7.28.19 River Community Church — Criminal Justice – Gen. 18:25; 39:20-21
Perhaps one of the most loved and well-known stories of love and redemption in Western Literature is the 19th century novel about the French Revolution by Victor Hugo, Les Mis.
I was talking to a friend about it recently, and he said that it’s a powerful “true” story, even though it’s fiction. That’s what great art should aspire to. Even though it’s a fictional story, it tells of something true— namely, the power of the gospel to transform and redeem the lives of those who society says are irredeemable.
If you’re not familiar with the story, Jean Valjean is the famous prisoner, whose life is transformed by a radical act of mercy. From that point on, he lives as a new man becoming mayor of a small town, ever-cognizant of treating people with mercy and compassion.
Then there is the rigid man of the law, Javert. He’s a man of justice, upholder of society, who is ever-pursuing Valjean for breaking parole.
And the typical reading of the story is one of a tension between law and grace— legalism vs gospel.
Near the end of the novel, Javert is arrested as a spy among the young revolutionaries and Valjean has an opportunity to kill Javert. Valjean spares Javert’s life, and Javert then surrenders his relentless pursuit of arresting Valjean, letting him go free.
The novel depicts Javert as a victim to despair (loss of hope)— despair that clouded his thinking, he wasn’t thinking coherently, and ultimately he commits suicide— His entire worldview as upholder of the law was shaken by this act of mercy. He’s a tragic figure whose worldview didn’t have room for a view of justice that was haunted by the mercy of God.
Javert’s story ends in tragedy, but it is interesting that before he dies, he writes a letter to the Parisian police office instructing them to make some changes to the way they treat their prisoners. So, in some sense, the grace of God displayed through Valjean ripples into the wider criminal justice system— glimmers of “restorative justice.”
Although the cultural situation in 18th Century France is very different than in America today, we’re still wrestling with these questions of criminal justice: Is our identity defined by our crime? Does society view prisoners with dignity and compassion? Are prisoners able to be rehabilitated into society? How is it possible for people to find work and rise above poverty when they’ve been forever marked as an ex-con?
What makes Les Mis such a powerful story is that it deals with these questions in such a way that stirs our hearts. The story shapes the way that we think about the issue.
And as Christians, we too, have a story— a controlling narrative.
This year, as a church, we’ve looked at the Bible, a single narrative with many subplots— The Bible tells the story of God’s activity in history. And it shapes us— shapes our imaginations, minds, behavior and shapes our speech, so that we are full of grace and truth.
And it should shape the way we should think about the issues of our day. As Christians, we are to be in the world, not of the world. We don’t think about or talk about issues the way the world does. We’re to be sanctified, not sterilized from culture. We’re faithfully present in, not defensive against culture.
Scripture functions like corrective lenses— The Bible is not disconnected from reality, it helps us see reality clearly and accurately. So, when we look at the issue of criminal justice, we want to look at it through the lens of Scripture, and we allow Scripture correct our understanding of justice and the dignity of the criminal.
So, that’s our question this morning. What does the Church have to say about this? Or more importantly, what does the God have to say about this? It’s certainly not just a contemporary issue that the Bible has nothing to say about. The Bible actually has much to say concerning justice and the oppressed. Our chief concern is to view this question in light of the overall narrative of Scripture.
The main thrust behind all that I’m going to say can be summed up with a single verse. Genesis 18:25 “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” This is Abraham, praying, interceding for Sodom, and he asks the rhetorical question. And the answer is “of course.” “Yes.” God is the God who acts justly. God is the God who is just. Isaiah 61:8 “For I the LORD love justice.” So my main goal this morning is to help us choose joy and trust in the God who is just.
But for us to understand God as the God who is just, we have to understand the nature of justice— how the Bible understand the concept? How does the Bible use the term?
The Old Testament uses two words, often paired together or used interchangeably. The words are: righteousness and justice.
Gen 18:19 “keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.”
