The question of how to relate to society around us has been an enduring challenge for the Church; Docetism and exclusivism have been common postures. It is difficult it seems to relate to the world as God did in loving the world so much that he intervened with sacrificial love. Of course as human beings we are limited in our creaturely capacity to establish the absolute truth of life around us because we are ourselves a part of that very reality, its environment, culture, language, and dominant thought forms that inform our actions. Especially impressionable are our earliest, years and the mental constructions (schemata) learned in our early family life and in our community of origin. It is a mistake to think that as an adult we can objectively, quickly, transcend the truth of our life and its social formation influenced by the powers that be in our lives simply from a literal read of scripture. We read the scriptures through lens of our subjectivities. With contemplative perception and sensitivity to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we humbly progress and develop insight into our schematic life of developmental years and understand the biases, twists, and turns of our own cosmology to the extent that we can. One challenge is that of understanding the truth of Justice, of its “worldliness” and of its eternal goodness. In our world of change and generational disconnects, each generation again will need to reflect on accepted public truths, internalize and take ownership of its own worldview; to be world affirming and yet not conformed to this world, specifically in terms of doing justice.
Reciprocity and suffering
Probably most of us learned as children, and children learn what they live, that bad behaviour is reciprocated with punishment, and if you are “good,” you might get rewarded…”one good deed deserves another,” It is said. Themes of social (social exchange theory)l and juridical reciprocity play out through life in our culture and in the forms institutional justice has taken. Justice as reciprocity is virtually wired into our genes. “That’s just the way it is”, I was told when young, “don’t ask so many questions.” Prisoners will easily confess as truism, “You do the crime, you do the time.” It has become to be perceived as a universal law, as gospel truth. The world universally manifests a dominant belief in justice as reciprocity and that this reciprocity code is God’s design for justice in this life. Modern actuarial, consumerist, models of life, see public justice as reciprocity primarily through primitive levels of moral development as well as reciprocity in mathematical terms of simply “what’s in it for me In terms of risk.”
Increasingly, my experience in life, with a close eye on God’s revelation, gave the lie to the assumption that this is a just world created by God to be governed by the code of reciprocity. Bad things do happen to good people, and often the evil and powerful flourish in this world.
Wolterstorff (2001), courageously, in the reformed tradition, suggests that Calvin invalidates lament and is thus not a good authority on suffering. According to Calvin, since God designs suffering for our good, we have not to enter into our dark night of the soul crying out to God, “Why me! How long oh Lord!!!” We know why, suffering is God’s instrument to reform our souls, so why lament; take it like a “man” [sic]. In his essay, “If God is good and sovereign, why lament,” Wolterstorff suggests that we must refer rather to God’s declaration of worth of all human beings, that all are precious in his sight, and that his design is not for us to endure pain and suffering without lament and protest. It is God’s desire, emphasizes Wolterstorff (2001), that, “….each and every human being shall flourish as an animalic person until full of years…that we desire that for ourselves and for our fellow human beings as well” (p. 50). Christ’s life, work, and teachings clearly emphasize the same. Our current criminal justice theory is grounded in the belief of the necessity and efficacy of sanctioned punitive suffering. However, to return evil for evil (lex talionis) and to call it good for us, or consider it justice, is just plain a wrong reading of the Scriptures and a misunderstanding of God’s design for life. Wolterstorff boldly declares elsewhere that retributive reciprocal justice is not God’s design in Christ. He states that Christ has clearly invalidated the entire popular reciprocity code (Wolterstorff, 2011).
The already, not yet, idea: an assaultive world view
Another distorted rationalization is that this imperfect world of the not yet of Christ’s kingdom limits Christ’s rule over the already; so don’t expect perfect justice on this side of the consummation. Consequently not much creative redemptive imagination goes into making this world a better place to live. Just war, hostilities, and punishment of the wrongdoer are touted as being critical strategies for our earthly rulers in their responsibility for maintaining power and control and keeping the world safe from evil forces. This stance also seems to minimize the need for positive life-affirming legislation regarding distributive justice from our governments. As well, it is asserted especially in Reformed circles, rulers are instituted by God, and thus it appears that they know all the truth of God. I have come to differ, having experienced as prison chaplain, the senseless type of public policy making based on public opinion regarding justice that had/has more to do with maintaining power and prestige for corporate progress rather than establishing justice for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, as the Bible would put it. I agree with Wolterstorff (2008) who insists that the vison of God’s revelation regarding salvation is not to rescue human beings from the evils of this world, but precisely to provide shalom for those living with the evil of injustice in this world. Justice is not a punishing war on the forces of evil in the world; redemptive violence is an oxymoron. But rather, we have been given an all-out vison and strategy for shalom, peace, and human flourishing to be experienced in every dimension of life by every human being: Shalom and New Testament Eirene.
