Saturday 12 January 2019

Christianity is not (much) about justice - Christians should stop explaining it that way

It is going-against a very mainstream - especially Protestant - view of Christianity (and the emphasis of the Apostle Paul) when I say Christianity is not - or is hardly at all - about justice.

Indeed, quite the opposite: the promise of Christ is that salvation comes to all who follow him in love - and that is a massive short-circuit of anything like justice.

My understanding is that God is our loving parents (if regarded simply as our single Father, that makes no difference to my point) - and parents do not naturally raise their children by justice, but by love.

Justice is an abstraction linked to The Law, Judges, prescribed sanctions and the like - and these do not exist in a good family.

(Or, insofar as they do exist, they are expedient, tailored to circumstance and individual, changeable with ages... and so forth - by the end of which the analogy has pretty thoroughly broken-down. We ought not to run our families as if we were a judge disinterestedly interpreting and implementing a set of laws on a nation.)

So - from the perspective arising from what we know of the nature of God and the relations between God and Men - Justice ought not to be the focus of Christianity, not the focus of how Jesus's work is conceptualised.

This is backed-up by the Fourth Gospel - which does Not have a justice-focused account of Jesus's mission. Indeed quite the opposite. Jesus is a deliberate and repeated law-breaker (i.e. breaking the laws of the Jews, including the most profound laws against blasphemy). He repeatedly excuses himself and others from the consequences of law breaking - because there are much more important things afoot; because he is introducing a new dispensation that is Not derived from laws.

Instead; Jesus repeatedly short-circuits the law to aim at what he teaches to be the essence of his twofold message: his own nature as divine, Son of God; and the promise (repeated several times - including at the beginning and end of the gospel) that those who choose to love and follow him (in loving fellowship) through death, will attain to the resurrection of life everlasting, also (like Jesus) as divine Sons of God, dwelling in Heaven.

A justice-centred Christianity is primarily about a religion of obedience to universal laws, about Men satisfying the demands of justice; but that is not correct. Christianity ought primarily to be about following Jesus to life everlasting; about what life everlasting means; and about the fact of love being the basis of creation and salvation alike.

It is not that laws and justice are arbitrary or unimportant - in history or here and now - but that they are expedient. Laws are simplified abstractions hence always incomplete and biased; that laws can be and usually are non-loving 'mechanisms'; and justice is an impersonal procedure, and so on.

In our societies we presumably need laws, but our societies are not (or should not be) rooted in laws; any more than they should be rooted in votes, or money - any other needful expedient. What we are rooted in must stand outside, deeper than, and before laws and justice.

Therefore, it is of particular importance that Christians stop explaining their faith being grounded in legalistic concepts and the demands of 'justice', when explaining to outsiders, among themselves; because this is Ultimately Not True.

In sum; I regard the common focus on justice, when explaining what Jesus did, to be an error - and a dangerous error - because easily refuted by mainstream modernists.

Indeed, a justice-based religion points at Judaism or Islam - much more than it points at Christianity. To focus on justice is implicitly to reject the vital work of Jesus. No matter how hard we try to insert Jesus into the system of divine Justice, the metaphysics of legalism will be working against him.

Justice, for Christians, is therefore a red herring; a misleading distraction from what we really ought to be focusing on; and justice stands in the path of proper understanding.


Ann K. said...

That’s the Orthodox view: Christ came not to make bad men good, but to make dead men live.

Bill said...

"Jesus is a deliberate and repeated law-breaker" seems to be contradicted by the first half of Mark chapter 7, and most of the New Testament narrative. If Jesus broke the law, why didn't the Pharisees charge him with breaking the law?

What Jesus condemned the Jewish nation for was perverting the law of God, and, ironically for your blog post, not seeking justice. Matthew 23 makes this pretty clear.

Mark 7:8-9; "For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition."

Matthew 23:23; "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bill - Not sure what your line of argument is here.

Jesus is shown repeatedly breaking the laws - as an integral part of his teaching ministry. It was an either/ or situation - if the law applied, then nothing significant had changed; and there was no necessary role for Jesus - at most he could be a prophet, like John (the Baptist).

Jesus had to supercede the law and the authorities that interpreted and implemented it - Jesus himself replaced the law; and to have the authority to do this, Jesus had to be divine: to wield divine authority.

I am aware that other parts of the New Testament than the Fourth Gospel apparently assert that Jesus asserted that he did not break the law, that he completed or extended the law etc. - but that doesn't make sense when he so obviously did break the law (or fail to implement it - as with the woman taken in adultery), and systematically (eg chosing the Sabbath to do a healing miracle of a chronically ill person); so I assume those verses must err in their descriptions, have been changed, or else we misunderstand them.

As for motivations, I can only guess. The Pharisees wanted Jesus dead, so he had to be proved guilty of breaking a Roman law that led to capital punishment. Claiming to be God ('I am') would easily have been enough to have him killed on the spot if the Jewish leaders had been in control, but they were a conquered nation.

My point is that I have heard Christianity described to beginners, to outsiders, from scratch - in several ways that are wrong at worst, but are even at best the wrong way to start because they build-in misconceptions.

One is to emphasise the 'nature' of the Trinity (one in three in one etc) which is either nonsense, or at best attempting to build understanding on an incomprehensible mystery. Yet I have seen this as number One in a list of 'what we believe' statements on church web pages; meant to be evangelical.

The justice idea is another error. For a start, I live in a world where 'the law' (mostly deriving from the European Union) is incoherent nonsense, wickedly motivated, and applied corruptly as a routine - so this creates entirely the wrong mind set.

But more significantly, it is very difficult to build an understanding of a religion of love inside a framework that is primarily legalistic and impartial. God is not impartial, any more than a loving parent (husband, brother, son) is impartial; because impartiality entails extracting the abstract 'essence' from a situation and ignoring the varied and specific personal aspects. This amounts to saying God is something like the CEO of a bureaucracy.

Once that kind of picture has been hammered home - what chance of creating a proper understanding of the vital matter of the parent-child relationship of God and Man and the sibling relationship with Christ?

John Rockwell said...

"Jesus is shown repeatedly breaking the laws - as an integral part of his teaching ministry. It was an either/ or situation - if the law applied, then nothing significant had changed; and there was no necessary role for Jesus - at most he could be a prophet, like John (the Baptist). "

If he indeed broke the Law then he would have sinned. No one can truly accuse him of breaking any of the Mosaic Law.

But Jesus was without sin. Otherwise Jesus cannot have fulfilled the Law and therefore is able to be an atonement for sin.

Blasphemy for example was proven false by his fulfillment of Messianic Prophecy, Miraculous Signs and Wonders and his Resurrection.

His supposed Sabbath Breaking is shown false by the example of David and the Shewbread. As well as the allowance of the poor to pluck heads of grain. (Deuteronomy 23:25)

There are other examples no doubt cited by other people. But any breaking of the Law is sin.

John Rockwell said...

"but that doesn't make sense when he so obviously did break the law (or fail to implement it - as with the woman taken in adultery)"

This example is also explained the fact that lack of 2-3 witnesses and the missing guilty man makes the trial illegitimate.

The sentence cannot truly be legally passed even without the Romans.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JR - I'm not sure what you are arguing - but my point is that, however interpreted legalistically, such issues are Not primary to Jesus, as he was described in the Fourth (and By Far most authoritative) Gospel. (Or indeed as we may experience a personal relationship with him today.)