This brings me finally to the conflation that concerns me this morning, the conflation of justice and equality. As Bishop N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England and a leading scholar of the New Testament and the early church, pointed out last summer in an article for The Times of London, in which he addresses a vexing issue that gives rise to a lot of confusion precisely because of the frequent failure to make important distinctions when we address it, "the notion of justice itself, not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls...never means 'treating everybody the same way', but 'treating people appropriately', which involves making distinctions between different people and situations." It strikes me that our unwillingness and increasing inability to make important, if sometimes detailed, distinctions between different people and situations is the pressure point at which we try to jam these two words together. Stated simply, justice and equality are not the same, there is no identity.
The Holy Father makes much the same point as Bishop Wright in his Lenten message this year, in which he takes as his starting point Romans 3:21-22: "The justice of God has been manifested through faith in Jesus Christ." He begins his message with a reflection on the fundamental meaning of justice and by quoting one Ulpian, an ancient Roman jurist, to the effect that justice is "to render every man his due."
Our Lenten disciplines of intensified prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are time tested means of growing in our love of God and neighbor, whom we are to love without distinction, which is very difficult. Nonetheless, what it means for me to love one person concretely looks different from what it means for me to love another person. A major factor that determines this is my relationship with that person. It is not unjust for me to recognize that I have more responsibility towards wife than I do to any other woman, even my mother, or to my children than to other young people, etc. Above all, I am incapable of being perfectly just because I am limited. For example, I am neither infinite nor aeternal. So, with the psalmist, I pray: "Do not call your servant to judgment for no one is just in your sight" (Psalm 143:2).
Mercy is what brings justice and equality into conversation. God is merciful. In Christ, God gives us Divine Mercy. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, the Holy Father pointed out that "[g]race does not cancel out justice" (par. 44). Mercy is certainly a grace, the greatest of all the many graces, that is, gifts our good and loving God showers on us. Not surprisingly, Pope Benedict explains this dynamic very plainly:
"God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened" (par. 44).
This is not to assert that evildoers cannot and will not sit at that table, they can and will because Jesus Christ is our invitation to the heavenly banquet. The Holy Father's observation prescinds, I believe, from just this point. In the end, we all want the same thing: happiness, fulfillment, completion. Heaven is all of that and more. Even though it is what we are made for, let's be honest, heaven is not our due. At the end of the opening paragraph of his Lenten message, Pope Benedict asks a question posed by St. Augustine long ago: What is our due when we desert God? It is a rhetorical question which merits a one word answer: hell. But condemning us is inconsistent even with God's justice because God made us, we did not make ourselves (this is an observation that requires some explanation). God's justice requires that He take pity on our nothingness. The giving of His only begotten Son is proof positive both that God loves us, not mention how much, and that God is just. "In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10).
Before we protest that we would never desert God, let's be mindful that deserting God is a very succinct definition of sin. In other words, we would and we do desert God. Another, more traditional, way of defining sin is preferring something, some activity, even some person to God. For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
A deep diaconal bow to KRad for today's title, which I adopt as my Lenten focal point this year.