Mark Fairweather Tall
Balancing grace and justice
This article was published in Network Norwich & Norfolk in November 2014
“Should convicted rapist Ched Evans be allowed to play professional football again?” People were asking this question after the release of Evans from prison having served half of a five-year sentence for raping a woman after a night out.
A few days later, and the eyes of the world were on South Africa as Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to five years in prison for the manslaughter of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Another question was asked: “Did Reeva get justice?”
As these cases hit the headlines, the debates were fired as people shared their opinions about what is just and right. And the arguments are complex…
As news emerged that his former club, Sheffield United, are considering re-employing Evans, a petition was started to oppose this – over 140,000 have signed it. In a profession where there are those who will idolise you, it can’t be right that children could be walking around with a replica kit bearing the name of a convicted rapist, can it? What message does it send to people when a man who has shown no remorse for his crime gets to enjoy the privilege of a footballer’s life?
Others argue that he has been convicted and punished by serving a prison sentence for his crime. Isn’t it right that once his time is done, the debt to society is paid and the offender becomes an ex-offender who is entitled to rehabilitation back into society?
During the trial of Oscar Pistorius, different pictures were painted of the defendant. The defence portrayed him as a man who was vulnerable because of his disability, defending himself as a consequence of living in a country with a high incidence of violent crime. The prosecution suggested he was a man prone to outbursts of fierce anger who knew that his girlfriend was in the bathroom when he fired.
The verdict of the judge was that he was an evasive witness whose actions were reckless but not deliberately aimed at Reeva Steenkamp. Although sentenced to five years, he could even be released to house arrest in ten months, leading some to question whether this is really justice.
What these discussions and viewpoints reveal is that most people have a strong sense of justice. We should not be surprised by this – after all, we are made in the image of God and the Bible describes God as ‘just’.
Take for example, Isaiah 61:8, “For I, the Lord, love justice”. So much pain is caused in our world because of injustice. Cries of “It’s not fair” are heard from the youngest of mouths. We don’t want to see people getting away with something that we know is wrong. They need to be punished and society needs to be protected from those who would harm. Yes, justice is important.
As Christians, though, we also emphasise the importance of grace. The gospel is all about the opportunity we have of a second chance. In Romans 3:23 we are told: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Through Jesus Christ we are forgiven and the reason for this is that God loves us.
There are a number of times in the Bible where we are told that as we receive mercy, so we are to practise it as well. This is important because there is a human tendency for us to judge others and make excuses for ourselves. Grace reminds us of the need to allow others to move on from their failings and live differently.
Whilst we may wish embrace both justice and grace in our living, the reality of what this looks like in each different situation we come across is challenging to say the least. Justice and grace can seem opposed to one another. Sometimes people talk about an ‘Old Testament’ God of judgement and a ‘New Testament’ God of love. But orthodox theology tells us God is the same yesterday, today and forever. So the question is “are justice and grace opposed to each other or can they sit more comfortably side by side?”
If we are going to be able to answer this, perhaps we need to go back a step and ask about what the aim of justice and grace really are from God’s point of view. We can simply associate justice with punishment – if you do the crime you do the time. But maybe from God’s point of view there is more.
In Genesis we read about ‘the Fall’ as Adam and Eve reject God and are removed from the Garden of Eden. This is both punishment and protection. They are punished by not having the plentiful supply of food to eat – now Adam will have to toil because of thorns and thistles. They are protected because they could not eat from the tree of life and live for ever; (God said “he must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever.” Ch3:22). This would have resulted in Adam and Eve living for ever in a sinful state having rejected the presence of God – it is unthinkable that God would allow this.
The ‘big picture’ story of the whole Bible is about a loving God living with His people, reaching out to them again and again to draw them back to Himself. Justice is there to protect people from themselves and to protect others. Punishment is there to give people time to think about how what they have done is wrong so that they might do things differently in the future. Grace is about giving people the opportunity to do so.
Both justice and grace are there with the ultimate aim of restoration – to bring us back to the presence of God. Both justice and grace require us to face up to the seriousness of what we have done, to acknowledge our mistakes and then seek to live differently. The word we use for this is ‘repentance’.
Perhaps rather than seeing a conflict between grace and justice we can see them as two sides of the same coin. We need to recognise that justice does not mean someone cannot have a second chance. We need to understand that grace doesn’t mean everything can go back to how it was before – there are consequences to our actions.
As we struggle to understand what this might mean in different situations, there is one thing we can be sure of… God is there seeking to bring His perfect grace and justice in to each and every situation.