Isaiah 42:1-4, John 8:2-11, Psalm 51
Today, I will be speaking about justice. Often, when we think about justice, we think about punishment being mete out when some wrong has been committed.
People often want the sentencing in line with the offense committed. Victims of crimes often want the perpetrators pay for their actions.
This is punitive justice.
Punitive justice operates on 2 principles – vengeance and fear. When we break the rules and hurt someone, the punishment we receive is supposed to help make the person we hurt feel better.
We often feel a sense of unfairness when we see someone getting away with committing a wrong. In our hearts, we want them punished. But the reality is this – whatever the punishment meted out, it does not undo the damage / harm that had been done.
We can call for a driver who injured or even killed someone in a traffic accident to be jailed, but we cannot undo the injuries or death. Often after the sentencing of a perpetrator, victims of crimes often feel a sense of emptiness. The punishment does not take their pain away, nor does it heal them.
The other principle punitive justice operates on is fear. We are afraid of punishment, therefore we do not break the rules. The punishment is to deter us from breaking the rules, or doing the wrong things.
There is another kind of justice in the Bible – one that Jesus taught. A justice that is about restoration and transformation. He was not only concerned about what we do, but also why we do it. He taught restorative justice.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
The justice described here isn’t the punitive kind – it does not crush a person – “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” This is restorative justice.
You will be familiar with the following account in the Gospel according to John.
Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.[a] 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.”[b] And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
There are many questions that crop up in this passage – what did Jesus write in the ground? If the woman was caught committing adultery where was the man? Surely, she could not have committed adultery alone? Today I want to focus on one aspect.
The Pharisees operated on punitive justice – but they did not expect Jesus to engage the situation with restorative justice – He did not see this woman as an adulteress and let her sin define her, but he saw her as a human being, one worthy of love.
The heart of restorative justice is not condemnation, vengeance or fear, but love and transformation. How does that kind of transformation happen? How does it apply today?
Several days ago, my friend Alvin Tan shared a TED talk by Judge Victoria Pratt. I want to show you the first minute of the talk.
“Judge, I want to tell you something. I want to tell you something. I been watching you and you’re not two-faced. You treat everybody the same.”
That was said to me by a transgender prostitute who before I had gotten on the bench had fired her public defender, insulted the court officer and yelled at the person sitting next to her, “I don’t know what you’re looking at. I look better than the girl you’re with.”
She said this to me after I said her male name low enough so that it could be picked up by the record, but I said her female name loud enough so that she could walk down the aisle towards counselor’s table with dignity. This is procedural justice, also known as procedural fairness, at its best.
You see, I am the daughter of an African-American garbageman who was born in Harlem and spent his summers in the segregated South.
Soy la hija de una peluquera dominicana.
I do that to make sure you’re still paying attention.
I’m the daughter of a Dominican beautician who came to this country for a better life for her unborn children. My parents taught me, you treat everyone you meet with dignity and respect, no matter how they look, no matter how they dress, no matter how they spoke. You see, the principles of fairness were taught to me at an early age, and unbeknownst to me, it would be the most important lesson that I carried with me to the Newark Municipal Court bench. And because I was dragged off the playground at the early age of 10 to translate for family members as they began to migrate to the United States, I understand how daunting it can be for a person, a novice, to navigate any government system.
Judge Victoria Pratt describes the circumstances of many people who come through the court as “folks who do life sentences 30 days at a time.”
She presided over a cutting edge program called Community Solutions that offers defendants in minor criminal cases a chance to avoid jail time by obeying specific rules of behaviour.
Some of them were given suspended sentences – meaning they were sentenced to jail, but the sentences were suspended while they were given assistance through the program that linked them up with social services, counselling, support groups, mental health services and if they adhere to the program, they do not have to serve their jail sentence.
She recounted an experience:
But the reality is that as a society, we criminalize social ills, then sent people to a judge and say, “Do something.” I decided that I was going to lead by example. So my first foray into the approach came when a 60-something-year-old man appeared before me handcuffed. His head was lowered and his body was showing the signs of drug withdrawal. I asked him how long he had been addicted, and he said, “30 years.” And I asked him, “Do you have any kids?” And he said, “Yeah, I have a 32-year-old son.” And I said, “Oh, so you’ve never had the opportunity to be a father to your son because of your addiction.” He began to cry. I said, “You know what, I’m going to let you go home, and you’ll come back in two weeks, and when you come back, we’ll give you some assistance for your addiction.” Surprisingly, two weeks passed and he was sitting the courtroom. When he came up, he said, “Judge, I came back to court because you showed me more love than I had for myself.” And I thought, my God, he heard love from the bench? I could do this all day.
This is restorative justice in action. Justice must be linked to love.
“Justice without love may end in brutality, but love without justice must end in banality. Love empowers justice, and justice embodies love. Keep both, or get neither.” John Dominic Crossan
Justice without love is not justice. Love without justice is not love – Mother Theresa
How does that apply to us? We are not judges – and few of us are lawyers.
We need to envision a new way – not just for those who have committed crimes, but also for ourselves. For none among us are without sin.
We are in the season of Lent. Why are we repenting, reflecting and fasting? Are we doing it out of fear of the impending judgement that is to come? To escape the eternal fires of hell?
In the Bible, God sent prophets to call people to repentance – Jonah reluctantly went to Nineveh and proclaimed “forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!”
The Ninevites repented – and yet Jonah’s prophecy did come true in some way.
The Hebrew word Haphak also means to turn around, to transform. So instead of the city being destroyed, it was the hearts of the people who turned around, repented and transformed.
Jesus taught that it was our hearts that God is after.
God is concerned with the why, not only the how.
Some of you may remember my criticism of David – I often say that he violated 3 of the 10 commandments and how could he be “A man after God’s own heart?”
He committed adultery with Bathesheba. Then, when he found out she became pregnant, he arranged for her husband, Uriah to return from the battlefield, and tried to make him sleep with her so that he can cover up his wrongdoing. Uriah, being a good soldier, did not sleep with his wife while the army was still at war. So, David sent him back to the battlefield and instructed the army to pull back when the fighting was strongest and let Uriah be killed.
How can such a man be one after God’s own heart? I struggled with that for a long while.
I am slowly learning to appreciate Psalm 51 – the one that David composed after he was confronted by Nathan about his sins – committing adultery with Bathsheba and then murdering her husband Uriah.
When the prophet Nathan confronted David, he did not recognise himself in Nathan’s parable (2 Sam 12). He burned with anger against that man, saying that the man deserves to die, and needs to make restitution four times what he has taken. It was only when Nathan said “You are that man” that he realised that he had sinned.
I have been judging David with punitive justice. I want him punished for his sins. But God is teaching me through David that God is about restorative justice, not punitive justice. Did David change? Was his heart “haphak”? I re-read Psalm 51 again, and i think, the answer is yes. It is a broken and contrite heart God is seeking from us.
If we only do the right things and avoid doing the wrong things because we fear punishment, then what kind of people are we? If it is the fires of hell that drives our actions and behaviours, what kind of God do we believe in?
I believe that Jesus revealed a God of love. A God that desires our transformation – A God that wants love to be at the heart of what we do and how we live, instead of fear. A God that lifts us up and restores us, like a Kintsugi artist restoring broken pottery with gold.
A God is not out to punish us, but restore us.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
According to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
So that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.