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Jesus' Path to Restoring Justice

Here is my servant...I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations....I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon.

Isaiah 42:1, 6-7

Each year Christians around the world remember and celebrate the events of Holy Week. Jesus gave his life to heal the brokenness of our world and to restore God’s reign of love and justice for all. Yet today our world remains broken and divided by violence, fear and injustice.

The dramatic movement that week from the peaceful palm-waving procession on Sunday to Jesus’ violent execution by the state on Friday poses disturbing questions. What triggered the state’s criminal justice system to change its policies from tolerating peaceful protest to restoring public order by force and cruel punishment?

What hopes, what fears, what sense of justice did the crowd have that week? What transforms their hope-filled songs of "Hosanna!" into angry shouts of "Execute!" in just five days?

We interrupt this article for a late breaking story from First Century Cable News correspondent Paul N. Silas:

Outside Agitator Finally Silenced; Authorities Claim Peace & Order Restored to City

Authorities found the outside agitator guilty of the charge (He stirs up the people throughout all [the land]... even to this place. Luke 23:5) and sentenced him to death with no appeal.

Earlier a massive demonstration brought traffic to a standstill. Local authorities seemed powerless to control the disturbance. The march was led by a homeless man, who later overturned vendors’ tables and emptied cash registers on one of the busiest shopping days of this holiday season.

Sources (Luke 4:28-30) say it was not the first time he provoked a riot. Three years ago he disrupted a religious service in Nazareth. No charges were filed, however, as he fled the scene.

Public opinion polls taken Monday showed many favored his policies. In a stunning reversal, his support all but evaporated according to a second poll taken late Thursday night. Analysts attribute the sudden drop to his soft stance on crime (neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more, John 8:11), his opposition to the death penalty (forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing, Luke 23:34), and his call to release prisoners (Luke 4:18).

Following his execution, state officials vowed to pass tough new measures to expand use of the death penalty, further limit appeals, and increase officers patrolling the streets. Leading officials, in response to public fears, said such offenders would receive zero tolerance from now on!

Forgive us our debts as we forgive...

In the United States we hear shouts of "Execute!" and "Don’t educate or rehabilitate, incarcerate!" Use of the death penalty is rising, grounds for due process and appeals are shrinking. New prisons are going up even as schools are falling down. More is spent on private security in the United States ($52 billion in 1990) than any other nation spends on its military. Gated communities wall in the affluent, border guards and fences to blind us to the needs of poor immigrants.

What kind of justice are we as a society trying to restore? Are we any less fear-filled now than a generation ago?

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

We have restored the punitive teachings of Pilate and Herod not the justice policies or healing presence of Jesus! Harsher punishments for nonviolent offenses have institutionalized our fears in the laws of the land, and by others’ stripes we seek to be healed.

Yet healing is far off for victims of violent crimes. Jesus’ anguished cry of Psalm 22 from the cross affirms both our suffering and God’s healing presence. For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried (Psalm 22:24). Restorative justice as a healing process involves the difficult steps of repentance and forgiveness, as witnessed in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Jesus’ nonviolent actions

disturbed armed ‘peace’

Early Christians faced police brutality, imprisonment, torture, unfair trials and even the death penalty for their beliefs and their nonviolent actions! The biblical book of The Acts of the Apostles reads like a human rights report documenting extensive violations by the state that sought to restore order and control at the expense of justice. Paul wrote several epistles from prison as an ambassador in chains (Eph. 6:20).

Early church leaders were repeat offenders with more than three strikes against them! Many of the powerful in the first century considered the early church a subversive prison or slave religion that spread among poor and marginalized members of society.

The Roman empire saw itself as a model of civilization and peace surrounded by barbarians too busy killing each other to create, let alone maintain, any sense of order or justice in the world. Thus Pilate had to wash his hands and shed some innocent blood for the purpose of restoring order and control.

The release of Barabbas, a known ‘terrorist’, was not as dangerous. Pilate used violent threats like Barabbas to justify expanding the harsh measures of fear-based policies.

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but for yourselves and for your children." (Luke 23:28)

Those on whose backs empires are built have a different story to tell. How many women, now and then, are like Mary and have a loved one caught in an unjust legal system that breaks up families and breaks down community bonds? How many have lost a loved one to violence in a crime wave?

O prisoners of hope ...I will restore to you double

Yes, Jesus is guilty of ‘stirring up the people’ and ‘disturbing the peace’ in an unjust order -- then and now! He stirs up people’s hopes, not their fears. His Palm Sunday procession recalls Zechariah’s vision of a new leader, humble and riding on a donkey, who declares, I will set your prisoners free (Zech. 9:9, 11, 12).

What makes Jesus so threatening is his public proclamation of a forgiving and loving God. When our fears hold God’s resurrection power captive in the solitary confinement of private devotion, Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. His resurrection and the empty cross shatter institutional powers of fear and punishment. Jesus calls us as disciples of restorative justice and healing.

My people do not understand. Isaiah 1:3b

When Jesus first proclaimed Isaiah’s message of liberation of captives, poor and oppressed (Luke 4:16-22), people liked his challenge to unjust Roman policies. But they were captive to fear and hostility toward people they saw as different and inferior; people like the Samaritans.

Jesus confronted their narrow race-based sense of community by explaining that in the midst of their community’s suffering, God had sent Elijah and Elisha only to assist foreigners (see Luke 4:23-7). At this the people were filled with rage and tried to kill Jesus (4:28-30).

Yes, Jesus is guilty of ‘stirring up the people’ and ‘disturbing the peace’ in faith communities who confine Jesus’ justice and healing message to those in pews next to us. We are a community broken and divided by racism until we restore bonds of love with anyone imprisoned or oppressed by injustice.

The letter to the Hebrews calls us to sacred solidarity as part of God’s restorative justice project. Let mutual love continue....Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Hebrews 13:1,3)

The United States now has more people incarcerated (1.8 million in prisons plus more in jails) than anywhere else in the world! Do we in churches remember these prisoners as though we ourselves were doing time next to them?

Today we still worship a Lord who was arrested, tortured, denied due process and condemned to execution. Inside our churches we bow in prayer before a symbol of the death penalty -- the cross, which was used to execute those who challenged the power of the state.

The United States has resurrected the death penalty and expanded punishment for nonviolent offenses in one state after another. With each new arrest, with each new prisoner, and with each immigrant stranger we detain rather than welcome, do our fears grip us in silent captivity like the disciples during holy week? Has our society become the angry crowd pushing Jesus again and again on the steps toward crucifixion?

When 20th Century Cable News correspondent Paul N. Silas reports on our actions to restore justice let us pray these words from Acts 17:6-7 will be used: "These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus."

David Wildman is a seminar designer for the Women’s Division’s United Methodist Seminar Program on National and International Affairs, at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York City.