Twenty five years of experience in the Canadian justice system is enough to cure one of romantic myths born of progressivism, and positivism, or from the rhetoric about the perfect process of the rule of law which will solve all injustice in society with equity. There is also persisting ,the belief that one gets what one deserves arising from the deterministic notion that this world is naturally a just world, that sin simply lies in the hearts of private individuals, and thus personal religious conversion (or change of mind) is primarily necessary. It is not perfection I am seeking in this already-not-yet world, but rather life affirming justice wrestled out for human wellbeing continually again in the particularities of each case in the light of God’s design for justice as sketched out in visionary way in God’s revelation. There is darkness of injustice and violence in this present age, but there is also the restraining and transforming presence of the Spirit of the resurrected and ascended Christ in our present world (common grace); and, Christ’s followers are the arms and feet of this mandate for justice. I regard the already-and-not-yet to be in dialectical entwinement. With eyes of faith, in hope, and love, we live in the belief that love is stronger than hate and that justice must be done non-retributively. It must be admitted that there are seasons, due to physical danger or the intensity of systemic sin, or of the social delusion regarding the idols of the times, that the right response is not possible. But, then, as Sir Thomas More said somewhere I believe, we must act in such a way to keep the worst from happening. Some sorts of intervention may be required (W. Wink’s conflict reduction), but the worst generally does not fall out of the blue; there is usually a pathway of brokenness and injustice that ignored required early pro-active intervention. In the realities of life, there are many forces on that cause brokenness and injustices. We are called, I believe as the saying implies, not to curse the darkness, but to be light in the darkness. I can’t justify sin or explain it; all we can do is confess it (Berkouwer, 1971, pp 130-148). I can’t find grounds for just divorce, or for just war, but confess that divorces and wars happen and need forgiveness, grace, wisdom, and light, not mere condemnation or commendation. We need to wrestle ever anew with challenges of the causes of suffering: injustice, racism, hatred, discord, poverty and crime, always keeping our eye on the good cause God desires for each and every human being.
In my Reformed, CRC, denomination, I understand the attraction and emphasis of the popular already, not yet, concept and a predilection to readily support military action. It fits with a socially learned view of life in the experience of war. Most of our Canadian CRC’s were established after World War II and the immigrants coming to Canada were well aware of the horrors and traumas of war of the terrible years between D day (the Normandy invasion in June of 1944, the already), and Victory day of that war (May 5, 1945, the not yet). Mixed with the attitudes of Hobbs, Oscar Cullman’s (Christ and Time) concept of the already, and not yet, seemed to appeal, from a militarized consciousness of the adults of my generation. It seemed an acceptable model to frame and understand our world today finding itself in between Christ’s death, and the future consummation of his cosmic rule, of the new heaven and the new earth. The overarching attitude was that it’s an evil world out there, a life of constant battle with evil forces, and the message of New Testament of peace as expressed in the Sermon of the mount, for instance, is not possible under the conditions prevailing in this partial not-yet era (inner only) of the shalom of Christ’s Lordship. Taken as a gloss of Cullman’s book, an over-focus on the reference to the specifics of a military event and of civilians at war , this can trigger the violent adversarial essence of this period of time and depict the warring ethos of this “interlude “ of “mopping up “ military activities as characteristic of this time of not-yet in which we live.
The weakness of the military war paradigm, I find, is that the metaphorical use of war events can seem to endorse aggressive life-death war strategies as a model for life in our present social-political life until Christ comes again. It easily absolutizes a rather unforgiving attitude toward the enemy and gravitates towards hardnosed retribution with a, them-and-us, social categorization. The deadly “collateral damage” and harmful social-spiritual ripple-effects of disturbance left in the wake of war are not taken seriously. It seems as if lasting peace and social harmony will only come about in when Christ comes again so don’t bother to wage peace, our duty here on earth is to be vigilant and wage war with the world. A sincere natural, I-Thou, ethos, is not fostered in international or social relationships; war does not create a pattern or a climate of social relations in which life and truth can flourish. There is not much love expressed in war. War is a breakdown of human will for reconciliation and does little to build human relations in love and forgiveness. Not much room for creative prophetic imagination in the midst of emotional patriotic side taking.
