“Excessive zeal for justice always becomes satanic.”
That line comes from Walter Wink’s landmark study of the demonic: Unmasking the Powers. His point is not to disparage our need for justice but to season it with mercy, lest “Lady J” transform into, simply, “the accuser” (ha satan).
“Justice” often turns, like sour milk, to vengeance.
A similar theme exists in this provocative claim by Alan Jacobs:
When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.
The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness.
Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.
I’ve written on this before (here); but a similar point has now been made by a third and final figure: the famous atheist/neuroscientist, Sam Harris.
In reference to a recent spate of social media mobs that have called for the names, addresses, and (practically) the firstborn children of perceived offenders, Harris laments the fact that our modern culture has lost its ability to forgive (or even hear the evidence) amid its fervor for “justice.”
“We have to have a way back,” said Harris in a recent interview, regarding how the social media mob descends on certain persons with seemingly no mercy and no possibility of repentance or forgiveness.
Is there a lesson here from these three statements?
If anything, it is that a thirst for “justice” is not always an unalloyed good. We need mercy too. And humility (Mic 6:8).
Interested in understanding the Big Story of the Bible? Check out my new book: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Video teachings to help church small groups.
Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).
I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.
3 thoughts on “Justice without mercy”
I’m not sure most of the ranters on social media have any interest at all in justice. It is hard to imagine that even the most muddled would think that ranting on the internet would actually accomplish anything. Most of the ranting may simply be to help the ranter feel important.
Hi Bill, I have no doubt that much “outrage” (especially on the internet) is partly driven by the Babel-esque desire to “Make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11). Here’s to interjecting some grace and nuance into such muddled waters. (Thanks for reading, as always!)
Spot on great job