10 – Moving to Restorative Justice

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When God formed Israel as a nation, he worked immediately to stem the level of violence. The formation of Israel was aimed at providing a model of an anti-empire. All powers in the world followed the model of Egypt. This began before the Flood, and the leaders of these empires were called the men of renown, or giants, which meant oppressive rulers.

They were like Pharaoh, who kept all as slaves and led with the brute power of armies. The policies of Pharaoh centred all power in his hands, including economic power, which occurred during the years of famine. In those seven years, all people in Egypt became slaves of Pharaoh, from the top to the bottom of Egypt. We haven’t made much progress today, when a handful of people in the world own a very large portion of the world’s wealth.

God gave Israel laws of Jubilee, meaning wealth must be used to build the lives of all the people in the land. Immediately the law works against Pharaoh’s type of rule. Israel was to be a de-Pharaohing influence, salt and light, in a new kind of nationhood.

Next, God gave Israel several laws about their militia. It wasn’t to be anything like the militia of the empires. Firstly, they were not to have a king. Instead of one man taking the rule, rule was to be shared. All God’s people were created in his image. And they were not to be subjugated by a central power. If they had a king, he wasn’t to take many wives, as oppressive kings always did, before and after the Flood. Women are equally made in the image of God. Second, Israel was not permitted to have a standing army. People were permitted to help in times of defence, but no army was to be kept and trained. Thirdly, Israel were not permitted to build fortresses, and were not permitted to keep horses for war.

Their strategy for defence was to be their trust in God and their merciful and caring treatment of people in their nations and foreigners. In other words, this overall sense of the law wasn’t much different to the Sermon on the Mount. Justice for others, rather than self-justice, was to be Israel’s power. This was how nations were meant to behave and renew the world. By the time we get to Solomon, all these laws are systematically ignored and disobeyed. Solomon built another Egypt. Israel is God’s first major attempt to the change the world, to move man out of his vengeful behaviour of destruction. God set up laws of atonement within the society. These included the sacrifices, which can atone for sins and take away guilt from within the community, but also laws that atone for crimes in other ways.

The major crimes that break up our communities, are those of greed and neglect of other people’s needs. The law was directed at these behaviours, to atone for them, by leading Israel into a new type of behaviour that sought justice for others, instead of for self. The law couldn’t do this fully, because of the hardness of Israel’s heart, but at least the law could provide a witness, which the Prophets later emphasised, and which Jesus made prominent in his ministry.

So laws were given to care for the poor, to care for refugees, to care for widows and orphans, to love our enemies. All these laws put the interest of people above the interest of power or state. The law shows us that this is the only way to secure the nation. The law witnesses that the true way to peace, isn’t the fortresses that Cain and Pharaoh built, but laying down our lives to provide justice to others. No power can provide peace. Only fairness, atoning for sins of injustice against the people, can produce peace. This is the main witness of the law and the Prophets, and in this way they point to Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Not only were these laws given, but God intended that the nation keep these laws, and this is why he gave the office of the Prophets. God said their survival as a nation would depend on how they cared for others, whether fellows Israelites, or foreigners. He said that if they failed to care for others, it would produce a hostility and bloodlust within their community, and within their neighbouring nations, that would destroy Israel. And this is what finally happened.

These laws were often given in the context of idolatry. If Israel followed the other gods, they would descend into corruption and destruction. If they followed the true God, they would have a heart to serve and deliver their nation from violence. If they love God with all their heart, then they would love their neighbour, whoever that person is, as themselves. This was their peace plan.

We can see clearly in the law, the ultimate plan of God for peace. It isn’t sacrifice, but mercy and love for others. We can see God’s ultimate plan for atonement, that heals and binds society together in love; it isn’t sacrifice, but mercy and justice for others. This is what atonement for anger and grievances means. This is what Israel’s sacrifice systems pointed to, though Israel didn’t perceive this until Jesus taught. Even though the Prophets said this, they didn’t hear.

To say that these sacrifices only point us to Christ and his cross, but not to the life that Christ lived and taught, is to miss their point. The cross isn’t just the place where our atonement with God is provided, but the place where our atonement with each other is provided. That is, if we take up our cross and live the life Jesus calls us to, in his teachings, then we will have peace with our neighbour. We can come out of our fortresses that Cain built and live with one another. Sacrifice points to us putting things right with our neighbour and with our enemy, at our own cost. That is the sacrifice.