The Hebrew word for righteousness, refers to the moral quality of a person and their actions, how they relate to others in community. It’s an ethical standard.
The Hebrew word for justice carries two dimensions. What we today would say “retributive” and “restorative.” So, retributive, in a legal sense in dealing with punishment or retribution… but restorative carries the sense of “well-being.” Restoring and elevating the quality of life… So, it’s a word that means “giving one’s due,” which can include punishment/vindication, but it can also include acting with mercy and compassion.
I think it’s here where Christians kinda go off the rails. There can be a lot of baggage with retributive justice, and some Christians don’t like the idea that God would punish at all… they think it paints God as an angry old man or that somehow it’s a stain on his moral purity or something…— and so they emphasize a purely restorative nature of God’s justice. They create a false dichotomy- two extreme poles… it’s either God’s justice is purely punitive or God’s justice is purely restorative.
The reality is the cross is where God’s retributive and restorative justice meet. His justice is motivated by love. God justly condemns sin in the flesh, justly declares us righteous through faith in Christ and he restores us to relationship with him—and because of the resurrection, he begins the work of renewing all things. God’s justice carries both meanings, punitive and restorative. God punishes sin, but his justice goes beyond punishment to include the restoration of relationships.
So, the truth of the matter is this: as Christians our hope should be that our justice system reflects the nature of the cross— We should aim at a cruciform view of justice… a view that’s formed by the cross (cruci-form)… which includes punishment but also goes beyond punishment to includes the restoration of and healing of relationship, both with God and others.
Wisdom requires balance… this doesn’t mean there is no room for retribution or punishment…because if we let all punishment go by the wayside, we actually do an injustice to the victim… But on the other hand, we shouldn’t be too naïve or optimistic about human nature or an offender’s apology. The point is, we have to resist creating a false dichotomy when thinking about retributive and restorative justice.
Let’s look at a case study from Genesis. The Joseph Story — the crime of the century.
It’s a story of love, hate, slavery, forgiveness. Just like Les Mis shapes the way that we think about the dignity of the criminal, this story shapes the way that we ought to think about crime, injustice, compassion and forgiveness.
Joseph, the youngest of 12 brothers, the favorite son of Jacob. The brothers are jealous and devise a plan to kill him, but then Rueben says — let’s not kill him, just throw him into the pit. (I don’t think this is an innocent act of mercy…this is Rueben’s attempt to gain favor with his father… he thought if we don’t kill Joseph, I can rescue him and be the one who restores him to our father.) They throw him into the pit— and Judah, one of the brothers, sees some traders and has the idea— Let’s make some money and sell him into slavery. Then they deceive their father and tell him that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.
That’s injustice #1. (Really, that’s like 4, but that’s the first major turn of events in the narrative).
Then, once in Egypt, an Egyptian official named Potiphar buys Joseph and he becomes a servant. And here, we see a phrase that is important in the narrative.
Gen 39:3 “His master saw that the LORD was with him.” And Joseph has “favor” in this situation.
But then, injustice #2. Potiphar’s wife tries to persuade Joseph to sleep with her— They have this fight— Joseph flees, leaving behind his clothes— and he’s falsely accused of attempted rape— but even the accusation is tinged with racism… it was the “Hebrew” that did it. Emphasizes his otherness.
Potiphar hears about this, and—injustice #3—Joseph is thrown into prison.
But it’s here where we see that important phrase again.
“But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.”
God is with him. And— God shows him his steadfast love, which in Jewish thought, communicates that God was acting with righteousness toward him.
And let me be very clear. I’m not saying, nor is the Bible saying, that the injustice is unimportant because “oh, God is with him.”
The fact that God is with him amid such injustice tells us something very unique about the Character of God — it points to the reality that we have a God who would enter into that injustice, enter into that place of suffering with us— that he would even take it upon himself, on the cross. There’s no other religion in the world where God would step into that with us.
