Friday 4 September 2009

Mercy seasons justice?

Is the world just an eternal irrational game of hardball/softball? Some people, “Liberals” choose, just for the hell of it, to be absurdly nice to evil people, whilst others, “Conservatives” secretly enjoy the crisp whip of the lash, especially aimed at someone else’s back. What kind of mercy, actually, seasons justice? Jesus came to fulfil the law, not abolish it. What kind of fulfillment? a car clamp operative is, in a wooden sense, fulfilling the law — binding the burden, doing nothing to ease it it. But so is a Justice of appeal, or a legislator.

Wondering how mercy relates to justice, I came across an old Islamic folk tale. It is told of the seventh century Khalifa Umar Bin al-Khittab, who you will remember was the successor of Abu Bakr among the Rashidun Khalifas, known as “al-faruq” — one who judges aright. From his sword of Justice, above, you will understand Umar was no soggy Liberal.
A young man was arrested for murder, and brought by the victim’s sons before the Khalifa. He pleaded guilty, and submitted to an “eye for an eye” death sentence the family were entitled to demand, according to primitive justice. He asked however, to delay the execution three days. He was guardian to an orphan, and the lad’s inheritance was hidden somewhere only he knew. It wasn’t fair to punish the child for his sins, so three days compassionate leave was arranged.

Someone, however, had to stand proxy for the convict in case he failed to reappear for execution — someone willing, if necessary, to die in his stead. Old Abu Dharr, companion of the Prophet offered, and the young criminal went home to sort out his family affairs.

Three days later, he had not returned. Amidst a certain amount of “told you so,” but also great sadness, Abu Dharr prepared for beheading in the town square. The executioner sharpened up his axe, and got his red tights that didn’t show the blood, ready for the wash. Actually I'm not sure about the red tights, but you get the idea.

At which point young criminal returned, huffing and puffing. “So very sorry,” he said. “Caravans on the road — but I’m here now, so let’s get on with the beaheading.”

The crowd were amazed. “Why the hell did you come back? You were free. We’d all have legged it!”

“Oh no!” said the young criminal. “I am a Muslim, and it would be intolerably shameful to me to have people saying, on my account, that Muslims do not keep their word.”

So the crowd turned to old Abu Dharr. “You’re a lucky old fox, Abu Dharr. You must have known this criminal was a man of his word at heart. More than we did!”

“Oh no!” said Abu Dharr. Never seen the feller in my life. But I am a Muslim, and it would be intolerably shameful to me to have people saying, on my account, that Muslims have no compassion.”

At which point the victim’s family went back to Khalifa Umar and asked him to call off the execution: “We are Muslms, and it would be intolerably shameful to us to have people saying, on our account, that there is no forgiveness in Islam.”

OK, “Liberals” and “Conservatives.” What would it be “intolerably shameful” to have people say of us, Christians that we claim to be...?


Matt Wardman said...

Offtopic, but I'm getting your blog splattered with spam from Photobucket demanding that you visit your account with them.

Time for a different image provider?

Anonymous said...

It would be "intolerably shameful" of Christians if they came to be ruled (as Muslims are; cf. 'honor killings') by an honor/shame ethic, i.e. their reputation before men was their primary concern, rather than obedience to God.
You understand a lot about Middle East politics and mores when you grasp this fundamental dynamic: weakness and public disgrace are to avoided at all cost. Nothing is weaker or more disgraceful than 'your god hanging on a cross', as a Muslim evangelist told me once.

Steve Hayes said...

Dostoevsky's Crime and punishment is longer, but i think the message is there.

Anonymous said...

I would like a good clear answer on what Christian justice is. For some reason, justice is the hardest or at least most confusing theological concept I have come across.

Is punishment a just reward for sin or does punishment somehow lie outside of justice, as a natural consequence of sin or as an instrument that God can use to draw us back? Is punishment necessary to satisfy the requirements of justice when a person sins or does sin only open up the possibility of punishment at God's discretion?

