April 22, 2016

An eye for an eye, unless it’s mine

Justice isn't always so appealing-namely, when you’re on the receiving end of it. But why are we prone to such a double standard?  Perhaps it has something to do with the way we choose to take responsibility for our actions.

I tried to make some money the honest way as a kid. …but one day these older kids robbed me. […] I remembered that I knew someone with a knife. And I thought: ‘I’m going to steal that knife and deal with this firmly.’ […] Nobody got killed. But I hurt them. I wouldn’t say that I felt proud after stabbing them, but I felt like they got what they deserved. Even today, I have trouble sympathizing with them. It’s funny how that works. When someone wrongs us, we want the maximum amount of punishment. But when we do wrong, we want the maximum amount of understanding and forgiveness [1].

Don’t we all find a deep satisfaction in seeing justice done? It’s partly why crime dramas are so enjoyable to watch. Our national justice system is strongly influenced by the ancient Jewish proverb ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ The principle is that the punishment should fit the crime, like for like. But our sense of justice is powerful beyond just crime and punishment. A common law of fairness influences nearly everything we do. Think about the outrage when you have to wash up someone else’s coffee mug at work because they’re too lazy to do it themselves. Or consider standard pub rules: if you’re at the bar first, you get served first. It’s not just etiquette. It’s fair.

There is, however, the less appealing side of justice, as this uncommonly honest inmate admitted to Humans of New York. Namely, when you’re on the receiving end of it — the one being fairly judged. But why are we prone to such a double standard?  Perhaps it has something to do with the way we choose to take responsibility for our actions.

When your alarm doesn’t go off and you turn up to work late, drenched, and without your wallet, is it any wonder you slammed the door on your way in? With a morning like yours, what can they expect? But when you’ve had a good breakfast, a sunny walk in, and a promotion at work, the way you smile as you hold the door open for your colleagues is a good deed you can take credit for, right? You see the inconsistency. Our bad conduct is almost always blamed on our circumstance, while our good conduct is attributed to ourselves.

When we are our own judge, we are bound to skew the facts in our favour. This bias can seep into our wider beliefs too. When we think of God, for example, most of us imagine he has nothing against us; we’re good people.

The problem here is that we are unfairly applying a double standard to God. The whole point of a judge is that they are independent and impartial. If God is real, how can we possibly expect him to judge us with the same inconsistencies that we do? And if we take only our own view into account, it’s the equivalent of setting up the accused as the judge — the conflict of interest is obvious. It makes no sense.

But even if we’re not perfect, we’ve tried, and God is love isn’t he? Surely he forgives? Not all of us are Hitlers, after all. This sounds lovely, but does it really satisfy the demands of justice we all feel so acutely throughout our lives? A God who doesn’t play by the rules of justice is no God at all, but a devil. We cannot expect that of God. He doesn’t owe us anything; to simply forgive would be to allow evil without consequence, which is exactly what we don’t want! When it comes to tackling all that’s wrong with the world, we tend to focus outwards first, forgetting about ourselves. Let me pose a disturbing but important question: if God has infinite time and power to bring justice to all that is wrong, where should he start? Why not with you?

It’s in answering this question that the Gospel, which literally means ‘good news’, can begin to be seen as such. In dying and rising from the grave, Jesus took the punishment that justice demanded humanity suffer, so that we can be forgiven and draw near to God in untainted relationship.

The genius of such love is that it validates our sense of justice. We should continue to care about and work towards fairness and justice, but alongside this, we get the mercy we really want, though only when we stop pretending we deserve it. As we grow in the knowledge of our own deficit, we can only grow in awe of his mercy, and in love for him and each other. Through Jesus’ sacrifice we see ourselves as we really are, shedding our excuses, and are freed from all guilt.

[1] Humans of New York interview with anonymous inmate at Metropolitan Correctional Center, February 2016

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