Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Justice that Rolls Down like Waters

Ligita Ryliškytė

If the prophet Amos was right, justice and righteousness cannot be separated: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). But how can we think of the justice that concerns the cross event—the ignominious and humiliating suffering and death of Christ, the most righteous victim? Even if the blood and water from his side washed us of the tarnish of sin, was it just for God to spill it? And is the affirmative answer that praises the sublime justice of the cross, such as Augustine’s, not a misnomer? After all, what is there that can be said to be just in the suffering and killing of an innocent victim? In what sense is the drama of salvation not a displaced act of divine retribution—or even terrorism as some have suggested—but the revelation of infinite love? Should we pit God’s saving love against divine justice or is there a more fruitful way out?

An easy way out, it seems, would be to conceive of the justice of the cross exclusively in terms of Christ’s resurrection. In the triumph of the Easter morning, there is no longer any doubt on whose side God is. Both God’s justice and the innocent sufferer is vindicated and raised up. Or perhaps one should forget the cross altogether—as the formidable instrument of torture that cannot carry any positive symbolism—and instead argue for the salvific value of Christ’s Incarnation or ministry. But do these answers really satisfy us vis-à-vis the Christian story? Is it not that we are still wondering about the meaning of St. Paul’s “Christ died for us and for our sins” (Rom 5:6, Gal 1:4, 1 Cor 15:3, 2 Cor 5:14, etc.)? Do we not still ask: Why did God, in God’s infinite wisdom and goodness, choose to allow Jesus to face the blinding darkness of Golgotha? And why does God save us, not from death, but through death, as Richard Bauckham once poignantly put it? In other words, Why the cross? What was fitting or “just” about God’s choice to save us in this way? Is there a value to the twilight that precedes the dawn?

These are the questions that animated my research and intellectual struggle while writing Why the Cross? Divine Friendship and the Power of Justice. In a nutshell, the book reconsiders the very notion of the justice of the cross. How is the justice of the cross just? By drawing on Bernard J. F. Lonergan’s development of the Augustinian-Thomist tradition, I argue that the justice of the cross concerns the rightness of order, not transaction or retribution, as some post-Anselmian accounts of atonement suggest. Correspondingly, the justice of the cross regards the fittingness, not the necessity, of the divine solution to the problem of evil. It was fitting that a problem of a disordered love was answered, not by coercion or by divine intervention without human involvement, but by a re-ordering of human love through a gift of friendship with and in Christ. This is not to deny that the cross remains a paradoxical symbol, as is the twilight. For there is a radical difference between the darkness of suffering as inflicted and of suffering as willingly accepted out of love, just as Christ did. As Lonergan pointed out, though physically the crucifixion was one reality, morally it was two: as willed by the crucifiers, it was the most heinous evil and injustice but as accepted by Christ out of love—and by all those united to him in love—it was and continues to be the effective sign of the supreme righteousness of God.

Far from being a terrorist act of a God who wants to scare humanity to death by punishing the innocent, the cross, then, manifests the antecedent offer of divine friendship. This offer is communicated in an orderly manner, that is, in continuity with the created laws of nature and history, through secondary causes, and with human cooperation in diffusing this friendship to others. The book supports this claim by tracing a series of historical transpositions which start with Augustine’s insistence that God saved us by preferring justice over power and, via Anselm’s and Aquinas’s developments, culminating in a theological reflection on what Lonergan calls “the law of the cross.” This law epitomizes the fittingness of redemption as the transformation of evil into good. The book ends with re-contextualizing the lex crucis in relation to human responsibility in and for history and the dynamism of the emergent world order.

How did I come to write this book? The reasons go as deep as my genes. As I shared in the Prologue to my book, reflecting on the cross seems to be in the blood of us, Lithuanian Catholics. The famous Hill of Crosses near Šiauliai, the many crosses along our roads, and, finally, the religious symbol par excellence of our country, the wooden figure of Christ shortly before his crucifixion, Rūpintojėlis (The Worried Christ, or The One Who Cares) speak for themselves. In the context of prolonged historical suffering, these symbols express the merging of religious and national affectivity and imagination. Hence, in a sense, this book can be seen as a fruit of a conscious, even if indirect, attempt to own my cultural heritage. Furthermore, it also has roots in my personal experience. It was an experience of growing up in an occupied country torn by Communist repressions. Living under a totalitarian regime taught us how easily the plundered becomes the plunderer and makes way for the flourishing of human vices in the name of justice. So-called justice, for instance, had been invoked when my father’s family was squeezed into animal wagons without any belongings or the food necessary for their travel, and sent on the long journey to Siberia, nearly four thousand miles away. An “enemy of the people,” my father, was just five; when the survivors were allowed to return, he was sixteen. 

However, I have also seen another kind of justice, a redemptive justice or the justice of the cross, as Lonergan calls it. This justice was about absorbing evil and transforming it into good. About persevering in love, gratitude, and wonder, no matter what. About choosing a difficult good. This kind of justice was operative when people rose to non-violently resist the Communist regime in the so-called Singing Revolution of the Baltic countries. We stood together and sang, even against the Russian tanks on January 13th, 1991. The tanks were not immediately stopped by the singing human wall. And yet, the lives of the people whose crushed bodies literally absorbed the evil of the military madness were not wasted. Their sacrifice, somehow, made a difference: a few weeks later other countries started recognizing Lithuania’s independence, and Russia gradually withdrew its army from our land.

These words, written when I began my project a few years ago, now cannot be read without reminding me of a deep sorrow for the current plight of the Ukrainian people. Their predicament reinforces the need to carefully discern between the abuse of power in the name of justice and the power of transformative justice, and to take responsibility for one’s actions in history. In these old and new contexts, the justice of the cross still reminds us that forgiveness is indeed to be prized as the key to maintaining the Christian “family resemblance” and perhaps the highest form of moral protest in the face of evil. At the same time, as my book makes explicit, the law of the cross always calls the perpetrators to repentance for their sins. The justice that rolls down like waters from the cross cannot be bereft of its prophetic dimension.

In the writing of the book, the historical experiences recalled above converged with many other personal experiences. Let me conclude with citing my Prologue to the book once again. Not the least, there were the experiences of being shaped by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and by Eucharistic spirituality as a Sister of the Eucharistic Jesus; of living through a transition from an atheistic society “by force” to a secular society “by choice”; of a theological formation and teaching at Boston College which encouraged me to live up to the best implications of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” All of these experiences … point toward the heart of my endeavor: in the context of a contemporary secular culture, an attempt to offer an imperfect explanatory account of the mystery of the cross, the “no matter whatness of God.”

Why thCross? by Ligita Ryliškytė
Why the Cross? by Ligita Ryliškytė

About The Author

Ligita Ryliškytė

Ligita Ryliškytė, SJE, is a systematic theologian who aims to develop the inherited theological tradition in dialogue with contemporary cultures. A native of Lithuania and a reli...

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