I remain insufferably on a friend’s email forward list. She recently sent out a global e-kabosh against everyone who has ever forwarded her chain emails promising prosperity to those who join in the forwarding. (Her reason was priceless: “…since none of that stupid ‘fitting expletive’ worked.”) Alas, it appears the spirit of her anti-forward doesn’t apply to her. I still get lame jokes and pictures, heads up on viruses that never come to bear and generally useless data that sounds awfully close to what the “Federal Bureau of Miscellaneous Information” passes along to David Letterman for his “Fun Facts” routine.
But the recent forward that included Ben Stein’s drivel about Christmas caught me not only a bit bored but grumpy. Not particularly religious herself, she likely imagined she was doing her religious friend a favor. I couldn’t resist and indicated back to her my disdain for Stein’s cultural religion and kulturekampf. Probably a bit broadsided since I don’t normally respond, and since my sunny friend only ever intends to evoke sunniness, she took it in stride. But it got worse. In the course of our exchange she admitted she had no idea who Stein was. I couldn’t decide which was worse: Stein’s plea for an obnoxious civil religion propped up with a nationalistic version of works-righteousness that even fellow Reformed Christians seem to gobble up, or that a fellow GenXer didn’t know who Ferris Bueller’s teacher is. It gets worse. In the course of making my point I made reference to Jerry Falwell. She had even less an idea who he was—more 80s nescience. I’m a fan of friendship, so I have decided to channel my angst another way. It’s not called the Outhouse for nothing.
I have noted before how American religionists seem to fail to make any real distinction between proximate and exact justice. One of the predictable results of such a failure seems to be the tendency to be quite smitten with the latter. It seems only natural. After all, it is in our nature to fulfill law. We weren’t made to be sent packing east of Eden. Thus we weren’t made to be satisfied with a proximate justice but rather a striving after an exact one. So when failing to make this important distinction it should be no surprise we default to that which we were made. Poke around long enough in a human being, and it won’t take very long to find sympathy for one plight or another. And plight, of course, relies on locating perceived culprits and victims. One tell-tale sign that we are trafficking in plight, and thereby exact justice, is when there are clearly depicted villains and virginals. Someone is doing someone else wrong and it’s up to the rest of us to fix it.
Like the child yanking on her younger sister’s arm who swears she is “only trying to help,” one of the added wrinkles is how one seems ever tempted to simply fix the problem by justifying it under another phrase: just helping. So taken with the stuff of plight, the ability to honestly examine one’s motives becomes quite obscured. Thus, for example, the group-think fixation on that legislative sacred cow known as “the right to life” isn’t so much an effort to exact justice, complete with culprits and victims. And it certainly isn’t vulnerable to criticism (group-think seldom is in the minds of its adherents). No, it’s just “trying to see to it that the right thing happens.” But such a proximate countenance doesn’t go very far in explaining the religious vicissitude which usually attends this debate. In another proof of plight, compromise is anathema. And if it were so nuanced then why is it the pinnacle politics for which conservative religionists want to go down in history and be culturally vindicated the way, say, abolitionists have? Better, why is it thought such a category should even exist amongst conservative Calvinists, let alone what fills it?
It may be good to remember that large part of what made the Cross so shameful was that crucifixion was the vehicle by which Rome carried out an exact justice. Contrary to the way a religiously fueled anachronism would have it, you didn’t hang on a tree because Rome was in the habit of arbitrary persecution, but rather because you belonged there. (With this understanding, the Calvinist doctrine of sin makes more sense: to the extent that Pilate typifies God’s pure justice, and that our sin is fantastically real, demanding and deserving the exact justice of God—it belongs on the Cross. While better suited for teasing out culprits and victims, explaining the crucifixion as “religious persecution” still doesn’t really know what to do with abiding personal sin.) At least one of thieves who joined Jesus understood that much, and paradise became his that day. It doesn’t help stir a particular sense of martyrdom, but Rome had a system of justice that comported within a larger civilization I daresay many of us would find fairly attractive, which is to say, Rome was safe and prosperous. The good were rewarded and the evil were punished. Reaching back into the Old Testament, is it any wonder that the Hebrews wanted to return to Egypt where even slaves could locate something of “the good society”? Whatever else the Code of Hammurabi’s co-existence with the Decalogue might imply it’s that the sturdiness of law is certainly not something unknown to man. Moreover, it is good for ordering things with an eye toward milk and honey.
But in the end, if there wasn’t much from Jesus that makes the case against Rome there also wasn’t much to be made for it. When queried about his status as King all he says is that it’s true. There is no “therefore” followed with a laundry list of corrections to be made. But neither are there any plaudits for how well the empire has been run all this time, what with evildoers being swiftly punished and all. There are no politics of either dissent or affirmation. Indeed, in keeping with his answer about taxes meant to make him stumble and show one sort of favoritism or another wherein submission is finally rendered, Jesus stands silent before the chief priests, elders and Pilate himself.
Justice certainly has its place. The question seems to be just where that place is and what it should look like. If it is justice Christian religionists want to be known for we might do better to remember that obedience, silence and submission are the traits that mysteriously saved us in the face of an exacting justice. Insofar as the Kingdom of God was marked by this ethos, while the kingdom of man had exact justice in mind, it is worth pondering how these more counter-intuitive traits might co-exist with an intuitive sense of justice. It might be that if we want to do justice at all that a proximate one should suffice. For all the talk of the antithesis between “godly” and “worldly” ethics that tend to look more moralistic and virtuous than revelatory and eschatological, it would seem that a godly posture might find plight a bit too erect.