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A More Beautiful Justice
Reflecting Christ’s Form in Justice for Victims
If introductions are supposed to catch your attention, I have failed this time. You might feel tempted to doze off or click that next email in your inbox during these first few paragraphs; RESIST! Stick with me. I promise you will want to see where this goes. But first, some boring history:
For those familiar with the strange world that is reformed presbyterianism, order is a favorite word. Possibly even holy. Whereas the United States of America has a Constitution, the Presbyterian Church in America has the Book of Church Order. Being a bit of a history nerd, I’ve been curious about the origins of that particular title. It is not difficult to imagine its biblical origins. The clearest biblical warrant for such a title comes from Titus 1:5 and 1 Corinthians 14:40:
“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order [epidiorthoō], and appoint elders in every town as I directed you”
“But all things should be done decently and in order [taxis].”
What I find interesting is that over time, the titles of these ecclesiastical constitutions appear to have gradually unified to the common title “Book of Church Order” (with slight variations here and there). A quick Google search shows it is the preferred title of constitutions of the PCA, the OPC, the CRC, the RCA, the PCUSA, the FPCNA, the EPC, the RPCGA, the RPCNA (and surely many more around the world). It wasn’t always the preferred title. Most early Protestant church government texts had titles like “Ecclesiastical Ordinances, “Book of Discipline”, or lengthier titles like “The Service, Discipline and Forme of the Common Prayers and Administration of the Sacraments used in the English Church of Geneva.”
That word “forme” caught my eye. Whatever the historical reasons for using “form” in the title of a church constitution, I believe there is a strong connection to 1 Corinthians 14:40. That is, it captures the second word which Paul deemed just as important as order: “decently”.
Paul uses this same word in Romans 13:13 (“walk properly”) and 1 Thessalonians 4:12 (“live properly”). William Mounce defines it as “in a becoming manner, with propriety, decently, gracefully”. If “order” represents the need for right sequence, arrangement, and rank, it is what I would call a left-brain quality. The left brain excels at order. Complementing that left-brain aspect of church governance, “decently” refers to the need for right-brain specialized qualities of form and grace. Indeed, the Scottish text referenced above explained the church’s government in terms of both of order and form:
“The Policie of the Kirk flowing from this power, is an order or forme of spirituall government.”
I take those as complementary but not interchangeable, and believe “form” is close in meaning to “decency”. This is not your accountant’s tax form; rather, think of the form of a sculpture, or the form of a Mozart concerto. Doing something “decently” requires aesthetic sense, an embodied ability of speaking, acting and judging in a fitting way, conforming to the form of Christ’s kingdom.
Order vs Decency
One can act in an orderly way without being graceful. Indeed, if Iain McGilchrist is right, we shouldn’t be surprised when order triumphs over decency and grace, because we live in a left-brain dominated culture. Our intuitive ability to discern the form of right action gets diminished to the degree that we over-prioritize right order according to constitutional texts, especially when the text itself focuses on order. An analytical example of that reality is my article When Justice is Out of Order. Hidden within the statistics in that article were real life examples of order superseding and negating decency.
For those familiar with the experience of victims navigating judicial systems, the triumph of order over decency might sound familiar. Judith Herman has documented testimonies to that effect in her article “Justice From the Victim’s Perspective”1 (and forthcoming book). Herman’s interviews of crime victims in the justice system speaks powerfully to the tension between order/truth and decency/goodness/beauty. Where the courts are after “the truth, and nothing but the truth,” victims long to see goodness and beauty restored. Herman juxtaposes the competing values of the courts and victims:
“The wishes and needs of victims are often diametrically opposed to the requirements of legal proceedings. Victims need social acknowledgement and support; the court requires them to endure a public challenge to their credibility. Victims need to establish a sense of power and control over their lives; the court requires them to submit to a complex set of rules and bureaucratic procedures which they may not understand, and over which they have no control. Victims need an opportunity to tell their stories in their own way, in a setting of their choice; the court requires them to respond to a set of yes-or-no questions that break down any personal attempt to construct a coherent and meaningful narrative. Victims often need to control or limit their exposure to specific reminders of the trauma; the court requires them to relive the experience. Victims often fear direct confrontation with their perpetrators; the court requires a face-to-face confrontation between a complaining witness and the accused. Indeed, if one set out intentionally to design a system for provoking symptoms of traumatic stress, it might look very much like a court of law.”
