The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21.
Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues posit there are 6 foundations on which morality is built: Care as opposed to harm, fairness or proportionality vs. cheating, loyalty vs. betrayal, authority or respect vs. subversion, sanctity or purity vs. degradation, and liberty vs. oppression. They arrived at this after a lot of research in different countries and cultures. When asked to weigh these values, almost everyone puts care first, followed by fairness. Universally justice comes right after compassion. Which makes sense since justice is one of the cardinal virtues. It's as if it's in our DNA.
Justice or fairness is something even monkeys understand. In an experiment you may have seen online, (if not, click here) capuchin monkeys were given different rewards in return for handing a researcher a rock. One was happy with getting a slice of cucumber until she saw that the monkey in the next cage got a delicious grape for her rock. Thereafter the first monkey vehemently refused all cucumbers she was given and started shaking the walls of her cage—presumably to get out and get one of those grapes!
You see this in children very early. They want equal treatment. If you give one a treat or a toy, you had better do the same for any others who are around, or they will act the like the monkeys—aggrieved, angry, and likely to throw stuff. Rare, however, is the child who, upon realizing that another child was left out, will give up theirs to that other child to make them feel better. We like “justice for all” if it means we get what everyone else does. But if there is injustice, we'd rather we were the ones the scales tipped toward. It's hard to give up our advantage.
There is another situation in which we are fine with injustice: when it comes to receiving punishment. We want others judged based on what they actually did, but we want to be judged on our intentions. “I didn't mean to do that!” “I didn't want that to happen!” We want leniency, even if it's not extended to others who did the same thing. Kids who cheat should be expelled. Unless it's our child! “Come on, he's a good kid! You don't want to ruin his life over one little indiscretion!” That's essentially what the father of a college kid said after his son was discovered raping an unconscious college girl behind a dumpster. He was more concerned about his son's athletic career being ruined than the life of a young woman being ruined.
An awful lot of our TV shows and movies are about justice. If an extraterrestrial species were monitoring our broadcasts they would conclude that half of earth's population was made up of detectives and superheroes. The other half are suspects and supervillains. We love stories of people uncovering and righting wrongs. But we don't love our legal system. A large proportion of our heroes operate outside the law. We cheer on the rogue cop, the private eye with his own code of rules, the costumed vigilante who metes out poetic justice without due process. It is a rare crime drama where the hero gets it wrong and an innocent person is convicted or beaten up.
Part of this is because we know that human justice is imperfect. We know people get off the hook for certain crimes. And we also know of people who are incarcerated, sometimes for decades, for crimes they didn't commit. Some are even executed. That's why we long for a Sherlock Holmes or a Perry Mason who always gets it right.
It is no coincidence that superheroes arose at a time when the world seemed dominated by real supervillains. Superman was created by two Jewish high schoolers in 1933, the same year anti-Semite Adolf Hitler consolidated his power after the Reichstag fire. Superman was bought by DC comics and saw publication in 1938, the eve of the outbreak of war in Europe. And the floodgates opened for a plethora of super-powered heroes. On the iconic cover of the first Captain America comic book, we see this literal embodiment of the American flag punching out Hitler—in March of 1941, 8 months before the US joined the war.
Why do superheroes resonate so strongly with us?
Why do superheroes resonate so strongly with us?
Let's go back to Superman. His Kryptonian name is Kal-El, which some have pointed out is very similar to the Hebrew for “voice of God.” His biography resembles that of Moses (a baby sent to safety in a small vessel who later saves people) while others see in the “last son of Krypton,” sent to earth and charged by his father to use his powers for good, a messianic quality. And he saved ordinary people. Before he fought super-powered villains, Superman delivered rough justice to wife beaters, profiteers, lynch mobs and once destroyed a slum to force the government to build better housing for the poor. At first he really didn't worry about the harm his powers could do and the police considered him a vigilante. As he gained more superpowers over time, he became a more god-like dispenser of justice to those the law could not or would not touch.
The popularity of superheroes mirrors that of characters like Robin Hood and King Arthur, legendary figures who represent a justice we'd like to see on earth. Because we know of people who literally get away with mass murder, like Stalin, Mao and Hitler. Joseph Stalin, responsible for the deaths of anywhere from 15 to 25 million people, died lying on his couch, while doctors cared for him. He was 74. Mao died of a heart attack at the age of 82. He was responsible for an estimated 40 million deaths. Hitler shot himself in the head at age 56. By doing so, he avoided capture by the Russians and trial for the 12 to 20 million deaths he was responsible for. In their earthly lives, they escaped justice.
As we said last week, if there is no just God and no afterlife there is no justice in this universe. Take God away and psychopathy is a rational strategy for life. Especially if you avoid outright crimes and just operate in the grey areas of life. Manipulate, use and discard people to get to the top. Get a bunch of lawyers to delay and reduce the impact of the law on your unethical business practices. Underpay your workers and stiff subcontractors. Exploit the unfortunate who haven't the political clout and can't afford lawyers to stop you from taking their land and their resources or from polluting their water and air. Hire lobbyists to write legislation that benefits your industry and get it rubber-stamped by elected officials to whom you've given generous contributions. To show that even Superman would be powerless against non-physical threats like corruption, in the comics his archnemesis, wealthy businessman Lex Luthor, became President of the United States. Should Superman, ol' "Truth, Justice and the American Way," attack our duly elected leader?
