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Justice Does Not Belong to the Christian Way of Life

February 24, 2013

200px-Isaac_the_SyrianI am most grateful for the comments generated by my previous post. I have been musing about why not judging others seems to be a stumbling block. Perhaps, it is because we consider the spiritual life in the absolutist, rational categories of right and wrong or guilt and innocence, rather than in terms of healthy, living communion with God and diseased, deadening alienation from Him or radiant, grace-attracting humility and darkened, grace-repelling pride. Judgment demands that the guilty be punished and wrongs be righted. Compassion seeks for the sick to be healed and the proud to be humbled. Judgment divides me from my brother as separate and different from me. Compassion unites us as being one in need of a merciful God. In a somewhat startling passage, Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Justice does not belong to the Christian way of life and there is no mention of it in Christ’s teachings….How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I choose to give unto this last even unto thee. Or is thine eye evil because I am good?’ How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth…Where, then is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us!” (Homily 51). As Christians, we should be concerned with being merciful around others rather than with judging them. And this can take place only if our spiritual eyes are not evil, but pure and single, as are the spiritual eyes of those who are united to God with humble prayer ceaselessly being offered up for all, as incense before the ever-merciful and forgiving Lord.

In the Orthodox Church, today is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee.  The Gospel for the day introduces this parable by noting: “And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” There are two kinds of misjudgment at work here. The presumption of being righteous when one is not and the presumption that others are unrighteous when they are in fact justified before God through their repentance. As to the first misjudgment, in a fallen state, our ego strives to preserve an idealized, but inaccurate self-concept about what “good and upstanding” people we are, reminding us that, “We pray. We go to church. We take care of our family.  We don’t cheat anyone. We are essentially good persons.”  And yet we usurp this goodness as though it is ours through our own efforts, apart from God and the only source of that which is genuinely good. And we allow this seeming goodness to become a cloak that obscures our other sins and failings for which we should repent. As to the second misjudgment, if our judgment about someone else is wrong, we not only judge, but also slander. If our judgment is correct, we still may be in danger of separating ourselves from others, of thinking of ourselves as being better than they are, of becoming unwittingly self-righteous, and of failing to love our enemies.

In an earlier post, I wrote, “And lo, Zachaeus’s self-concept changed radically from that blessed meeting with the Lord. He understood himself now in terms of God’s compassionate understanding of Zachaeus that in turn made Zachaeus all the more compassionate towards others.” When one’s attention descends into the heart in humble prayer, believers begin to see themselves in relation to God and their abiding need and desire for purification and illumination. Such an awareness leaves little room for judging others.  In response to a recent blog comment, I wrote, “I think your statement “holding people accountable when the relationship warrants it” is important.  There are many cases when the relationship does not warrant it. And outside of the clear examples of parents and their young children as well as priests and their flocks, it is best to be wary of what we should hold others to. Loving unconditionally is certainly unconditional as is holding ourselves accountable to others and to God. As far as the accounts of others are concerned, however, we tread carefully and lovingly if we tread at all. No there are no easy answers, but the heart can sense when what is being done or said is being done from love with kindness and compassion. Simplicity is, of course, a great virtue. Those monks who literally managed to not judge anyone, to hold no one to account for anything, were simple, guileless souls that reached salvation to a large extent by their refusal to ever judge anyone and by their commitment to always judge themselves. The result was an abyss of humility and from humility and abundance of holiness. Of course, simple monks have such a luxury. But for those whose circumstances allow it, such a way is truly blessed.”

When we are engaged in the spiritual struggle or when we recognize the great gift inherent in the prayer of the Publican, we cease to search for circumstances or conditions in which we are really justified in judging our brother.  Remembrance of God, vigilance in matters of the heart, and the striving for humility leave little room for those types of pursuits.  When we pray with the humility and honesty of the Publican we recognize that the temptation to judge others is nothing more than a fool’s errand, taking us off course and onto crooked and perverse paths that lead us away from our ultimate goal, the love of our merciful Savior who “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, sends rain on the just and on the unjust,” and promises that those who judge not will not be judged.

