Justice and Compassion
by Rev. Dustin Bartlett
In our men’s small-group Bible study this week, we talked about the nature of justice. Justice is about actions and consequences. There is a school of thought that justice should be about retribution – that wrongdoers must be punished, that vengeance must be taken.
This, the men in my Bible study concluded, is not the kind of justice that God wants or that Christians are called to seek.
The other school of thought is that justice should be about rehabilitation. There certainly should be consequences when people do bad things, but the aim of those consequences should be to help them not do those same bad things again in the future.
Take, for example, the issue of drug abuse. Drugs destroy bodies, families, careers, lives. Often, drug addiction can lead to more serious behavior problems like theft and violence. In the immortal words of Mr. Mackey, “Drugs are bad, mkay?”
But all too often our justice system addresses drug abuse through retribution rather than rehabilitation. Drug addicts are sent to prison, presumably to punish them for breaking the law. But sending a drug addict to prison often makes the problem worse. Rather than receiving treatment, they now have a criminal record that is going to make finding a job much more difficult, which in turn will make them more likely to turn to selling drugs in order to make money. Increasingly, the criminal justice system is seeing the need for things like drug courts, which take non-violent drug offenders through a program of drug rehab, drug testing, and community service rather than sending them to prison.
That’s the difference between rehabilitation and retribution.
In the Bible, it’s clear that negative actions produce negative consequences. But the Bible is also clear that God loves us and wants us to turn from sin and self-destruction and get our lives back on track. The Christian idea of justice is about rehabilitation, not retribution.
That’s why I was very disturbed that, just today, I read a report that a woman was taken into custody by ICE agents during her green card interview. This woman has been in the country for 15 years. She is a small business owner. And most importantly, she has a husband and children. She was doing exactly what she was supposed to be doing to get a green card, but despite all this she was arrested. Now she will have to go through the process in prison instead of at home with her family.
And I have to ask, why? Why make a mother spend weeks or even months in prison, away from her children and husband, as she goes through the green card process. This is retribution, not rehabilitation. This is punishment for punishment’s sake.
This sort of thing is playing out all around the country. It’s hurting real families. It’s not compassionate. And it’s not Christian.
The Hebrew word, ger, which is most often translated as “alien” in the Bible, appears 92 times in the Old Testament. The Bible continually refers to God’s special concern for aliens, along with other vulnerable people like widows and orphans (Dt. 10:18; Ps. 146:9; Ezek. 22:7; Zech. 7:10). God loves aliens, and commands us to do the same because our ancestors were once aliens themselves (Lev. 19:33-34).
I’m not advocating that we suspend all immigration enforcement. We ought to have some control over who enters the country, and under what circumstances. And obviously the complexities of our dysfunctional immigration system can’t be adequately addressed in brief, online article like this one.
But for Christians some things are absolutely clear. It’s clear that we should not be breaking apart families. It’s clear that, whatever we do, we must do it with compassion.