God’s kind of justice

I used to not care much for God’s justice. That’s because I thought of justice like Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly.

In “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Tom’s cousin Sid accidentally breaks a sugar bowl while Aunt Polly is out of the room. When she returns, she assumes Tom broke the sugar bowl and wallops him for it. When Tom explains “Sid broke it!” she replies, “Umf! Well, you didn’t get a lick amiss, I reckon. You been into some other audacious mischief when I wasn’t around, like enough.”

Aunt Polly’s justice is “giving sinners the punishment they deserve,” sometimes a fair bit more.

Of course, Christians believe God’s grace means not giving sinners the punishment they deserve. By this understanding of justice, God’s grace and love, and God’s justice, are in tension with each other.

I struggled with this for a long time because God’s love is central to my understanding of who God is. So for God to “also be just” meant God was not fully loving.

Then I looked up what the Bible says about justice.

God’s justice and Aunt Polly’s couldn’t be more different. The notion of God’s justice as punitive is all but completely divorced from what Scripture teaches about justice. Only rarely is biblical justice punitive.

God’s justice in the Bible is not about putting guilty people in prisons, but about setting prisoners free. When people in Scripture plead for justice, it’s not usually the death of wrongdoers they seek; it’s their own lives.

In the Bible, justice is not generally for evildoers; it’s for the oppressed, for those with less power and fewer rights. The biblical shorthand for those people was usually “orphans and widows and aliens.” In modern-day America, those with less power may include racial or sexual minorities, or undocumented immigrants, or poor people.

So when Christians talk about police killing unarmed Black men who weren’t an immediate and obvious threat to others, we can’t refer to this as “justice” – at least not in a biblical sense. There is no biblical concept of justice that justifies law enforcement officers killing unarmed Black men.

Some say, “They shouldn’t have resisted,” or “If they had just done what they were told, they would still be alive.” Others have argued, “They were on drugs” or “They had committed a crime.”

These abominable attempts at justifications for the taking of human life are unconscionable and are entirely contradicted by the Christian faith and understanding of justice at every turn.

Does saying “Black Lives Matter” mean “all police officers are evil,” or even “most police officers are evil,” or “only Black Lives Matter”? Of course not! But when police officers kill people who pose no immediate threat to others, as we saw with Daunte Wright and George Floyd, or abuse their power, as we saw with Caron Nazario, we must not shrink from calling sin a sin.

Why emphasize the misdeeds of police officers more than other evildoers? Because they are in authority, and Scripture teaches us that those in authority are to be held to a higher standard.

I’m not an expert in police use of force. I don’t know how police could’ve apprehended Wright without killing him. That’s not my job. I’m a pastor.

What I do know is Wright, Floyd, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray Jr., Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and so many others should still be alive today.

But it’s too late for that. All we can do is work so this sort of evil is never allowed to happen again.

God’s kind of justice demands it.

This column appeared in The Herald-Palladium on April 17, 2021