Order Alone is Ugly
Can you see the competition between decency and order in that statement? Whether or not the truth is ascertained, the result of indecent orderly justice is ugliness. It is ugly that victims would report feeling more violated by judicial process than the actual crime, and yet that is the witness of many victims. It is ugly that victims would have even less agency in court than they did before their abusers, and yet that is the unavoidable effect of being relegated to a few minutes on a witness stand. Indeed, Herman notes one of the most significant sources of pain:
For those who sought redress in the criminal justice system, the single greatest shock was the discovery of just how little they mattered.2
Order is impersonal. That doesn’t make it bad or wrong. It’s just incomplete. Beauty must be given to order so that it comes alive, so that it is fitting for human persons created in the image of a beautiful God. That is why we also need decency.
I wonder if we should we rename our BCOs to “Book of Church Decency and Order”. That is a terrible title, but maybe that will inspire someone to improve it. Though titles are of little importance, our choice of words signals our priorities. What we really need are leaders with a sense of style, a sense of decency, form and grace, who can discern the beautiful way of pursuing justice. Will that entail constitutional amendments? Perhaps. But the solution is more simple and more costly than that: we need to be and become those who increasingly reflect the unscripted form of Christ to the least of these: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, the abused, the oppressed. Simple, because it’s a matter of sense and intuition, training our spiritual senses to better discern the good and beautiful way (Hebrews 5:14). Costly, because it requires sacrificing the safety of control that comes from over-reliance on order.
David Bentley Hart wrote a rather dense article titled A Sense of Style: Beauty and the Christian Moral Life.3 He examines “the alienation of the ethical from the aesthetic”, and argues that “Christian ethics ultimately requires a “sense of style” through which we are attracted to a life lived in imitation of Christ, and through which our conceptions of virtue are grounded in a desire to act in such a way as to manifest Gods beauty before the world.” In brief, he reminds us that ethical living requires a focus on the beautiful just as much as the true and the good. Perhaps that is what is missing from the title of our church constitutions: beauty.
Isn’t it just as important that our churches are governed with graceful form as they are with good order? If so, this will entail getting out of our “frozen chosen” comfort zones where everything is neat and tidy. It will demand that we surrender the cold detachment of focusing on truth and instead come in close to see the beautiful faces of those marred by abuse. It will require making intuitive gut decisions, getting it wrong, confessing, and correcting for the next time.
In time we will see that there are even times where the decent thing to do goes against what our bias for order seems to demand. That’s what got the Jewish men of John 8 twisted in a knot. Demanding the just punishment of the law for the woman’s adultery, they committed the ugly act of completely ignoring her complicit male counterpart. Where the heck was he in their moral deliberations?! Focusing on the truth of her guilt, they ignored the requirement of honoring her beautiful dignity and holding the man just as responsible. Hearing their indecent question, Jesus cut through the indecent order with beautiful grace. Bentley Hart’s description of that grace is a fitting way to end and invite us to contemplate the example of Jesus and how he might inspire us to a more beautiful justice:
Quote from David Bentley Hart
In dispersing the woman’s accusers with a cool irony that leaves them haplessly silent, and in then granting her a forgiveness wholly unencumbered by any ponderous expressions of disapproving decency or piety, and without even any prescribed penance, Christ demonstrates how a single graceful gesture, performed with sufficient moral and aesthetic skill, can express all the dimensions of the beauty of charity.
Justice From the Victim’s Perspective, by Judith Herman. This is a must read for advocates and for leaders involved in improving judicial processes for survivors. She also has a new book coming out next month that expands on that article:
Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice, by Judith Herman.
How do you cultivate a sense for what actions and structures are fitting and conform to the beauty of the gospel of Jesus?
Herman, Judith. (2005). Justice From the Victim's Perspective. Violence against women. 11. 571-602. 10.1177/1077801205274450.
Herman continues: “Because the crimes had had such a profound impact on their lives, the victims often naively expected their interests to be of major concern to the authorities. They had trouble understanding that the central focus of the case was on the defendant, not on themselves. Once they filed their complaints and initiative passed into the hands of the prosecution, their cases were resolved in the contest between the state and the defense attorney, while they themselves were relegated to a peripheral role as a witness, useful only as the instrument of the state's agenda, and unworthy of any particular consideration in their own right.”
Hart, David Bentley. “A Sense of Style: Beauty and the Christian Moral Life.” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, vol. 39, no. 2, 2019, pp. 237–50. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/48617074.