As we continue this conversation about justice, let’s apply the two definitions I laid out in my last post to a case study – Saul’s Conversion.
CASE STUDY #1: SAUL’S CONVERSION
In Acts chapter 9, Saul (soon to be renamed “Paul”) is traveling to Damascus to rid the world of Jesus followers. As far as we know, Saul never slit anyone’s throat. Still, he did some terrible stuff. When he recounts the story in Acts chapter 26, he makes it clear that he was responsible for imprisoning many innocent people, and even voting for some to die. A few chapters earlier, for example, Saul was responsible for the stoning of a man named Stephen.
Let’s apply our first definition of “justice” at this point in the story. Saul has overseen the killing of an innocent man. He has imprisoned many others. He is on his way to kill and imprison more.
If justice is, as we’ve been taught by culture, “every person getting what he/she deserves based either on his/her merit or his/her rights” then what should happen next in the story?
Maybe Saul will be unjustly imprisoned?
Maybe he will be stoned?
Maybe it will be a rock slide that takes him down? A kind of “divine stoning.”
Of course, this is not what happened. Saul meets Jesus on the road in a bright light. He is blinded. Jesus then sends a man to heal him. After regaining his site, Saul begins to share the message of Jesus with the world and becomes the most powerful Christian evangelist and apologist of history.
Paul will later explain salvation, his included, as an act of “grace.” It is an unmerited gift. Something the receiver does not earn or deserve by right. For example, Ephesians 2:8-9 Paul explains, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
GRACE VS JUSTICE
What then are we to say of the relationship to grace and justice?
If we hold to our contemporary understanding of justice, then grace is a rebuttal. It is a refusal to see justice done. It is a diversion from what “should” happen if things were right in the world.
By our definition of justice, it is unjust that Saul is converted. The desires of justice are not fulfilled. They are denied by grace.
And in turn, God, the author and distributor of grace, is the one responsible for denying justice. He is the one who does not give Saul what Saul deserves. Rather he brings Saul into a the community Saul persecutes. In place of rewarding Saul with the pain and suffering Saul has earned, Jesus provides Saul with a new life.
What then are we to make of God’s calls for justice through out the prophets? Has God changed his mind? Did he decide justice was no longer necessary? Justice gone. Now there is grace?
I don’t think so.
I don’t believe God has exchanged justice for grace.
Rather, I think we misunderstand justice.
GRACE THAT BRINGS JUSTICE
What if we apply our other definition of justice to the case of Saul’s conversion. Rather than our contemporary understanding, what if we understood justice as “each one doing to others as they would have others do to them.” What if we take a communal focus on justice? Justice is not the individual getting what he/she deserves so that the status quo can be protected. Rather, justice is all people living in right relationship, in true loving kindness, in authentic community with one another.
If justice is not about restoring the status quo, but building authentic community, then Saul’s conversion brings justice. Saul doesn’t simply join the community, he becomes it’s biggest champion. This moment of reflection and redemption is not what Saul deserves, but it is what creates a loving community. Justice is served through Saul’s redemption.
In this approach, grace and forgiveness are not abstractions from justice. They are the tools that bring it about. Grace and forgiveness are two paths toward justice.
And God has not changed his mind. He is doing what he did in the prophets. The justice of Saul is the same justice of Amos. It rolls, it flows, and in its wake all things are made new.
Next, a more difficult case study – Sodom and Gomorrah.