As a baby born in Holland late 1943, the horrors and traumas of war of this first year of my life, in this so called, already and not yet year, continued to reverberate through my unconscious until I was about fifty years old, and perhaps they still do today at times. My older brother by ten years still suffers greatly from untreated PTSD. The stories of what he witnessed and experienced during the war in his early developmental years still chill my soul. Stories of vindictive retaliation and of the murder of civilians are vivid memories of the senselessness war. Animated in visceral recall, my brother relates the story of some kids near my brother’s age shot dead by Nazi soldiers for taunting them after V Day. In his subconscious my brother still struggles with hyper-vigilant fear of the exploding v-two rockets and of Lancaster bombers being shot at as they flew over Holland during the war. 22,000-30,000 Dutch people died of starvation in Hunger Winter of 1944-1945. In April of 1945, only weeks before liberation, the retreating Nazis intentionally bombed the dyke of the polder in which we lived, and all was destroyed; a neighbour was shot, my brother remembers, for hanging out his Dutch flag as he left his house to escape the flooding. War is hell and brutalizes; war is more a reflection of human brutality to other humans than of wisdom or compassion; more a breakdown of intelligence and wisdom, relying on the mythology and romance of redemptive violence cloaked in the glamorized stories of patriotism, heroism, and of the supreme gift given for democratic freedoms. More than two hundred thousand Dutch people died of World War II related deaths, one half being Jewish people who perished in the holocaust. 42, 000 soldiers were killed in the war of liberating Belgium and the Netherlands. 10, 000 airmen died in the air campaign.
The violent, tragic WW II deaths of the soldiers and civilians are to be grieved and lamented. But, it is also with great veneration that Hollanders, me included, speak still today of their Canadian Liberators who entered Holland in early April, completing their task on May 20, 1945. The Official surrender in the Netherlands of the Nazis to Prince Bernard was on May 5, 1945. I am personally certainly grateful to have survived the war as a powerless infant relatively unscathed. I am grateful to the soldiers and civilians of the underground who suffered so much on my behalf; and of course thankful for the liberation of my family and the people of my country and Europe. Violent conflict had gotten out of hand! However, the adverse effects of war on the pre-born and the children, the future citizens and leaders of society, in combat arenas of the world are seldom mentioned. In the In spite of my gratitude I still confess that war is hell, a failure of human wisdom conformed to worldly standards and strategies of hegemony for human governance, rooted in the quest for power and the code of returning violence for violence. War is nothing to brag about, or to use as entertainment, and is a violent reversal of God’s design for human relationships that at all costs is to be avoided. Nevertheless, I must add, it is not simply armed force in itself that I adamantly abhor, though I abhor such violence; but similar to the love of money, it is the love of war, militarism, that is a core issue and one that lures youth with its perceived excitement, heroics, and it spawns paranoid disastrous ideologies.
Militarism is symbolized by the rider gallantly riding the white horse of Revelation six; ideology colluding with brutality, death, injustice, and disease. The four apocalyptic horsemen (Rev. 6) are not role models for enlightened governance. Militarism is nurtured by romantic mythology of patriotic heroism and gallantry or battle and war, of men and women dressed smartly in neat and clean uniforms with medals and awarded honours. The death and bloodshed of the screaming and writhing of the maimed and dying on the battlefield is concealed from public sight. Minimized also is the life-long effects of trauma experienced and observed. Judith Herman (1992) emphasized that trauma was an affliction of powerlessness (p. 33), and that traumatic events, breach relational attachments; shatter the construction of self-in-relation; violates faith in a natural or divine order; undermine belief systems that give meaning to human experience; and casts the victim into a state of existential crisis (p.51). This describes well the living death of loss of limb, and mind (“shell shocked”, PTSD), as well as the grief and existential crisis of the families of the dead and the living “dead” generally concealed from view by ritualized patriotism and the deceiving mythology of war.
