge’s passionate call to the “boiling of blood” over evil and to the call for a suffering that is “owed” victims – which sounds very like retribution to me – I don’t know how analogously to conceive of the boiling of the blood of the impassible God of delight, and if God’s blood isn’t boiling, why should ours boil? Right here I suspect that if we consider this to be a pitiless disregard for the suffering of victims, it may be due to lack of our own participation in God’s impassible delight.
So does Jesus suffer what is “owed” the victims? God forbid. I rather suspect he suffers in a manner that is able to free us from such equations. Forgiveness – if it’s real at all – suggests an entirely different economy of relations, and so must the justice we embrace challenge our shared expectations, especially if those expectations require our blood to boil or ask us to make proportionate compensation of eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. I may be missing Rutledge’s point here. My apologizes. But if not her, there are others who do adopt such a view of things.
If we construe forgiveness as Christ’s suffering the ultimate consequence we deserve, then our legal indebtedness (Col 2.14) is not in fact “canceled” or “erased.” Rather, it is stamped “paid,” which is not what Paul says. Nor was it true (2Cor 5.19) that “God was in Christ…not counting our sins against us.” Rather, God was counting those sins, prosecuting the case against us, and exacting just payment. That Jesus suffered rather than us doesn’t obviate the fact that nothing is actually ‘forgiven’. Is not the point of Paul’s language here to subvert the very economy of indebtedness under which he dies? That the indebtedness is “canceled” (Col 2) shows its power is mythological, not of divine origin.
Let me offer this as carefully as I can – the innocent victims of injustice are not “owed” anything (in terms of proportionate justice), they are infinitely loved (which is much better), and they are called to free themselves from proportional economics by participating in Christ’s gratuitous suffering and forgiving response. What of the victimizers? They too are infinitely loved by the Forgiving Victim, Jesus, who calls them also to the same participation in an infinite impassibility that suffers without being harmed and forgives without needing compensation for the wrong done. Both victim and victimizer escape the violent math of proportional justice through the same Cross – approaching Christ either as his victimizer (which we all are on some level), or as a victim alongside him. Is justice pure fiction, then? Are we not longing for the good and the true when we cry out to see justice done? We are indeed! But the reality we long for is not what we get when we possess our desire in terms of proportional justice. When the parents of a murdered child see the perpetrator die in the electric chair, the relief they feel is not the satisfaction of justice God intends (not if the gospel defines justice for us). This is not to say that the renewed grief we experience when the guilty are acquitted is not a genuine longing for that justice which leaves nothing unreconciled. It is simply to say that justice is only finally satisfied when victims and victimizers transcend the distinction between justice and mercy in the gratuitous gift of Christ.
Let me suggest that justice be thought, then, simply as being brought to acknowledge the truth about one’s choices. The world is set right wherever the guilty confess, take responsibility for their choices, and are reconciled to their victims. The Cross makes this possible not by satisfying the deserved punishment, but because God in Christ suffers victimization and forgives. As James Alison says, Jesus becomes the “forgiving victim.” This “rectifies” the world. How? By creating space for both victimizers to be forgiven and victims to extend forgiveness. There’s no suffering that compensates for wrongs. What compensates, if we must speak in such terms, is the beatitude of Christ’s sufferings where victimizers and victims meet each other within an the impassible economy of God’s delight. What we need, then, is not proportional justice, i.e., victims seeing that their perpetrators are suffering a pain equal in magnitude to their crime, but proportional forgiveness, i.e., the consummate Innocent One forgiving his perpetrators and so empowering both victimizers (to take responsibility for their actions) and victims (to extend forgiveness in Christ).
(Prodigal Son by Oleg Korolev)