Thursday, September 28, 2006

Mercy & Justice Redux

So on Wednesday, Dr. Mouw gave a chapel address that included a story from Charles Spurgeon. I can't find a link to the sermon online (if anyone knows it, please put a link in the comments), but the gist of it was an imaginary conversation between Mercy & Justice in heaven, watching the life of Christ unfold. At each point in Jesus' life, Mercy asks Justice if it is satisfied, but it is not satisfied until Jesus hangs on the cross. Good ol' substitutionary atonement theory.

But later I was pondering it (it really pissed me off - I turned to my friend and said, "Justice is kind of an asshole") and mentioned it to my internship supervisor, and she said, "Why does everybody always assume that Justice defeats Mercy? Why does Justice always get its way?" And that got me thinking that maybe the story could be rewritten. Also it got me thinking about what we mean by justice, because Mouw went on to explain that we are called to work for justice today, but what he meant in that sense was quite different than the justice in the story which demanded blood sacrifice. I thought about rewriting it so that the justice concept would be consistent, and so that mercy would in fact win in the end.

So here I humbly offer the Liberal Loosey-Goosey Atonement version of the Mercy & Justice story. Enjoy.

Mercy & Justice (an alternative take, with apologies to Charles Spurgeon)

Mercy and Justice were talking together in heaven. They lamented the state of humanity in its rebellion against God. Both desired reconciliation between the two. Justice demanded restitution for the sins of the world. Mercy desired nothing but renewed relationship. When the second person of the Trinity stepped forward to enact the radical plan of salvation for God’s creation, Mercy and Justice were pleased. They anticipated each being satisfied with the results of this risky endeavor.

When Jesus was born as a baby, Mercy and Justice joined the other residents of heaven in rejoicing and marveling. Mercy said to justice, “Look, he is a baby. God has humbled himself beyond all reason. Surely you are satisfied.” Justice replied, “This is not right. His family is poor. No one would take them in. Someone should help them.” Justice was pleased when the wise men showed up with gifts for the marginalized family. But he pointed out to Mercy that God’s incarnation, loving though it may be, did not resolve the problem of human sin. Mercy responded, “What could be more effective than God himself showing people the way to return to him?” Justice simply grunted.

Jesus grew up and began his ministry of teaching and healing. Justice was pleased with the way he reached out to the poor and dispossessed, and Mercy clapped her hands and laughed as Jesus touched another leper. Again, Mercy was satisfied, but Justice was taken aback at the way Jesus would simply forgive sins without any price paid. Mercy explained, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Jesus cannot help but radiate God’s love to all. This mercy knows no qualification, no boundaries, and requires nothing of the receiver.” Justice went in the other room to pout.

Before his Passion, Jesus prayed in the garden, sweating drops of blood. Mercy understood. She knew that the power of God would lie in humiliation. She knew that in God’s weakness is God’s strength. Justice was uncomfortable with the position God was placing himself in. God had the upper hand. God was righteous, it was humans who were sinful. So why was Jesus allowing himself to be arrested? To be treated so, well…unjustly? Mercy tried to put it into words, but found them wanting - how to explain the unbelievable love that would endure such suffering?

Instead, she reminded Justice of the way Jesus had behaved on earth, especially his last night with his friends, when he washed their feet. “God did not go to earth to condemn his creation, nor to demand something of them. God simply wanted to be closer to them, and desired their closeness in return.” In looking at what Jesus had done during his time there, Mercy could not but conclude that his goal was to show the world nothing but the purest, truest love, in the hopes that others would follow this way of life.

But instead, the world shrunk from Love, not daring to believe such Mercy was possible. Stuck in the way of Justice, it saw only a weakling who would not stand up for himself at trial. As Jesus hung on the cross, Justice still was not satisfied: “But he did not deserve the death penalty! He was innocent.” Mercy told him to hush, for Jesus was speaking: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Mercy smiled, knowing by these words that she had won. In the incredible power of Mercy, Jesus absorbed all the violence and pain and hate that the world could throw at God. Jesus took it into himself…and died.

But it was not over yet. Mercy watched with unfathomable delight as Christ resurrected from the dead. Justice couldn’t believe his eyes – what did this have to do with balancing the scales? It was a neat trick, to be sure, but it wasn’t all that necessary. Oh, no, Mercy exclaimed. When Jesus resurrected, it proved once and for all that death had lost its sting, that love cannot be quenched. It proved that Justice, in the end, was not important –Mercy had the final word. The most Merciful God had proved that no matter what the humans did against him, He would always come back with more love than ever. Unable to argue, Justice acquiesced to the overwhelming power of Mercy.

We like to give Justice the upper hand, to say it must be satisfied. But we have no evidence that God’s Mercy will be or even has been overwhelmed by God’s Holiness or Righteousness or dignity. No story – no act of God – tells us God demands Justice (although words attributed to God do say so). Nothing about Jesus suggests that God cares about his reputation, and Jesus' actions show he cares "more about suffering than sin" (Alexia Salvatierra). All the stories tell us God is forever reaching out with both hands – seeking Adam & Eve in the garden after their rebellion; forgiving his people over and over (despite his better judgment perhaps); choosing to work through the poor, the humble, and the slow; standing as a Father out on the road, every day, hoping against hope that it will be the day the child comes home. And finally, above all, taking into himself all evil so that it could be vanquished. So that he could prove once and for all that it is Mercy, not Justice, that will be satisfied.

Now we live in the Mercy of God for us, and pour out that Mercy on the world. We stand with Justice against the violence and pain and hatred still in the world, but we can stand there humbly and absorb the world’s suffering because we know that in the end this evil has no power. In the end, God will win. Mercy will overpower Justice. Because that is who God is.

9 comments:

Hugo said...