Is justice not about rewards and punishments at all but about "making things right" and restoring relationships? Or is it both? Am I confusing conflicting views on Christian justice or is there a broad consensus? What is your view?

What happened to make punishment, which was important for folks like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Calvin, a less central, if not a totally rejected aspect of Christian justice?

Is justice a universal law or is it by definition an attribute of whatever God chooses to do with his sovereign will, no matter how seemingly unjust that will is to human beings? Is there such a thing as human justice? Can human beings understand justice?

Is justice even a well-defined term in Christianity? And if not, how do we make sense of its prominence?

Can we trust our own faculties, our conscience and rational thought, to guide us in the way of justice, or must we trust in God alone? If we are to trust in our own faculties, how do they then not become idols? And if we trust in God alone, how do we not make an idol of our current fallible understanding of God's justice, and how do we avoid doing what is evil in the name of God and His justice?

Is mercy a necessary part of justice, an unnecessary part of justice that justice can accommodate, or something opposed to justice?

Are all of these questions moot because of the atonement of Christ? Or do they become more important because of that atonement?

I would love some clarity.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

(posted on behalf of Martha K)
"Thank you very much for your blog. It is always interesting and thoughtprovoking. And sorry to email, I can't get the comments function to work.
There’s one point about today’s story. It seems to me that its “bones”, if you will are far older, dating back to Greek/Latin stories.
In Schillers version (the one I had to memorize for school) a man called Damon tries to kill the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionys. He persuades the tyrant to give him three days to marry off his sister, persuades his friend to stand in for him. Most of the poem is about him overcoming obstacles to return to his friend in time to prevent his friend’s execution.
When he does make it, the tyrant is so impressed with the fact that friendship has triumphed over selfpreservation, that he releases both.
In Schillers version the emphasis is on friendship, rather than mercy to total strangers, and what the Greeks made of it, I have no idea.
Apparently it surfaces in a collection of stories a few centuries after events.
Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to write the blog"

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @ 05:50 asks:
"What happened to make punishment, which was important for folks like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Calvin, a less central, if not a totally rejected aspect of Christian justice?" and other questions.
Some of these questions are historical. One problem was when the magistracy became an arm of the Church and started punishing heresy in a way the NT could never have imagined. But then nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition ... The Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years War understandably made people want to limit the judicial powers of the Church.
Some of these issues are answered by C. S. Lewis in essays on retribution vs. moral reform and in 'The Abolition of Man'. It's clear that humanism became the regnant social philosophy among liberal Western Europeans in the 20th century. The rise of the therapeutic society is an instance of this: sin is a sickness to be 'cured' by the State, or an ignirance to be dispelled.
I don't say all of this is bad, when we look at some of the brutal punishments meted out in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Quakers had quite an influence as well in changing attitudes. Then atheists like Bentham came up with schemes like the Panopticon.

Anonymous said...

... or even 'ignorance' ...

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Anonymous said...

I am the poster who originally posted the long list of questions about justice.

It is sad that I've found it so difficult to find a really compelling and plausible treatment of this subject. It bespeaks a confusion among Christians about an idea that is central and essential to Christianity.

To the commenter who mentioned C.S. Lewis, I am familiar with his writing, but have not found a plausible answer to my questions there.

After months of reading and searching, yesterday I came across an essay by George MacDonald called "Justice" in his Unspoken Sermons here.

George MacDonald was Lewis's spiritual "master," but I don't think Lewis fully absorbed the content of this essay.

I think MacDonald is right, and I cannot imagine, in this lifetime, achieving any higher view of justice than he has.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Many thanks for the George MacDonald sermon — not an easy read, but a powerful articulation of divine justice as an expression of mercy. Years ago, when reading the Book of Judges in Hebrew class, I came across the story of Jephthah, being bound to a mechanistic cruel course of action by a foolish vow which killed his nly daughter. Could God be compelled by sch a necessity? Surely not...

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