Is Justice a synonym for Vengeance?

Our second Unitarian Universalist principle reads We … covenant to affirm and promote:  Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. On Sunday, I visited the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo, MS; a small lay led congregation.  The speaker was discussing this principle by asking questions about the meaning of these words.

One comment made was that when we hear people in society demand justice it is usually in the context of condemning the person who has grievously wronged another. Is this justice?  We want justice for Michael Brown.  We want justice for Eric Garner.  We want justice for the hundreds of others unarmed men and women whose lives were cut short by police officers.  Is it justice, true justice, to bring the cops to trial and seek condemnation for their actions?  I understand the emotional surge behind these cries for justice.  I understand the racism behind these brutal acts of violence.  But will prosecuting a handful of police change the system that targets young black men?  Will it bring justice and healing to the heart of the families who lost their children, husbands, brothers, too young and too soon?

I have read that when families watch the murderer of their loved one executed the pain of grief is not abated by the justice meted out.  I have read they feel a bitterness take firm root in their hearts.  Justice in this manner does not always yield to peace of heart for the survivors of such violence.

I believe the police need to be held accountable and prosecuted for their disregard for another’s life. I simply do not believe that doing so is going to create justice with a capital J because condemning others is not a healing justice. When we scream we want justice, we want those who have committed heinous acts to suffer a severe consequence for their actions. It is not justice we want.  We want blood for blood.  It does not prevent another mass shooting, or terrorist bombing, or even another police officer from exerting excessive force (a twisted euphemism for torture and murder) on an unarmed person. Prosecute yes, but this action does not necessarily create Justice in the system.

My heart grieves that in this country we incarcerate nearly 7 times more blacks than whites. Roughly 9% of our Black young men are in prison. Our nation incarcerates 23% of the world’s prisoners. This is a horrendous wrong that needs to be addressed.  But how do we address it so that not one more young black man is targeted simply because he is wearing a hoodie or walking in his family’s neighborhood with his friends? How does this nation of laws enact justice when the system itself supports injustice?

When we target a specific population for alleged crimes, it is no longer justice that is the motivator but rather the motivation is maintaining power over a population. Power over others is how justice becomes twisted and deformed.  It is this perversion of justice that we are seeing in our nation today.  Convicting with inflated felonies and incarcerating a skewed percentage of a population removes the power of the vote from the population.  This is an act of oppression not justice.  We continue to pass new laws that expand the oppressive weight on a specific population.  The unjust revival of debtor’s prison is part of this expansion of an oppressive weight. This is good news only for the for-profit prisons looking to expand their industry.

Creating a for-profit business around incarceration is not providing justice–it is exploitation. For-profit prisons are an insatiable beast that craves more incarcerations.  So those who believe that the answer to our overcrowded prison system would be to be build more prisons, especially those of the for-profit ilk have a very twisted and deformed sense of justice. These corporations have a need to have laws passed that criminalize more people in order to keep their prisons filled to adequate operating levels. This is not justice, this is creating a market for an industry.

When Al Qaeda hi-jacked passenger jets and slammed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killing 3,000 people.  We demanded justice.  And in our anger the United States of America invaded two countries to bring justice to the lives lost. In the seeking of justice American and coalition forces lost 8,259 lives and the number of Iraqi’s lost is over 206,000.  Up to another 20,000 Afghan citizens are estimated to have lost their lives in that long war.  But was this really justice or revenge?  It was the latter.  The ongoing struggle of this region to stabilize and rebuild is not going to end any time soon.  Again, we did not mete out justice, we meted out vengeance and created enormous suffering that will endure for generations. We are seeing the consequences of our vengeance with the rise of ISIS.  We exacted suffering 78 times greater than what we experienced and upon the wrong countries if there even was a country that deserved such retribution.

What does it really mean in one of my favorite hymns, We’ll Build a Land when we sing  “where justice shall roll down like waters?” Are we seeking justice or exacting vengeance on our enemies?  In the context of Iraq it was surely the latter.  Vengeance was indeed a terrible swift sword and it cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives before we found and killed the person responsible for that terrorist act. If justice is a synonym for revenge and condemnation, then we have to find another word for our second principle because I don’t think it means what we think it means.

However, when I read our second principle, I think of what it might mean to love my neighbor as myself.  What does it mean to do unto others as I would have them do unto me?  What does that look like in my daily encounters with others?  I look first to the macro level. Am I being as loving as I can be in this moment?  Am I being generous in thought and deed?  Am I seeking to understand rather than be understood?  From here, I expand beyond those I know in my circle to those beyond my circle.  How do my actions relate to the neighborhood? the larger community?  How might I expand this notion of loving my neighbor to the larger community?  Then I begin to think about the systems I live in.  How do these systems limit the way we live?  How do these systems expand our ability to breathe?  How might I work to change these systems to be more inclusive in the ability to breathe free?

