DO YOU WANT REVENGE OR JUSTICE?
Dr. Ramesh Richard explores restorative justice in this Kindred Spirit interview.
“I would like my epitaph to read, ‘A spokesman for the sovereign Savior worldwide,’” said Dr. Ramesh Richard (ThM, 1979; ThD, 1982). In addition to his professorial responsibilities in teaching homiletics, the spiritual life, and apologetics at Dallas Seminary, Dr. Richard serves as president of Ramesh Richard Evangelism And Church Helps International. RREACH’s vision is to change the way one billion individuals think and hear about Jesus by the year 2010. He explained, “We carry two strategic burdens—strengthening pastoral leaders and evangelizing opinion leaders of the world’s weaker economies in large numbers.”
Dr. Richard has authored three books and holds two doctoral degrees, a ThD from Dallas Seminary and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Delhi, India, his birthland. Because he ministers extensively around the globe, we asked Dr. Richard to share some of his thoughts on justice in light of current world events.
KS: Is there a contradiction between Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek” and governments using force to bring justice?
RR: In the Bible the word “justice” stems from the word “righteousness.” We’re told not to take justice into our hands as individuals. Revenge is prohibited and so we leave revenge to God, who possesses the right of vengeance. Certainly in our distress we might want to see our enemies dismembered because of our having experienced tragedy at their hands. Yet our desire for justice needs to arise from a desire for what God wants—because what is right has been violated. Our response, then, must arise from a desire to see righteousness accomplished rather than personal vindictiveness achieved. As patriots we certainly pursue the dispensing of justice to perpetrators of evil. That task, though, is delegated to the government by God and by us in democracies. The government works through the military, law-enforcement, and intelligence agencies. As Christians, we approach the justice/mercy response by balancing Romans 12 and 13. If we try to bring about individual revenge for reasons such as, “I have been violated, wounded, betrayed, and surprised,” that is unchristian repayment of evil for evil. Instead, Romans 13 states that governing authorities are God’s ministers in bearing the sword. So we leave it to God and the government to carry out their ministry in rendering justice—whether remedial or retributive. On the other hand Christians are to be involved in their sphere of ministry—bringing redemptive and rehabilitative justice of God even to our enemies.
KS: What do we do with our negative feelings while we wait for justice?
RR: On the personal level we rightly grieve in horror and anger. On the public side we can seek to influence the government to take appropriate action. In democratic societies, of course, the people are the government. The genius of the American system is separation of the church and state, a distinction easily derived from Romans 12 and 13. Unless there is some prior relationship with the enemy, the one carrying a stick can’t offer a carrot, for it will be suspected of being poisoned. The government acts in justice to punish transgression. But the church’s action in justice is to introduce evildoers to Christ. While we can’t neatly separate our feelings, we can and should separate our tasks in obedience to the Scriptures.
KS: Should we pray, as the psalmists did, for the destruction of their enemies?
RR: Most of the explicitly imprecatory psalms were specifically prayed by David. Psalm 79 was uttered by Asaph, who lived long before David but who reflected the theocratic orientation of Israel. A portion of Psalm 139 includes a prayer for justice that clearly reflects hatred for those who hate God. No one today should claim to be God’s theocratic representative on the earth, as was David, though I heard of a pastor who pontificated, “This is a theocracy, and I am Theo!” The theocratic king in the Book of Psalms could and did pray for the reputation of God, at stake in Israel’s behavior. Most of David’s enemies were not those outside of Israel. Insiders were attempting to destabilize the covenant people, competing with the king, criticizing his policies. That theocratic orientation is not the prerogative of any government today.
We hold to a separation of church and state in contrast to Islam, in which the palace and the mosque are united in nature, task, and responsibility. Many Muslim countries consider themselves theocracies. Also, when we start making any nation the present-day equivalent of Old Testament Israel, we fail to note a major theological distinction. An influential white South African pastor once thanked me for distinguishing between the church and theocratic Israel, because his continuity theology had followed church-and-state policies into “apartheid—hoping to cleanse the nation of Canaanites.” The church is more than the state because the church is more than any one state. The church is an international body, already made up of believers from every nation. Every politically acknowledged nation-state, though not every ethnic group, already includes Christ’s church. When we think Christ’s church is a national, racial, or sociopolitical entity, our hermeneutics (and allegiances) are skewed!