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8 Comments
  1. Dave permalink

    I continue to ponder …

    I think Justice and Mercy are very much apart of this creation and Christ is the person I trust in – come the day of my particular judgment.

    To what degree we as sinners are to judge the action of others … best to avoid it as much as grace will provide for especially in a spiritual context.

    But … if one is a judge in court of law, or in a position of authority when dealing with groups of people where transgression against one another happen then judgment is required.

    Somehow I think I am caught up in a contextual problem with this post and the previous one and what exactly is “judging”. I feel comfortable in stating that rape is wrong. I feel comfortable in saying that a rapist committed a sinful act. But to state that the rapist is a “bad” person is beyond my authority. Only God can make that assessment. And if the rapist at the moment of his last bit of life fails to repent then his judgment is of his own accord because he failed to accept the only thing possible (God) to cure him of his estrangement or his illness or his pride.

    I found this commentary helpful … Our (human beings) understanding of justice and our Creator … are not exactly the same.

    ——-

    The adulterous woman—Jesus as judge (8:2–11)

    8:6. The question put by the scribes and Pharisees has a catch: our Lord had often shown understanding to people whom they considered sinners; they come to him now with this case to see if he will be equally indulgent—which will allow them to accuse him of infringing a very clear precept of the Law (cf. Lev 20:10).

    8:7. Jesus’ reply refers to the way stoning was carried out: those who witnessed the crime had to throw the first stones, and then others joined in, to erase the slur on the people which the crime implied (cf. Deut 17:7). The question put to Jesus was couched in legal terms; he raises it to the moral plane (the basis and justification of the legal plane), appealing to the people’s conscience. He does not violate the law, St Augustine says, and at the same time he does not want to lose what he is seeking—for he has come to save that which was lost: “His answer is so full of justice, gentleness and truth. […] O true answer of Wisdom. You have heard: Keep the Law, let the woman be stoned. But how can sinners keep the Law and punish this woman? Let each of them look inside himself and enter the tribunal of his heart and conscience; there he will discover that he is a sinner. Let this woman be punished, but not by sinners; let the Law be applied, but not by its transgressors” (St Augustine, In Ioann. Evang., 33, 5).

    8:11. “The two of them were left on their own, the wretched woman and Mercy. But the Lord, having smitten them with the dart of justice, does not even deign to watch them go but turns his gaze away from them and once more writes on the ground with his finger. But when the woman was left alone and they had all gone, he lifted up his eyes to the woman. We have already heard the voice of justice; let us now hear the voice of gentleness. I think that woman was the more terrified when she heard the Lord say, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,’ […] fearing now that she would be punished by him, in whom no sin could be found. But he, who had driven away her adversaries with the tongue of justice, now looking at her with the eyes of gentleness asks her, ‘Has no one condemned you?’ She replies, ‘No one, Lord.’ And he says, ‘Neither do I condemn you; I who perhaps you feared would punish you, because in me you have found no sin.’ Lord, can it be that you favour sinners? Assuredly not. See what follows: ‘Go and sin no more.’ Therefore, the Lord also condemned sin, but not the woman” (St Augustine, In Ioann. Evang., 33, 5–6).

    Jesus, who is the Just One, does not condemn the woman; whereas these people are sinners, yet they pass sentence of death. God’s infinite mercy should move us always to have compassion on those who commit sins, because we ourselves are sinners and in need of God’s forgiveness.

    Saint John’s Gospel. 2005. The Navarre Bible (101–102). Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers.

    • Dave,

      Thank you for that commentary on the passage in the Gospel according to Saint John the Theologian.

      In a fallen society, judgment is indeed necessary. That context of courts, audits, and review boards is not, however, the context of the Christian struggling to lead a perfectly Christ-like life. One clarification that Saint Dorotheos of Gaza makes, which might be helpful, is that there is a difference between saying so-and-so told a lie or got angry and saying so-and-so is a liar or ill-tempered. In the first case, one is stating a fact about a behavior that took place and which we can call sinful. In the second case, one is judging the condition or quality of a person’s soul and making a conclusion about that person’s entire life (Discourses, Chapter 6).

      Thanks once more for your input on this important topic.

