Approximations of Justice

“He who would seek revenge should dig a grave for two.” Jewish proverb

This week I wrote a letter to the editor of the West Australian newspaper disagreeing with the opinions of another Christian.

His letter basically stated that the death penalty was the only appropriate punishment for the Bali bombers and that this would be ‘God’s justice’ meted out to them. He quoted the OT and was pretty vitriolic in his comments towards a previous letter writer who had suggested death was not the only option.

I was reading the paper while sipping a long mach in Cranked Cafe and couldn’t help but respond. It was a ‘gut’ response rather than a much thought thru and deliberated upon letter.

My letter reads:

The same book Don Jackson cites to advocate the death penalty for Bali bombers also says ‘do not return evil with evil but overcome evil with good’. Which one is it? Which one will build a better world? Justice must be done – no question – but you have limited it to one response and called it ‘God’s justice’ when it actually sounds a lot more like ‘Don’s justice’.

I find the question of what to do with the Bali bombers a hugely vexed one with no easy solutions. I think the death penalty is

a neat and tidy, ‘easy’ solution. It removes them from the planet and they can kill no more…

However this action gives birth to many consequences. To kill these men is simply to return evil for evil – which in turn will get responded to by more evil and so on. Someone has to break the cycle. It may also serve to make them martyrs and heros – probably not the desire result either. But it won’t act to dissuade people from killing. And even if it did I would question whether it is an appropriate response.

In talking with Mike & Rachel the other night (when I dropped in for dinner and had an amazing prawn salad) Mike mentioned that all of our attempts at justice are only approximations. We are not God and can never get things perfectly right. While in this case there may be a clear situation of wrongdoing we are still approximating a response.

To be quite honest there is a part of me that thinks they should die and even more, they deserve to die, yet I find it hard to hold that position biblically. I don’t expect a secular world to hold any regard for the biblical story, and I recognise that we as Christians will even disagree on best responses at times.

The reason for my letter was not because I am an ardent ‘anti-capital punishment’ supporter (although I would definitely err on that side of things) but it was because sharp, black and white often simplistic responses based on Old Testament passages of scripture leave me cold and infuriated.

Life is rarely as simple as I hear it made out to red letters free

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8 thoughts on “Approximations of Justice

  1. agree with your sentiment Hamo. Whether capital punishment is justified or not I’m undecided. But I think we need to differentiate between the state’s administration of justice and mine as an individual. E.g. The state can incarcerate criminals, but if I try to it’s considered a crime. Never the less, the guy you were responding to seems to have missed Gods heart entirely.

  2. I understand in the days when crowds used to gather in the market place to watch pick pockets and other petty criminals hang for their crimes, it was a terrific public opportunity for pick pockets to ply their trade. The death sentence makes those of us who are angered by a crime feel better that justice has been done, but it does not necessarily act as a deterrent to anyone else. And for those who see death as a reward for faithful service to their God it is certainly not punishment.

  3. HEY!!! – I read that yesterday, I did not put one and one together but I did nod my head in agreement.

    re: the death penalty lot easier for us Australians to allow it to happen off shore than here but then Australias pretty good at doing it’s dirty business off shore.

  4. Hmm, the death penalty. I think there’s definitely a place for it; for there are crimes which mean the perpetrator forfeits their right to life.

    But it is not my decision; it is a State decision: “… he who rebels against an authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves. … for he [the God-appointed authority] does not bear the sword for nothing.” (Rom. 13:1-5)

    Rebel against the State, and there may well be the judgement of “the sword” waiting for you. That is the way it must be in this fallen world. Of course it is not a perfect system of justice, and not even the apostle Paul supposes it will bring in the Kingdom of God. All it is, is a grim necessity of the State in this fallen world.

    Which frees me from having to defend it at several important levels: (i) it’s a State matter, not a church matter; (ii) it’s a product of a fallen world, and not the Kingdom of God; and (iii) ultimately, it is sanctioned by God (like it or not!), for he has appointed every authority there is.

  5. Hey Mike,

    I was just wondering about the whole “death penalty as sanctioned by God” thing. Just because God allows authority doesn’t necessarily mean he approves of how that authority is exercised. I don’t think you can say God sanctioned the killing sprees of Pol Pot or Sadam Hussein or Stalin or Hitler, yet if you follow your line of thinking you could be forgiven for thinking that is what you are saying.

    Ultimate justice, godly justice, can’t be metered out by humans – we are incapable of doing it correctly. Politics, self interest, self righteousness and a myriad of other things will keep getting in the way. The wrong people will die, the innocent (in a judicial sense) will die, people will make mistakes.

