I’m taking a short diversion away from Universalism, but only down a parallel street to look at related issues of justice and mercy.
Conventional wisdom has it that justice means getting what you deserve, mercy means not getting what you deserve, and grace means getting what you don’t deserve. It’s a nice, neat set of definitions, but it’s also a huge over-simplification which makes justice and mercy seem utterly opposed to one another.
Justice and truth
Justice (in my understanding) has to do with restoring and maintaining right, rightness, truth, goodness and harmony – in the universe and (within that) in human lives and relationships. It therefore involves righting wrongs, healing harms, correcting misjudgements and redressing injustices.
Justice towards people then has a twin focus: firstly on the victim of wrong or injustice, to restore them, compensate them or justify them. Secondly on the perpetrator, to hold them to account for what they have done, and as far as possible to make them responsible for righting the wrong they have perpetrated or participated in – for making amends to their victim. However, this shouldn’t be seen as something harmful to them but as a positive chance to participate in the redressing of wrong and to be absolved of their debt.
Justice may involve an element of retribution or revenge against the wrong-doer, or at least of natural consequences (karma if you like) – of the perpetrator ‘getting what they deserve’. However, I would argue that this form of tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye karmic justice is the lowest level or last resort, only to be used where no other or better form of redress is available (which for the Christian there always is). In the majority of cases it seems to me that retributive punishment is far from the best way that justice can be served.
Some go as far as to argue that justice can be fully served by the perpetrator simply being forced to face up to the truth of their misdeeds and their consequences; that accepting the full responsibility and attendant shame/sorrow for what they have done does away with the need for further punishment. I’m not convinced about this in terms of earthly justice, but as regards heavenly justice it may have something going for it. Some would even see hell as the place or state where the sinner feels in full – though perhaps only for a time – the weight of the sins they have committed.
Mercy and reconciliation
Mercy is not the reverse or opposite of justice; it is the natural companion of true justice, which springs from love and goodness rather than desire to harm. Mercy is directed primarily to the perpetrator of wrong, of injustice, and has to do with their healing, forgiveness, restoration and rehabilitation.
Mercy goes hand in hand with justice; it doesn’t mean that someone is let off from the responsibility or the just consequences of what they have done, but rather that the administration of justice also make provision for forgiveness and restoration.
I’ve suggested that justice is primarily for the sake of the victim, but also can be beneficial to the perpetrator. Similarly, mercy is primarily for the wrongdoer but also beneficial for the victim of wrong. Mercy provides a way for the wronged to leave the destructive cycle of revenge, to offer forgiveness and restoration to the one who has wronged them. It provides a means for reconciliation to take place between wronged and wrong-doer, benefiting both parties. And in so doing true justice is served – rightness and harmony are fully restored.
Justice with mercy – truth and reconciliation
South Africa got it right when in the aftermath of apartheid they set up a Truth and Reconciliation commission (rather than a Truth and Retribution one, which would have been far easier and more natural). The Truth part dealt with the need for justice; that those who had oppressed, bullied, beaten and killed under the old regime be brought to book and held to account for their actions; forced to face those they had wronged and receive their verdict. The Reconciliation part dealt with the need for mercy and forgiveness, opening up the way for restored relationships in a new community.
In all human relationships things inevitably go wrong at times, and when they do there is almost always right and wrong on both sides (even if most of the balance is in one direction). At this point we need justice and mercy on both sides. Justice to acknowledge both the wrongs and also to hear the rights on each side. Mercy to forgive and be forgiven. Humans are messy and messed-up creatures and each of us needs mercy every bit as much as (probably more than) the justice we think we have a right to.
Justice, mercy and the love of God
For the Christian, justice and mercy both spring alike from the love of God, or from the God who is love. They are not merely abstract concepts; they are realities which can only be understood when they are embodied, enfleshed, incarnated. And they find their fullest expression and deepest fulfilment in the incarnation, cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ – in and through which enemies are reconciled, the guilty are shown mercy, wrongs are righted, harms healed and the goodness and innocence of God ultimately vindicated.