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Biblical Justice: More About Forgiveness Than Revenge

Although I write this column from a biblical perspective, regular readers are aware that I usually attempt to present a view that I think might commend itself to a larger audience than simply Christians and Jews. Recent comments on some Christian talk shows about the upcoming trial or trials of persons involved in the events of Sept. 11, 2001, however, have led me to set forth what I consider a more specifically Christian response than those presented on the talk shows.
 

The comments to which I refer, though in the guise of Christian commentary, were not specifically Christian at all. They were the same arguments heard regularly from secular commentators – the opportunity civil trials will give for propaganda; the revelation of national security information; the danger of terrorist attacks on the city, the judge, the jury and their families; and so on. My response is not because of what the hosts said, but because they said it in the context of what was supposedly a Christian point-of-view.

 

I begin with what a Christian perspective is not. Put bluntly, there simply is no “Christian” answer to whether the conspirators should be tried in criminal or military court. All legal systems are part of a fallen world in which secular officials have a responsibility to establish and maintain a just order in the midst of chaos. Like everyone else, most Christians will have opinions, some of which will reflect human insight and wisdom. But human insight and wisdom are not distinctly Christian. They are simply human.

 

The public, in fact, already has judged the 9/11 defendants guilty. Any assumption that the potential trial or trials are for the purpose of justice is simply naive. Their purpose is revenge. In the minds of many, with regard to incidents such as 9/11, revenge is justice.

 

From a biblical perspective, however, justice and revenge are not synonyms. In the Bible, “justice” translates Hebrew and Greek words that mean “setting things right” and “restoring social equilibrium.” These involve justice, order and reconciliation.

 

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An Episcopal bishop once described justice as Golda Meir chasing Adolph Hitler attempting to embrace him. Before reading that description, I had described forgiveness as Byron de la Beckwith and Medgar Evers standing before God’s throne with de la Beckwith asking Evers to forgive him and Evers assuring de la Beckwith that he loved him.

 

In biblical terms, justice is closely related to forgiveness, not to revenge. The Apostle Paul wrote that in Christ “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” In other words, God already has forgiven the entire world. In the Bible, “forgive” means “release,” just as it sometimes is used today. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has released the world from the necessity of hatred, violence, inhumane actions and death.

 

Those who do not know they have been released think they have no alternative to violence and death as a means of dealing with the world. Christians have a responsibility to help perpetrators of violence see that God loves them and offers them alternatives.

 

Human governments are not Christian. Their understanding of justice is rooted in the conditions of the fall. Their tendency is to define justice as revenge, to combat violence with violence. It is unrealistic to expect anything other than this. But Christians who join the call for governments to punish the guilty are simply expressing the values and judgment of the fallen world.

 

Christians have a responsibility to remind human governments of their responsibility for justice, to warn that violence in and of itself perpetuates violence, and to plead for mercy for the guilty even though the guilty showed no mercy to their victims. The church has a responsibility to find ways, in the midst of the violence, to work for reconciliation and forgiveness – the components of genuine justice.

 

For some, this will be silly, naïve, even un-American. For Christians it is not an option.

 

Gene Davenport is professor emeritus of religion at Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., and theologian in residence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jackson. It is reprinted here courtesy of the Jackson Sun.