      Fr. Alexis

  2. miladin permalink

    Blessings Father,

    I found your statement that “Justice does not belong to the Christian way of life and there is no mention of it in Christ’s teachings”. This really explains many things about life. Sometimes I get caught up thinking that things are not fair or why did I end up with this trial & temptation. The feeling “why me?” is common. But your words do highlight the fact that events in life are not fair from our sinful perspective. I think it’s our own willfulness that causes us so much pain.

    In Christ
    Miladin

  3. The Lord God bless you, Miladin.

    Yes, seeking what is fair is really bound up with judging others. To not judge others requires a degree of self-renunciation for the sake of Christ, a cutting off of the will for the higher, divine will of our Heavenly Father. And yes, willfulness causes pain and drives away humility.

    In Christ,

    Fr. Alexis

  4. Bruce permalink

    Father bless!!!

    Thank you for your wonderful posts and thoughts which I know are all given to glorify and praise the Giver of Life.

    At the risk of introducing some controversy, your post reminded me of some of the thoughts about justice expressed in the ‘River of Fire’ by DR. ALEXANDRE KALOMIROS. First is an excerpt which communicates his perceptions of what is God’s justice and I’ve also included an excerpt in which he characterizes the mistaken beliefs about God’s justice which seems to be so deeply emmeshed in Western Christianity. I hope this will complement and expand on some of your thoughts. I’m also curious how you view his perceptions.

    —————- What is God’s Justice? ———–
    So in the language of the Holy Scriptures, “just” means good and loving. We speak of the just men of the Old Testament. That does not mean that they were good judges but that they were kind and God-loving people. When we say that God is just, we do not mean that He is a good judge Who knows how to punish men equitably according to the gravity of their crimes, but on the contrary, we mean that He is kind and loving, forgiving all transgressions and disobediences, and that He wants to save us by all means, and never requites evil for evil. 22 In the first volume of the Philokalia there is a magnificent text of Saint Anthony which I must read to you here:

    God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.23 [Chap. 150]

    ————– And Now Some Mistaken Beliefs ——-
    Did you ever try to pinpoint what is the principal characteristic of Western theology? Well, its principal characteristic is that it considers God as the real cause of all evil.

    What is evil? Is it not the estrangement from God Who is Life? Is it not death? What does Western theology teach about death? All Roman Catholics and most Protestants consider death as a punishment from God. God considered all men guilty of Adam’s sin and punished them by death, that is by cutting them away from Himself; depriving them of His live giving energy, and so killing them spiritually at first and later bodily, by some sort of spiritual starvation. Augustine interprets the passage in Genesis “If you eat of the fruit of this tree, you will die the death” as “If you eat of the fruit of this tree, I will kill you”.

    Some Protestants consider death not as a punishment but as something natural. But. is not God the creator of all natural things? So in both cases, God — for them — is the real cause of death.

    And this is true not only for the death of the body. It is equally true for the death of the soul. Do not Western theologians consider hell, the eternal spiritual death of man, as a punishment from God? And do they not consider the devil as a minister of God for the eternal punishment of men in hell?

    The “God” of the West is an offended and angry God, full of wrath for the disobedience of men, who desires in His destructive passion to torment all humanity unto eternity for their sins, unless He receives an infinite satisfaction for His offended pride.

    What is the Western dogma of salvation? Did not God kill God in order to satisfy His pride, which the Westerners euphemistically call justice? And is it not by this infinite satisfaction that He deigns to accept the salvation of some of us?

    What is salvation for Western theology? Is it not salvation from the wrath of God? 2

    Do you see, then, that Western theology teaches that our real danger and our real enemy is our Creator and God? Salvation, for Westerners, is to be saved from the hands of God!

    How can one love such a God? How can we have faith in someone we detest? Faith in its deeper essence is a product of love, therefore, it would be our desire that one who threatens us not even exist, especially when this threat is eternal.