God shows us what this law is pointing to: The kingdom of Peace through Christ. This shows us God’s overall purpose in covenanting with Noah and Abraham, to rid the world of violence, to renew the earth. It isn’t just that God would spiritually redeem humanity through the gospel. It isn’t that God would justify us and take us to heaven. It is that God would bring peace upon earth, just as the angels said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The purpose of justification is to bind us together in a common faith, so that we might build peace together.

“For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will make this happen!” (Isaiah 9:6-7)

The armies of the Lord are armies that bring peace, not through military war, but through counsel, and caring government, within our redeemed new natures. The purpose of the gospel is to establish peace in the earth, and that this peace shall grow and spread until it rules over all the nations. This is the theme that Isaiah develops throughout his writings. “The whole earth is full of his glory.” We can’t say this while oppression and injustice rule over most the of the world’s populations.

For long, we have separated the gospel message from the care for others, which Isaiah says Christ’s kingdom is all about. For long, we have separated the gospel from this global plan of God, to bring just rule to our hearts and nations. We have come to the point that we don’t recognize the gospel message of the Prophets.

Isaiah, taken as a whole, is a picture of the tyrant and violent kingdoms of Syria, Israel, Assyria, Babylon and Rome. These are depicted by the raging rivers, thrashing out unrest, covetousness, turbulence and destruction, overflowing their banks to destroy all around them. (Isaiah 8:7)

The Messiah, in contrast, is depicted by the still waters of Siloam. (Isaiah 8:6). Israel rejects these peaceful waters. They have taken on the ways of the nations, they emulate empire, rather than the peaceful acts of care for people. They tread under foot those who suffer, instead of ministering to their hurt. The motivation behind violence is covetousness. Creation is destroyed as people desire more and more and consume and destroy all that is before them to obtain it. These are the empires of the world, the beast, of which Israel was a part.

Let’s make a link between this and our nations today, just to make sure the point is clear. There is a battle going on in Western nations about whether to retreat into Fascism. For years the West has exploited the nations of the world, and when it gets too tough for people in those nations, and so many of them become refugees, we then want to close our doors, cut off aid to them and become nationalistic. Hitler’s way is not our way. We are Christians, which means we follow Christ, even if, or especially when, that conflicts with our personal values, or the values of our nation.

This link is a direct application of the very same point Isaiah was making to Israel in his era. Babylon was decimating the region, and many of Israel’s former enemies were being displaced and had become wandering refugees. In some passages, Isaiah was warning Israel to care for these people, even though they were enemies, who posed all the same threats as “enemies” in need today may pose to us. The duty of care was paramount to God. In other passages, Isaiah was saying the same to the other nations. They must treat each other with care, and not neglect their enemies, when they fell into unfortunate circumstances.

Here is an example: “Defend us against our enemies. Protect us from their relentless attack. Do not betray us now that we have escaped. Let our refugees stay among you. Hide them from our enemies until the terror is past.” (Isaiah 16:3-4) A more poetic translation is in the KJV: “Take counsel, execute judgment; make thy shadow as the night in the midst of the noonday; hide the outcasts; bewray not him that wandereth. Let mine outcasts dwell with thee.”

Judgment here, is not seen as prosecuting the one in need, but giving them mercy. It isn’t judging them unworthy of care. God tells us to cast a thick shadow over those who languish in the midday sun. What a beautiful metaphor. God says that refugees belong to him, just because they need care, and this is regardless of their creed or nationality.

And this would include protecting people from enemies of any kind, that produce suffering in any way, whether military, economic, colonial devastation, corruption, or other catastrophes. God said it clearly: we are not to put our personal or national interest above our duty of care, or above decent human hospitality. If we can’t show such a universal common grace, as hospitality, to any neighbour, then we don’t have a faith to share, or that is worthy to protect.

Isaiah depicts Messiah’s kingdom as a complete contrast to the self-interest of our nations. And more than this, Isaiah shows us that it is the casting off of this self-interest, through the new heart, that transforms our world. Isaiah gives many metaphors of a transformed world, including flowers blossoming, the desert, weeds and thistles giving way to flourishing land, and wild animals eating straw in harmony. These literally come to pass in a renewed world, but they are also figures of our common, even if hidden, beastly covetousness being transformed.