Justice then is not the exacting of revenge on a wrong committed.  Justice is a humble act of living day to day.  What does Life require of you?  But to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with this gift of Life.    (Micah 6:8 paraphrased)



Who is this mythical person christened
Twenty-fifteen? A babe in swaddling clothes
at birth, a decrepit hunched being come
final hours of December thirty-first.
Its destiny is the same as yours/mine.

What type of life will Twenty-fifteen live?
As with all newborns we dream wishful hopes
anticipating, desiring, longing
for something better; something wonderful.
The life it lives depends in part on us.

How well we embody our principles—
how well we choose to seek to act justly —
how well we choose to share loving kindness —
how well we walk humbly throughout our days.
Live this day, this hour as the best moment,

as if our December thirty-first draws
near as it must for all creatures on earth.
Who then is this mythical person born?
Twenty-fifteen is our measure of life
Fill it with love, generosity, grace.

© 2015 Fred L Hammond

Domesticating God

I have been reading a blog from the United Kingdom, This Fragile Tent.  He is a liberal Christian who is asking some interesting questions about what it means to be a person of faith in today’s world.  In  today’s blog, entitled, How do you love an unknowable God?  He mentions the Christian concept of a personal relationship with God and then states “It is an idea that seems to domesticate God, and recast him in a role that is of our own making.”

I added a comment that I thought there was a danger to domesticate God.  Anne Lamott said, ” You can safely assume that you made God in your own image when it turns out that God hates the same people that you do.”

But this is what we do isn’t it?  Domesticate God.  I see it most evident here in the south, this desire to have God recast into our own image so we are comfortable in our conservative way of living.   Good people, good honest working people, who attend church all day on Sunday and during the week in order to learn how to love God with all their hearts, minds, and spirits, clapped when their co-workers were arrested as alleged undocumented workers at Howard Industries.  They believed that God’s will was being done in those arrests.  They rejoiced in the suffering of others.  God was domesticated into their own image. 

Many of those arrested are also good people, good hard working people who came to this country believing that God would make a way for them.  They believed it was God’s will for them to better their lives and to live without political oppression from their governments. They believed that God wanted them to be able to have work enabling them have sufficient sustenance for their family.   God was domesticated into their own image, too.   Are both right?  Are both following the will of God as best as they can discern? 

Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin has some strong opinions about God’s will.  She believes it is God’s will for abstinence before marriage, for comprehensive sex education not to be taught to our teenagers.   And when her teenage daughter became pregnant by a young boy who does not want children, who does not want the responsibilities of marriage, it was God’s will that she have this baby out of wedlock.  God has been domesticated.

When news analyst Bill O’reilly commented on this situation, he very compassionately stated that this was a private family matter.  The baby will be born into a loving home, mother and child will not become a taxpayer liability through welfare, and that it is the family’s and mother’s choice to have this child born.  No argument from me.  I agree even if there is a contradiction between Sarah Palin’s desired values for the citizens of Alaska and the living out of her own values within her family network. 

Bill O’Reilly had a different reaction, a few months before, when examining the story of Britney Spears teenage sister becoming pregnant and who was planning to keep the child.  His response was that the parents were irresponsible in not controlling the behaviors of their teenager.  He denounced the behavior as not being acceptable moral behavior.  For Palin’s daughter, the same standards did not apply? He has conveniently rationalized his contradictions. Palin’s daughter, a young teen of high moral standards; Spears, a young promiscuous teen needing to be reigned in and controlled; both making the choice to keep their babies and raising them.   Bill O’reilly has domesticated God. 

My examples used are just the most recent in the news coverage.  So my stating this argument using Republicans can also be made using Democrats, Independents, and even the Green Party candidates.  We do tend to domesticate God into our own image to justify the actions we choose to make given the current circumstances.    Our going to war in Iraq has been rationalized by some as a fore runner to the second coming; as a spiritual war between the forces of good and evil (good being Christian Americans, evil being Islamic Arabs whose country we invaded and occupied under false assumptions).  These rationales are the domestication of God.   

I suppose the opposite stance on the war in Iraq could also be a domestication of God.   To try to base one’s life on the prophet Micah could also be a domestication.  Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what the Lord requires of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” 

Maybe it is part of human nature to seek to recast God in our own image and thereby justify our actions.  It adds to the mystery of who this God really is, since we all seem to see through a mirror darkly.  And any definitive answer becomes its own trap door into which we fall.  Blessings,

Published in: on September 8, 2008 at 11:46 am  Comments Off on Domesticating God  
Tags: , , , , ,