The endless cycle of justice
“If you want justice and nothing but justice, you will inevitably get injustice. If you want justice without injustice, you must want love.” – Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace
That quotation from the Croatian theologian, a survivor of trauma and war, has been echoing in my head ever since I have read it. After having experienced a great deal of suffering personally and witnessed the suffering of many others in the Balkans, Volf is walking away from his trauma with love on his mind, not just justice. This is profound and it speaks to many of the problems that the world faces today. And it speaks to me, as a lover of justice and a pursuer of justice (sometimes too angrily). I admit that I sometimes believe that justice be what saves us. Bernie had me going for a while. And can be tempted to idolatrously think that the harbinger of that very salvation is the state. That is indeed a cause for repentance.
As I marched against the powers that be, stationed at the Wells Fargo Center (the host of the DNC), I was proud and ready to walk with the poor and the oppressed. As Christians, I think it is our duty to do so. But as I was surrounded with familiar chants like, “No justice, no peace,” I hesitated to enter in. I do not want to engage in the cycle of counter-violence that inevitably begets more violence. In fact, the only thing that breaks the cycle of violence is the self-giving love that the cross of Jesus expressed. His absorption of violence answers the question once and for all. It ends the cycle of justice turning into injustice.
Standing with the oppressed
Christians are challenged, through myriad passages in the Bible, to stand with the poor and the oppressed. The prophets, and really all of scripture, is biased toward the oppressed, toward the excluded. But as we herald this very virtue, it is nothing short of hypocrisy if we do not “change champs,” when the oppressed “win” and become the oppressors themselves. That is exactly the kind of injustice that the exclusive pursuit of justice gets us. Moreover, as we pursue justice, we tend to look to the state as the chief social actor; we think of the state as the one who may distribute the rights or offer us the institutional recognition that redeems us.
I could not help but think that our protests last week were cries to the state to free us from the oppressed it has sanctioned. I became a Christian because I do not put my hope, anymore, in chariots or horses.
Jesus has another way. It is a way that embraces, in his death, both the Roman and the Jew (Paul would say the Jew and the Greek or the Gentile). Self-giving love offers us a new chance at humanity that supersedes the exclusive divisions of the world. It is a radical display of self-giving love. It is one, like Paul says in Galatians 6, that allows us to “bear one another’s burdens.” Paul says that bearing each other’s burdens is what causes us to fulfill the law of Christ.
How to fulfill the law of Christ
That is how you fulfill the law of Christ. Bear heavy things, like the burdens of being a recovering sinner which your neighbor is carrying.
None of us probably thinks we are doing this that great. We are in a sea of needy people with heavy burdens. Paul is writing to people who know one another. I think he is talking to people who felt love for one another before they got hurt by one another. Don’t retaliate, bear the other’s burden with them. Think of the person you are at odds with, are you just bearing your own burden in the conflict, or are you bearing theirs too? No one can do it on their own, and we can’t do it for anyone, but we are doing it together. We are trying to be interdependent—if you are bearing too much of someone’s burden, it may become burdensome. Boundary-setting can help with bearing someone’s burden, too.
I invite you to practice this in the context of our small communities call cells. As you share in the burden with each other, hold each other in prayer and in love. This bearing of each other’s burden is the kind of self-giving love that undoes the cycle of violence and our endless pursuit of justice. Bear the oppressed’s burden, walk with them, but in bearing it, share the love of Christ—there, we will all find true freedom.