The above photo is my submission for day thirteen of rethinkchurch.org‘s Advent Photo-a-Day project.
I work in legal services, so I see a lot of places like the courthouse in my picture for today. Many courthouses are like this one: massive, tall, made of marble and brick, with Neoclassical design features on the outside. They are meant to convey something about the nature of justice in our society: Established, impassive, authoritative, large, impersonal. They give the impression that justice– the justice of the state and its institutions– brings to bear the very weight and stability of the earth itself.
Like many people, I have found the notion of institutional justice– justice tied to authoritative institutions, to procedures and policies– very seductive. It is tempting to think of these things as being the whole of justice, or else that part of it that we can talk about profitably. I have been too close, though, to the heavy machinery of juridical institutions to believe that they have much to teach about what justice really is. The courthouses and judicial fora have their place, no denying that, but justice is not bound up in them. What’s more, their own custodians and functionaries are well aware, in their more honest moments, that these institutions do an imperfect job at bringing about even the small piece of justice that is their special remit.
Justice, if such a thing is to be found in this world, can only be found in the lives of liberated beings. Justice, if it exists, exists not in process and procedures, in insignia and architecture, but solely in flesh and blood, skin and bone. Justice is not the sort of thing that, like a marble courthouse, could keep standing until the end of time even if humans ceased to exist. Justice resides in life, in the flourishing of individuals, and in their shared striving for liberation.
We who are Christians do well to remind ourselves of these things, especially this Advent season. We do not await one who came in judge’s robes, brandishing the sigils of authority. We do not await one who came with thousands of followers, with large church buildings, with publishing and broadcasting empires, with relevance and cultural capital. We instead await one who came as a baby, illegitimate and fragile, defenseless and unable to speak. We await one who, almost from the time he is born, has to flee those who would have him put to death, and who ultimately met his death at the officious hands of Empire’s functionaries.
We say that God is such as that. We also say– or should say, if we are faithful– that God’s justice is for such as that.