Jesus, Justice, and the Way of the Cross

As I continue to dig deeper into the question of what justice is and what justice means, I didn’t expect to find such overlap in a random book I picked up for Holy Week. Jason Porterfield’s Fight Like Jesus: How Jesus Waged Peace Throughout Holy Week is not only highly recommended, it has much to say about the ways in which we imagine jusitce coming about. Each chapter walks through a day of Holy Week. Wednesdays chapter I found raised some compelling questions in terms of my own journey.

Porterfield imagines this chapter as the quiet before the storm, a beak in the action that precedes and proceeds as we move towards the cross. It’s in the midst of this quiet that we find two divergent roads meeting, each with their own particular concern for justice and their own imaginative picture of how this comes about, one leading towards Jesus the other away from Jesus. As he writes,

“Despite the eerie calm, major developments are taking place behind closed doors. The public events of the past three days now give way to private scenes of backroom deals and tableside scandals,” connected by way of three interrelated scenes where a person or a group of people grapple with how to respond to these divergent means of acheiving and imagining justice.

Here Porterfield points out the challenge of such fork in the road.
“We all prefer to identif with those who acted rightly in the Gospels. But sometimes the characters we most admire are the ones we least resemble.” Later he binds this to a question of expectations. When something appears to fail our expectations, when thinsg are not the way we believe things should be, we react, we judge, we respond. As the author outlines in the case of the Gospel, many times these expectations are reasonable and sensible and right in their concern, its when our responses meet the way of Jesus that our pursuit of and demand for justice is able to be critiqued and challenged. And in Jesus what gets exposed is how the true contest is between the way of peace and the way of violence.

What we find on Wednesday is the recognizable human tendency to choose the path where we justify a lesser evil in order to achieve a greater good. As Porterfield exposits, this is what is caught up in Caiaphas’ phrase, “You do no realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:49-50). In light of their shared concern for justice, the justifiable push of the Sanhedrin was a concern for order and the (seeming) good of the whole. “If a choice must be made between the destruction of one man and the destruction of an entire nation”, then the latter was “clearly the lesser of two evils.”

Here in lies the challenge of Jesus. “One of the biggest temptations we face in working for peace is to justify violent means by an imagined good end.” This is problematic because “inherent to the claim that the ends justify the means is the mistaken belief that we can accurately predict what the end result of our means will be,” followed by the proclamation “If you want to be a practitioner of Jesus’ approach to peacemaking, then you must learn to see the means you use as nothing less than the end coming into existence.”

So how does this relate to our need for and pursuit of justice? The way we pursue justice holds the power to be prophetic in the sense that the choices we make tend to determine the kind of justice we imagine. What Jesus does is two fold- He transforms our imagination of what justice is and what it looks like and then sees in our point of response the way of bringing this imagination to life in present. What becomes clear is that this leaves us uncomfortable precisely because it leaves the present caught in this space between the arleady-not yet where justice doesn’t appear to have happened where our expectations seem to demand it, and this tends to push us towards redefining or reimagining what justice is, most readily in judicial terms where we take matters of peace and order into our own hands. We see just punishment as the means to the end we desire and end up with a form of justice that sees justice as due punishment to satisfy our desires and our needs in the here and now. We see all matters of violent responses and judicial consequence as the lesser evil, which of course then eventually transforms these things into a good. In a twist of irony, the cross becomes the image of the just punishment of Jesus, something that later gets repurposed in terms of our just punishment taken by Jesus in our place, marrying the justice of Rome, so to speak, with the justice of God.

To heed Jesus’ story on Holy Wednesday, the justice of the way, the way to the cross, we need to recognize the seeds we sow bring about the prophetic vision. “For Jesus, true peace was always the fruit of justice,” and what Jesus’ ministry imagines is a kind of justice that brings the fruit of a world made right into the present so as to reform how we go about obtaining justice. As we make our demands for particular kinds of justice we miss, as they did in Holy Week, the kind of Messiah Jesus came to be. Jesus becomes something different than the messiah we signed up to follow, and that triggers our need to take control of the narrative and satisfy our need for justice in the here and now in less than ideal ways. This is what leads to death on a cross. The way of Jesus, in contrast, leads to life. Its here where our imagination can be reformed. As Porterfield says, “if crushed expectations could lead one of Jesus’ own disciples to turn on him, then they could cause us to do the same,” and often in ways we don’t even realize.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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