by Fleming Rutledge for 30 Good Minutes
Many polls have shown that an overwhelming percentage of the American public believes in God. But what sort of God? If the average American believer is asked to describe God, he or she will almost certainly say that God is loving. God is also commonly described as compassionate, welcoming, forgiving, accepting, merciful, and inclusive. Very few white Americans will volunteer that God is just.
African-American Christians are much more likely to speak of a just God because their forebears were slaves, and because they still experience injustice at many levels of our society. Poor and marginalized people all over the globe do not have leisure to watch television programs discussing injustice; they know about it first hand. Therefore the news that God is just means a great deal to them.
It is a different story with comfortable middle-class American Christians, who are not much interested in hearing about the righteous judgment of God. The whole idea of judgment sounds cold and forbidding to us. If we use the word judgmental to describe someone, it is not a compliment. It is typical of our day and time to price tolerance more than discernment. It is characteristic of us to say that people should be able to do whatever they want to do. We dont really mean that, of coursewe all have limits as to what we toleratebut our cultural resistance to the idea of God as a righteous Judge is very strong.
This resistance has a lot to do with the common tendency to divide the Old Testament from the New. Churchgoing people frequently speak of the judgmental God of the Old Testament and the loving God of the New. This is not only ignorant, it is dangerous, because it can lead to forms of anti-Judaism.
Lets take another look. I heard a preacher on the radio say that the New Testament tells us almost nothing about what went on in the mind of Jesus. That got my attention, because its true. Then he said a very striking thing. He said, If you want to know what went on in Jesus mind, read the Old Testament [read the Hebrew Scriptures]. That is a dazzlingly simple way of stating the matter. We tend to forget that what we call the Old Testament was the only Bible that Jesus and the first Christians had. Not only so, but those Hebrew Scriptures were known to them by heart in a fashion that we today can scarcely imagine. There are many things that we do not know about Jesus, but we can be sure of this: his whole being was shaped by intimate, continuous interaction with the Torah, the Psalms, the Prophets and the other Scriptures of Israel.
In those Hebrew Scriptures, there are a few ideas that predominate, and of these themes, there is none more central than that of the justice of God, also called his righteousness. God is righteous, just, holy: these words are used interchangeably with his name. the prophet Isaiah says, The Lord of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness. Wherever justice is administered, the Lord himself is present: When the king appointed judges in Israel, this is what he said to them: Consider what you do, for the Lord is with you in giving judgment. Let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take heed what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God, no partiality, no taking bribes (II Chronicles 19:4-7).
The administration of justice brings a person, or a people, close to the very heart of God. Through his prophet Jeremiah, God says: For if you trulyexecute justice if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will let you dwell…in the land that I gave of old to your fathers for ever (Jeremiah 7:5-7). One of the best-known passages in the Old Testament reminds us that justice is an indispensable aspect of a godly life: He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8) In this famous text, justice and mercy are brought together as equals, with no suggestion that they are in opposition.
Here is the point. Justice and mercy are two foundational aspects of Gods character. Working out the relation between the two is an essential task for Jews as well as Christians. In our own time this has become a particularly pressing imperative as we debate such things as capital punishment and international codes of justice. There is a widespread impression in America that Christian forgiveness is separate from the question of justice, but this is shallow. Forgiveness is not as simple as is often suggested; it is a complex and demanding matter. Non-Christians can see this readily in the case of extreme crimes or terrible suffering, when Christians speak too quickly and too glibly about forgiveness. For instance, there was a great deal of criticism when the Columbine High School teenagers who were members of a Christian fellowship were asked by their leaders to forgive the killers only a few hours after the horrific episode.
The question of forgiveness really should not be discussed apart from the question of justice. When a terrible wrong has been committed and an apology is offered, the person or persons wronged may be justified in feeling that too much is being asked of them. If the impression is given that the wronged parties are simply supposed to forgive and forget, the wrong will linger under the surface and cause further harm. Forgiving is hard work. It takes time, and involves pain
Many people believe that forgiveness in and of itself is the essence of Christianity, but this is not the case. Forgiveness must be understood in its relationship to the righteousness of God. The place to look for this is in the letters of the apostle Paul. It is significant that Paul virtually never uses the word forgiveness. He focuses on what God has done, and his word for what God does is not forgiveness but justification. This is a reinterpretation of the Old Testament witness to the righteousness of God.. Heres the basic premise: in our world, something is terribly wrong and must be put right. If our blood does not boil at some point, we have not yet understood God. It depends, though, on what outrages us. To be outraged on behalf of oneself or ones own group is to be human, but it is not to participate in Christ. To be outraged on behalf of the defenseless and oppressed, however, is to do the work of God.
Paul recast the whole concept of righteousness and justice in light of the Cross of Christ. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was the chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, summarizes the matter this way: Forgiveness is not cheap. It is not facile. It is costly. Reconciliation is not an easy option. It cost God the death of his Son.
In the Cross we see how justice and mercy come together in the being of God. The Judge of all things has put himself in the place of those who are guilty. In doing this, he has not simply declared a general amnesty. The mystery of the Crucifixion is that in Christ, God is giving himself up to utmost degradation in order to reorient the world to himself and to declare that all things will be made right in the Kingdom of God.
 Desmond Tutu, 1998 Mollegen Lecture, Virginia Seminary Journal, January 1999.