The world is transformed by a new way of living with our neighbour, and this is something that the gospel produces in our nations. The problem is that we often don’t see the gospel in this way. We have seen it as a way of prosecuting the wayward, and even executing more violence and displacement against them. Our history is full of this type of false gospel, and it is commonly held today.

The way the world is transformed is portrayed in Isaiah 32:1-2, “Look, a righteous king is coming! And honest princes will rule under him. Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a parched land.”

This isn’t just about the second coming of Christ, but the incarnation, the coming of the gospel into the world. It is a kingdom of mercy, not sacrifice; of care, not vengeance. He raises up a people like himself, who take his mercy to those in need, producing a new type of justice and judgement in the world. This is a picture of the church, which rather than joining the nations in their vengeance upon others, takes a new path of hospital care for the suffering, including for our enemy. The church is famous for founding the hospital. This hospital is also a metaphor for the church. Here, there is a separation between church and state. We don’t join the state in its wrath upon the people.

The mountain top of God’s revelation to a fallen and violent world is in Isaiah 32:17, “And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” Here, Israel is threatened by nations all around them. Their kings rush to build more fortresses and gather arms for the battles ahead. Their national security is in their military and in their military alliances with other nations. This is just plain world logic. No one would deny it. They cut back further on aid to the poor, the sick, the homeless, the refugee, so they can build arms and prepare for the protection of their nation. This is just plain natural sense, and most people would agree with it.

But to God, this nation is doing the exact opposite to what will give them security. Wars come because people don’t get justice. The people are not cared for. So they fight for what they need. This is the propaganda through their nations. Their leaders tell them that if they don’t fight, they will get nothing. And this is believed. Why is it believed? Because the poor aren’t being cared for. The nations aren’t looking after the needs of others, but they look after themselves. And when threats come our way, we do this even more.

Isaiah 32:1, above, isn’t first a gospel prophecy. It is Isaiah’s call to the Israel of his era. “If you want security and protection for the nation, then care for the people in need.” This is also said very directly in Isaiah 58, “The fast (faith) that God has chosen.” It is sharing our breed with those in need and helping all people who fall down in the nations. Isaiah said there, that when we do this, our national security and peace will blossom with ease.

Its unfathomable that we have missed this plain message of God. With this message, God begins to turn the whole world from its violence and vengeance after the fall, and from its whole history of violence before and after the Flood. Through Israel, God begins to reveal his path of peace. This is in the law, but the Prophets herald this message with such clarity, over and over again. This is the one message the Prophets take out of the law and amplify. This is the heart and path of God.

When looking at Isaiah 32:17, we have often taken it so wrongly. Because the word “righteousness” is used, we have often taken it to mean gospel, imputed righteousness, by faith: “If we accept Jesus then we will have imputed righteousness and peace with God.” This isn’t what Isaiah was saying here. This is our common individualistic way of interpreting the Bible message. Rather, Isaiah had a message about community. The root word for righteousness here is the same word as for justice.

The message of Isaiah to Israel is plain. If they act in a way of justice towards those in need, rather than building up and trusting in their military, then their care for the people and for the nations around them will lead to peace in their world.

God is showing us how to get peace in our world. It is through atonement. But not the atonement of charam, or killing, or vengeance, or of sacrifice, but of care for those who need care. This atones for hurt and wounds in our societies, reduces levels of bitterness and propaganda, and brings about a new ethic of mercy instead off wrath. God is turning the nations from charam to mercy. But will the nations hear? Israel didn’t. Still they didn’t hear, when Jesus spelled it out. Still, the church didn’t hear it through much of our history. At times we have. Its time now that we hear it again.

So often, we the church look to other issues, like abortion and sexual morality, when these aren’t the base of our problems. When Ezekiel was describing the sin of Sodom, he didn’t start with the sexual issues. He started with greed, with lack of hospitality for their neighbours, with their not caring for others. (Ezekiel 16:49) This eroded their heart, brought in a hardness of heart, from which all the other self-destroying sins came. These secondary sins are our self-destruction. They come from our hardness of heart. And the hardness of heart comes from our lack of care for others. It is care for others that is the root.

When we care for people, God gives us grace for our communities. We begin to find answers to our problems, that we didn’t see before. When we care for others, when we live less selfish lives, then we begin to behave in a more caring way in our own marriages, in sexual issues, in issues like abortion and environment. We aren’t caring for our self anymore.

