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 Seminar.

“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.

Redefining justice

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 justly.”

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!” Crossan said.

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 on earth.

“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, then peace.”

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 punishment.

“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 their 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. According 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 location.

“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 building.

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.”