On Justice. And Making Someone Walk an Extra Mile

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a fan of the concept of “justice” as espoused and advocated for in the culture of the liberal-progressive West (both religious and secular, since it’s basically the same claim). Justice is little more, I think, than a form of social vengeance, a combination of “gimme” combined with “it’s not fair” married to laws and guns. Many advocates for “justice” also seem to want to create (or recreate) a world in which there is no need for mercy, and that frightens me no end. A world without God’s mercy is a world in which human beings are left to our own cruel devices, one in which our ideological self-righteousness in the name of “justice” is an excuse for unbending and unyielding cruelty.

Plus, there is also the simple desire to wield power, to lord it over others, to bend people and the world to their will. I think that motivates more “justice” seekers than they care to admit.

An important thing to note is that “justice” is not objective, it is very subjective. Two very thoughtful and faithful people can come to some very different understandings of what is “just” and how “justice” ought to work in the world. Even if they start from the same place. (Our vision of “justice” is rooted in notions of political, social and economic equality — notions almost no one had 200 years ago and notions no one may have 200 years from now.) Thus, all that is left is force of arms, is might, to determine which version of “justice” is “just.”

As an anarchist — as someone who believes quite deeply in the fundamental moral illegitimacy of force and coercion in any form — I do not believe in engaging much in partisan politics. Politics is about controlling the machinery and meaning of the state, and the state is nothing but force and coercion. I don’t so much care about the society (which cannot function without coercion and violence), but I do care about the church (which is called to show the world what a community of non-violence and non-coercion looks like). We as church have no business advocating on behalf of state violence, or taking a stake in state violence, regardless of how just we believe the cause the state is pursuing. That makes us as church complicit in the violence.

The only things we as church should be saying to the state are: “No.” “Don’t.” “Stop.”

I’ve long believed this. I believed this even when I was Muslim, this belief in the non-legitimacy of violence to make changes in the world. (In fact, I came to this belief as a Muslim.) But until recently, I’d never really had solid scripture to hang this upon. But studying the Sermon on the Mount for a song I was writing for the confirmation class, I read this:

[38] “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ [39] But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. [40] And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. [41] And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. [42] Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42 ESV)

Yes, I’ve read that passage a lot. You have too, probably. But as I was working on that song, it occurred to me that when we engage in political activity as Christians, we become the people who slap cheeks, take tunics, beg and borrow, and force people to walk a mile. We become what Christ tells his disciples is clearly evil.

Again, it doesn’t matter that we think we’re pursuing “justice.” We will have to injure someone to get there, and in doing so, we become enamored of our self-righteousness and believe that those injured deserved it. To defend a neighbor with violence means to rob another human being of their status as neighbors. There is no love of neighbor that can ever articulate itself as or in violence against that neighbor. Ever.

(On this point, I realize that I am at great odds with not only the teaching of my Lutheran confession, but also with historic Christendom, which has always given the agents of the state some moral leeway to engage in violence for some ephemeral common good. As much as I appreciate the wisdom of history and of the church, I believe there are some things it got wrong, or at the very least, understood some things — state and society — in a way that gives far too much leeway for violence and compulsion. That is another argument for another essay.)

There is one other point that came to me in reading this passage. We ourselves, as good bourgeois American Protestants (progressive or otherwise) are unwilling to live out the grace we seem to demand others live out when we force it upon them. We compel people to walk the mile on our command, grumble that they should walk the extra mile (because Jesus says so!), but we ourselves are utterly unwilling to walk even the first mile, much less the second. Again, a lot of this stems from the Protestant desire to create a world of perfect “justice,” a world in which the mercy of God (and human beings) is not needed because all of the systems of the world will be arranged “justly.” (This has been an element of Protestant utopianism since the 16th century.) Personally, this articulates itself in a social view that basically says, “If you actually need God’s mercy, you clearly don’t deserve it.”

Mostly, I don’t think Liberal Protestants (particularly their corporate church bodies) really believe in the transformative power of love. They don’t see love as an effective way to engage the world. It doesn’t change the world in the ways they believe the world needs to be changed (or worse, in the ways they believe God wants the world changed). Instead, they have come to believe in “justice,” and have come to invest themselves in the violence and force necessary to be “effective” at “pursuing justice.”

But we are not called to be effective. We are called to be faithful, to love as God loves us. And that is all we are called to do.