The cross and justice

March 20, 2013

Palm/Passion Sunday approaches, and so does the crucifixion.  The cross is a central symbol in Christian faith, and how a tradition interprets the meaning of the cross says a lot about the central values of that tradition.  One can talk about the cross politically – Jesus died because he was a threat to the powers-that-be, who killed him.  Cross is to Jesus as bullet is to Martin Luther King Jr.  The cross can also be talked about theologically.  Jesus died for the sins of the world – which provokes a whole other series of questions about what that means, including the obvious question, How can one human’s death be a saving act?

The cross is often equated with God’s justice.  One way of talking about it goes like this: God is just and demands punishment for sinful humanity.  God sends Jesus to take the lightning bolt of divine wrath and thus save humanity from the punishment it deserves.  Believe this is true, and be saved.  This has its own kind of logic, until you actually think about it.  Jesus saves us from God?  Geez.

God’s justice is key to Christian faith, but the form of justice that is much more in line with the New Testament is restorative justice.  The purpose of justice is ultimately to restore relationships from their broken condition.  A recent article that has worked at this appeared in the Christian Century and can be read HERE, called “Why the cross?”  One of my favorite lines from the article is:  “The distinction, roughly stated, is that punitive justice is concerned with what may be done to evildoers and restorative justice with what can be done about evil.”


Punitive justice, as we have come to understand it theologically, and practice it in our prison system, does nothing to address the underlying problem of evil.  The cross is God’s ultimate icon of restorative justice because it unveils the underlying problem and offers new restorative opportunities.  Jesus absorbs the violence of humanity and, rather than coming back with a vengeance on the evildoers, comes back with the words, “Peace be with you,”(John 21:19) which is what we say to one another every Sunday morning when we pass the peace.  The risen Christ provides for the new possibilities of victim and offender reconciled and joined together as part of the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:16-19)

If none of the above makes much sense, forget it.  But remember this: How we understand the cross matters, and restorative justice trumps punitive justice.

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