For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
God’s thoughts and ways are not the same as our human thoughts and ways, thus says the Lord. Sometimes God’s ways are counterintuitive, sometimes mysterious, sometimes confounding. With all that in mind, we can consider the words of St Diadochos of Photiki, as he ponders what should happen to Christians who not only sin but commit crimes. He argues for some ideas that many, maybe even most, of us today might dismiss as nonsense since they don’t represent ideas of justice in dealing with criminals. And many modern folk do embrace the idea which Diadochos below labels as a specious excuse.
“I have heard certain pious men declare that, when people rob us of what we possess for our own support or for the relief of the poor, we should prosecute them, especially if the culprits are Christians; for, it is argued, not to prosecute might encourage crime in those who have wronged us. But this is simply a specious excuse for preferring one’s possessions to one’s self. For if I abandon prayer and cease to guard the door of my heart, and begin to bring cases against those who wrong me, frequenting the corridors of the courts, it is clear that I regard the goods which I claim as more important than my own salvation—more important even than the commandment of Christ. For how can I possibly follow the injunction: ‘when someone takes away your goods, do not try to recover them‘ (Luke 6: 30), unless I gladly endure their loss?
Even if we do go to court and recover all we claim, we do not thereby free the criminal from his sin. Human tribunals cannot circumscribe the eternal justice of God, and the accused is punished only according to those laws under which his case is heard. It is therefore better to endure the lawlessness of those who wish to wrong us, and to pray for them, so that they may be released from their guilt through repentance, rather than through restoring what they have taken. Divine justice requires that we receive back not the objects of theft, but the thief himself, freed through repentance from sin.” (THE PHILOKALIA Vol 1, p 273)
The goal of Christianity is reconciling the world to God, and reconciling each of us to one another and freeing ourselves of sin. If the goal is reconciliation rather than justice, how are we to attain this reconciliation? It doesn’t happen automatically through justice and in fact seeking justice can further alienate some people. Reconciliation requires forgiveness, mercy, love, patience, self control, peacemaking, shifting our values and priorities (metanoia), and starting anew. St Diadochos offers us a very counterintuitive view of what living the godly life means for he truly focuses on love rather than justice. Our concern, according to him, is not to make sure criminals receive their just reward, but to help free them from sin. Civil law may have the goal of establishing justice – a fitting punishment for the criminal – but the Gospel ‘law’ has as its goal reconciling people, not just punishing wrongdoers but helping them to be fully human by freeing them from enslavement to sin.
Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)