In the previous two essays of this triptych, I have attempted to sketch how the Gospel of Jesus Christ might shape our understanding of justice in order to clarify what our responsibilities as Christians might be in our own time. The Lord has shown us what is good, and what is required of us: “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God,” Micah reminds us. Faith, hope, and love, Paul suggests, are the substance of the Christian life.
My proposal has been that the two choruses of the Old and New Testaments sing the same theme antiphonally: the Prophets and the Apostles stand together, announcing the gospel of peace as the hope of the world. In doing so, they call the Christian to the ministry of reconciliation, both within the Christian community and beyond. The church bears witness to faith, hope, and love so that the world might do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. Justice without faith becomes injustice; charity without humility can only result in inhumanity.
In short: we must look beyond justice to the message of Jesus Christ, not to diminish justice but so that it might be saved. The content of what we owe to one another is ultimately governed by the common union of charity in Christ we shall someday enjoy world without end. If this is good news, though, there is nothing easy or comfortable about it.
This charity rejoices in the truth, Paul tells us. And the truth of this damaged, fallen world is that the unjust accrue debts they cannot pay by defrauding their neighbor of what they are owed. Charity can only rejoice in a world marked by sin and oppression if justice really is to be done, if the defrauded will be made whole and victims will be given their due. I am afraid the same must be said of the wicked, unpopular though it may be: they shall also receive repayment for their sins. God has poured out the coals of his grace upon us all, until we either repent and believe or fix ourselves in belligerent opposition to all that is true and good. God will have justice for sinners—by His faithfulness to his covenant in Jesus Christ, and by His honouring of our freedom to embrace inhumanity by spurning His grace. As Puck, Shakespeare’s prophet from the land of fairies, reminds us in Midsummer Night’s Dream, eventually “Jack shall have Jill; Nought shall go ill; The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.”
The announcement of this conclusion to history, though, is not only for tomorrow but for today. “Welcome happy morning, age to age shall say; hell today is vanquished, heav’n is won today.” The perpetual springtime of God’s perfect reign has broken upon the world in Jesus Christ: the light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness really has not overcome it—even if it has tried, and will go on trying. The darkness has been disturbed: it has been exposed as a menace, an empty if powerful foe that cannot touch the soul but which really will attempt to destroy the body. The advent of Jesus Christ places the principalities and powers beneath a crisis: they must either acknowledge and submit to Christ’s Lordship, or they must embrace a hostility toward the Gospel that can only end with martyrdom for those who bear Christ’s name. There is no rage so fierce, no anger so destructive, as that which seeks to overcome impotence.
“Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and the peoples plot in vain,” the Psalmist asks? The “kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against the Lord’s anointed, saying: ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast away their cords from us.’” The nations rage because they cannot save: only Christ Jesus can do that. In their efforts to inaugurate the Kingdom, the nations will demand a perfection that only the consummation of God’s righteous rule can deliver, and attempt to extract a punishment for wrong that is only God’s to issue.
It is within this time between the dawning of Christ’s kingdom and its consummation that we must speak of hope and mercy, the two characteristics that lie at the center of the triads that have governed these talks. “By this they will know you are my disciples,” Jesus tells us, “that you love one another.” Yet charity under duress takes the form of hope, an unstinting and unremitting gladness even in the midst of suffering and martyrdom. “Blessed are you when they revile you,” Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, and “and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”
The blessing is tied to the Church’s prophetic witness, its announcement of the end of the age and the dawning of Christ’s reign: “Rejoice and be exceeding glad,” Jesus goes on, “for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” Opposing the injustices of this world must be done with a cheerful grin of indifference to the impotent powers raging around us, as we echo God’s scornful laughter with mockery of our own. The imperative to rejoice as victims is admittedly an impossibility: it is almost offensive to suggest that we are commanded to laugh while our oppressors beat us down. Yet where our suffering takes place in Jesus’ name, the impossible happens: hope only becomes a virtue, as Chesterton remarked, when the situation is hopeless. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character—well, character produces a hope that does not disappoint, governed and determined as it is by the unfailing faithfulness of God to His promises.
Such hope is not optimism: it is not founded upon what is visible, but invisible. It is in hope that we are saved, Paul writes—but “hope which is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he sees?” The great vision of Christ and His kingdom at the end of all things is assuredly not yet. We walk by faith, not by sight. Much as we might work for the Kingdom of God, its operations will remain mostly invisible to us. The mustard seed grows into a tree without anyone particularly noticing what’s afoot. Growth is nearly imperceptible to the naked eye.
