The scene was clear: three men were beating another man who had been handcuffed. The injustice of the situation was clear. No danger could possibly be seen coming from the handcuffed man, and no reason could be discerned for the beating. The man with the handcuffs was black, though he need not have been. The officers were white, though they need not have been. It made me feel sick.
I recall a scene from a Dostoevsky novel. A horse pulling a cart drew up lame. The man driving the cart began to beat the horse. The horse was unable to respond. The beating continued. With graphic detail Dostoevsky described the beating, including the fact of the whip striking the horses eyes. It is a terrible scene of brutality, one that Dostoevsky had actually witnessed in his life and chose to place in the novel. He seems to have collected stories of brutality from newspapers. In the Brothers Karamazov, he places that habit of collecting into the life of Ivan, who cites, in detail, various real-life stories in his case against belief in God. His account of a child abuse case is one of the most moving and graphic passages in the novel.
Our news media, always aware of their audience, consistently seeks to make its point through the device of “personal interest.” A story reported with facts and figures is never as effective as a story illustrated with a single fact and a single figure, particularly if that fact and figure have an accompanying video. Like the readers of Dostoevsky, we are moved. We place ourselves in the position of the handcuffed man, the beaten horse, the abused child. Our instinct for justice cries out and says, “Enough!” We feel rage, or perhaps we feel manipulated. Perhaps we think the story-teller is being unfair and one-sided, misrepresenting the facts and drawing us to a false conclusion. Our hearts cry out and say, “Enough!” We feel rage.
There is a different way to see these things.
Most frequently, we identify with a point-of-view within such scenes. It is from that beleaguered position that we empathetically experience the injustice and enter into our rage. A different approach is to empathetically enter into both positions in the scene – the one who is beaten and the one who beats. We might extend that to include the person who is trying to relay the story with their own point-of-view. In that extension of the self into the whole of a scene, our empathy reaches out in order to make ourselves both the sinner and the one who is sinned against. In no way do we seek to excuse. However, if we blame, the blame now falls on us, just as the injury does as well. We can see this described in one of the Macarian Homilies:
Those who have been judged worthy to become children of God and to be born from on high of the Holy Spirit … not infrequently weep and distress themselves for the whole human race; they pray for the ‘whole Adam’ with tears, inflamed as they are with spiritual love for all humanity. At times also their spirit is kindled with such joy and such love that, if it were possible, they would take every human being into their heart without distinguishing between good and bad. Sometimes, too, in humility of spirit, they so humble themselves before every human being that they consider themselves to be the last and least important of all. After which the Spirit makes them live afresh in ineffable joy. Pseudo-Macarius Eighteenth Homily, 8 (PG 34,79)
This exercise is a radical extension of the self in the love of God. When we view these things from an external perspective, watching them as though they are happening outside of ourselves, the inevitable result is to be drawn into the warring passions which they embody. It doesn’t cause us to end such things or to somehow repair the world. No angry person ever made anger go away. No one raging against rage makes rage disappear. Violence, no matter how carefully planned or executed, never creates justice. Retribution is not justice.
Those who have suffered loss want what they have lost to be restored. That is a partial justice. There remains the “debt” of the taking ever having happened. There is a deficit in the soul when we are violated. No amount of “restitution” can heal that deficit. It can do much, but it cannot do the whole of it.
Christ is the incarnation of justice. However, we find in Him a justice that transcends the limits of our time-bound existence. The justice of Christ is manifest and revealed in the Cross, an instrument of injustice. There the Innocent was nailed and mocked, then buried in a borrowed tomb. Beyond this, He descended into Hades, where no one without sin had gone before. The Cross is itself transformed, becoming, not the instrument of injustice and death, but the weapon of resurrection and life. The resurrection does what no amount of restitution, punishment, or retribution could ever do. It makes that which was evil to be good.
There is an eschatological theme of unvarnished joy that runs throughout the Scriptures. The evil that has been done will be no more (nor is there apparently any memory of it). It seems to have disappeared:
He will swallow up death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from every face and remove the disgrace of His people from the whole earth. For the LORD has spoken. Isaiah 25:8
For the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd. He will lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.'” Revelation 7:17
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)
This, I think should not be seen as a memory trick, a mere forgetting. It is a transformation of that which was (as in the crime of the Cross) into that which is (as in the victory of the Cross). This is a mystery that can only be known in union with Christ.
So much of our perception of the world is essentially secular (“independent of God”) – even when it is “moral.” Secular morality is a dominant element within our culture (indeed, secularism may very well be the most “moral” philosophy ever devised). We judge right and wrong. As a secular culture we are committed to the right and would gladly punish the wrong. This, at its heart, is at the very core of the secular commitment to “building a better world.” But in its wake, this progressive march towards a better world leaves broken lives, “justly” (we imagine) cast aside. Dividing the world into good and evil, we see the evil accumulate and overwhelm. When we smash it, it only multiplies. No morality can ever heal what is broken. No reapportioning of injustice can establish justice itself. This requires the work of God.
It is into this very work that we are invited when we are Baptized into Christ. There we are crucified with Him, hung between two thieves. One finds paradise. The other Christ Himself will find in Hades. We are not called to separate the good from the bad, to put a sorting hat on the world and assign destinies. We are invited to see as God sees, to love as God loves, to bleed as God bleeds, and to live as God lives. As we see, and love, and bleed, and live, the whole Adam slowly sees, and loves and bleeds. At last he can live without sorrow or sighing or tears.
This is God’s justice. Only when the whole Adam is made whole can there be the fullness of life for which we are created and for which our true heart yearns.
Illustration: The Empty Tomb – 1889, Mikhail Nesterov.