Sunday, 3 October 2010

Social justice, God's anger, punishment and forgiveness: countering gnosticism

Last week I wrote a brief piece on the Australian Bishop's Social Justice Statement, and today I wanted to expand on one of the problems I see in it, as today's (EF) gospel sheds some light on it.

The issue is this: how should we respond to injustice? Does the duty to forgive others, to love our enemies, to do good to those who harm us, to turn the other cheek when we are struck mean that we should forgo seeking justice? Our bishops seem to think so.

But I have to say that to me it seems more like  a classic manifestation of the rebirth of the gnostic heresy of the second century given form under Marcion, who distinguished sharply between the god of love revealed in Jesus Christ and the god of justice and wrath revealed in the Old Testament.

What the Social Justice Statement actually said

So here is (one of the) section(s) of the Social Justice Statement I regard as problematic:

"On 25th October 2009 Gearoid Walsh, a young Irish tourist visiting Sydney, became involved in an argument at a takeaway shop. He was punched and fell, hitting his head on the ground. A week later he was dead.

Gearoid’s story is tragic and, sadly, an increasingly common example of anger and frustration exploding into violence. We see how the community’s outrage at such events, often fanned by media reports, can give rise to calls for retribution and revenge. [OK, it is fair to criticise over-emotional responses and vigilantism]

But the way in which his mother, Mrs Treasa Walsh, responded to the death of her son made this a remarkable story. She felt for the man who struck Gearoid: ‘I am heartbroken for him because we don’t blame him, we don’t want him to serve time in prison.[Embracing our suffering in the face of injustice is certainly a Christian ideal, and there can be times when there are good reasons for just recompense not to be sought.  But surely the norm is that justice does in fact require punishment? God punishes sin, and the human justice system is our necessary sharing in that divine justice.]

The story of Gearoid Walsh’s death affects us because it reminds us painfully of a destructive strand of violence in Australian life. At the same time, the response of his family to his death shows us that peacemaking is more powerful than violence. [But how does one properly achieve peace? Are the bishops really suggesting that we should advocate letting those guilty of murder or manslaughter go unpunished and society unprotected? Surely not. This seems to me a very questionable example of how we should respond to injustice.]

God's justice

The idea that Our Lord advocates a 'grace without judgment, this love without justice, this forgiveness without redemption' has been one of the more destructive ideas of the last few centuries. Many people find it difficult to reconcile the God of wrath so frequently mentioned in the Old Testament with Our Lord's actions in stopping the stoning of the woman caught in adultery and so many other New Testament stories.  The correct take out of those stories though, is that sometimes, in his mercy, God grants us time to repent: the vital instruction is to sin no more.

Moreover, this limited view of Our Lord leaves out a lot of inconvenient parts of the Gospel, such as his cleansing of the Temple, fiery debates with and condemnations of the Pharisees and Scribes, and above all some key parts of his teaching.

The Parable of the Wedding Feast

Take today's Gospel, the parable of the Wedding Feast (from Matthew 22). There are three stages to the story. The first is the original invitation to the wedding, which can be interpreted as being to the Jewish people:

"The kingdom of heaven is likened to a king who made a marriage for his son. And he sent his servants to call them that were invited to the marriage: and they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying: Tell them that were invited, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my beeves and fatlings are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the marriage. But they neglected and went their ways, one to his farm and another to his merchandise. And the rest laid hands on his servants and, having treated them contumeliously, put them to death. But when the king had heard of it, he was angry: and sending his armies, he destroyed those murderers and burnt their city."

Now, like a lot of the Old Testament descriptions of God's anger, the story anthropomorphizes somewhat. God is unchanging and omniscient; so, as St Thomas points out, he doesn't have emotions. But what the story is pointing to is God's justice: our actions have consequences which can occur either in this life or the next.

The second part of the story is the extension of the invitation to the wedding feast to those out on the streets, to be interpreted as to the gentiles:

"Then he says to his servants: The marriage indeed is ready; but they that were invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the highways; and as many as you shall find, call to the marriage. And his servants going forth into the ways, gathered together all that they found, both bad and good: and the marriage was filled with guests."

Now if the story stopped here, it would fit perfectly with the kind of analysis offered in the Social Justice Statement. All are invited in regardless of merit. But of course the story doesn't stop at this point:

"And the king went in to see the guests: and he saw there a man who had not on a wedding garment. [ie not baptised/in a state of grace] And he said to him: Friend, how did you come in here not having on a wedding garment? But he was silent. Then the king said to the waiters: Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the exterior darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen."

Forgiveness does not mean forgoing justice

We do of course have an obligation to forgive those who hurt us - to pray for them, or even do some good for them if the occasion arises. We can to heart the injunction 'love the sinner' - but we shouldn't forget the other half of that, namely 'hate the sin'.   There are times when we must simply endure injustice, literally turn the cheek.  But we should surely reject the idea that appropriate rectification of injustice, not pretending it didn't happen, is a true work of peace.

1 comment:

A Canberra Observer said...

This particular ACBC branch is a limpid jelly.

No wonder we are getting rolled on every major moral issue in public life.