    Even if there exists a means of escaping the eternal wrath of this omnipotent but wicked Being (the death of His Son in our stead), it would be much better if this Being did not exist. This was the most logical conclusion of the mind and of the heart of the Western peoples, because even eternal Paradise would be abhorrent with such a cruel God. Thus was atheisrn born, and this is why the West was its birthplace. Atheism was unknown in Eastern Christianity until Western theology was introduced there, too. Atheism is the consequence of Western theology. 3 Atheism is the denial, the negation of an evil God. Men became atheists in order to be saved from God, hiding their head and closing their eyes like an ostrich. Atheism, my brothers, is the negation of the Roman Catholic and Protestant God. Atheism is not our real enemy. The real enemy is that falsified and distorted “Christianity”.

    III
    Westerners speak frequently of the “Good God” (E.g., in France le bon dieu is almost always used when speaking of God.). Western Europe and America, however, were never convinced that such a Good God existed. On the contrary, they were calling God good in the way Greeks called the curse and malediction of smallpox, EULOGIA , that is, a blessing, a benediction, in order to exorcise it and charm it away. For the same reason, the Black Sea was called Eu xeinoV PontoV — the hospitable sea — although it was, in fact, a dreadful and treacherous sea. Deep inside the Western soul, God was felt to be the wicked Judge, Who never forgot even the smallest offense done to Him in our transgressions of His laws.

    This juridical conception of God, this completely distorted interpretation of God’s justice, was nothing else than the projection of human passions on theology. It was a return to the pagan process of humanizing God and deifying man. Men are vexed and angered when not taken seriously and consider it a humiliation which only vengeance can remove, whether it is by crime or by duel. This was the worldly, passionate conception of justice prevailing in the minds of a so-called “Christian” society.

    Western Christians thought about God’s justice in the same way also; God, the infinite Being, was infinitely insulted by Adam’s disobedience. He decided that the guilt of Adam’s disobedience descended equally to all His children, and that all were to be sentenced to death for Adam’s sin, which they did not commit. God’s justice for Westerners operated like a vendetta. Not only the man who insulted you, but also all his family must die. And what was tragic for men, to the point of hopelessness, was that no man, nor even all humanity, could appease God’s insulted dignity, even if all men in history were to be sacrificed. God’s dignity could be saved only if He could punish someone of the same dignity as He. So in order to save both God’s dignity and mankind, there was no other solution than the incarnation of His Son, so that a man of godly dignity could be sacrificed to save God’s honor.

    This paganistic conception of God’s justice which demands infinite sacrifices in order to be appeased clearly makes God our real enemy and the cause of all our misfortunes. Moreover, it is a justice which is not at all just since it punishes and demands satisfaction from persons which were not at all responsible for the sin of their forefathers 4 In other words, what Westerners call justice ought rather to be called resentment and vengeance of the worst kind. Even Christ’s love and sacrifice loses its significance and logic in this schizoid notion of a God who kills God in order to satisfy the so-called justice of God.

    • Bruce,

      The Lord God bless you always!

      Thank you for posting excerpts from the now classic and truly remarkable 1980 lecture given by Dr. Alexander Kalomiros. Yes, the section on God’s Justice complements and expands on my posts on judging others in a beautiful way. Indeed, to be just, as God is just, means to be good, loving, and kind, not critical, judgmental, and harsh. Dr. Kalomiros’s thoughts on false teachings about the gracious miracle of salvation, about the cause of evil, and about the origins of atheism are truly cogent and reflect how the interpersonal problem of a judgmental stance may stem in part from a theological problem in terms of soteriology and theodicy. And yes, that vengeful, angry God is in many ways a projection of a soul that has not tasted God’s love and never really heard or understood the Gospel. Of all of Dr. Kalomiros’s works, I think this is one of the most precious gems. Thank you so much, Bruce, for attaching it as a comment to this post. For those interested in the entire homily, which is certainly well worth reading, one link is http://www.stnectariospress.com/parish/river_of_fire.htm

      Thank you once again.

      Fr. Alexis

  5. Dave permalink

    Fr. Alexis,
    Thank you for your reply to my comment. Yes, the Discourses, Chapter 6 by Saint Dorotheos you referenced makes sense to me and now I better understand your post. Thank you once again for the edifying posts.
    Dave

    • You are quite welcome, Dave. And I thank you for your contributions and for nudging me to think a bit more about how the fathers look at this ever timely topic.

      Fr. Alexis

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