One of his cell mates, the cupbearer gets out, and Joseph pleads with him “remember me” and plead my case to Pharaoh. He emphasizes the unjust nature of the whole train of events In 40:15, “For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit.”
And vs 23, is discouraging… “yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.”
Prison is one of the last places I’d want to be, but especially a prison in B.C. And Joseph is there for two years. We don’t know what his thoughts were, but you can imagine it was something similar to cries of David in Psalm 13: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
Or, maybe it was something like Abraham’s question: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? Do Something!
Even though the injustice is allowed to persist, God is with him, God sees his dignity as someone made in his image. And in God’s wisdom, he’s using the injustice to bring salvation to all people, to work all things for good.
So we fast forward to the end of the narrative. Joseph is eventually remembered, brought out of prison and interprets Pharaoh’s dreams. There was going to be a severe famine in the land, and so Joseph warns Pharaoh of this and tells him to store up grain in the years prior to the famine. Joseph is raised to power. Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, hearing grain was for sale. And it’s a great reversal, of Joseph being in power, and the brothers being the ones who are vulnerable.
What does he do? Opportunity for revenge?
He invites them to a table fellowship— big feast and blesses him, he provides for them. They’re restored and reconciled. And at the very end of the book, Joseph says to his brothers,
Gen 50:20 “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
Not a meaningless platitude. Real people were saved from death, from starvation…in God’s mysterious plan, which included suffering and Joseph’s imprisonment, God provided food for people who would have died in the famine.
Joseph was unjustly imprisoned to be a savior of sorts of all people— Egyptians and Jews.
An incredible foreshadowing of Jesus— the suffering servant, who also was betrayed and falsely accused, and beaten and mocked, crucified only for the sake of saving all people, Jews and Gentiles alike.
One of the main points we’re supposed to see in the Joseph narrative is that it was God’s faithfulness that was at work. God is the one who made Joseph fruitful in his affliction and injustice. The whole narrative points to the reality that God is the God of justice. He is the God who will act justly. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
And the long arc of the narrative, is YES… even though injustices were permitted along the way. God is just and will act justly in his way and in his timing.
The nature of Christian hope is future-oriented… toward what we call the eschaton…end. We’re looking forward to the fullness of God’s kingdom, when all that is wrong shall be put to right… The reality of God’s kingdom is already not-yet. This means, it is here, but not yet here in fullness. God’s work of restoration has been inaugurated, but it is not yet consummated. So, we live in hope (which is not wishful thinking, but confident expectation) that God’s future shalom (peace and wholeness and justice) will come in fullness.
So, what do we do in the meantime? What do we do while real people suffer? What do we do when people are in prisons wrongly condemned? What do we do when it appears like there is disproportionate prison populations among ethnic minorities?
By no means exhaustive, I have three suggestions toward application.
- Acknowledge the good of reform.
One could say our culture loves to critique. A culture of aggrievances. But it’s much easier to critique and destroy than it is to create and contribute some lasting good. It’s right to celebrate achievements and steps in the right direction. To celebrate the good along the way doesn’t mean we are blind to work that might still need to be done
Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship is the world’s largest prison ministry. It’s active in all 50 states 117 countries worldwide. They provide spiritual resources through bible studies and partnering with local churches, but they go beyond just spiritual aid in seeking to be truly restorative. They have programs that are devoted to healthy reintegration into Christian community upon leaving prison.
Or, right here in Wichita, we have TUMI— The urban ministry institute— works with under resourced communities. The prison in Hutch was the first prison to incorporate TUMI’s discipleship curriculum and program into its facility.
It’s appropriate to practice thanksgiving in acknowledging the good of reform, and even in joining in with these type of ministries as a way to love and serve.
- Learn the language of lament.
Lament is not the same thing as complaining, though it might involve a “complaint.” Complaining is really when you’re disconnected at a heart level or in any real sense, but you just give full vent to your fury or annoyances. That’s not lament.