This is especially important, if I may say so, for those who are young and eager to begin their work of sowing for Christ’s kingdom. There is a natural optimism that belongs to youth, which is both necessary and admirable: youthful magnanimity clings to the possibility of doing great things, making it the origins of many influential works and movements. Yet the aspirations of youth are, like its beauty, fleeting. We protect and nourish optimism among the young, because they invigorate our pursuit of the possibilities before us.
But optimism withers when faced with challenges that can only be resolved across multiple generations. The natural brightness and cheeriness of the young must at some point give way to hope, as the possibility of greatness is replaced with the sure and certain promise that all shall be made right by God at the end of history. “The only hope,” T.S. Eliot writes in the final of the Four Quartets, “or else despair, lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—to be redeemed from fire by fire.”
Because hope looks forward to this last day, though, it is not merely compatible with lamenting the injustice of the world around us, but demands it. The “kindness of God” revealed in Jesus Christ is the grounds and basis of repentance. But there is no repentance, and no hope, without contrition. Contrition is not compensation: God cannot be satiated by our sacrifices, despite our endless attempts to secure our path to God by making them. Yet contrition is both a sign and a condition of our aliveness to injustices both in our own lives and the world around us. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, oh God, Thou wilt not despise.”
Any lamentation for suffering will have a touch of such penitence, a recognition that we are members of the leavened loaf. Lamentation is not a grief that forgets the kindness of God: those shrieks can only end in death, as Paul notes. Lamentation is a grief that yet names the Friday on which our Savior died as good: the cross reveals God’s love even in its inverted, most tragic form. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” As victims of injustice, our sorrow is taken up into the sorrow of our Savior, whose own experience as victim is the source and grounds of our salvation: “Was ever grief like mine?,” Christ asks us in Herbert’s poem, assuring us that there was not.
But Christ’s victimhood is also swallowed up in victory: like all facts when they are brought into contact with the grace of God, the fact of Christ’s crucifixion is transfigured by His resurrection into a fact of joy. Living within Christ’s life means our victimhood is not the deepest nor truest fact about us, but is a means of participating in His sufferings so that we might also partake in His resurrection. The lamentation of God is stronger than the oppression of man. In this way, godly grief sees double: it cries out for justice against our oppressors without forgetting that we have sometimes been in their place—even if unwittingly. The purity of God’s victimhood can never be ours, for if we are victims of injustice we yet live among a people of unclean lips. When grief sees double this way, the prophetic denunciation of the world’s sin will sound like good news, as it will offer full justice to the victim even while holding forth the possibility of mercy for the oppressor.
That the last work of consummating history is God’s alone, though, preserves us from falling captive to the ‘lust of the eyes,’ the vice against hope and mercy that John warns against. I began the first essay by suggesting that our politics has been seized by a post-Christian despair. On both the Right and the Left, the urgency of immediately escaping injustice has generated a revolutionary, populist fever, which attempts to make restitution visible, and to do so without delay. There is little interest in patiently enduring suffering for the good of our neighbour: the world’s fragility means if we do not act immediately, we shall lose all that we have. Such despair emerges from the lust of the eyes, which names a covetousness that seeks to make visible what one desires through any means possible—including witchcraft, if it comes to it.
Our society’s frenzied hastiness is a sin against time: it declines to embrace the invisible, overlooked labor of preparing the fields for the harvest, in its hurry to reap fruit immediately. The lust of the eyes scorns the idea that the growing good of the world emerges from the hidden lives of those who now rest in “unvisited tombs,” as George Eliot proposed, rather than from the visibly saturated, unremittingly publicized world of social media. When the change we so desire is delayed, the despair that is our lifeblood breaks out. Political triumphalism invariably generates political destruction: the euphoria of the Religious Right in the early 1980s could only end in the desperate alliance with Donald Trump. The pragmatic optimism of Barack Obama could only generate the despairing radicalism of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. No one has time for hope these days, because time—we are told—is running out.
If the post-Christian despair brought about by the lust of the eyes destroys hope, it also eradicates mercy. The rhetoric of compassion that has animated so many of our society’s efforts to win equality for disadvantaged groups has been replaced by a vindictive and vengeful imposition of shame upon anyone who transgresses our new norms. The infinite judgment of God upon transgressors has been replaced with the nearly-infinite bludgeoning of public humiliation: “outrage mobs” ensure speech and ideological codes are strictly enforced, by permanently branding wrongdoers. Those who use Twitter live beneath Damocles’ sword, which incites a fear that is not the fear of the Lord: a single misguided tweet may be deleted, but the internet shall remember it forever. The lust of the eyes has no time to search out a person’s intentions or backstory, hidden as they are beneath the surface of what seems to be the case: it judges entirely upon appearances, rather than with the righteous judgment our Savior demands of us. Enforcing such norms demands the destruction of reputations: having no recourse to the judgment of God, our society can only impose the scarlet letter of a global shame, which can never be washed away in the rivers of Lethe.
