Dangerous Virtues: Justice-Life in an Age of Outrage

A saying attributed to St. Augustine goes, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” No one seems to know where or even whether Augustine actually expressed such a thought. To be honest, it sounds more like something a modern would say. The view of the ancients was much less approving of anger than in our day. The ancient attitude was more like the one expressed by the fourth-century monk who warned: “If when you want to reprove someone you are stirred to anger, you are pandering to your own passion. Lose not yourself to save another.”

The old monk’s restraint seems peculiar to modern ears. Everybody gets angry. We’re pretty sure that some people deserve our anger. Besides, anger is just an emotion, an expression of our righteous indignation. When it is rightly employed, anger can be the fuel that energizes change. At least, that’s how we see it. Perhaps we are right in thinking this. As the words attributed to St. Augustine suggest, maybe anger really is the offspring of hope. Could anger be a fire kindled in the soul by a vision of a different world? We have removed anger from the list of deadly sins, given it a new name, and declared it to be a virtue. We call it justice.

The rhetoric of justice has become commonplace in our day, both inside and outside the church. But a common definition of what we mean by the term is hard to find. For some people, justice means racial reconciliation. For others it speaks of economic restructuring and redistribution of wealth. Those who serve meals in the homeless shelter, others who work with victims of human trafficking, and people who disrupt traffic on the expressway to protest police shootings all believe they are working for justice. Often, what we call a hunger for justice, is really only anger.

Cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler available from Moody Publishers.
John Koessler’s latest Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good is now available from Moody Publishers!

Justice is a biblical virtue and a foundational requirement of law. The standard of biblical justice is righteousness, a measure that is established by God. The boundaries of what constitutes just behavior are not subject to the whims of the majority. In Scripture, righteousness is a matter for conformity, not consent. Today’s justice warriors often seem to have a very different view. We live in a vigilante culture where those who don’t like the outcome of due process take matters into their own hands. This view essentially equates justice with bullying. This is true whether it is a virtual mob, whose posts on social media endeavor to shout and shame, or a literal mob that surrounds someone whose views they oppose to intimidate.

But we don’t need to look any further than Jesus to find that there really is such a thing as virtuous anger. Jesus’ anger is an extension of the ultimate expression of virtuous anger: the wrath of God. Both testaments speak of God’s anger. Divine wrath is a measure of the distance that sin has introduced into our relationship with God. We know what it is like to be the focus of someone’s displeasure and to experience rejection. The Bible’s language of divine wrath is intended to remind us of what it is like to be in an oppositional relationship with God.The emphasis is not on God’s emotional state so much as it is on our position. Sin makes us God’s enemies. He is opposed to us because we are opposed to Him. Unrighteousness always places us at cross purposes with God so that we cannot be in harmony with Him.

As Christians, we are comfortable with the notion of grace. It is a part of our vocabulary. The nomenclature of grace is embedded in the songs we sing. But while we sing about grace, what we desire is many cases is retaliation. We are like Prince Felix, foreign minister of Austria, who was discussing what should be done with the captured rebels after the Hungarian revolt was suppressed in 1849. When someone suggested that it would be wise to show mercy toward the rebels, Schwarzenberg agreed. “Yes, indeed, a good idea,” he said, “but first, we will have a little hanging.”

A desire for justice is legitimate, as are many of the concerns of those who call for it. Unfortunately, what we call justice can also be nothing more than sentimentality expressed in the form of anger. This sentimentalized quest for justice trades on impatience. It misrepresents evil, by oversimplifying its nature. We are willing to shout, carry a sign, or post to social media. But that’s about as far as our plan of action goes. Anger is our only real contribution to the cause.

On the other hand, Micah 6:8 shows us what true justice looks like in practice: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” To act justly is to do the right thing. For the Jew, this meant conformity to the standards of God’s law. For Israel’s rulers, it involved the application of the law’s provisions and demands across all sectors of society. But the obligation to act justly was not exclusive to those who governed. In Micah’s prophecy, examples of unjust behavior include many drawn from daily life. They weren’t limited to the sins of rulers or even the rich. They involved sins of the marketplace and the family as well as the ruling powers (Micah 6:10–11; 7:5–8). Justice is the burden of the state, but it is also the obligation of the individual. Justice is a concern that stretches from the boardroom to the bedroom.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

The greatest obstacle facing us in our quest for justice is the fact that we are, by nature, fundamentally unjust. When the New Testament speaks of righteousness, it speaks of the righteousness that comes to us from God as a gift through person and work of Jesus Christ. God, who has established righteousness as His standard, is also the only source of the righteousness He requires. By sending Jesus Christ to be a sacrifice of atonement, God was able to maintain His standard of righteousness while providing righteousness to those who had none of their own. God is the only one who has a right to feel righteous indignation. He keeps the accounts and He alone can execute ultimate justice. The day of vengeance belongs to the Lord (Isa. 34:8; 61:2). But God is also the only one who can satisfy His wrath. He is the Just One and the one who justifies because the only righteousness God will accept is His own.

