Of all the ink spilled over the Cardinal George Pell conviction for child sexual abuse, the best use of it was a cracking article by Waleed Aly in the Sydney Morning Herald last week.
The guts of it was this: justice is a very different beast to vengeance. Aly marvelled at the mix of condemnation and compassion that County Court Chief Judge, Peter Kidd, exhibited in handing down the sentence on a man convicted of such heinous crimes.
The problem of course is that we live in an increasingly vengeful culture.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, social media in general, and, unfortunately, increasingly mainstream media; it’s judge, jury and executioner for anyone who dares to challenge our cultural, social or moral shibboleths.
But not Judge Kidd. And not, as Waleed Aly observes, the judicial system upon which we have placed our trust in the West.
He makes this point:
We’re in an era where anger dominates our sense of morality. To be angry is to be righteous, while to temper that anger is to be somehow morally complacent, apologetic, complicit even.
And don’t we know it. Show an inkling of nuance over a hot button topic on Facebook that someone else sees as a demarcation of right and wrong, and Boom!, it’s all over and you’ve been unfriended quicker than a Millennial can text.
Aly goes on to describe how the judge refused the “black and white” narrative of Pell’s whole life, insisting that among the terrible there was good.
And we just don’t like that idea - especially not in other people. Ourselves? Yes, of course, there’s always nuance! Others call us gossips, we say we’re just telling it like it is. People call us bullies, we say we are just being true to ourselves. Everyone else is black and white. We, and we alone, are colour!
But as Aly contends, that’s where the danger lies for the permanently outraged:
But there is something new – and wrong – in it [vengeance] being our only moral resource, our only way of demonstrating moral seriousness. That’s why the phenomenon of outrage culture is so runaway: we find precious few alternatives for expressing our moral agency, so we get angry at the minor and the momentous alike. The result is that we’re forgetting how to hold our anger in tension with anything else, especially in serious cases.
Something new in it. And wrong. We love new. We love new so much we fail to see how wrong new can be. That’s how progressive-focussed cultures work. It’s new, how can it be wrong? Waleed Aly counsels otherwise.
That’s why someone other than us, someone appointed above us, who represents us is tasked with the role of dispensing justice.
For left to ourselves we’d resort to an old-fashioned mob vengeance of the type Liam Neeson both plays in movies, and which, as was all over the media recently, he saw within himself when he sought vengeance after his sister had been sexually assaulted.
Aly concludes with a paragraph that starts with these words:
If we still believe in some concept of inherent human dignity….
Here’s the problem. We don’t believe in that concept. Not any longer at least. Our vengeance culture has come adrift from its Christian moorings, a landing site where mercy triumphs over justice. Our culture no longer believes in inherent human dignity.
We have rejected the idea that there is anything within us that gives us dignity. Our value is determined by our usefulness, our goodness, whether we have a meaningful role in society, or by a declaration that we are a “person” as opposed to a “non-person”. When extrinsic dignity replaces intrinsic, then prepare for a bumpy ride.
But of course it’s the Christian gospel of Jesus Christ in particular, not religious beliefs in general, that holds vengeance at bay.
The Bible is built around the tension of a people who deserve God’s justice, but which God holds off for the sake of mercy. If County Court Chief Judge Kidd had sober conflict in reading out his judgement over one person, imagine the Judge of All the World’s sober conflict as he looks at the injustice we inflict on our planet, while loving humans at the same time!
Can God resolve that tension? The Bible says he can, and that God exhibits justice and mercy through what happens on the cross of Jesus. And that exhibition has flowed ever outwards, turning the brackish water of vengeance into the fresh water of justice and mercy for two millennia.
Of course none of this gives Cardinal Pell an “out”. It simply means that the legal system that Judge Kidd is part of has a safety valve on it that holds vengeance at bay, not because the crimes that Cardinal Pell was convicted of were not terrible, but because vengeance is not ours to mete out. And for that one fact religious believer and unbeliever alike should be grateful.
Written by Stephen McAlpine
Stephen McAlpine works both as a pastor at Providence Church in Perth, and for City Bible Forum. He writes and speaks on matters of culture, theology and the church, and blogs at stephenmcalpine.com. Stephen and his wife Jill have been involved in church planting in Perth for more than a decade, while Jill also runs a Clinical Psychology practice and trains churches and other organisations in establishing good models of pastoral care. They have two children, Sophie and Declan.