Such stigmas are only one form, though, of our culture’s lust for punishment. We might equally speak about the endless stigma imposed upon those who break our laws, and who are placed in prison as a result. Our society deliberately makes offenders invisible to us, by taking their time and agency in response to the time and agency they took from their victims and society. Imposing limits upon a person’s agency in response to their wrongdoing can be a just and right penalty. Yet for those who “serve their time,” and are released from prison having paid their “debt to society”—what then? The Gospel invites wrongdoers to reconcile with God—it renews our agency, making us again capable of acting for the good. In the same way, a society in which the Gospel has taken root will meet ex-convicts with the means to renew their agency, so that they might join with us in acting for the common good. Stigmas on convicts may be impossible to eradicate: but they should not be sanctioned or extended by, for instance, permitting employers to rule out applications for work simply based upon prior convictions (the so-called “felon box”).
Within this effort to mitigate punishments for wrongdoing lives the peculiar combination of hope and mercy that the Gospel of Jesus Christ uniquely engenders. “The quality of mercy is not strained,” Portia announces in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Her words are among Shakespeare’s most famous, for good reason. Shylock is unyielding in his persecution of his bond: Antonio’s venture was financed by Shylock’s interest-free loan, and its failure means Antonio owes him a pound of his flesh. Portia pleads for mercy, and when refused, issues judgment on Shylock’s behalf: he has been defrauded, and so deserves remedy. Yet her verdict embodies the mercy she had praised: Shylock shall have his pound of flesh, but only when it can be extracted from Antonio without shedding his blood. Antonio’s folly is met with the kindest of all justices, the goodness of which invites him to the contrition of repentance.
Mercy is the luxury of God’s boundless love: it crowns all His other graces, reveals His goodness in all its beauty. And when we dispense mercy upon our neighbour, we are both, together, drawn into the center of God’s own happy life. Mercy is ‘twice-blessed’: it “blesses him that gives and him that takes. ’Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown. His sceptre, shows the force of temporal power, the attribute to awe and majesty, wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings. But mercy”—yes, but mercy, two words on which the whole of the Gospel and of justice hang—“but mercy is above this sceptred sway; it is enthroned in the hearts of kings, it is an attribute to God himself, and earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.”
Note that mercy seasons justice in God’s life: it does not destroy justice, but mitigates the harshness of punishment. Mercy ensures justice remains good news for both the oppressor and the victim, who are both blessed when it is given. It offers hope for the oppressor’s salvation by giving them time to repent. Mercy looks upon both the victim and oppressor as our neighbors, as those who are with us beneath the unsparing justice of God. Mercy arises when we remember where wrongdoers come from, and where they are going: we can be merciful to one another because we are together beneath the judgment of God. “Though justice be thy plea, consider this,” Portia exhorts us: “That in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.” The requirement to search out the planks within our own eyes before we cast judgment is not simply a way of avoid hypocrisy, but is an acknowledgment of our common life beneath God’s gracious kindness. Those who have learned to plead for mercy from Him will be most disposed to give it; those who are forgiven much have an infinite well of love from which they may also forgive without suffering any further loss.
Perhaps, though, the hope of mercy is simply the wrong message for our time. To defend mercy in the midst of so many and so pressing injustices seems like the wrong note. The real need is to awaken a slumbering people to the way unjust institutions slowly grind the bones of their victims to dust. Our responsibility here and now is to prophetically denounce unrighteousness, while seeking the swift execution of justice. Appealing to mercy can only engender complaisance in the face of wrongs, rather than action. Mercy stands with the oppressor; justice, the victim.
The same complaint can be issued against hope itself. For the marginalized, hope seems to defer justice. Hope consecrates quiescence, rather than demanding liberation. If we believe that all will be set right in the end, why go on setting it right now? Oh, we might disapprove of how things stand: but those who are suffering should cheer up, and rejoice in their opportunity to learn endurance. Hope, in this way, is not a virtue, but a vice: the real virtue is the despair that seizes the instruments of power to awaken the world to the need for immediate action, whether those instruments are Twitter or the Presidency. Mercy and hope cannot save justice: they can only destroy it.
