How do Justice and Love Relate to the Death of Jesus
Some Comments from Wendell Krossa and Robert D Brinsmead
The comment by Jesus as he died a tortuous, unjust death, “Forgive them because they do not know what they are doing”, seems almost dumb. Jesus reached the absolute heights of love, of being humane, in that dying. The Charleston Christians in their forgiving after the mass shooting at their school in 2015, and the mothers at the Reconciliation Commission meetings in S. Africa, where the emphasis was on reconciliation rather than retribution after the horrors of apartheid.
Resorting to payback and vengeance as morality is more animal than human, while holding people accountable is a restorative process that requires teaching personal responsibility as part of human development.
Where does this idea of getting even, or punishing as delivering justice, come from? I would argue it is more animal than human, but note some things about the animal- the prominence of attack and defense. Early humanity engaged offense and retaliation responses which come to be viewed as proper “justice”, followed by the mythology which was developed to affirm this payback approach. It was seen as God setting things right in the cosmos.
Jesus set out to radically redefine this idea and his corrupting yeast upset the expectations of people, and eventually got him killed. He set forth an entirely new morality which would liberate people to the authentically humane; to real love. He exhibited this in his own death.
Robert D Brinsmead
Scientists have said about quantum physics, “If it does not sound weird to you and contrary to what you normally think, then you have not understood it.” If Jesus’ teaching does not seem to fly in the face of what you have always thought justice and morality is all about, and if it does not turn your world of ethics and theology completely on its head, then you have not understood the simple point Jesus makes in his core teaching.
The hard saying of Jesus is the simple injunction, love your enemies. If we don’t do this we don’t really keep the great commandment “love your neighbor.” And who is my neighbor? a lawyer asked Jesus. It is clear from the parable of the good Samaritan that the neighbor includes our enemy. Jesus spells out what an enemy does to us. It is those who say all manner of evil against us, it is those who despitefully use us and harm us in all possible ways. He does not tell us to love our neighbors up to a point, but if they go too far,then our obligation to love them passes the “use by date.” We are obligated to love our neighbor no matter what, because love knows no limits and never comes to an end (1 Cor. 13).
If we asked almost any Christian what he/she thought was the most horrendous crime ever committed, there would be only one legitimate Christian answer possible, the tortuous killing and murder of the Son of God. In Christian theology, no crime that was every committed could possibly top this one. It was a crime, an evil so utterly reprehensible – in the thinking of the early Christians – that it brought about the destruction of Jerusalem, its temple and the brutal slaughter of 800,000 Jews in Palestine. This was how God was supposed to have punished the Jews for their evil deed. And even that was not enough pay-back. The sin was so utterly heinous that the Christian world judged that it merited repeated Pogroms against the Jews and their persecution and slaughter for century after century. This was widely accepted as a just retaliation for what they did to Jesus. And since Jesus was said to be God, all this cruel history meted out to the Jews was too often portrayed as the way God responded to their treatment of God in human flesh. But how does this relate to the core teaching of Jesus? By his death on the cross he carried out and confirmed what he taught when he prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This was not a prayer for some kind of apocalyptic vengeance like the destruction of Jerusalem or a brutal Second Coming to repay his adversaries. For sure, the Christians lost sight of the Jesus teaching and the example of his death so much that they lusted for apocalyptic vengeance upon their opponents. They even wrote such hopes into their scripts which became part of the New Testament Canon, when in fact they should have remembered what Jesus thoughts of this desire for apocalyptic vengeance, “You know not what spirit you are of.”
I hear responses from some of my good friends objecting to such unconditional love on the grounds that it would be either immoral or amoral not to punish evil doers with the full force of retributive or punitive justice. They bring up examples of Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and others, as if these evil people could not possibly be embraced by the mercy and compassion of Forgiving Justice. They must not really believe this Christian view about the worst evil that was ever committed – and how Jesus responded to that event. Jesus prayed that God would forgive those who were committing the greatest evil ever enacted in human history, and did not even mention any conditions for that prayer to be answered.
Or perhaps it could be said that what these sinners did to Jesus was not as bad as what people like Hitler did? At least Paul in the book of Romans, after spelling out the dark deeds of the Gentiles, including their sexual perversions, turns around to ask, Are we no better than they are?” To which he answers, “We are no better than they are.” We are no better than brutal rulers such as Hitler. I could make several points to demonstrate this. How many little Hitlers there are among bureaucrats, politicians, church pastors, administrators, family Heads, bosses at work? Hitler happened to be a victim of an ideology that was the popular rage among the leading scientists and thought leaders of his day. It was called eugenics, and was supported by Henry Ford, George Bernard Shaw, Presidents and Prime Ministers of that age. But for all the talk in favour of it, like all the talk in favour of preventing catastrophic global warming, no one really had the guts to carry it out except Adolf Hitler. He so fervently believed in eugenics that he was both courageous and mad enough to carry it out on a national scale – just as some would not try to totally decarbonize industrial society. Hitler’s very dedication to do the right thing in the sense of what was going to be the best for his nation and for the world that he became enmeshed in horrific crimes against humanity. Surely someone had to hold his nerve to bring about the desired eugenic utopia! “Are we (Americans, British or Australians or Christians or whatever) better, so that when we go up to worship at our temple, we can pray, “God, I thank you I am not like those Jews who killed Jesus or those Germans who gassed the Jew.” Has America and Great Britain committed no crimes against humanity. What did Wesley say? “Never did every sin appear in the vilest wretch that ever lived, but look thou into thy nature and thou mayst see all and every sin in the seed thereof.”
What does this mean? It means that the worst in those whom we condemn is in us, and best of what is in us, is in them. Even Hitler was an idealist. He loved art, he loved animals and refused to eat them because he was a vegetarian. If I declare that one of my neighbors is so evil that he is beyond forgiveness and the reach of God’s reforming love, then I make the grounds of my own acceptance a matter of grave uncertainty.