A caring heart makes us more caring and less self-seeking in all moral areas. This new logic, life style is our witness to our nation. A key is, instead of objecting to these practices in other people’s lives, object with an unmaterialistic life style, in helping these people. People who fall into harmful life styles need help. The opposite of immortality isn’t legal morality, but love.

All violence in the scriptures is human. It is the violence of greed, of separation from others, and thinking of self, of nationalism, of corruption. This is all as violent as war itself. All it all impoverishes, kills and attacks the image of God in people. God has been moving us from our self-centred kingdoms to his kingdom, in which the whole logic is opposite. The way to find life is to lose it, to care for others and not ourselves.

Rene Girard brilliantly puts the history of humanity like this: “The Jewish texts, starting with Cain and Abel, gradually dissociate the divinity from participation in the violence until, in the New Testament, God is entirely set free from participation in our violence… and indeed God is revealed not as the one who expels us, but the One whom we expel, and who allowed himself to be expelled so as to make of his expulsion a revelation of what he is really like, and of what we really, typically do to each other, so that we can begin to learn to get beyond this.”

We see God meeting with humanity where we are, and drawing us forward to the values of his eternal kingdom. This isn’t simple. We started so far from him, so entrenched in our own guilt and self-justification, that it was impossible to see God for who is really is. We have looked at the scripture from our perspective, as though God was rejecting us, casting us out of the Garden, but all the while it was us rejecting him, casting him out of the camp and crucifying him outside the holy city. But this suited God, as Girard noted, because when we expelled God, it enabled us to see him for who he really is, and enabled us also to see ourselves, as rejecters of God and rejecters of the weak, sick and persecuted. We saw God in his forgiving and loving nature, not retaliating or recompensing. We saw God’s love for his creation, allowing us to humiliate him, if that would set us free. 70 And this is what did set us free. When we heard him say he forgives us, we saw our violence. We saw what we do to our neighbour and enemy, even unjustly, even when they do not deserve it. We saw our justice system, that it was bankrupt of any truth. It crucifies the innocent, and the bystanders do nothing to help. We saw that everyman looks after himself. But beyond that, we saw grace. We saw that God accepts us in this sin, that he is not angry with, that he invites home: “Today you will be with me in paradise,” back to the Garden, back into the family and presence of God.

So this grace energises us. We start new lives, saying, “If God, the creator of all things, the one I have caused so much suffering to, in so many ways, has forgiven me, and called me his child, then I can treat others that way. In fact, who am I not to follow God this way? Now that I see who he is, and hear his call to follow him,” I can extend grace to those around me, instead of vengeance.

The cross and resurrection of Christ energises a whole new community, which begins to spread this new form of justice, restorative justice, not vengeance, into the communities and nations. This spreads like leaven in dough, until the whole lump, the whole world, is filled with the glory, the suffering love and restoration, of Gods Spirit.

A part of the lesson in Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the Good Samaritan is about sacrifice. The priest was on his way to Jerusalem, for his roster in officiating sacrifices at the temple. It was said that these sacrifices cleanse the nation of evil; that they removed evil from their consciousness and from society. This was the view in the Old Testament; that sin must be punished. This punishment would carry away the evil. If people shouldn’t be punished all the time, at least we could transfer that punishment to animals, to serve for us as substitutes. We could punish the animals instead. This was the idea of sacrifice then. This was decidedly a human view, not God’s view, and this is what Jesus showed in this parable, and it wouldn’t have been received all that well.

Jesus turned this human view of God upside down in this parable. It was the Samaritan who atoned for evil. He poured the oil and wine into the wounds of the man abandoned on the road. This was medicinal, but the point Jesus was making was also about Israel’s view of sacrifice and how utterly unhelpful it was to humanity. The oil and wine were also part of the Old Testament sacrifices. Jesus was contrasting the Samaritan’s way of sacrificing with the priests’ way of sacrificing. It isn’t punishment of sin that takes evil away from our society, but serving the effects of that evil in suffering humanity, whether they be friend or enemy. This atones for evil in our social networks.

This is what Old Testament sacrifice points us to; serving the widow and orphan.

It was the Samaritan who took away the evil, that day, on the road to Jericho, not the priest making sacrifice at the temple. The temple sacrifice removed no evil at all. It was just a shadow of the lives God has called us to.

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