The time between the Invasion at Normandy in June of 1944 and Victory day on May in 1945 was characterized by intensified strife, starvation, and death in battle and the radicalization of behaviour as enemies engaged in defensive hateful mortal conflict. In Holland it was often, neighbour against collaborating neighbour. The weakness of the Cullman’s model is that it makes too much of the war, and it minimizes, if not abrogates, Christ’s vision and victory, inaugurated, over the evil powers in this present age. Jesus Christ is Lord; the evil one is a rebel, but not, The Lord; nor is Satan alive and well on planet earth. As well, the military metaphor minimizes the actual primacy of God’s emphasis on His mission of reconciliation, peace, and love for humanity of this present age. God is not on a war mission, but on a mission of reconciliation, and commissions us to be involved in that. Though at times we can understand the presence of God only by faith, in his death and resurrection Christ left us a model and has created the existential opportunity for redemptive social action. Christ has broken the absolute power of evil and the dividing walls of hostility; Christ the Light has come making life and shalom possible now. To identify our time as a domineering not-yet time of desperate absolute antithesis and combat deprives us of the true characterization of this present time and locks us into an assaultive world view.
Already time for agape, reconciliation and collaboration
War time is not a time in one’s life for flourishing; war nurtures an ethos of fear, bitterness, and death. It is not a time that encourages reconciliation and peace, despite the many sincere stories of heroism. Life until Christ comes again is not all about war; nor is it simply about spiritual warfare, and personal salvation. Salvation takes a broader focus in the social and systemic areas of community and society as well. Salvation refers also to peacemaking and reconciliation in a horizontal social sense; focussing on being wise and vigilant in alerting the powers that be to the dangers of the idols and the popular public “truths” of the time. This is the dispensation for pro-active, transformative action, creating the conditions in social-political life in which abundant life (shalom) is the goal; love is our aim. Not that we will ever absolutely establish the Kingdom of peace on earth, but we testify to its eternal reality and actuality. Even the powers that be are to be called to their proper purpose of social stewardship to serve the common good, not to simply be the forces for the accumulation power for retaliation and deterrence. Professor Henry Stob (1978) highlights the role of guidance by the Spirit of Christ and His ethos of agape applied to the impersonal institutions of society: “Grace and truth came in Jesus Christ. This means that by His advent , life, death, and resurrection there entered into the world a new kind of love, a gracious, merciful, giving and forgiving love which infinitely transcends the creational structures in which eros reigns” (p 119). Stob (1978) continues that the church is too often docetically, a-historically inclined. However, “If we Christians would truly love our neighbour, we must see to it that, through the institutions and structures of society, that his [sic] human rights are met….” (p. 137). Acts of benevolence and charity do not absolve the Christian from the task of helping create and support public institutions that guard the humanity and God given worth of the neighbour. Justice in love demands it (p.137). Common grace, Stob maintains, as well as our common humanity make it possible for non-believers and believers to work together collaboratively in public service and politics. The antithesis he emphasizes, is not absolute and non-Christian agencies may not simply be declared anti-Christian and avoided; collaboration is possible and essential (pp. 23, 205).
This “in-between” time is the time of Christ’s health giving rule to be displayed and lived with the neighbour and in the nation. This is the hour for public wisdom, reconciliation, and peacemaking, for justice as peacemaking (an allusion to Richard Quinney’s peacemaking criminology), and we are called to put all our creative energy and resources to work for this goal. What if we as a country put as much energy and dollars into waging peace as we do in waging war? It will require humility and grace to recognize our own complicity as citizens and leaders of the western world in the international conflicts of today. We we are part of the problem of international conflict today, but we can also be part of the solution.
Is this too idealistic in this “real world” of the already and not yet? Is this an ethic simply for the eschaton, for heaven, but not for here in the real world of present history? It is clear, if we read the Bible non-dispensationally, that the scriptures have not given us an ideal or mandate for war for here below, nor is God making absolute war on this imperfect evil world, but rather is involved in a mission of reconciliation and gives us that mandate. Yet here below, many seem to agree with our dominant culture’s unimaginative reliance on, and faith in, military and retributive action to resolve conflicts and bring peace and public safety. In fact there seems to be a blind belief in the efficacy of war and it seems to be the model to solve all problems: we declare war on our enemies; we declare war on those that threaten us, war on crime; on the poor, war on poverty; on the addicted, war on drugs. Such wars, as well as military wars, have been utter failures and a waste of money and actually have made the world a less safe or peace full. War does not resolve its causes, and its legacy of trauma and hostility radicalizes and lays the seeds for another war to follow.
