I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
President Obama addressed the nation late Sunday night. He told us that Usama bin Laden has been killed by United States Special Forces, if you somehow do not know. Obama said quite a few things in his address, and I want to note just one problem (out of many) with what he said: killing Usama is the work of justice. This has been reiterated in the news — both by the news anchors and people interviewed — as footage of 9/11 was shown and the sacredness of ground zero asserted.
There is, however, a problem with this. Usama may have gotten what he deserved — death for killing — but that is not justice. And since when was Christianity about giving people what they deserved?
Justice seems to be used in a number of ways today. In one way, justice is concerned with rights or freedom, specifically when they are blocked. For justice to be done is to re-establish access to one’s right or freedom. Here justice is about the recognition of one’s rights. Another notion is retribution or punitive justice. Here fits the classic statement “an eye for an eye”, lawsuits for malpractice, and the death penalty for instance. One last notion is the grand, impartial equalizing constitution of justice. Here fits America’s version of lady justice. This gives moral weight to the system of insuring and characterizing justice because it comes down to weighing simply and honestly the actions of parties. Justice here is objective and about weighing the simple facts of wronging someone.
Despite the diversity, in each version’s own way, justice is largely synonymous or obsessively concerned with getting what one is due, and generally through some kind of equalizing force by destruction. And the general American opinion on Usama? He got his due, and the victimized nation got to give it to him, which makes it all the sweeter. But even by American standards, is this really justice? To assert this as justice seems rather thin, or is justice something else veiled? In fact, Fox News got it partially correct, this is revenge. After all, it was a kill operation, and decidedly not a capture operation.
And this doesn’t even take into account that we should call into question American notions of justice. Theologically speaking, justice is not about getting one’s due. Neither the above notions of justice nor explicit revenge is concerned with righteousness, the Good, or a host of other crucial concepts; rather, justice and revenge is about assuaging anger through making the victimizer pay. Thus it seems that justice here is about satisfying anger to protect the integrity of peace that the state attempts to provide. The only difference between justice and revenge? One is legally sanctioned.
But we would not be America if we did not also establish a moral grounding for calling American action the work of justice. Rather than simply noting blind lady justice and the need to balance the scales, righteousness is asserted through proclaiming America’s greatness, calling for divine blessing, and thoroughly ignoring the concept of blowback and the history of American foreign policy and action. For instance Obama in his speech neglected to note the historical reality before the attacks on September 11 and American foreign involvement. The narrative is that America is without sin, or at least on the side of good, and is in the pursuit of pure evil. Thus America as the instrument of justice is as pure or in the right as its objective it calls justice: to make them pay and wipe them out. Of course there is a great deal of work already done on this, so I’ll just say this is problematic at least, and move on.
So theologically speaking, what is justice? In a word, reconciliation. Rather than an attempt to maintain ‘the peace,’ a Christian notion of justice is about healing so we may live in a healthy peace. Justice is about salvation and movement into a new life — a new politics. Justice is not about re-asserting liberal political theory’s fetish with a bland notion of freedom for happiness; what we believe we are due; or substitute blind lady justice for the partisan project of the crucified God. Instead, justice christologically informed is about a robust and holistic salvation for all through the transfiguration of people and how they relate to one another. Rather than seek what one perceives as due, simply because they were hurt, christological justice is worked out through love, forgiveness, and charity. This is about redeeming people and their dysfunctional relationships. I believe we should begin with Jesus’ words on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” and the search for truth — Truth and Reconciliation models are a beginning for working out the politics of reconciliation. Simply put, then, justice is about setting relationships aright within the paradigm of reconciliation and new creation.
Now, I should be clear that this is not a notion of justice that is unable to grasp evil. All too often such a conception of theological justice is dismissed as idealistic in its aims and inadequate in comprehending and addressing evil. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. It is christological justice that best deals with evil — it knows the depth of evil and does not respond in kind, but rather works for an entirely different vision. What is this vision? Peace. A true peace.
Indeed, justice and peace are linked. In fact they drive each other. If your definition of peace is weak or thin, then your conception of justice will be equally so, and vice versa. Thus, part of the reason why divine justice is so strong and specific is because it is designed to cultivate movement into the something far greater: from violence and death to divine peace.
Peace, derived from God’s politics, is not the aftermath of the elimination or silencing of one’s enemy. The peace visualized, like in Isaiah for instance, is not the wolf eating the lamb, but both lying down together; it is not swords to ploughshares after everyone is dead, but the end of violence and the work of flourishing done together by those who once aimed to kill each other. Peace is the lived reality of redeemed people and flourishing relationships. The point here is that those who were once enemies are now friends, and will live together, because they are reconciled. And thus peace dictates that justice is not slaughter or punitive action — it is not the elimination of enemy. In fact, then, justice is a beginning element to peace-making, not a mechanism for perverse catharsis or revelry in death because we have got what we believe to be owed.
In sum, theologically speaking, killing Usama is not justice. It is retribution at best. And I should be clear, it is retribution without any hint of moral righteousness. Driven by moral outrage? Perhaps, after all, moral outrage is very much part of the narrative, but this is certainly at most a blind moral outrage. It is not a righteous outrage. Righteousness would indicate that one is on the side of good — the side of right — hence right-eous. Vengeance then is fitting to describe retribution. But christological justice and peace rejects using evil for a perverse good and does not revel in death. Christological justice is about redemption to establish true peace under the paradigms of reconciliation and new creation. Simply put, Christian justice is not governed by the question “Who deserves what?” — Christianity has not been about what people deserve — but rather, “How do we redeem this broken world?”
For those of you curious, quite a bit of the above comes from some work I did sometime ago — a series of definitions as study to highlight the importance of theological language for theological categories for the foundation of a political theology.
About the Author
David Horstkoetter is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Marquette University. He completed his MA with Gary Dorrien at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. Horstkoetter’s interests include history, social ethics, and systematic theology. He also likes to take pictures and drink good beer.