As Christians, we do believe that God will one day dispense justice to all. But if we simply leave all matters of justice until that day, then he is of as little use to the real world as fictitious superheroes.
God intends us to be just as he is just. The Bible especially focuses our attention on groups that frequently experience injustice. Just two chapters after the giving of the Ten Commandments, we are told, “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) In Deuteronomy it says, “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow!” (Deuteronomy 27:19) We are told, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court...” (Proverbs 22:22) and “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” (Proverbs 29:7) Where there is injustice, God expects us to step in. As it says in Isaiah, “learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17) Often we think that being a Christian simply means doing religious things like worshiping and praying. But Jesus linked love for God with love for others. (Luke 10:25-37) God says, “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high....Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:3-4, 6-7)
Justice is rooted in the fact that we are all created in the image of God. (Genesis 9:6) Proverbs 19:17 says, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord....” Jesus made the connection much more intimate by identifying the needy, the hungry, the immigrant, the sick, and the imprisoned as his siblings. He said what we do to them we do to him. (Matthew 25:31-46) To neglect or harm others is to do so to our Lord.
Jesus neatly summarized basic interpersonal justice with the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. And because justice or fairness is a cardinal virtue, most religious traditions have some form of this rule. Most however state it negatively. Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Baha'i, and Judaism all basically say not to do to others what you would find hateful, painful or injurious if done to yourself. That prevents active injustice. It doesn't rule out benign neglect. The priest and the Levite who pass by the man beaten and left for dead in Jesus' parable don't do anything to make the man's plight worse. But the Samaritan actively helps the man, tending his wounds, getting him to an inn and paying for his medical care. Jesus' kind of justice is one that actively works to redress injustice.
By the way, this is another area in which superheroes are not really a good example of righting wrongs. The Samaritan doesn't put on a costume, track down the robbers and beat them up. He takes care of their victim. When thinking of justice we tend to focus on the perpetrator more than the victim. We spend more for weapons and tactical gear for our police officers than we do for helping the victims. We spend about $100 billion on law enforcement in this country and only $500 million in compensation to victims. Restitution and restoration are also part of justice.
We tend to think of justice as making sure people get what they deserve, the bad guys punishment and the good guys rewards, but God sees justice as making sure all people get what they need. The special attention the Bible gives to the marginalized is due to the fact that those are the folks most likely to be overlooked and left out. Which is why God makes sure that provisions for the poor were put into the laws of Israel. When harvesting, landowners had to leave the edges of their fields untouched so the poor could glean food for themselves. (Leviticus 19:9-10) Every 7 years debts were canceled (Deuteronomy 15:1-9) and every 50 years those enslaved due to debt were freed (Leviticus 25:39-41). During festivals the poor could eat freely from all fields (Exodus 23:11). Justice was to be impartial, not swayed by wealth or lack of it (Leviticus 19:15).
What about our laws? A Harvard study has shown that where people are raised greatly determines their future earnings, their college attendance rates, and their marriage patterns. Grow up in a poor neighborhood and you are extremely likely to stay poor. We also know that from 1934 to 1968 the federal government used redlining to keep neighborhoods racially segregated, ensuring that African Americans had little chance of moving to better neighborhoods and having better lives. In Isaiah, God says to his people, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people...What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar?” Like Israel our society is not just. What should we do?
Micah 6:8 says, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” God expects us to act justly in all our relationships. But he also wants us to be merciful. We are to readily forgive one another. In the Lord's Prayer, which we say every Sunday during the Eucharist, we ask God to forgive us to the same extent we forgive others. We are to be as merciful as God is (Luke 6:36). When Peter suggests he should forgive a brother up to 7 times, Jesus multiplied that by 70 (Matthew 18:21-22). We all hurt each other from time to time. Forgiveness and reconciliation is what keeps us from exiling ourselves or others from our family or community.
But then God raises the bar. He is gracious. If justice is getting what you deserve and mercy is not getting all you deserve, grace is getting what you cannot possibly deserve. We are saved by God's grace, his undeserved, unreserved goodness towards us (Ephesians 2:8-9). While we were unrepentant sinners Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8). And God expects us to be gracious towards others as well (Psalm 112:4). We are not to repay evil with evil but with good (Romans 12:21; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; 1Peter 3:9).
And the good news is that we can do this to a greater extent than Jews and Christians were able to in the days of the Bible. We live in a democratic society. Our government is not made up of hereditary kings or aristocrats or wealthy landowners. We can make changes that most people throughout most of human history couldn't. We can, in the words of scripture, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” (Proverbs 31:8) The Hebrew is stronger. The word translated “destitute” is literally “destruction.” We are to be the voice of the voiceless, to advocate for the justice of those who are being destroyed, who seem doomed, who are without hope. Isaiah tells us that if we share our food with the hungry, shelter the homeless and not turn our back on the needy, “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rearguard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.” (Isaiah 58:8-9)
But to confront an unjust society takes courage. Which will we discuss next week.