A corollary to Godwin’s Law and problematic conceptions of justice

I am more convinced than ever that many Christians suffer from a massive misunderstanding of the nature of justice.

Now for the record, I’m no Rob Bell groupie (I’ve never read anything he’s written), and I certainly don’t intend to critique any and every critique of him or his ideas. Nor do I intend this as an endorsement of soteriological inclusivism or universalism, but as a plea for a reevaluation of what justice means.

To begin with, this “remake” of the infamous Love Wins promo video (the makers insist that they don’t intend to parody) illustrates the problem well.

Source: YouTube

First, I’d like to thank those involved for the spirit in which this video was made. If there’s nothing else to commend it, I can at least be happy that it’s not so appallingly smarmy like that one popular parody many of us have seen (which I won’t even bother linking to here).

It starts off by turning Rob Bell’s question about Gandhi around: whereas Bell asked how right it would be for God to condemn a good man like Gandhi, this video asks how right it would be for God to let Hitler off the hook. I’m beginning to think that Godwin’s Law deserves a corollary: “As a discussion of non-exclusivistic soteriology grows longer, the probability of an appeal to emotion regarding Hitler approaches 1.” Call it the Lovewins Law.

The video goes on to ask how the bad things that those of us who aren’t genocidal maniacs do can legitimately be distinguished from the acts of genocidal maniacs. On that, all I have to say is that if your system of thought expects God’s judgment to go as hard on a decent yet non-Christian teenager killed in a car-wreck as it did Hitler, it’s up for examination during the next common sense audit. But that’s part of the problem with this video: it pulls Hitler out as a trump card, but then tries to argue that to God, we’re all as bad as Hitler, which of course makes it useless as a trump card.

Many objectors to universalism, like the makers of the above video, do so on the grounds that the victims of evil acts, such as Holocaust victims, must be vindicated if God is going to show Himself just. This is an appeal to our almost unavoidable emotions, especially anger, toward wrongdoers. Hey, if someone were to kill my family and I had the immediate chance to kill him in response, I’m the first to admit that I’d probably not be able to avoid doing just that, and probably as cruelly and as painfully as I was able to. It’s part of our instincts, a social defense mechanism that’s no doubt played into our survival as a species: eliminate even small-scale offenders for large-scale protection.

So don’t get me wrong: wanting to make sure that offenders pay is understandable. It’s completely human. And I mean completely: it’s not divine.

It should be a dead give-away that the predominating view of justice is somewhat askew when we see the line blurred in all sorts of TV and movies by troubled characters trying to get back at wrongdoers and justifying their actions by saying, “It’s not revenge. It’s justice.” The very fact that the lines are so blurry suggests that we should rethink it. Is there a substantive difference between revenge and justice?

One of the first factors people will suggest to distinguish the two is motive: we should prosecute perpetrators impartially and according to the law (=justice), not because we’re angry about what they’ve done (=revenge). But what’s the motivation for good justice? “Well, to stop offenders from hurting others and discourage harmful behavior.” I ask you: what does this have to do with the afterlife? Is God worried that a redeemed Adolph might not be able to resist the urge to pull wings off of heavenly butterflies (or angels…yeah, that’s probably it)? “Ok then, to comfort the victims.” And this is different from outsourced revenge how?

I used to think that pursuing a justice system that sought to reform rather than punish criminals was solely the interest of out-of-touch Woodstock left-overs. But now, even though I still have doubts about the corrigibility of many people and especially the ability of our current structures to truly reform them, I at least understand the motivation better. A truly impartial justice system should ensure that the desire for vengeance on the part of the victims or the victims’ loved ones does not eliminate our attempts to restore the perpetrators and heal the holes in their souls that caused their destructive behavior. As MacDonald wrote, “Suppose my watch has been taken from my pocket; I lay hold of the thief; he is dragged before the magistrate, proved guilty, and sentenced to a just imprisonment: must I walk home satisfied with the result? Have I had justice done me? The thief may have had justice done him—but where is my watch?”

If we have to keep wrongdoers locked away in the interest of public safety or to deter crime, it’s a concession we have to make as humans. But God’s not a human.

Or is He only a bigger, better human? Is He, as C. S. Lewis believed, a slave to some “deep magic” that cries out, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth — unless you can get some perfect, sinless guy to come along and lose his eye or tooth for you”? Jesus did not seem to think so: he weighed the lex talionis and, for all the balance implied (it’s not an eye plus a $100 fine for an eye, after all), found it wanting, because it does not get to the root of the problems that cause our hurtful sins. We as humans (especially as victims) find it impossible to be objective about what those who do wrong deserve.

Hitler as a child

Image via Wikipedia

Who, then, would be in the best position to understand all the environmental and internal factors that would warp the mind and will of a child who delights in painting pictures for his mother into an adult who destroys millions of children and mothers — who other than that person’s Creator? If He is not an impartial judge, we are all in trouble; but if He is, and He chooses to heal all our diseases, casting aside our sins as far as the east is from the west, who can say that His justice is deficient, even if it means that our desire for revenge against the Hitlers of the world is thwarted?

The question is not mercy vs. justice: it’s love versus revenge. Justice can never be about revenge. My hope is that God’s overwhelming, all-consuming righteousness will be revealed in His scandalous mercy.

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  • Sandra ChristianHeretic

    “It’s not justice vs mercy” It’s not about revenge or punishment; it is about redemption and transformation. These words were all synonymous nonsense when I was a Christian. It was only when I left the paradigm and began looking at salvation/redemption themes in literature, history, other religions, and found corrollaries in mathematics, physics, and more, that suddenly I could begin to apply the pattern to Christianity.

    • I agree that the pattern is everywhere — as one would expect it to be. Not that it’s ignored by all Christians, either — e.g. the Orthodox have always maintained this — but it’s been forgotten especially through the ascendancy of Augustinian theology via Calvin et al. Thankfully, I think it’s on the rise, just in time to oppose a simultaneous swell in the popularity of the new Calvinists.

      • Paul D.

        I’ve really come to appreciate Orthodox thinking lately. Their positions always seem simpler and more charitable, and have a ring of truth to them that the complicated theological edifices the Western church has constructed lack.

  • Rob

    Why must Hitler be used as an example? Why not Anne Frank? She wasn’t “born again” so she must be in hell. Let them justify that.

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