Woensdregt: On Justice and Forgiveness

Yme Woensdregt

Last week I wrote that the gospel was not about “Jesus dying for my sins”. Jesus and Paul, and the rest of the New Testament authors, proclaim that the gospel is about the kingdom of God. How do Christians, who profess allegiance to Jesus, live in this world as people who belong to God?

So many people commented on that column, grateful for this vision of the Christian life. I am delighted that my words help people make a different kind of sense of the gospel.

I take my lead from Marcus Borg, who has often said that for many people in today’s world, the old ways no longer make sense to us. We are seeking new ways of understanding the gospel. We are seeking new ways of understanding Jesus’ life and ministry. We are seeking new ways to live the Christian faith. If the old ways continue to work for you, then may God continue to bless you. All I ask in return is that you wish the same for me and the countless numbers of people who are seeking new ways.

I want to take last week’s column a step further. I’ve said these things before in my columns. There are still many Christians who say that the only reason Jesus came was to die for my sins so that I could be forgiven. They say that God’s justice demands that we be made right, and only Jesus can satisfy that requirement. In other words, Jesus bore the cost of our forgiveness because we can never be right with God by ourselves.

I disagree profoundly. In his life and teaching, Jesus showed us the incredible depth of God’s amazing love for all the world. Jesus came to bring life in all its abundance. Jesus taught us to live with compassion and grace for the healing of the world. We are worthy of love, and Jesus came for so much more than just to die.

But the other issue is that people think justice and forgiveness are mutually contradictory. I don’t think they are.

In 2011, a movie called “The Descendants” dealt with the whole theme of justice and forgiveness. George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian land baron, whose wife Elizabeth lays in the hospital in a coma after a boating accident. Matt has been absent for much of their marriage, tending to business. In the course of the movie, Matt learns that his wife had been having an affair before the accident.

The film is largely about Matt’s struggle with his elder daughter Alex to come to terms with what has happened, both Elizabeth’s infidelity and her present state. Matt deals with the stuff of life and death. Both he and Alex have to learn to forgive.

The miracle of this film is that they do. It’s not easy. It takes a lot out of them, but step by painful step, they move towards forgiveness and healing.

Here’s the thing: forgiveness is not about saying everything is ok, or that what happened wasn’t wrong, or that there are no consequences. The consequences of Elizabeth’s affair, and Matt’s physical and emotional distance, ripple throughout the film. Yet the only way this family can move forward is through acceptance and forgiveness.

The film explores this very important theme in life and faith. Forgiveness is never an easy option. It takes work and effort and energy. In the long run, forgiveness is the only way life can continue.

Part of what this film shows us is that forgiveness is not the opposite of justice. Here’s where I think saying that Jesus had to pay the price for our forgiveness is wrong. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we let someone off the hook without any consequences.

Forgiveness and justice are two sides of the same coin. We forgive someone, and in the acts of doing so, we seek justice and healing for the wrong which required the act of forgiveness. Justice is found as the relationship is healed and made right. Forgiveness is a necessary part of that healing and movement toward justice.

Justice is important. It guides the way we are able to live together. It sets boundaries and enforces rules and exacts payment and punishment and all the rest of it. Justice matters.

Forgiveness also matters. It’s about how we make our relationships work. In fact, forgiveness and justice both are entirely relational. That’s why they are so important, and why they are linked.

To illustrate: what would justice be in the case of Matt, Alex and Elizabeth? That Matt have an affair to even the score? That Elizabeth be punished? That we understand her accident as God’s righteous punishment? For Elizabeth to lose the affection of her daughter and husband?

To put those questions so bluntly helps us see that none of them sound like justice. They may be consequences of her actions, but are any of them just? To ask about justice in this case doesn’t even make a lot of sense to me.

Why? Justice can only take us so far. That’s where forgiveness comes into play. When we forgive, then justice steps forward to redefine the relationship so that it can also grow and become more whole.

God justice is served by God’s forgiveness. It’s not that God needs our sacrifice, or that God demands Jesus’ sacrifice to satisfy God’s justice. God’s relationship with us is marked by love, forgiveness, compassion, and healing so that we can once again take up our identity as people who seek God’s justice in the world.

God’s justice is served precisely by God’s forgiveness. God draws us close, loves us, supports us and encourages us so that we may lead lives of compassion, grace and healing in the world.

This film is about life and grace and love and forgiveness. I dare to say that, though the filmmakers may not have known they were doing so, this film is about God.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook

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