Lament is a biblical practice— not practiced much in the Church today because it can be kind of awkward. Lament is where we stand in solidarity with those who are suffering. It’s about being open with God about our inner turmoil.
It’s what Paul says in Romans: “weep with those who weep.”
The language of lament is seen all throughout the psalms… in fact, the majority of psalms are psalms of lament.
Psalm 13: “How long, O LORD?”
Psalm 55: “Give ear to my prayer, O God!”
Biblical lament is more than just expressing inner turmoil and empathy, as important as that is… Biblical lament goes further in that it also expresses confident trust in God in the midst of suffering. Ultimately, it’s an expression of trust and praise. We lament because God is on the throne— we expect him to hear and respond. We express confidence in his faithfulness and goodness.
There’s a pattern in the psalms that begin with a complaint but end on a note of trust.
Psalm 13 ends, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love.”
Psalm 55 ends, “But I will trust in you.”
So, it’s here, in the language of lament, that we can really find solidarity with those who are suffering, those who are experiencing injustice. Solidarity in suffering is meaningful because it’s the very thing that Jesus did for us.
Jesus gives meaning to our suffering because he himself suffered. He himself was subjected to injustice. He gives meaning to our suffering because he transforms it by defeating sin and death on the cross and because of his resurrection, working all things new. So, in his suffering, he is present and identifies with us in our suffering. It’s meaningful because in our suffering, we don’t want a philosophical answer, we want a “hey, I am with you!”
This is what Jesus means in Matthew 25, when Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” … “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Jesus preserves the dignity of the sufferer here. The ones experiencing hunger, sickness, malnourishment, imprisonment— he says “that was me” — I was with them in that suffering. Just as God was with Joseph. And because because he uses the pronoun “I,” he infuses dignity into those in those situations— they are image bearers.
We are to view them as such, and we are to join in solidarity in the language of lament. Which ultimately is an expression of confident trust in God.
And lastly 3)
Choose joy and trust in the God who is just.
The prophet Habakkuk is a prime biblical example of someone who does this.
Habakkuk lived in a time where he lamented the corruption that was infecting Israel— Habakkuk is a dialogue between him and God alone.
He voices his complaint— his lament before God.
Habakkuk: 1:4 “So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.
God: 1:5 “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.”
God tells him— I know about this, and I’m brining the Babylonians to come and judge Israel.
Then Habakkuk begins to question God’s methods. How is it just that you’re gonna use the wicked Babylonians to bring justice to Israel? “Why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?”
God answers by encouraging Habakuk to trust and hope that God will act justly.
2:3-4 “If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” … “but the righteous shall live by his faith.”
In other words, be patient and have forward-looking hope. Live by faith that I am a just God who will bring justice on the earth.
Then he has a wonderful promise in vs 14:
“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”
The prophet Amos, expresses a similar sentiment…
Amos 5:24 “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
They’re looking forward to the eschaton— the fullness of the kingdom of God.
And then Habakkuk ends with a prayer of confident trust and joy in God, even amid severe hardship.
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, [thought I have nothing] yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”
Make that your prayer this morning— whether it’s a family member or you yourself experiencing suffering/hardship— lament it. It’s healthy. It’s an opportunity to express confident trust in God’s goodness.
We’re going to celebrate communion together this morning. Communion is a community activity for those who have placed their faith in Jesus. It proclaims the gospel message of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. In it, we remember the greatest injustice of the crucifixion of Jesus. The bread and juice represent his body and blood.
The communion meal also looks forward to that heavenly banquet when we shall all eat together in the fullness of the kingdom, God’s reign of peace and justice. So as we participate in communion this morning, may it be a celebratory expression of choosing joy and trusting in the God who is just. We look backward and forward. We look back to the cross where God worked his justice, and we look forward in faith to the fullness of his coming justice. Let it be a foretaste of that heavenly reality.
I’ll pray for us, the band will play, the elements will be passed, and then Rodney will lead us as we partake together.
Pray with me.