Law and justice—two completely different beasts?

Who is in the right? An often heard question. Whom will the law favour? That is already a more difficult question to answer. But having the law on your side is not necessarily the same thing as actually being right. And what is justice anyway? Where does it start? Where does it end? A few words on the subject...

Let us turn back a few pages in history: the events that transpired in Europe some 80 years ago were inhuman: nations, ideologies, and cultures collided ferociously. Their weapons spoke the language of death. The Second World War claimed many victims, but also featured many perpetrators. Millions of soldiers died. Germany’s Nazi regime murdered millions of Jews. These were years of annihilation, displacement, and absolute brutality. Later on, people would ask themselves how human beings could inflict so much suffering upon other human beings.

Seventy-five years ago, the allied forces that had won the war finally took to the podium for their “day in court”. From 20 November 1945 to 1 October 1946, leading members of the National Socialist regime were called to answer for their actions before a military court in room 600 of the Nuremberg Palace of Justice. A total of 24 high-ranking Nazi war criminals stood before the International Military Tribunal, comprised of representatives from the four allied powers, namely the USA, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France. This major war crimes trial resulted in twelve death sentences, three life sentences, and four lengthy prison sentences, as well as three acquittals. Twelve further criminal trials of a similar nature before American military courts were to follow. A total of 185 defendants sat on the bench. The last of their sentences was not pronounced until 14 April 1949.

What is law?

Is the death penalty a suitable means of punishing murderers? Does this somehow compensate the victims or make appropriate reparation? Questions such as these demonstrate that human justice is always temporary and flawed—as imperfect as human beings themselves. Since error is part of human existence, one can never expect a perfect, absolutely just verdict.

Democratic societies are grateful that war crimes and crimes against humanity are punished, and that there are international courts, courageous judges, prosecutors, and lawyers who stand up for the law.

What is justice?

To this day, the question of what is truly just has been difficult to answer. There can be no clear answer to this, except perhaps one: there is only one truly righteous form of justice, and that comes from God. Christians are actually already well aware of this. It is unlikely that there is any other book in Holy Scripture that speaks more often and more clearly about the difference between human justice and divine justice than the book of Romans. This is something people will always have to keep in mind if they want to create fair systems of assessment, laws, and rules: they are—and will always remain—imperfect.

What does God have to say about it?

So it is that the New Apostolic Catechism, in accordance with Christian teaching, shifts the question of law and justice to a higher, divine level: God grants grace instead of punishment, God is merciful and not vindictive. Instead of issuing threatening warnings, He grants forgiveness and reconciliation. God allows Himself to be crucified, scorned, and condemned—and thereby sets an example for us: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth’; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2: 21–24).

God is just

Nevertheless, God also judges. Only He does so in accordance with other principles. Even a sinful human being can stand before God, because God does not look upon the deeds alone, but rather upon the heart of the perpetrator. Even if we human beings have the greatest problems understanding Him, God is just—towards everyone. He judges as he sees fit. He does not need a prosecutor or a lawyer. He is both in one: “Whenever human beings violate God’s will, they sin and thereby incur guilt before God. Guilt is manifest when God in His righteousness and omniscience holds this misconduct against an individual who has committed a sin. The magnitude of guilt incurred can only be measured by God” (CNAC 4.3.2.). Furthermore: “The guilt incurred by a particular sin may in one case be virtually non-existent, while in another case it may be so severe as to ‘cry out to God’ (Genesis 4: 10).”

And what about human laws? Don’t they count for anything? Certainly! As long as they are oriented by divine standards. The New Apostolic Catechism also establishes clear guidelines for this: “The Church expects its members to keep the laws and fulfil the civic duties of their country, as long as they are in harmony with the divine commandments” (CNAC 13.5.1). It goes on to state that, although Christians are, in principle, subject to the authority of the state, “the authorities of the state are in turn subordinate to the divine laws”. There can indeed be a certain field of tension between earthly laws and divine laws. “In such cases, the individual must decide, on the basis of his conviction of faith and in personal accountability to God, whether he will resist prescribed regulations that violate divine laws.”

Something to think about

And this is where we come full circle to the Nuremberg Trials, to all those who issued orders, and all those who followed orders and thereby incurred similar guilt: looking back on this shameful period in world history, and looking ahead to the future, it becomes clear that all human beings will be obliged to face divine justice one day. The best thing to do is to courageously confront our imperfections and surrender freely to the grace of the Lord—preferably before giving in to sin!

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Peter Johanning