Okay, I thought I was done talking about justice (for now), but my daily Bible reading over the weekend brought me to a verse in Isaiah that deserves to be in this conversation. And truthfully, justice is one of those things that we could talk about forever and still need to work on. Justice is hard. And it's hard for the reasons that we were looking at all last week - because it has to do more than satisfy our human craving for vengeance. It has to be truly just.
The verse that jumped out at me over the weekend comes from the prophet Isaiah, and it comes very early in his prophecy about the future of God's people. He says, rather simply, 'Zion will be freed by justice, and her returnees by righteousness' (Isaiah 1:27).
When was the last time our justice system made anyone free? When was the last time our justice led to righteousness?
Our entire justice system is established on the idea of taking away freedom, of locking persons behind bars, of erecting barriers in their lives and in our society between what we call 'just' living and...something less. And we're not just talking about the period of time for which someone convicted of injustice is locked into a jail cell; the loss of freedom extends well beyond that.
We have rules about where certain ex-convicts can live, about what kind of work they can do, about what kind of loans they are eligible for, about what kind of assistance they can get. A lot of our society has made rules about where we're comfortable having the formerly-guilty living among us and where we're not, and even when we have released a man from his penance, we have not set him free. He continues to live as a prisoner in a free world.
The reason for this is quite simple: our justice isn't just. True justice, God's justice, sets people free. Ours...heaps chains on their ankles.
There is, to be fair, what looks like a precedent for this sort of thing in the Scriptures. We know that at times, even members of Israel were sent outside of the camp to live. They were cut off from their people. They were excommunicated. All in an effort to keep the camp 'pure' and to keep it righteous and holy before God, to declare what kind of people they were.
But look at the persons who were sent outside of the camp: they were the ceremonially unclean, who got to come back after a period of purification, and they were the obstinate, those who refused to live by the rules of the people of God after every possible opportunity was afforded them. If a man would not change his behavior/lifestyle, then he was cast out. Not simply because he committed an offense.
Yet here we are, thousands of years later, cutting everyone off for the smallest of offenses. We treat everyone the same - locked away for the transgression of the smallest rules the very same as for the biggest ones. We have persons in our prison system right now serving the same sentences for possessing a few ounces of an illegal substance as for sexually abusing a child as for murdering a neighbor. And we call that just? We call it just that some of these men and women are locked away at all?
And then look at what Isaiah says; he says returnees (those coming back to God's places) are freed by their righteousness. And, well, we don't have to worry about that one, do we? Because we don't give a guilty man a chance to come back, to return. We don't give him a chance at righteousness. In fact, we don't care if he's righteous or not; he's not welcome here. This is what we see when we restrict where a man can live, where he can work, where he can go, all because he has a 'record.' It doesn't matter who he is today or who he could be tomorrow; it matters only to us who he once was, and we will never let him be free from that.
That's why our 'justice' needs so much help. That's why we, as the church - as a people of grace and goodness and real justice - need to be on the front lines of this. Because God's justice sets people free and we...we are doing so much less than God's justice.
We can do so much better than what we're doing now.
(And if we're being honest, our current 'justice' doesn't set the oppressed free, either. It binds them, too, to the offense forever...but we could go down an entire other trail here.)
(And before you think that I'm advocating that we just let everyone do whatever they want, that's not true. That's just a false argument trying to push us back toward the status quo by absurdity. We absolutely should hold persons accountable for their actions, but we have to be just about it. We have to do it in a way that sets them free, not that binds them forever to their transgressions. And we have to do it in a way that gives them the opportunity to come back to us, to be returnees and to reclaim righteousness. Anything less is not justice.)