Have you noticed that the justice system (of western countries anyway) is becoming less and less about providing justice? The concept used to be that if you committed a crime you should be punished in accordance with the severity of the crime. The justice system was about acting on behalf of the community to sentence criminals to fair punishment, eg a specified term in prison. In order to justly punish a person for what they did, the full term must be served because no amount of good behaviour can make up for or blot out what was done before.

Now though, the sentence given by a judge does not mean the criminal will serve that sentence. Good behaviour and a low risk of reoffending will mean criminals are released before they have served the full sentence. The focus is on preventing reoffending not on providing a just punishment for the crime committed.

I wonder if this changed concept of justice makes it difficult for people to understand God’s justice. People think that their good behaviour makes up for or cancels out any sin, in the same way that criminals are let off their full sentence if they’re good and aren’t likely to do it again. The idea that the only way God can be just is to punish in full all sins committed doesn’t fit with the way justice is served in the community.


One thought on “Justice

  1. Maybe the underlying problem is that the sense of real guilt and moral transgression has largely been eroded and replaced by a deterministic outlook which views criminals as being victims of their environment, upbringing, education etc. No doubt these may be mitigating factors in the sense that they magnify the intensity of the temptation to transgress, but from the Christian standpoint the root cause of sin is the heart: each transgression involves a moral choice for which we are accountable, and which predisposing factors do not extinguish. This moral accountability gives us significance as human beings; once it is taken away, our actions become ultimately meaningless.

    The erosion of a clear sense of right and wrong translates into a utilitarian view of justice. The criminal is not a sinner but a malfunctioning component in a system; the judicial process exists to safeguard other components in the system, and, to a limited degree, to rectify the malfunction in the defective component.

    The idea of good behaviour counterbalancing bad behaviour is a feature of a major Middle Eastern religion – on the Day of Judgement a weighing scale is used to determine whether a person’s good deeds outweigh his bad deeds or vice-versa; and the result will determine his ultimate destiny. The problem with this is that it seems to compromise the holiness and justice of God and to underplay the seriousness of sin. The gospel is both tougher and gentler:sin, even in its milder manifestations, is so serious that no amount of good deeds on our part can compensate; but it can be punished on our behalf at the Cross. Our good deeds do not atone for sin – they are a merely a consequence of the real Atonement.

    The interesting thing is that those who downplay the moral categories of right and wrong and the need to punish in their approach to the criminal justice system usually have a hard time maintaining that position in the face of heinous crimes such as child abuse, rape, serial-killing etc. When we are confronted with such horrors, phrases we commonly hear from commentators today such as ‘inappropriate behaviour’, ‘error of judgement’, ‘maladjusted’ etc. reveal themselves to be pathetically inadequate. We know the guilt to be real and the failure to punish profoundly unjust.

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