Peace Through Justice:
Reflections on a Lecture
by John Dominic Crossan
"First victory, then peace."
These were the words written on coins of first century Rome according
to scholar Dr. John Dominic Crossan. The slogan does not epitomize "the
evil of the Roman empire" with its stranglehold over conquered nations,
including Israel. Instead, Crossan, in an April 1, 2004 lecture at Trinity
Episcopal Church in Columbia, South Carolina, said it epitomized what
he called "the normalcy of society" - a world where we still believe that
"might makes right."
Within the slogan lurks the idea that justice is retributive - that
God is a punishing God who wreaks terrible justice on "evildoers." Within
first century Rome, "God" was of course, the Caesar. The Kingdom of God
was Rome, the ruler God himself. The world belonged to Caesar - the land,
the animals, the food, the people. They all existed to serve Rome - to
serve the Kingdom of God.
It is in this backdrop that the historical Jesus lived and spread his
message - a message that raised the eyebrows and the ire of Rome. It's
a message that got him killed, according to Crossan, Professor Emeritus
of Religious Studies at DePaul University and former co-chair of the Jesus
"Jesus announced the Kingdom of God," Crossan said. "Not that the kingdom
was coming or had come, but that it was here now, and that we are invited
to participate in it."
That announcement was at odds with what Rome believed. Of course the
Kingdom of God was here already - and they were it. They dispensed the
justice of this earthly Kingdom of God by conquering, then creating peace
through their military might. If it sounds familiar, Crossan said it should.
There are many deep parallels between Rome's domination of the world and
the United States' idea of how to create peace.
"First victory, then peace."
I wouldn't be shocked to see the phrase on our own coinage one day.
More than shocking the Roman government with his announcement of the
arrival of the Kingdom of God - and it wasn't in Rome, Jesus also turned
the idea of "first victory, then peace" on its head by redefining Rome's
idea of "justice" with a distinctly Jewish idea of justice.
Instead of justice meaning "retribution" for perceived wrongs - justice
was "distributive" - meaning, Crossan said, "the whole world must be distributed
This idea of justice, according to Crossan, is essential to understanding
Jewish law. The Torah outlaws land ownership - the land belongs to God
who gives it to be possessed, but not to be bought and sold by humans.
Even in this ancient society, he said, the Jews understood that "the normalcy
of society" was to think, "How can I keep mine and get yours?" By outlawing
ownership of land - by declaring that land belongs to God - amassing wealth
through land ownership was avoided. Ancient Jews realized that if land
could be bought and sold then a few people would own many acres of land
while most people would own very little, thus paving the way for oppression.
The land, however, is not ours to buy and sell. God owns the land. It
is the body of God and cannot be parceled out to the highest bidder at
the expense of the poor.
But, humans are a treacherous lot. If they are deprived of buying and
selling land, then there must be another way to "keep mine and get yours."
Lending money at interest seemed logical - but the Old Testament law outlaws
that as well and goes further. Every seven years comes Jubilee - a time when people are released from their loans and land must lie fallow for an entire year. In addition, slaves are freed and given part of the master's flocks. This, too, is an ingenious method to stem the "normalcy of society" which says "greed is good" and "might makes right."
This is the justice that Jesus taught - a distributive justice that
must be spread fairly among all of God's children.
"It's God's world and God's stuff and it must be distributed fairly!"
For Crossan, God's distributive justice is outlined in Psalm 82:
"Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the need;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked."
Psalm 82: 3-4
When we approach the world in this way, seeing justice as distributive
and not retributive, then our slogan becomes:
"First justice, then peace."
Justice means the fair and equitable distribution of God's blessings
"The Great Divine Clean-up"
This kind of justice, however, is not native to human beings. We tend
to think in retributive terms. We want offenders to pay somehow, to make
right the wrong they have wrought through their own personal suffering.
Collectively, we feel the need to invade countries in retribution for
real and perceived attacks. We believe, to our very core, "first victory,
We long for peace. We long for that world where there is no need for
justice that is based in retribution. But, at our core, we realize that
we cannot bring that about on our own. Jesus may bring distributive justice
to us as the basis for the Kingdom of God here on earth, and he certainly
invites us to play integral roles in bringing that Kingdom about - but
it is ultimately God who will make the world right again.
Theologians call this "eschatology" - the end of all the evil in the
world when the world is transformed into righteousness and justice. This
is a deeply held belief that only God can clean up the mess that we've
made of the world.
