Christian Religionists and Exact Justice: An S.O.S For Silence, Obedience and Submission

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.

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12 Responses to Christian Religionists and Exact Justice: An S.O.S For Silence, Obedience and Submission

  1. igasx says:

    Zrim,

    Interesting essay as usual.

    I’m reminded that Christ kicked out a lot of demons (both the actual ones and the ones of the Curse) while he lived and breathed on earth.

    Living both sides of the tension of the Already and the Not Yet is difficult and many fall off one side or the other.

  2. Zrim says:

    igasx,

    True. But turning over tables and throwing demons into pigs, I don’t know, just has a different ring to it, one I’m not sure the activists amongst us really understand. And when it comes to falling off stuff, I’m partial to Luther’s analogy of the drunkard mounting his steed and slipping off one side and another.

  3. igasx says:

    12 I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.

    Whatever Christ meant by that it seems to be in this temporal dimension.

  4. Zrim says:

    I wonder if you might elaborate…

  5. Anonymous says:

    The passage indicates to me that Christians will do some greater works in the Already than Christ performed though it’s not clear to me exactly the nature of those good works.

    If I’m following you correctly the greatest works are S.O.S. and as such are we to perform greater S.O.S. than Christ?

  6. Zrim says:

    I suppose I’m hesitant about trying to explain that verse. I’m not sure what relation it may have here.

    I’m also leery about suggesting any sort of “out-pacing” of Jesus. I’m satisfied with simply saying that SOS were the traits that Jesus had and that we should strive after them the way we seem to strive after their counterparts–perhaps another way of saying it is to out-pace our natural selves and thereby keep up with Jesus.

  7. Todd says:

    If it helps, from my sermon on John 14:

    “Assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My father.”
    Now most of you are well aware how this verse has been misused. Some have taken from this that we can “out-Jesus” Jesus by performing greater miracles than He performed. I haven’t yet seen anyone raise the dead like Christ did, but nevertheless all kinds of bizarre and unbecoming practices and claims have been justified from this verse.
    Remember the context; the coming of the Spirit. It is the coming of the Spirit that explains the greater works. The work of the post-resurrected Son through His Spirit is more glorious because Christ’s work on our behalf has been fully completed. The benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection have been sealed to us by the Spirit. The “greater works” are all those we do in the power of the Spirit.
    We do greater works, because, as Jesus says, “I go to the Father.” When Jesus went to the Father, He poured out the Spirit of His accomplished work. The “greater works” is our participation in the Spirit of the resurrected Christ. Every new covenant believer then does greater works than Christ accomplished on the earth, because the Spirit of the glorified Christ is in him.

  8. Zrim says:

    Todd,

    It helps. Thanks for contextualizing…the good kind, I mean. I think you’ve also affirmed my suspicion: that this has nothing to do with out-pacing Jesus but understanding a meaning that does not come naturally to us.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Todd,

    Not to be flippant but so what?

    I guess I’m not seeing how participation in the Spirit of the resurrected Christ is a greater work?
    The Reformed view has always been that the Spirit was present even in OT believers.

    Calvin in his commentary alludes to Christ’s present kingship as the reason.

    The immediate context is Thomas’ and Phillip’s doubts and questions.

  10. joe brancaleone says:

    hm… yes the Spirit was present in OT believers

    But the floodgates of blessings and benefits for the people of God have been opened up and poured out like never before since the Spirit of the risen Christ descended upon the Church.

    Think about it. What did OT saints know about Christ? Something, but not as clearly as what we now know. Even John the Baptist proclaimed and had expectations in terms of the shadows. Even Jesus’ closest disciples, at that last hour after three years of discipleship, after all teachings and the healings and the miracles in all their power, they were *still* not clear that the exact image and imprint of God was in their midst, nor were they clear about the necessity of the Christ suffering before entering into glory for their sake.

    Compare that to how the confessing Church has now known Christ since the day of Pentecost. It’s the degree of revelation that makes all the difference in the experience of believers. And the fullness of revelation is only possible through the ongoing ministry of the risen Christ by his Spirit.

  11. Todd says:

    Anonymous:

    The coming of the Spirit after Pentecost is so unique and new that John can actually write that before the resurrection the Spirit had not yet been given.

    John 7: 39 “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.”

    Of course in one sense the Spirit was given in the OT, but the hyperbolic language points, as Joe said, to the new blessings and benefits of the Spirit post Pentecost.

  12. igasx says:

    Good stuff guys, thanks.

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