    A life is a life is a life. I believe that Jesus died to save us all from this kind of justice – he paid the penalty. To repay evil with evil, as Hamo mentioned, is not commensurate with the way of Jesus as I understand it.



  6. G’day Andrew,

    Well, I see what you’re saying. And be sure that I am not saying that Pol Pot & the rest are therefore justified in what they have done. Of course not. They too, like the ancient nation of Assyria which, while dripping with evil, was still an “instrument” in God’s hand, as the OT says, and yet still fully accountable to God for the evil perpetrated. So our theodicy (= the ‘problem of evil’) is nothing new!

    But let’s take your statement, “Just because God allows authority doesn’t necessarily mean he approves of how that authority is exercised.”

    If that is so, then what does it mean when Paul emphatically says that “all” the authorities have been “established” (not “allowed”!) by God? I mean, Paul is emphatic. In fact, he states it twice in Rom. 13:1 — negatively, and then (in case we misread him) positively.

    This is why I included the “like it or not” words in my first post. The fact is, along with most of us (I suspect) I don’t really like it when the Bible tells me that every authority — including Pol Pot, for argument’s sake — has been “established” by God. For the Bible is telling me that it is not only that God allows them to ascend; it is that God is the direct author and architect of their ascension. Now that is not what I say; it is what the Bible says. Unless my exegesis is drastically up the creek?!

    I always used to come to this passage with loud protest: “But Paul, what about CORRUPT authorities? Surely we don’t owe them any respect? Surely you’re only talking about the good ones here?”

    But here is the fact that I have had to grudgingly recognise: Paul knew — far more than you or I ever will, I daresay! — how corrupt and evil the human authorities could be. But still, he does not hesitate to say that they have been “established” by God, and that in God’s sovereignty they are all part of achieving his purpose.

    Now then, let’s be careful here. Paul’s line of argument from this point is not that everything the State does is OK, or that its leaders are beyond his accountability (no more than the Assyrian war machine was beyond the reach of God’s arm).

    But with regard to “judgement” and “the sword” (= capital punishment), says Paul, the State is nevertheless an instrument of God’s purposes. His argument is that since the State has been established by God, that therefore we must respect its machinery of law-keeping, including capital punishment. Not to do so, is to have disrespect for God, who has established the authority.

    I know it raises all sorts of questions for us — but I’m sure they had occured to Paul who got the rough end of the stick more often than not.

    So how did it work for Paul in practice? Perhaps Acts 23:3-5 give us a window into his thinking. The high priest is manifestly corrupt (as is the whole ‘kangaroo court’ atmosphere), and yet as soon as Paul realises he’s been giving a bit of verbal curry to the “ruler of God’s people” he quickly pulls his neck in!

    Which is just so counter-cultural for us Australians who have been railing against authority ever since 1788… which I think is the lens we’re looking at this issue through.



  7. Thanks for that Mike.

    I wonder if the key to this is in the preceding chapter of Romans (12)? Paul seems to be emphasising a way of living for followers of Jesus, that rests on humility and the blessing of others – even others who are committing evil acts (the whole “don’t repay evil with evil” thing again).

    It seems in ch 13 he follows on with a specific example of this kind of life in action – one, as you point out, that would have been particularly pertinent to Paul and his readers given their experiences under Roman rule.

    I agree, he is saying we need to live out our lives in respect for the authorities, but not that we have to accept evil actions (again I have to raise the Killing Fields, and the holocaust as examples) as also being acceptable to God. I think Paul makes it clear, that in spite of these things, we are not to “repay evil with evil” and that ultimately vengeance (and judgement) is God’s domain. So I would argue that it comes down to what is an appropriate response from the Christian to evil – Is it to take up arms against the oppressive regime or to “love our enemy”?

    As an example – I will keep paying my taxes and I won’t resort to violent behaviour, even while I lobby the government over their treatment of the poor or the marginalised. I will respect their authority even though, maybe and at times, I don’t agree with it.

    I think about the recent genocide in Rwanda. What of the people who gave refuge to Tutsi families and broke the law in doing so? Are they guilty of disobeying the government, and therefore of disrespecting God for taking non-violent action to save innocent lives?

    I will have to keep looking at this, but at this point I think that Paul is speaking to the way we live and the way we deal with injustice in these passages. He is providing the way of Jesus as a contrast to the way of the sword and not condoning the evil actions of ruling powers, even though they do draw their authority from God, who is over all earthly authorities.

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