To “do justice” in this New Testament sense means much more than social activism. It means that we will reflect Christ’s righteousness in our ordinary lives by the power of Christ. Doing justice is not a matter of living up to God’s standard but one of living out that standard through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. To act justly in this Christian sense also means to act out of mercy. This includes specific acts of mercy, but it also involves more. The command of Micah 6:8 is to “love” mercy. The Lord calls for more than a practice of almsgiving. To love mercy is to cultivate a merciful disposition.

To ‘do justice’ in this New Testament sense means much more than social activism.

Not long after I started driving, I had to go to court over an automobile accident. It wasn’t a big one, just a fender bender. But it was my fault. I hit a patch of ice and slid into an oncoming vehicle. There were no injuries, and the damage to both cars was repairable. Still, the driver of the other car was angry. As the police officer wrote me a ticket and told me that I needed to appear in court, the other driver assured me that he would be there to make certain that I received the highest penalty. I was terrified as the date approached. I’d never been to court before and wondered what the punishment might be. I stood before the judge’s raised bench and shook as he reviewed the details of my case. “How do you plead?” he asked. “I stand mute,” I replied. The judge looked around the courtroom. “Is the driver of the other vehicle present?” he asked. Nobody answered. “Is the officer who wrote the ticket in the courtroom?” the judge inquired. He was not. “Case dismissed,” the judge curtly declared. The wave of relief that swept over me was palpable. It felt like mercy, but it was not. The judge dismissed my case on a technicality. He could not declare me guilty because there was nobody there to testify against me.

Mercy is something else. Mercy belongs only to the guilty. For the Christian, mercy is not a verdict. It is a person. Because Jesus took our place, God’s verdict of righteous for the believer is no mere legal fiction. When the Bible calls us righteous, it means what it says. For this reason, the word that the Bible uses to describe God’s verdict is not mercy but justice. By sending Jesus to stand in my place, God was able to be both “just” and “the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

It is only through this lens that we can understand what it means to be just in the biblical sense of the word. Justice is not outrage. Neither is it revenge. Justice is righteousness, which is first received as a gift and then displayed as a testimony to God’s grace. It is the habit of walking with an awareness of God’s goodness, knowing that He has shown us mercy and empowered us to do the right thing. Justice is an act of faith that trusts God to look out for our interests. Justice is the offspring of hope that has two beautiful daughters. Their names are grace and truth: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

The Quality of Mercy

Not long after I started driving I had to go to court over an automobile accident. It wasn’t a big one, just a fender bender really. But it was my fault. I hit a patch of ice and slid into an oncoming vehicle. There were no injuries and the damage to both cars was repairable. Still, the driver of the other car was angry. As the police officer wrote me a ticket and told me that I needed to appear in court, the other driver assured me that he would be there to make certain that I received the highest penalty.

I was terrified as the date approached. I’d never been to court before and wondered what the punishment might be. Looking back on it now, I suspect it would have been minimal. The judge certainly wouldn’t have given me jail time for a dent. But to me, it felt like a major offense. The worst part of it was that I knew I was the one at fault. I had misjudged the curve. I was driving too fast for the conditions. What verdict could the judge render on my behalf other than guilty? I felt ashamed.

When my father asked me how I was going to plea, I told him that I planned to admit my guilt. “I am a Christian,” I said. “I can’t lie about it.” He was furious. “You stand there and you tell the judge you are innocent” he demanded. When I told him I couldn’t do such a thing in good conscience, he swore and walked away, muttering something about my faith.

When my court date arrived, I took my place on an uncomfortable wood bench and waited for my name to be called. I felt torn between the demands of my conscience and the desire to please my father. As I listened to the other cases, I noticed that most of them were like mine, minor accidents that were a result of bad weather. I also noticed that many of the defendants didn’t admit to either guilt or innocence. When asked for a plea, they simply stood silent. “Do you stand mute?” the judge asked? When they answered yes, the judge told them that a plea of not guilty would be entered on their behalf.

At last, my turn came. I stood before the judge’s raised bench and shook as he reviewed the details of my case.“How do you plead?” he asked. “I stand mute” I replied. “Is the driver of the other vehicle present?” he asked. Nobody answered. “Is the officer who wrote the ticket in the courtroom?” the judge asked. He was not. “Case dismissed” the judge curtly declared.

The wave of relief that swept over me was palpable. It felt like mercy but it was not. My case was dismissed on a technicality. The judge could not declare me guilty because there was nobody there to testify against me. Mercy is something else. Mercy only belongs to the guilty. For the Christian, mercy is not a verdict, it is a person. God declares me innocent because Jesus took my guilt and the punishment as His own. For this reason, the word that the Bible uses to describe God’s verdict is not mercy but justice. By sending Jesus to stand in my place, God was able to be both “just” and “the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

It is only through this lens that we can understand the fifth beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). We are tempted to read this as a moral imperative. We think of it as a condition. If you want to be shown mercy, you’ve got to show mercy. In reality, it is a reminder. Mercy is not a warm feeling. It is not a determination to see the good in others despite their actions. It is a decision to absorb the offense and take it upon ourselves. There is only one sort of person to whom mercy can be shown and that is someone who does not deserve it. The Bible has a word for this sort of mercy. It’s called grace.