There have been a number of ah-ha moments in my life, times at which I have seen myself and my world in a new light. One of those was to discover the place of justice in the Christian life. Echoing the prophet Micah, Jesus identified justice, mercy and faithfulness as the three central dimensions of godliness. Mercy and faithfulness had been ideological staples of my childhood faith, however imperfectly we had lived them. Mercy issued in acts of kindness. But justice? It had never loomed large.
Once I discovered its importance I set about pursuing it. Like most western Christians I read justice through the twin lens of retribution and distribution. Retributive justice meant people receiving the due penalty for their wrongdoing, while distributive justice focussed on everyone having equitable access to the earth’s resources. These notions fit well with my conception of God as a holy God who punishes sin; my concept of Jesus, who died to pay the penalty for my sin; my concept of the future, where God will punish the wickedness of those who don’t know Christ with an eternity in hell;and my concept of the present, where God’s primary focus was saving sinners.
Then came another aha moment. I was reading Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness. Post apartheid South Africa was grappling with the pain of sins committed during apartheid. Terrible atrocities had been committed. But retribution – finding, trying and punishing the perpetrators would push the country into further bloodshed. Yet the past could not be swept under the carpet. People were hurting and healing was needed.
So South Africa tried another way. Here’s how Tutu described it:
I contend that there is another kind of justice, restorative justice …. Here the central concern is not retribution or punishment, but… the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships.
This model was implemented through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Those who had perpetrated crimes were invited to make full confession in the presence of their victims and victim’s families. They were confronted with the horror and shame of what they had done, and upon demonstrating they were genuinely repentant, were forgiven. Victims found a measure of healing as the full details of what had been done, and the wrongness of it, were acknowledged. And above all, the breaches in the community started to heal.
I assume some victims were not entirely happy with the process, that there were those who sought vengeance. But it makes me wonder if this is not a glimpse of the type of justice God will enact at the end of this age.