Crossan called this "the Great Divine Clean-up."
There are two contradictory ideas of how this "Great Divine Clean-up"
will happen. One camp believes that God will exterminate the oppressors
in the great final battle, or Armageddon.
Others believe the clean-up will come in the form of a great final banquet
on Mt. Zion where all nations feast together.
Jesus would fall into the latter camp as he announced the Kingdom of
God being present in mutuality, not in retribution or might. For Jesus,
the Great Divine Clean-up happens through nonviolent resistance to the
normalcy of civilization that believes "first victory, then peace." Instead
of peace through victory, Jesus teaches peace through justice - through
distributive justice that treats all people fairly.
Love plays an integral role in Jesus' teaching, according to Crossan.
"Love and justice cannot exist alone," he replied. "Justice without
love is brutality. Love without justice is banality. They go together
like body and soul."
No Divine Punishment
Crossan said he doesn't believe in a punishing God - a view of the divine
that is spread liberally throughout the Old Testament. One person in the
audience questioned him on this - citing many places in the Old Testament
where God's justice appeared to consist of vengeance, retribution and
"There is no divine punishment, only terrible human consequences," Crossan
replied. He said stories about "God's wrath" in the Old Testament, especially,
are not truly evidence of what God has wrought but humans ascribing
own tragic circumstances to God.
The example he gave was actually quite convincing. Look at where Israel
is on the map and consider the pattern of empire growth and conquering
during that time.
"Israel is in the crosshairs," he said.
In the Old Testament, God tells Israel that if they keep the law they
will not be invaded, but if they don't keep the law they will be invaded.
to Crossan, it really didn't matter if they kept the law or not, at some
point Israel would be invaded because of where the land sits. Conquerors
moving from the south to the north would pass through Israel as would
conquerors moving from east to west. Given the pattern of conquering,
it was only a matter of time before Israel would be invaded and conquered
by someone. Eventually, Rome took them over. So, the people were constantly
looking for a "savior" - and asking God to forgive them for whatever
it was they had done to bring the invaders into their land.
"It's just bad theology," Crossan said.
And I agree. I've always believed that men invented the laws in the
OT (some of which are quite wise, some of which are not) and ascribed
them to God to give them the authority they needed to be followed. So,
the people believed they had sinned, that's why the invaders came. In
reality, it had nothing to do with their actions as much as it did their
"They could have stayed on their knees throughout their entire history,"
said Crossan, "and that's where they would have died."
The invaders would have come no matter what the Israelites did. It wasn't
piety that saved them or immorality that doomed them - it was simply a
matter of geography.
In my own recent experiences I have learned that this true. God doesn't
operate in the world in the way the Old Testament talks about. God is
not an anthropomorphic
daddy in the sky - a super human who acts in history to win wars or prevent
invasions. Instead, God is the life force, the ground of all being that
is in and through all of us, animating our beings. We don't have to mind
our p's and q's with God - do all the right genuflecting or pray a certain
way or keep a certain set of laws. It's not about our piety. It's about
our justice. Do we help the poor, the widow, the fatherless? Do we visit
the prisoner, clothe the naked, feed the hungry? This is how God works
in the world - through our active participation in God's distributive
justice. This is what Jesus meant when he announced the arrival of the
Kingdom of God.
I think that if we actually believed that God owns the world then wars
and rumors of wars would end. If we truly believed that God's justice
is distributive and not retributive then peace would inevitably follow
because we would understand our role in the Kingdom of God. We would understand
that life is about mutuality, not about "how can I keep mine and get yours."
But, since this attitude is "the normalcy of society," of course we keep
going back to it. Jesus' challenge to us is to turn our back on society's
idea of normalcy and instead live in God's realm - where everyone is equal,
where God owns the land, and where mine is yours.
Try to preach that kind of Christianity to modern day, multi-million
dollar churches. You'll get laughed out of the immaculately appointed
I'm understanding more and more G.K. Chesterton's observation that "the
Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found
difficult and left untried."
Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor
of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for
GLBT Christians. She is an ordained minister and holds a master's
in theological studies from the Candler School of Theology at Emory
Ga. She is also a spiritual director trained through the Episcopal
Diocese of Atlanta. She has worked for the past two decades in journalism
and public relations. She can
Copyright © 2004 by the author
All Rights Reserved
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