What is justice? Love with claws

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the second in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the first in the series, “Are we in debt to God?”]

Ted Grimsrud—February 19, 2017

I want to start this morning with a question. Do  you consider yourself a Johnny Cash fan? I certainly am. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, he was about the only country singer that I would admit listening to. And he was a pretty remarkable performer. He sang songs advocating for Native Americans. He respected young people during the years when even Merle Haggard was singing songs bashing “longhairs.”

Johnny Cash’s popularity peaked with two live albums recorded in Folsom and San Quentin prisons. In San Quentin, he did a song he wrote called San Quentin, where he sang, to loud cheers, “San Quentin, I hate every inch of you. May all the world regret you did no good.” I am moved by the respect he showed the people in those prisons.

“Love with claws”

There was another live record that he recorded at about the same time—Live at Madison Square Garden in New York, December 1969. The height of the Vietnam War. Cash talked about that war—in itself a kind of gutsy thing for a country singer. And what he said was striking.

He talked about how he was often asked what he thought about the war. He had visited Vietnam about a year earlier and performed for the troops. His interviewer asked, “So that makes you a hawk?” And the crowd cheered. But Cash said, “No, that don’t make me a hawk.” But “when you watch the helicopter bring in the wounded and sing to them and try to encourage them so they can be healed enough to go home, it might make you a dove with claws.” Then he launched into a popular anti-war folksong, “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” about putting an end to war.

I’m not sure what Cash meant by “dove with claws.” Since he sang an antiwar song, I want to say that he believed tenaciously in peace. That phrase has stayed with me, though, “a dove with claws.” I’ve adapted it for my sermon today—titled “Love with Claws.” I use that phrase, “love with claws,” as a kind of definition for “justice.” Justice, I want to say, can be understood as “love with claws.” Or, as Martin Luther King said, quoted on the front of our bulletin today: “Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.” I will be interested if you think this makes sense when I am done….

What about justice?

In my last sermon, in October, I talked about “love all the way down.” I contrasted “love all the way down” as a way of thinking of the moral universe with a different idea. Love may be great as far as it goes, but, in this other view we need to recognize that love rests on a bedrock of what is often called “justice.” And “justice” as something quite separate from love or mercy.

The idea is that sin or wrongdoing must be paid for, that the scales must be balanced, debt and the need to pay debts are the core to the moral universe. I suggested, no, the message of Jesus—and, actually, the message of the Bible as a whole—is that the moral universe is a place where mercy and forgiveness are central, not payment of debt and punishing wrongdoing. The moral universe actually is love all the way down.

Well, I got some questions afterwards. One of the big ones was whether I might be minimizing justice too much. So, my agenda today is this: What about justice in a moral universe where love is central, where love is always central?

Well, I do think a moral universe where love is always central needs a concept of justice. We can’t do without justice in a broken and all-too-often unloving world. But love and justice go together. Justice is part of love. Justice is love with claws—the force that drives us to correct wrongs, to address brokenness, to respond creatively and life affirmingly to acts and words that alienate and traumatize.

This is obviously too big and deep for a simple Sunday morning sermon, especially one that is about a third over already. What I want to do is talk about a story, one of the most well known, and beloved stories in the Bible about the Prodigal Son.

Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son

Here’s a shortened version of Luke 15:11-32. As you read, think about the relationships of the three main characters—the younger son, the father, the older son. Though usually called the parable of the prodigal son, centering on the younger son, sometimes it’s called the parable of the waiting or merciful father. But, it’s the older brother with whom the story ends. And we are left with a cliffhanger. We don’t know how this brother will respond to his father’s welcome of his brother—and on his response rests a lot of the meaning of the story.

“There was a man with two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Give me the share my inheritance.’ The father divided his property and a few days later the son left for a distant country. While there he squandered all his wealth on wild living. Then, a severe famine devastated that country. The young man, now destitute, got a job feeding pigs. He was forced to eat the pods that the pigs ate; as no one gave him anything.

“The young man came to himself and asked, ‘Don’t my father’s hired hands have more than enough bread. Here I am starving! I will go to my father, and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ Then he set off for his father’s home.

“While the young man was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and embraced the son and kissed him. The son said, ‘I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Get the fatted calf. Let us celebrate; this son of mine was dead and is alive again; lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.

“Now the elder son was in the field. When he approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called a servant to ask what was going on. ‘Your brother has come. Your father killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound’

“The older son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out to plead with him. ‘Listen!’ the older son snapped. “For all these years I worked like a slave for you; I never disobeyed you; yet you never gave me even a young goat so I might party with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ The father responded, ‘Son, you are always with me; all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Most readers agree that on some level the father here represents God. The father’ response, if it is to be seen as a picture of God’s character—a picture of the moral universe—the father’s response denies that the universe requires payment for wrongdoing. The father’s response denies the sense that retributive justice rests beneath mercy and compassion. The father’s response points to love all the way down.

