Yesterday Ryan asked the question, “Did Jerry Falwell go to heaven or hell?” I jotted out a few responses in my late night stupor. I awoke this morning still wrestling with the other questions that his one question set off. Beneath the particular question relating to the fate of a specific person, I hear the question about justice.
What significance do our words and actions have? If we violate other people and the world around us, is there a price to pay? As I think about these questions, I think about the idea of rectitude. Will there redress for every wrong? Can every wrong by righted in some way? These are questions better left to greater minds than mine, but at the risk of becoming a treading fool, I will proceed.
As I think about these questions, the bumper sticker “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” comes to mind. In a short phrase this sticker attempts to reflect something of the grace and forgiveness of God. At the same time, it may have some disquieting implications.
Are Christians claiming that their faith functions like a “get out of hell” free card? Does my faith in Jesus mean that I am not accountable for my actions. I can cut in front of you at the grocery store, or shake my fist at you on the highway, but it doesn’t really count: because of Jesus, the Father sort of winks at my indiscretions.
While these minor infractions seem innocuous, what happens when my words and actions set in motion violation upon violation upon violation of other people? I can cheat on my taxes and cheat on my wife but rest secure that I’m not perfect just forgiven. I can buy discounted clothes and foods that may come at the price of enslaving someone in another country whom I will never know or see.
I can enjoy the benefits of a culture that built its wealth on enslavement, torture and dehumanizing an entire race. The more I think about the implications of our actions, it becomes evident that either directly or indirectly each of us are oppressors. “Does God simply wink at this evil because we have faith in Jesus?”
If God is good, shouldn’t wrongs be righted? Do Christians suggest that because God forgives us for our wrong actions, everyone else should to? This obviously could cause some people to line up, ready to damn every Christian that acted though they had a right to condemn and/or mistreat the people around them.
Then I wonder, what if the Judgment Day looked very different then we expect. What if Judgment Day is not about God giving all my enemies their just deserts? What if it really is about redressing wrongs?
What if I had the opportunity to face all my oppressors on Judgment Day? My word would carry the power to determine their sentence. Each person who ever hurt me, oppressed me, or in any way violated me (directly or indirectly), would stand before me. By direct violation, I mean people who personally violated me. By indirect, I mean people whose actions hurt me even though we never faced (politicians, people’s action in other cities, states, nations, and even times). In fact, each oppressor would stand before every single person they harmed through words or actions.
The Prosecutor would show in detail every form of harm each oppressor ever caused. As the Defender, Jesus would stand on behalf of the accused. Because there are no longer any time restraints, this judgment would proceed until every single person faced his oppressors and all those he oppressed. Therefore, even as I looked upon those who caused me pain, I would know that I faced the same trial for all my offences (direct or indirect).
As I prepare to pass judgment, the Defender would make the audacious claim that he had took the wrong of each violation upon his own body. Then he would proclaim that his resurrection is a sign that rectitude has been made and will be eventually realized by every harmed person.
As I faced my oppressors, he would explain, “You can use condemnation or mercy as your measure for justice. If you choose condemnation, this person will bear the full weight of their offense. If you choose mercy, you are trusting that I will redress your grievance.” And then he would offer one last reminder, “The measure you use, will also be the same measure used for you.”
Please forgive my presumption to explain and or envision something beyond our human capacity to full grasp. I have no idea what the judgment seat looks like.
But I do think that Christianity claims that Jesus death and resurrection assure us of justice. Jesus and Paul both indicate that to follow Jesus means to bear his cross, his suffering. Oddly, this means that I might walk in the reality of Judgment Day today; that I might choose to bear the offence, the grievance of another so that mercy might prevail.
As I face those who oppress me, might I trust in the promise of both forgiveness for my failures and vindication for the wrongs against me? Might I have the power to offer mercy? This seems impossible and yet some have manifested in their lives.
My hero Richard Wurmbrand, suffering under daily torture for 14 years, pleads to God for mercy on behalf of his oppressors. More recently, South Africans facing the threat of inevitable civil war chose to enter into this model as a means of justice. The oppressors faced their victims. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, confession and forgiveness became a model of justice. The reality of Jesus’ cross manifested in a national policy, attempting to heal of deeply divided nation.
This model of justice involves personal suffering, intentional forgiveness and trust. Instead of me trying to determine who goes to heaven and who is bound for hell, can I live in this world in a way that fosters peace and reconciliation? Can you imagine what our world might look like if we lived the reality of confessing our faults one to another and forgiving one another. Maybe we might finally see a glimpse of the kingdom come.
(Note: Please forgive my shortcomings. What I am trying to think about is more complex than this simple essay can address. And there are others like Miroslav Volf who are far more articulate and theologically astute than myself.)