That's really superb, Fem. Thanks.

Have you read Mouw's defense of the atonement theory? It was in an eloquent CT article a few years back. Here's the link to the beginning, but you have to be a CT Library reader to get the rest. (I gave my subscription up.)

http://www.ctlibrary.com/bc/2001/janfeb/3.12.html

Tom said...

Feminarian,

Please let me confess my ignorance, I have no idea who Charles Spurgeon is (but I'll do a Google on him) but I see nothing in your post that would indicate the need for an apology to him.

I think you should not, however, refer to the 'mercy wins' stance as being 'Liberal' or 'Loosey-Goosey'. In fact, my testimony (and the testimony of human history) is the 'mercy wins' mindset is the very mind-set of the Living God. Is this not what The Father has demonstrated to us for thousands of years? I think you have said this, quite eloquently.

We have allowed the 'justice wins' advocates to rule the conversation for too long. I say, their stance is actually the more loose and 'liberal' stance.

You, Feminarian, are the 'conservative' if you think of conservative as holding closest to reality and to God's example. (I mean you no ill will when I say that your 'mercy wins' represents to me a very healthy, "fundamentalist" stance.)

I can think of all kinds of reasons why people would be fearful of the 'mercy wins' approach. For one, we can't stand to think of people 'getting away' with sin. We want retribution. Yet the Living God does not give us what we deserve.

Your post brings to mind a wonderful song that Google tells me is written or at least performed by CeCe Winans. To quote from those lyrics:

"When sin demanded justice for my soul... Mercy said no... Thank you, Jesus, Mercy said no".

Thank YOU, Feminarian, for reminding us that it is not justice but rather it is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.

Please, keep on bloggin'.

seeker said...

Well, like Leslie D. Weatherhead (Methodist Minister and author of The Christian Agnostic - sorry I can't figure out how to underline on this page), I don't believe that Jesus came to atone for or save us from our sins. I believe that he came to make a covenant that he would always be with us. (And to bring us to God.)

So, from that viewpoint, maybe there is no need to have what is essentially a competition between Mercy and Justice.

Jonny said...

Here is a sermon by C.H. Spurgeon on mercy and justice being reconciled by the death of the Lord Jesus Christ

http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/2447.htm

check out sometime a book titled "Saving Power: Theories of atonement and forms of the church" by Peter Schmiechen

I have a blog in Journalspace user name "darkcloud"

I have enjoyed reading your blog.

Richard Mouw said...

I have no problem with disagreements about my specific views about the relationship between mercy and justice, but I need to ask you and your internship supervisor if you arereally angry with divine justice as such or with simply certain views about how it operates. When you hear a Dr. King denouncing racial injustice, calling for justice to roll down like a mighty river, is it your inclination to ask, resentfully, "Why does justice always have to win?" MLK, like the prophets of old, insisted that God hates sin, and will not leave the debts of injustice unsettled. My project is to convince evangelicals, who have always insisted that our individual sins cannot be atoned for without justice being satisfied, that this same divine justice cries out against our collective sins--and that, praise God, justice will win out in the ends--which means that we should line up on its side here and now. Now, what is it about justice as such that you find so irritating?

The Feminarian said...

I don't find justice irritating, I simply believe it springs from mercy. In other words, mercy (love) is the foundation of justice. Justice can never trump its parent - it bows before the loving nature of God. Love cannot be subject to the demands of justice, but justice is always subject to the demands of love. Love allows sins against God to be forgotten and forgiven, while at the same time requiring the justice of MLK and others in that vein.

Therefore, justice is a beautiful, wonderful thing, because it has its source in loving mercy that forgives when the human conception of justice would demand retribution. I guess in my story I made Justice a bit more of the human kind. My bad. We seem to be kind of saying the same thing. Justice holds sinners accountable (esp systemic sin), but I would add that they are accountable to the loving mercy of God, not to judgment.

I do think what you desire to speak to Evangelicals is a necessary truth. I simply don't like atonement theory wielded like a weapon, as some do (not you, Dr. Mouw!).

I'm humbled that you've read this and responded. Thank you!

Elmo said...

You make Justice seem like a punk; like someone whow dominates to hide inadequacy. But Justice personified would be strong and principled, and bound not to God's mercy, but His righteousness. No characteristic of God is more significant than any other.

What's important is that before Christ's death, our relationship with God was governed by Justice. The Law required obedience, sins needed atonement, and rebellion received punishment.

But through Christ's death and resurection, the baton was passed, and our relationship with God is now governed by Mercy. Justice didn't "win". Justice had to be satisfied, and the mercy Christ showed through the cross did just that. So, Justice didn't defeat Mercy, Mercy satisfied Justice. At least, that's how my story would go.

I have other comments on your story, if you'd like to see them, visit my blog P.O.S. 51

The Feminarian said...

You're just telling the story as Spurgeon originally did, so you are in good company.

But you say "no attribute of God is any more important than any other", yet I read "God is Love" in the Bible and I don't think it says "God is justice" although I could be wrong. So "Justice" is an attribute we assign to God because we want it, but I am not sure it's biblically supported (beyond God desiring it but that's different from God personifying it as God does Love, Mercy).

Elmo said...

I spent a long time looking for that Spurgeon story, but couldn't find it. I'm surprised that I got close to his intent.

I have not come across any characteristic that God personifies as John says "God is love," but I have found that "God is just" (2Thess. 1:6), "God is merciful" (Daniel 9:9), and "God is righteous" (Daniel 9:14). There are plenty of verses that speak of God's righteousness, His mercy, and His justice, but these are the only that do it reflexively (in the NIV). I will have to look into it more though, because I don't know if I've effectively faced the question. I'll revisit this topic soon on my blog.