These complaints are right to contend that we need to awaken from the slumber of our complacency, and open our eyes to the sorrow and suffering around us. The need for the prophetic denunciation of the Lordless powers is as acute as ever. Yet hope sets Christian action free—free to work, and free to demand justice here and now, as the widow relentlessly sought justice from the unrighteous judge in our Savior’s parable. “For a while [the unjust judge] refused [the widow’s plea for justice,]” our Savior tells us, “but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” Our Savior’s commentary demands we attend: “Hear what the unrighteous judge says,” Jesus goes on: “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
The Christian is empowered to endure the slow, often invisible, seemingly fruitless work of bringing about justice because the Christian knows that which he seeks. The charity that endures into the end of the world hopes all things, believes all things, and endures all things—and so can join the persistent widow in the endless badgering of unjust authorities to do what they ought do. The Christian has been told the end of the story, and is most eager to see glimpses of it in the world in which he lives: “I would have despaired,” the Psalmist writes, “had I not believed I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
But hope does not yield to the lust of the eyes by giving in to despair when justice seems impossibly far off. The Christian hopes for the one great light of the consummation of God’s Kingdom: but because this one great light is certain, the Christian may and must hope for the little lights of a merciful justice, a just mercy, here and now. Hope does not undermine action, but sustains and preserves it, even and especially when appearances contradict it. Like charity, hope also never fails: it never relents, never grows weary, never tires. Hope is younger and more vibrant than the natural optimism of youth can imagine.
The Christian may and must hope for justice here and now, in fact, because the Gospel announces a vindication of the victim that has already taken place. The Christian speaks prophetically to the world about the past: Christian action is unencumbered by the anxious striving of those who would perfect justice within this world, because it seeks to make manifest what has already been effected. The Christian prophetic stance cannot be that of the Old Testament, for we proclaim to the Lordless powers that they have been even now dethroned and defeated, and that Christ Jesus, the author of our faith, is even now seated on His throne as Lord and king of the cosmos. The Christian prophetic message bears witness to what is done: the poor really are blessed, the meek have inherited the earth, the martyrs may laugh as the flames consume them. The church can pronounce its word of blessing in the midst of unimaginable suffering, because the invincibility of Christ to sin and damage is ours in Him: we more than conquerors with Christ. We really are.
The strains of the Christian prophetic witness in our world, then, must echo those of the Mother of our Lord, Mary. With her song, which distills all that I have said, we draw these essays to a close. “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.” The font and wellspring of the Christian’s pursuit of justice begins here, in the magnification of the acts of the God who saves and redeems us in the person of Jesus Christ. “For he hath regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden; for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” This God turns his face to the lowly: He regards them, keeping them in His hand, caring for them as a father cares for his children. His vision is true: there is no ‘lust of the eyes’ in His seeing, no hastiness in judging on behalf of the respectable, the wealthy, or those who are caught up in the appearances dominated by the boastful pride of life. He lifts up the light of His countenance upon the poor; He sees those who are unseen, whose lives have been overlooked by those who cannot be bothered. “For He that is mighty hath magnified me; and holy is His name.” The humility and humiliation of God in Jesus Christ magnifies the lowly: there is no holiness that fails to do likewise, for the holiness of God is akin to his endless charity. “And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations.” The mercy of God falls upon the contrite: but we are really given this mercy for which we pray, and are really empowered to give mercy to others. Those who pray for mercy fear only the severity of God’s kindness, the sharpness of His grace: such a fear has no commerce with the ungodly fear of destruction or vengeance or punishment within our world today. This God is to be feared, but feared as children might fear disappointing their father, knowing all the while his endless love for them. In this fear, and only this fear, do we learn to pray for the mercy that seasons justice.
And then within Mary’s song we encounter the six great past-tense verbs, the description of what God has done in Jesus Christ. They are future events for Mary, but are so secure she can speak of them as already accomplished. “He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; he hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek; he hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.” The “form of this world,” Paul tells the Corinthians, is passing away. The in-breaking of the Kingdom of God reveals that the injustices that surround and afflict us cannot touch us: God has abased the proud, and lifted up the humble. He has scattered the proud, and has fed the hungry. He has accomplished his victory, and within His life we actively await and seek its revelation. The fight against injustice is a fight against a vanquished foe: a powerful foe, yes, but one which is raging because it has been shamed and exposed as impotent before the whole company of the heavens.
And all this is a work of God’s gracious faithfulness to His promises: “He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, as he promised to our forefathers Abraham, and his seed for ever.” So Mary’s song prophetically denounces the Lordless powers, by announcing the triumph of Jesus Christ over all the nations. God has acted, and we must not forget or neglect his it. The dawn of the new day has appeared: God has kept His promise to His people, demonstrating the faithfulness of His justice within the covenant He made with Abraham.“ The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear Him, and his righteousness with their children’s children.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the beginning and end of justice: it is the only way justice can be saved, and we ourselves along with it.