For most of us, justice has to do with getting what we deserve. We say that “justice has been served” when a person receives punishment for a crime they have committed. We strive to develop systems that mete out “fair” sentences; assigning retribution that is equal to the crime. If a person is given too harsh a punishment or one that is too lenient we call it injustice.
Jesus turns these ideas about justice upside-down (as He often does with our human ideas). In Matthew 5 Jesus speaks about justice by citing the ancient Hebrew (Old Testament) law. The Jewish people lived under the ideal of justice that resonates with most of humanity: an eye for an eye. If an enemy takes your eye, you are allowed to take his eye. If an enemy knocks out your tooth, you may knock out his tooth. If someone kills your goat, you may kill his goat. This is fair. It is just.
But it is not good.
Jesus tells His listeners, ” Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Jesus is rejecting the common ideas about justice and telling His hearers that there is a better way to live than the way of retribution.
Gandhi gave us the proverb, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” This is exactly the problem that Jesus identifies. Paying back pain for pain, death for death, evil for evil, only creates a cycle of violence that never ends. The only way to end it is to say, “No, I will not strike back.”
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Jesus’ teaching is the implication that God’s justice is radically different from humanity’s justice. We can accept that Jesus was a man of forgiveness and kindness, not repaying violence with more violence, but we have a terribly difficult time attributing this character to God. We find it nearly impossible to imagine a God who turns the other cheek, who does not become angry when He is violated, and who does not require people to pay for their evil deeds.
Jesus’ teaching removes the violence and retribution from the character of God. Not only does Jesus say that His listeners should be peaceful and merciful, He is saying that God is peaceful and merciful.
Today, many of us have a hard time when the character of God is repainted in this way. It may not fit correctly into our theology. Sometimes we even accuse those who would present God in this way of “heresy” and “watering down the gospel.” Yet the idea of a non-retributive God is at the heart of Jesus teaching and His life. Jesus modeled a selfless life, enduring horrendous injustice and violence, but never, ever demanded payback.
God’s justice equals mercy and forgiveness, never payback.
Can we demand justice that does the same?