Justice and mercy
Over the last couple of weeks I have been struck by some significant differences between Orthodox and Western theology.
I don’t want to go off into an Orthodox triumphalist rant (though having said that, I probably will), but I think it is worth examining these differences, first, to see if they are merely semantic, or are something more. Secondly, to see if they tell us different things about ourselves and the world we live in.
What sparked it off was something Thorsten Marbach said at TGIF this morning.
He was speaking about justice, and said that at a conference on justice he had attended recently someone had said that as Christians we knew all about mercy, and needed to advance to justice.
That struck me, from a theological point of view, as a rather spectacular putting of the cart before the horse.
We surely need to advance from justice to mercy. To put it the other way round seems (to me) like saying that we need to advance from gospel to law.
I didn’t have much quibble about the particulars of what Thorsten was saying, and reporting what other people had said, about justice. It was the generalisation that seemed to have got it backwards.
An example that occurred to me was a recent political one, of the German attitude to Greek debt.
When the Nazis plundered the countries they occupied in the Second World War, there was a need for restitution, and the debt was calculated, But the Greeks forgave the debt in the interests of building a more peaceful Europe. Mercy trumped justice. Now, however, the German government is unwilling to forgive Greek debt, and demands justice — mercy be damned. Jesus told a parable about that (Matt 18:21-34). And in response to that, the Greek government is now moving back (or is it forward?) from mercy to justice.
Earlier in the week, because last Sunday was the fourth Sunday in Lent on which Orthodox Christians commemorate St John of the Ladder, I posted a copy of the ikon of the ladder on Facebook. The comments of some Western Christians were illuminating, in the sense that they illuminate some of the differences in outlook, though some responded with mirth, and others saw it as fear-inspiring.
St John Climacus uses the metaphor of Jacob’s ladder to show spiritual growth in the acquisition of Christian virtues, and four weeks into Lent is a good time to take stock of how we have grown or failed to grow.
An anthropologist, of all people, summed this up succinctly when he wrote:
The Orthodox moral world emerges as an arena in which good struggles against evil, the kingdom of heaven against the kingdom of earth. In life, humans are enjoined to embrace Christ, who assists their attainment of Christian virtues: modesty, humility, patience and love. At the same time, lack of discernment and incontinence impede the realization of these virtues and thereby conduce to sin; sin in turn places one closer to the Devil… Since the resurrection of Christ the results of this struggle have not been in doubt. So long as people affirm their faith in Christ, especially at moments of demonic assault, there is no need to fear the influence of the Devil. He exists only as an oxymoron, a powerless force.
The angels aid people in attaining the virtues, and the demons seek to hinder them, St John’s book was written for monks in a neighbouring monastery, so all the humans shown in the illustration are monks, though it can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to any Christian.
One of the responses to this was “What an interesting image! It would be enough to terrify many“. and another “I often think of the picture that shows folk in he’ll shouting out to those saying ‘ why didn’t you tell me’. Sad that do many get saved through fear…”
I wonder if people would respond in the same way to C.S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters, which seeks to do much the same thing for 20th century suburban Englishmen as St John Climacus was doing for 7th-century desert-dwelling monks. Is the difference simply a cultural gap, signifying a different time, place and environment, or does it indicate a theological difference as well?
Each step of the the ladder signifies a particular virtue to be acquired, or passion (vice) to be avoided. At the bottom is obedience, and at the top is love (not justice).
At TGIF Thorsten also showed a progression — Creation –> Fall –> Resurrection –> Restoration
We live in a fallen and broken world, and in that broken world, justice is one of the defences established by God to stop it becoming more broken. One of the major causes of the brokenness of the world is human unlovingness. It is human hatred and violence that make the world the mess it is today. Law cannot make people love each other. It cannot make people good. But law can limit the evil effects of our lack of love. Law cannot stop me hating my neighbour, but it can say that if I hit my neighbour over the head with a hammer, I’ll be locked up in jail. Justice is not love. The best one can say is that it is congealed love.
On the Sunday of St John of the Ladder, when I preached I tried to contextualise the message for a South African township, in much the same way, perhaps, as C.S. Lewis tried to do for English suburbs. So I said that many Christians say “I am blessed”. Those are the ones at the bottom of the ladder, but they have a long way to go. Those at the top do not say anything, but they are a blessing to others. They do not say of themselves “I am a blessing to others” — if they did, they would be dangling below the ladder, the demons having pulled them off. But it will be others who say of them that they are a blessing to others.
Justice is akin to righteousness (and they same Hebrew word is sometimes used for both in the Old Testament). And the problem with righteousness is that it so often leads to self-righteousness. I have met some crusaders for justice who would gladly give their bodies to be burned for the cause, but as St Paul says, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (I Cor 13:3).
The third thing that happened to me recently that made me think about this was a discussion on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship mailing list on the relation between justice and mercy.
It was sparked off by a news report that the designer of the AK-47 assault rifle had expressed remorse shortly before his death, and had the deaths of thousands on his conscience — those who had been killed by the weapon he designed. There was also a report that a church spokesman had sought to console him by saying that it wasn’t so bad, because the weapon had been used to protect the motherland from assault and that was a saving grace. In response to this, someone said,
Self defense is the most excusable of human weaknesses. Sometimes it is a sin deserving of the greatest mercy, for fear-driven will to survive is perhaps too powerful an instinct to resist. So we justify horrible things in the name of defense.
But surely defense can never be a “saving grace.” Especially when institutionalized and made a servant of the State’s own merciless self-interest.
My response to this was:
One of the problems with Western theology is that it tends to be legalistic — perhaps this is related to Latin being the language of law. Hence the emphasis on “justification”. There are the debates about justification by faith, about the “just” war, and “justifiable” homicide.
As I understand it the Orthodox position is that there is no such thing as “justified” killing. Even if one kills in self-defence, it is still a sin to be repented of, and so if Kalashnikov indeed repented as was reported, his spiritual father should not have tried to minimise the sin, but rather spoken to maximise God’s mercy.
That is what I see from most of the wise spiritual fathers. They never try to minimise the seriousness of sin, but always speak of the greatness of God’s love and mercy.
So that was what got me thinking about justice and mercy, and it was that discussion that made me think that we should be going forward from justice to mercy, and not going backwards from mercy to justice.
I realise that the “mercy” Thorsten (or rather the person he was quoting) was talking about was so-called “works of mercy”, but in that sense they are indeed works, but without mercy, because works of mercy can only proceed from a merciful heart. Such works of mercy are sometimes called “charity”, but in a context that deguts “charity” of all meaning. One group of protesting workers once carried a sign that said “Damn your charity, we want justice”.
But for Christians, works of “charity” and a struggle for justice can only proceed from a merciful heart.
Works of mercy can and should extend to efforts to change social structures and policies on behalf of, as well as to advocate for, those who are poor, vulnerable, or treated unjustly. Our works of mercy should express the holistic view of the Orthodox ideal that, as Archbishop Anastasios writes, “embraces everything, life in its entirety, in all its dimensions and meanings…[and seeks] to change all things for the better,” that is, the transformation of all things in a life in Christ.
Justice without mercy quickly becomes vindictive, vengeful and satanic. Satan is, after all, the prosecutor, who wants to take over the judge’s job, because the judge, in his view, is too merciful. Satan and his minions could not understand this, because if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory (I Cor 2:9).
Notes and references
 Stewart, Charles. 1991. Demons and the devil. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p 146.