So we don’t pray against enemies because they are our enemies or the enemies of our nations, but because they are against God. We are against what God is against—injustice, unrighteousness, and rebellion. Here is an Old Testament imprecatory prayer that connects to the New Testament powerfully: “Cover their faces with shame so that men will seek your name, O LORD” (Ps. 83:16). Perhaps someone prayed that prayer for Saul, the terrorist who devastated the early church but then became her greatest apostle, evangelist, theologian, and proponent.
KS: So how should we pray?
RR: We need to pray that the Lord will give wisdom, direction, and clarity to world leaders, beginning with our own, so that the proclamation of the gospel and godly living will not be hindered (1 Tim. 2:1–2). We need to pray for God’s justice, because God hates evil and evildoers. And we need to love and pray for our enemies—the uniqueness of Christ’s ethics in a morass of ethical opinions (Matt. 5:44). Unwittingly Osama bin Laden may become a great revivalist in contemporary time. Witness the numbers of people in prayer meetings and church services, and who are contemplating spiritual matters. For those who have perpetrated evil we seek the government’s (not the church’s) intervention to bring them to justice, but believers (not the government) will even visit them in prison to share God’s salvation in Christ. We can also pray for opportunities to bear love even as the government bears the sword.
KS: In light of these things what reminders do you think the church needs now?
RR: First, we need a deeper understanding of suffering—the avoidance of which has been a characteristic of Western Christians until now. We can learn from Christians in other places who live with terror all the time because they are the minority or a persecuted group in a given country. Consider Liberia, where the first issue in children’s counseling is how to help the children overcome the fact that they have killed their cousins. Or consider the Rwandese pastor I met this summer who lost his wife and six children in one attack but who continues his pastoral ministry. Believers in Sudan and Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Philippines, India and Indonesia live with unrest all the time. As a result they possess a deeper theology of suffering than we do. For us suffering is abnormal; for them it’s normal. And as a result they are giants in the faith. Of course we don’t go looking for suffering, but we should not run away from it either. We fight suffering when it is avoidable, but face it when it is unavoidable. The One who predicted tribulation in the world has assured us by having overcome it.
Second, we need a higher doctrine of God. God’s sovereignty, love, and holiness encourage us to be effective without fear. We should be alert, but not be afraid of the terror by night or the arrow that flies by day. Our hubristic penchant for control should be replaced by a more humble desire for order. We cannot have everything under control, but we can freely pursue everything in its proper order as we face the unpredictable nature of human existence.
Third, we must possess a longer, stronger view of eternity. Is eternity really of greater value than earthly existence? Terror and fear lift our eyes to God’s long-range plans and purposes. We were not made for time; that’s why we complain that there isn’t enough! We were made for eternity, and even death in its intrusive horror, whether brought about by a slow disease or by a sudden terrorist attack, merely functions as a transit point to our ultimate destination. Believers possess eternal life by virtue of their faith in Jesus Christ. The very life of God in quality and length has begun to live in us. Here’s a perspective on eternity: “We will not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed daily” (2 Cor. 4:16).
Fourth, we need a wider commitment to people as individuals everywhere. Fellow brothers and sisters in Christ can provide mutual comfort in time of despair. Believers in other countries can teach us how they cope with very-present evil by confiding in God, their “ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). No symbols of identity, structures of power, or systems of security provide refuge. Also we need to harness this time of global fear with sharper strategies to reach those who don’t know Christ. While our government pursues justice to evildoers and the protection of citizens, individual Christians can reach a whole world that God has brought to our doorsteps. We can also do good to all people and especially to the household of faith (Gal. 6:10). We should be full of good works to all people and especially to believers across the world, starting with our church and extending to our community, homeland, and world.