In the biblical tradition, few kinds of wrongdoing are worse than being a rebellious and disrespectful child. “Honor thy father and mother.” That’s one of the ten commandments. And there’s this infamous command from Deuteronomy: “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son… they shall say to the elders of his town: This son of ours will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard. Then all the men of the town shall stone the rebellious son to death” (21:18-21).

Yet Jesus’s story suggests that God is like a merciful father, one who (disregarding all proper dignity) runs to embrace his stubborn and rebellious son as soon as he sees him. This father doesn’t even wait for the son’s confession of sin. He simply welcomes the son back.

A story about two views of justice

Now, I want to suggest that this radical story may properly be understood as a story about justice. It contrasts two views of justice, and affirms that indeed it is not that justice is in tension with love but that justice is part of love.

Justice, we could say, is about how we respond to wrongdoing or perceived wrongdoing, to disharmony, to unfairness, to unbalance. When something seems hurtful or wrong, “justice” is how we respond (or how God responds) to make things right. I will get back to the big question, what do we mean by “right.” What is the character of the good or the rightness that we seek? But first let’s look at Jesus’s story. I would say this story portrays two different notions of justice. One I will call “autonomous justice”—that’s the justice of the older brother’s response to the younger brother’s wrongdoing. The second I will call “justice in love”—that’s the father’s response.

The story goes to great pains to convey just how bad the younger brother’s actions were. He indeed was the paradigmatic “stubborn and rebellious son” who, if anyone did, deserved the vicious response commanded in Deuteronomy. He treated his father as if he were dead when he asked for his inheritance. He utterly wasted his father’s precious gifts with his wild living. To symbolize just how far he had fallen, he ended up wallowing with pigs. Now, I think the Jewish tradition gives pigs a bum rap. Pigs are intelligent animals that can make fine pets. But it is clear—in the Bible pigs are the ultimate in uncleanness, perhaps nothing signals one’s self-removal from the Jewish tradition so much as scorning the call to avoid them.

So, the younger brother is, we could say, in deep manure, deep pig manure. It would be like a Mennonite son during World War II enlisting in the military—or going to a dance. Or a 7th Day Adventist son chowing down on beef barbeque. Bad news.

How do the older brother and his father respond to his wrongdoing? What do they show us about their understanding of justice? Let’s start with the older brother. He is the conventional one. His is the standard account concerning justice in our world. I’m calling this “autonomous justice.” What matters are the rules, what matters is the balance of the moral universe. It’s the principle of the thing. You stray, you got to pay. You violate the law, you must face the consequences. The principles of pay back, of reciprocity, are absolute. They do not depend on the circumstances and they recognize no higher truth.

“Autonomous justice” and “justice in love”

The justice of the older brother is autonomous in relation to the wellbeing of the younger son or the father. It is autonomous in relation to what the effect of enforcing it would be on the health of the family and broader community. It is autonomous, in the end, in relation to love. It is like some theologians have written, that for God simply to forgive wrongdoing would rip apart the fabric of the moral universe. Such forgiveness would lead to chaos and destroy the foundations of all that is right and true and in order.

But the father does not follow the dictates of autonomous justice. It is not as if the father does not care about the moral universe. It’s not as if the father thinks it doesn’t matter what the younger son has done. It’s not as if the father believes the younger brother should just get away with his rebellion and can’t wait for him to do it again.

But for the father, what justice is, ultimately, is justice in love. The “right” the older brother seeks is the satisfaction of demands of retributive justice—no matter what the impact of that might be on the younger brother’s future or on the father’s relationship with the younger brother. In contrast, the “right” the father seeks is the “right” of restored relationships. He seeks the healing of the younger son. He recognizes that in returning home the younger son had indeed “come to himself” and was ready to accept the responsibilities of being in the family. Love, for the father, is love that seeks wholeness for everyone, above all else.

In the end, we don’t know what the older brother will do. According to the dictates of autonomous justice, he has every right to remain opposed to the father’s disregard for what he thinks justice demands. And according to the dictates of justice in love, he would come in, give his brother a chance, seek to help the family to be whole.

So, Jesus’s story puts the question on us. How would we respond in the older brother’s place? How do we respond in our own times and places to wrongdoing and repentance? What kind of justice do we seek to embody?

Two contemporary stories about justice

Let me finish with another, more contemporary story. Or, rather a pair of stories. They are both true stories. In each one, we have a Mennonite father. In each case, the father is asked to be open to being vulnerable and switching his notion of justice. One did and the other did not.

