Most Christians, one supposes, are just. But I cannot bring myself to accept Christian justice as a unique form of moral behavior. The very juxtaposition of Christian and justice is not only paradoxical but much too stingy. The evidence against the fittingness of fusing those two priceless realities is legion: “Turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give him your jacket, too”; “Love your enemies, do good to those who torment you”; “Does no one condemn you? Then neither do I”; “Your brother was dead; we simply had to celebrate”; “You strain out the gnat, but you gulp down a camel”; “Forgive us our trespasses just as we forgive those who trespass against us”; “Forgive 70 times seven times”; “This is the cup of my blood. It will be shed...so that sins may be forgiven.”
Christianity’s two overriding laws are not strictures but limitless invitations, and its sole determinative assessment of one’s life at the end is not about conformity but about attentive kindness. Then there is that last-minute kicker, from the place of Jesus’ execution, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” All this puts Christianity light years beyond the reach of “justice.”
In an interview with Catholic News Service, Professor Edward Peters, canon law professor at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary and a top adviser on that subject to the Vatican, excoriated Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany for not publicly refusing Communion to New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo, since he is a public sinner. Newspapers far and wide had trumpeted the fact that the governor, divorced with three children, is living with his girlfriend, Sandra Lee, a well-known television personality, yet still dares to approach the sacraments. Mr. Peters declared, for all to hear: “If he approaches for Holy Communion, he should be denied the august sacrament in accord with Canon 915.” Who could deny those “facts”?
Yet in at least three places in the Gospels, Jesus reacted quite differently to sharing food and drink uncritically with manifestly public sinners. At a dinner hosted by Simon the Pharisee, a woman “known as a sinner in the town” broke in indecently, wept on Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. Not only did Jesus not reprehend her, but he told his indignant host, “Much has been forgiven her because she has loved much.” Elsewhere, Jesus met at the well of Sichar a Samaritan woman who had already had five husbands, “and the man you’re with now is not your husband.” In a small town, six men would guarantee a woman a considerable reputation, but Jesus immediately dropped the subject and spoke of more important matters, like eternal life. And when he encountered the feisty enemy collaborator Zaccheus, peering down at him from a sycamore tree, Jesus boldly invited himself (and his entourage, one supposes) to the tax man’s house for lunch. Neither the Samaritan woman nor Zaccheus forced themselves on Jesus’ hospitality. On the contrary, he imposed himself quite blithely on theirs.
Moreover, there is reliable evidence that Jesus washed Judas’s feet and shared food with him at his farewell dinner, the model for our eucharistic celebration, even knowing what the disciple was about to do. How shockingly nonjudgmental!
Laws are not only laudable but utterly necessary, of course, especially for people unable—or unwilling—to think. But the first sign of a dying society is a new edition of the rules. Conformity begins to outweigh conviction.
A story that poses the justice/Christianity contrast is the segment in Les Misérables about the bishop’s candlesticks. The gendarmes return Jean Valjean to Bishop Bienvenu with the silverware Valjean has stolen. In justice, the bishop has a right not only to the return of his property but also to some kind of retributive penance because of the betrayal of his hospitality and kindness. But no! “Ah, my brother! Here you are! How is it you forgot I gave you the silver candlesticks, too!” That is not justice. Even to the minds of some professed and diligent Christians, such a way of behaving is rank foolishness. Unmerited forgiveness is an attitude that would corrode the entire fabric of our usurious and litigious society.
As a teacher of religion for close to a half century, I have frequently been tempted to violate the school administration’s “laws”—at times, I think, to worthwhile effect. Once while reading English essays, I found two that were not only similar, but identical. When I spoke to the two students, it was clear they had not collaborated; each had copied the essay verbatim from an Internet provider. They asked me with anxious interest what I intended to do. I told them I thought it was pretty serious, so I would let them know the next day. The following morning, while presiding at a small Mass for teachers and staff, I mentioned the cheating during the prayers of the faithful and said that rather than summarily “turning them over to the Polizei,” I would like to handle it in the way Jesus might, but I had yet to find a way. Afterward, one teacher was irate and insisted the matter be brought to the attention of the office. Instead, I saw the two students separately and asked them to write an essay covering three points: What does integrity mean; what does it feel like to lose it; and how does one get it back?
One boy wrote that it was the first time in his life he understood what Christianity really meant. The other came to confession “for the first time since eighth grade.” The angry teacher, meanwhile, went to the administration to report the matter. Although I reported the results of my attempt to be Christian, I was told, “All well and good, but their cheating has to go on their records.” I refused, because this was one of those rare occasions when I myself felt how good Christian conversion feels—for both sides.
I am fairly sure those students, as confused as Jean Valjean was with a basket of silverware in one fist and two silver candlesticks in the other, will remember that event more than they would remember prolonged detention or even suspension. Perhaps public sinners might more meaningfully be lured home if authorities depended less on judgment and more on imagination.
Mr. Peters has certainly spent many hours pondering church law. But since he has sat in public judgment on both a governor and his bishop, one might legitimately ask of him publicly whether he has adequately pondered the intentions of the Person who occasioned the law.
Justice is so much easier than Christianity.