An Unjust Justice System
Today’s reading: John 8:1-20
God of Life,
Unbind us from prisons where we lack imagination,
Where we pretend to extend grace when we are actually upholding injustice,
Where we think we know the crime of others when we do not,
And where we are so willing to give out death sentences, without knowing the death within us.
Help us work towards a Land that truly carries out justice,
So that all may have life.
In John 8, we encounter an unjust justice system. Many of the scribes and Pharisees seek to eliminate fair trial for Jesus because they are fixated on denying his authority as a Galilean. They publicly charge a woman with adultery while Jesus is teaching in the temple and ask him if they should stone her according to their law code. It is the perfect test: either Jesus upholds the power of their unjust leadership, or he breaks the law and becomes a victim of the system.
It becomes clear that the purpose of this system is not to carry out justice but to oppress marginalized groups (women, Galileans) and eliminate opposition (Jesus). In this case, we encounter a brutal patriarchal system. It denies women fair trial and prosecutes them alone for a circumstance (adultery) that necessarily requires three parties. It assumes men as blameless and refuses to keep them accountable for their fault in adultery, which in a patriarchal society is often greater than that of women. It eliminates due process for invisible groups that lie outside of the cisheteropatriarchal norm. It also allows legal authorities to disregard their own laws, which in this case requires equal punishment for all parties (Leviticus 20:10). We never actually learn if the woman is guilty. In Deuteronomy 22:23-34, a woman can be stoned if a man violates her and she does not “cry for help”. This reminds me of the victim-shaming that I have too often heard from my fellow men in light of #metoo and #churchtoo.
We can only look at Jesus’s response after understanding the injustice that the woman experiences in this situation. He does not weaponize grace as a means of shaming victims of oppression, as white supremacy and cisheteropatriarchy often do to invalidate women, queer people, people of color, and those that are economically disadvantaged. Rather, he is there to uphold their dignity, defending them in court. I have always wanted to be there at the temple when every single person in the crowd walks away at Jesus’s sassy yet soul-searching request: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”. One by one, from oldest to youngest, they leave. Oh, what a feeling it must have been, to have Jesus stand at your side so that none can touch you! Not only is the violence of the judicial system undone, but the woman finds liberation from the patriarchal system that threatened to kill her. The judicial sentence is reversed as Jesus’s words put each of the spectators on trial, trying them for their sin and hypocrisy. However, this new judicial system does not seek to punish but to liberate. There is no stoning, no death penalty. “You judge by human standards, but I judge no one,” says the one with authority to judge.
We are surprised, perhaps even unsettled, to learn that this is the judicial system God chooses to bring justice to the Land. We encounter a God of radical imagination whose justice means that we are equally loved, seen, and valuable. Here, a death sentence is reversed, a precious life is spared, and a community is liberated from an oppressive judicial system. And liberation, more than condemnation, enables us to walk in new life.
How can our imagination of justice be expanded? How can we uphold life, rather than death, when discussing incarceration and the death penalty? How have we accepted injustices within our judicial system, mistaking violent “order” for justice? In what ways is our justice system formed as a tool of oppression against marginalized groups?
Ponder these questions as you mourn the injustice of our justice system this Lenten season.
Created by: Eric Ho
About the author: Eric is a queer, second generation, Taiwanese American, lifelong musician and people enthusiast who hails from Oakland, CA and is currently doing refugee resettlement work in Durham, NC. Many of his daily musings focus on the intersection of religion and social psychology, particularly the ways in which religious beliefs empower and harm marginalized groups. In his hope for universal reconciliation, he is reminded of an intensely loving God who sings with deep delight over all creation, not the least over his opera-singing, gymnastics-watching, imaginary-map-drawing, proud-to-be-quirky self.
Image by: Dae Jeong
About the artist: Dae is a photographer, ex-pastor, and stay-at-home dad. He lives with his wife and two children in Maryland. He is a recovering Calvinist. 😉