In Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, the idea of a just God is implicitly paired against the idea of a loving God. After all, how can we say God is love if He willingly sends people to Hell? The responses varied, mostly stating that yes, God is love, but God is also just and how can we say that God is just if He doesn’t send people to Hell? Without diving into that issue (mostly because I already have), it seems that in the West as a rule we struggle between the idea of justice and the idea of love. When we think of a our penal system on one side we want people who are tougher on crime, we want harsh prison sentences, to the point that some almost applaud the inevitability of rape within our prison system. On the other hand, we have people who are about reform, who want to almost do away with prisons, and even some judges have allowed heinous criminals to go loose out of a desire to help the criminal reform. The battle between love and justice is on that has, in my opinion, completely skewed our criminal system.
Take, for instance, the case of Brandon Philips. He stole a $1.29 Honey Bun and was hunted down by a K-9 unit and arrested (though they found no evidence of his crime) and ultimately jailed for resisting arrest (what innocent person wouldn’t resist arrest?). Now, the pragmatic aspects of this (the cost of using so many police for a $1.29 snack) and his innocence or guilt aside, how is this in any way a justified response? To the arbiter of modern justice, which tends to be more Hobbesian absolutism than anything else, the police are the champions for hunting down a man over the principle that he took someone else’s property. The defenders of love, however, would argue that the man should go free just as Jean Valjean was allowed to go free for the crime of stealing a candlestick (admittedly, I fall closer to this side of the argument, much closer).
The reason such a debate exists is because we have divided justice and love and we treat them as opposites. The reality is that justice begins with love. Both justice and love are part of the energies of God and while not the sum of His essence, they point back to His essence. Thus, they have a common beginning in the nature of God and since God is perfect (that is, He is not a contradiction), justice and love do not contradict each other, but compliment each other and ultimately point to the same End.
Thus, if justice is giving to each what each deserves, love is the standard we use when deciding what each is owed and what each deserves. Furthermore, if justice moves us to protect the innocent, it only does so because love has caused us to love the innocent to begin with. Without love, justice is ineffective and eventually becomes a disfiguration of true justice. Likewise, love without justice forces us to allow heinous crimes in the name of passivity or in the hopes of a person being restored. All the while, more and more victims are created. Remove love from justice and we end up with a tyranny of laws and arbitrary standards of defining what is and is not just; remove justice from love and we end up with chaos and predators devouring their prey.
Rather, our entire system should be centered on loving justice, the idea that we must protect the victims in any crime, but also leave the path open to restore the perpetrator (who may be a perpetrator only because he was ultimately a victim). We take the case of Mr. Philips. He stole from someone and, no matter how bad his plight is, taking from someone else is never the right thing to do. After all, if one is starving and one steals from the one with bread, we only transfer the plight from one person to another; now the bread owner faces the prospect of starvation (in an ultimate sense). At the same time, is throwing this young man in jail – which is essentially a college for criminals (graduate work is done in state prisons while post-graduate work is done in federal prisons) – really the just thing to do?
We need to find a way where we show love to both the victim and the criminal. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for a criminal is to lock him away for life; he is a menace to society and closed off to reform. Our hope is that in his isolation from society, he will begin to see the value in being a productive citizen. Only when we begin from a position of loving both the criminal and the victim can we begin to find true justice, a justice that lasts. It’s not that “love wins” or that “justice wins,” but that both are one in the same and we require one to support the other. Until we realize this, I’m afraid our prison population will continue to grow.