In my last post I suggested three forms of Javertism, a moralistic and legalistic version of “Christian” faith symbolized by Inspector Javert in “Les Misrables,” that afflict much of the church in our time. In this post we’ll look at the second form, a legalistic view of justice.
By “legalistic” I mean an approach to living the faith governed by a retributive view of justice. Retributive means that we deserve what we get and get what we deserve. If I do this, I suffer consequence X. If I do that, I suffer consequence Y. A tit for tat kind of justice.
Faith lived under a retributive view of God’s justice always leaves us in the dock, always under threat of accusation and judgment for any misstep. Such a faith leaves us focused on ourselves and our performance in a way that can easily become narcissistic. Moralism is inevitable under a retributive view of justice. As is the pride and exclusivism we looked at the previous post.
In order to cope with the pressure of God’s (presumed) legalistic or retributive justice, we tend to thin out the meaning of morality to external observance and practice in order to be able to manage our relation to God successfully.
And perhaps the worst consequence of legalism is that it renders us more and more impervious to grace. Jauvert himself is the parade example of this. He believes he must be held responsible his failures and face the consequences. Jauvert cannot accept the grace Valjean extends to him. Retributive justice leads to hell!
The good news is that retributive justice is not God’s justice. God’s justice, his “righteousness,” is his passion to set all things right. In other words, God’s justice is restorative. God’s justice is not an impartial tit for tat impersonal adjudication. Hardly, God’s justice is his impassioned determination to make all things right! It is divine love in action. God’s justice is to see that we don’t get what we do in fact deserve. Rather, God’s justice sees to it that we get precisely what we don’t deserve – grace.
Now this doesn’t mean anyone gets away with anything or is not held accountable for what they do. Jean Valjean is the living proof that transformation comes through facing up to who we are and, by God’s grace, will be. We are held accountable under grace but not for judgment but for change!
Jürgen Moltmann works this out for an understanding of final judgment that takes judgment with utter seriousness but grace with even more. Justice of any kind demands some reckoning for deeds done, especially the horrific, heart-searing deeds of monumental terror and destruction. They simply cannot be passed over, denied, or ignored by God. That would not be just in any fashion. However, Moltmann claims, that God’s justice being ultimately restorative, these deeds are dealt with by allowing the victims to confront their victimizers and work their way to reconciliation. As this happens in all the innumerable ways, large and small, the result is finally God’s new world where all is as God intended it to be.
It thus becomes clear the difference it makes whether one adopts the Western view that justice is retributive or the biblical view of a justice that is restorative and healing.