Justice? Competing Visions…
Evil acts are committed.
The audience applause.
These are the bare minimums, the bare occurrences, within plots; problem, reaction(s), and ending solution. We watch a movie and the plot is introduced with an initial problem. Someone has to do something! Some person must solve this problem which often concerns some sort of evil or immoral act, or other such problem. Stories are ripe with the fruits of cultural engagement, engagement which transcends the story and reaches also into the metaphysical concerns and beliefs of a culture or cross section of a culture. Thus, perhaps we can look a bit into story to see what seems to me to be the norm when it comes to how justice is understood by our culture.
Take, for instance, a really simplified version of Gladiator. Certainly this film has been seen by many to be a modern-day classic, and a film which has helped bring about popularity of historic biopics with similar scenery (like Troy and Alexander). It is an amazing piece of cinema and holds up to a variety of interpretations and artful analyses. However, taking an extremely simplified analysis allows one to see the usual good vs. evil motif, or perhaps less strongly, right vs. wrong. Justice must be done, and even if Maximus is not able to see fulfillment in this life, he will meet his family in the next. The ones who did wrong against him are ultimately accounted for and there is vindication.
War movies have similarly been popular in recent decades, especially ones that pit the Righteous Allied against the Evil Axis, or perhaps the Good Western democracies against the Bad Communists. It is all very black and white. It is all very simplified; evil must be defeated ultimately through persuasion or force. Evil is given ontological reality, it is a thing that must be encountered and defeated.
Christians often do the same, especially when aligned with the state or other prominent powers. The Spanish Inquisition, though actually quite limited in scope, sought to bring about the ultimate good through persuasive force. The ultimate goal was to save the soul of the pagan or mistaken Jew, even if they must be forcibly baptized or made to recant their prior faith. We can also see here the separation between the material and spiritual, though such is relatively absent in New Testament literature.
Modern Christians have done similar. Following H. Richard Niebuhr it has become the norm to view Christ’s commands (or imperatives) as unlivable. After all, we live in a fallen and sinful world. But also, after all, we live within Christendom, right? A sort of civil religion still exists whereby American nationalism and patriotism are seen as connected intimately with Christianity. What is good for America is good for the church.
In fact, when evil is done to America or seeks to dominate swaths of land or influence culture, the American/Christian must intercede. When terrorists cause havoc it is an imperative that we become involved and punish those that do evil acts so that further destruction may not occur. Or so that those who have died are avenged. The soldier is fighting for the country, and for virtues that are at the heart of both America and (supposedly) the Christian faith.
This is the dominant paradigm. Justice involves engagement, and engagement is usually through mediums of force or persuasion.
Do these contentions hold up? Is this the biblical paradigm that Christians are called to live by? Certainly it is rationally justifiable, but which rationality and whose justice are we navigating under?
Such questions will be further pondered in the second part of this blog.