Inscrutable Justice

There is a media ritual that I detest even more than most media rituals: the televised thrusting of microphones into the faces of bereaved crime victims to get their opinions on what should be done to the accused. The bereaved, true sons and daughters of our extraordinarily punitive culture (compare our rates of incarceration), almost always take the bait and express some blood-curdling call for vengeance.

I wish I could rush through the screen and say “No! Hold that thought! Don’t say it! You don’t need to prove you loved the victim! Don’t debase yourself!”

As one who prays regularly “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” few phrases so terrify me as “I will never forgive,” which is the gist of what those cameras, microphones, and prosecutor-solicited “victim impact statements” encourage.

Victim impact statements are, now that I mention it, another, er, pet peeve. The criminal court system works on the theory that the “State of Indiana” (or whatever) is prosecuting the Defendant because he breached the peace, security and good order of the State by his deed. It is not “Family of Victim” versus Defendant. Victim Impact Statements thus are a solecism on the grammar of the criminal law, and, once again, merely invite vindictive expressions that imperil the souls of victims and their families as they’re incited not to forgive.

Oh: do you have any doubt that crimes against victims with articulate white family member/victims end up seen as particularly heinous?

A mediation-type setting, where victims could tell the offender how his act affected them outside the hearing of judge or jury might actually serve restoration of the offender. Victim impact statements, in contrast, are oriented more toward exacting extra retribution and trying to assure that the offender never gets out, never gets restored.

These concerns flooded over me as I browsed my blog feeds while waiting for lunch to come today:

The [Church] fathers have a term for insatiable desires: passions. What human beings experience as a desire for justice is not a virtue – it is a passion, a disordered desire of the soul.
Virtues, the desires that are rightly ordered, have a proper end to their desire. They can be satisfied because they have a proper end. The experience of hunger, when rightly ordered, is perfectly natural and is able to know and experience a sense of completion. Enough is enough. When hunger is disordered it cannot rightly discern its end. The desire for food becomes confused. The result is gluttony – experienced by too much or too little food. I recall a friend, a recovering alcoholic, who said that the problem with alcohol was that “there was never enough.”
The Law in the Old Testament recognized the disordered character of human justice. It placed limits on our desire for justice. The Lex Talionis, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is not a prescription for what must be paid for an injury: it is a limit on the maximum that may be extracted. Our desire for justice is never satisfied with an eye for an eye. We would like two eyes, a hand, a foot, an electronic ankle bracelet and 6 million dollars in punitive damages (and even then we are not actually satisfied).

But Father Stephen isn’t out to reform the criminal justice system. He’s using an analogy to introduce some truths about God.

But first, let’s start with a near-slander of God from Jonathan “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God” Edwards:

…if the obligation to love, honour, and obey God be infinite, then sin which is the violation of this obligation, is a violation of infinite obligation, and so is an infinite evil. Once more, sin being an infinite evil, deserves an infinite punishment, an infinite punishment is no more than it deserves: therefore such punishment is just; which was the thing to be proved. (Jonathan Edwards, “The Eternity of Hell Torments” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (vol. 2, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974) 83.)

Even Father Stephen admits:

His reasoning appears flawless. Our obligation to God is infinite, so its violation is infinite. Infinite crime warrants and infinite punishment: ergo eternity in the torments of hell.

Theology that ends with “Q.E.D.” There was a time when I’d have eaten that up.

Time out: Might such Calvinism, which sees God as the possessor of an infinite victim impact statement, have something to do with how we view, and pursue, criminal offenders?

Time back in: But what if God is not a thin-skinned medieval lord (the medieval period being when this notion gained currency)? What if He’s not “infinitely offended”?

Infinite is simply an inappropriate adjective to use in our relationship with God. It brings inappropriate and incommensurate results in its train. It is more accurate to say of our relationship to God, and those things that belong to it, that they are “immeasurable.” What is required is not without limit (for the infinite cannot be required of the finite), but it is beyond our finite ability to measure.
This is a far more accurate way to approach the justice of God. His justice is not properly described as infinite (what would that mean?). His justice is inscrutable – we simply cannot know it, fathom it, or understand it. It is a useless concept when it comes to understanding our obligations to God. God is just – because He is not unjust. But what it means to say that “God is just,” is beyond our ken.
The result of the distortions caused by faulty theologizing about God’s justice, is a God who is not worthy of worship. There are those who not only glibly consign sinners to hell, but also postulate that the righteous will rejoice in the torment of sinners because of their delight in the goodness of God’s justice. Those with normal human sensibilities are repulsed by such notions. Those who embrace such heresy have their soul’s perverted desire for infinite justice confirmed. Such theology does not heal the soul – it corrupts it further and feeds its passions.

Yes, I think we’re back to things like what God do atheists “not believe in”? A “God” who consigns people to hell because of his anger problem? I don’t believe in that one, either. I don’t think people believed in that one for the first millennium or so of the Christian era.

How can anyone say “God is love” if that’s what he has in mind? How can anyone “worship” him? Is it worship or toadying?

Much more quoting and I’ll transgress (not infinitely) against the dignity of Fr. Stephen. If you have any concern with (a) justice and forgiveness among humans or (b) the nature of God’s justice, I commend the whole article to you.