It is about time that we live with a primary vision and strategy for peace making - of justice as peace making. This is the time to be salt and light, for empowerment and validation of the humanity of each and every human being we share the globe with. True enough, in some particular situations some force may be needed, such as to protect the parties in a fight from further injury to themselves and others, or to intervene preventing a person addicted to drugs from sliding into a fatal spiral of crime and addiction. I was told many times during my stint as prison chaplain that intervention by police, and the forced respectful structure of incarceration, had helped them in breaking the downward spiral of drugs and crime in which their lives were enmeshed. I am personally grateful to the Canadian forces efforts that liberated Europe in 1945 from a tyrannical hostile war. But neither absolute force, nor wars, solves anything permanently. Many current wars are the impact of decades of post-colonial economic meddling and dictator management to suit the political temperament of Western capitalist nations. Such terrible events of World War II, or our current wars, could have been avoided with wise, courageous, early intervention for equity and justice… I believe. Today with falling crime rates Canada persists is misspending millions on building more prison cells. Why? Where is the voice of Christian on this Invalidated and silenced by a distorted hermeneutic?
The pages of the Bible do not lay out a detailed theoretical system of justice. From its applications in social and political settings we need to coax out the eternal principles of the Bible’s texts from the applied intentions of the author to the particular society (readers/hearers) of that time, and with dynamic equivalence apply those principles in a wise practical way to specific applications in our time and culture. St. Paul acknowledged that differences of opinion area natural part of Christian life, and endorses mutual dialogue, talking these differences through, rather than putting the lid on moral theological conversation with hegemonic dogma or litigation. Paul lived in an era in which Roman law was supreme and international rule was enforced militarily with brute force. But, St Paul, echoing Jesus, endorses a higher way, the way of agape; justice must be transformed by agape. It is a continued responsibility to be humble, wise, and just, especially in times of great tension and conflict, not to be eager to keep the world in line through war or the threat of retaliation and prison. Force and fear do not produce truth, reconciliation, or peace. The Eternal theme is clear; God’s design for justice is not simply giving people their due: good for good, evil for evil; God’s primary ethos is one of grace. God desires for us and simply everyone, the Good of shalom. God is not limited to the constructs of our history, to our time, or culture; our ways are not His ways. In Christ we have a model made quite clear and fulfilled: Justice seeks a peace to be experienced in this life by human beings, shalom, not mere reciprocal, metaphysical, balance of protecting laws. Nor is peace made by retaliation, but rather by not buying in to the taunts, threats and deeds of the other, and rather by returning evil with Good.
We are called to avoid reciprocating retaliation and instead called to be busy continually in preaching the Gospel of Grace and active in the ministry of reconciliation, in problem solving for shalom not in prosecuting for retribution. We make empowering love our aim, especially for our enemies. Any intervention, call it punishment, is to do no evil to our neighbour. Interventions for justice can only be done in agapic love. Justice-in-love is God’s idea (Wolterstorff, 2011). Our world sorely needs it now. We are called to be salt and light especially where there is darkness and corruption; now is the dispensation for our salt and light to be present precisely where we meet the darkness in ourselves as well as in society. I suggest that this is a continual task of restoring-justice for shalom in this present age before Christ returns. Perhaps this is what Jesus implied when he said “the poor you shall always have with you but you will not always have me.” In this already and not yet life between Easter and the parousia, we will not eliminate poverty and its causes absolutely, but vigilance and action to eliminate poverty is required to done in hope in the spirit of agapic love, seeking the common good for each and every human being. There is no excuse today in Canada for failing to seriously plan to eliminate poverty; no excuse to not urgently devise a plan to wage peace instead of war. Sacramentally speaking, we are called a Christians to continue to demonstrate the presence of the kingdom of the Good (shalom) in every dimension of this life till He comes again.
Henk Smidstra, Oct 17, 2014
Berkouwer, G. C. (1971). Sin. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans.
Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery:The aftermath of violence - from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.
Stob, H. (1978). Ethical Reflections. Grand Rapids Michigan: William B.Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Wolterstorff, N. (2001). If God is Good and Sovereign, Why Lament? Calvin Theological Journal, 42-52.
Wolterstorff, N. (2008). Justice: rights and wrongs. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wolterstorff, N. (2011). Justice in love. Grand Rapids Michigan: William B.Eerdmans Publishing Company.