Both of these men, now deceased, were long time active peacemakers. Impressive people in many ways, but each one operated in some important senses with a belief in autonomous justice. When they perceived a wrongdoing, they expected rules to be followed above all else. Like many Mennonites, for these two, rules regarding purity were especially important. And, in each case, the challenge came when a beloved child came out to the father as gay—something both perceived to be wrong, impure.

These revelations came many years ago, back in the 1970s and 1980s. The stance of the Mennonite churches was clear. A stance of opposition to same-sex intimate relationships that both fathers affirmed. The default Mennonite view.

But both dearly loved their children. As you can imagine, their moral universes were shaken to the core. With Father A, when the child came out, the response was hostility—and remained hostile. The father became a public advocate for the default anti-gay view. He managed to stay in a relationship with his child, but it was tense. All the way to the end. The father never allowed the child back as a full family member.

With Father B, the initial response was also hostile, but the difficulty of retaining the hostility proved too great. He decided he loved his child too much to stay hostile. So he took kind of a Huck Finn leap. Huck, you may remember, when faced with the choice of whether or not to turn his friend Jim in as an escaped slave, decided, “okay, I will go to hell.” Huck chose Jim over his received religion. That’s what Father B did as well. But then, after he took that leap, he discovered something that he didn’t expect.

God’s justice is not autonomous justice; it’s justice in love. Father B.’s leap actually led to a deeper faith, a great appreciation of the Bible. He found God in his affirmation of his child as a gay person. What he had perceived as wrong actually wasn’t. And he spend the rest of his years as a strong advocate for the inclusion of LGBTQ folks in Mennonite churches.

For Father B, what felt like moral chaos actually led to a more strongly integrated peace theology. He gained clarity about the metaphysics of love. For him, justice remained central, but as “justice in love.” For him, what was most just was welcoming his child. The reality of “love with claws” meant resisting the injustice of homophobia, even at quite a cost to his reputation. This came because he did realize that in relation to God’s moral universe, it is love all the way down. Amen.

6 thoughts on “What is justice? Love with claws

  1. This sermon is on the mark, Ted, in its discussion of justice. But the closing story does not illustrate the point of the sermon very well, nor does it complement the biblical text.

    To fix that, you need a story where both fathers remain convinced their sons failed to follow the wisdom of YHWH. After all, the welcoming father in Jesus’ story didn’t repent of his grief over his son’s departure from the family.

  2. I agree with Berry that the closing story doesn’t convince me of your point. Yes, the father did welcome the son back before his confession but it is clear that the son had already acknowledged his sin and repented. By returning to his father, the son’s intent was not to continue in his sin but to humbly ask for forgiveness. We can assume that his wild days of wine and song were over at that point. In your closing story, the son did not repent of his sin nor change his ways. The two stories are not equivalent in my perspective and I don’t think your analogy works very well here. Regardless of how the father or brother reacts to the return of the rebellious son, the son has already repented. The gay son in the closing story doesn’t repent and continues in sin.

  3. Ted, thank you for this. I have often said that “justice is giving people what they need to become the person God created them to be”, but you just shortened it to “Love”. I have found that when my boundaries are pushed, as in the closing story, then I have a new understanding of the nature of God, just as Father B did. Less judgement and more Grace.

  4. I have no new ideas about the Prodigal Son story. But must we frame this really as a problem of “justice”?
    As far as I understand the public debates, “justice” is the name people give to their selfish wishes if they have achieved to look at them not only as wishes, but as claims covered by a (mostly self-invented) principle.
    As there are lots of principles, everyone nowadays can invent his own justice.(I strongly empathize with F.A.von Hayek who wanted to abolish the term “justice” completely, even if I know this won’t happen.)

  5. Ted, you often stimulate my thinking and sometimes I want to challenge your conclusions but this is the first time I acted on my impulses. I wonder if your “two contemporary stories about justice” might fit better in the Joseph Fletcher’s 1966 book on situation ethics than in the story of the Prodigal Son? His third main proposition on interpretation of Christian ethics states “Love and justice are the same, for love is justice distributed, nothing else”. This principle of course is also very much present in Tillich as well. The theological debates in religious existentialism have their roots long before Fletcher but the current debate in the Mennonite Church still echo’s with the same recycled ideas. There are two quotes of which I hear variations. First, “God the Father is dead, but son Jesus still lives!” , and “Love (agape) is the only principle that makes acts right or wrong”. I don’t have the interest or time to dig deeper, this in not my field of expertise, but thanks for putting out some deep thought to stimulate our search for Truth.

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