Working in Opposites

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Light and dark, evil and good, right and wrong, mercy and justice. These concepts work in opposites. How do we, the church, walk in the tension of the in-between space where we all live?

A recent presentation by Rachael DenHollander, part of the January Series at Calvin College, had me thinking again about these concepts that are so integral to the work of Safe Church Ministry. She pointed out that most of the news coverage after her courageous and powerful testimony at the trial of Larry Nasser focused on what she said about forgiveness and neglected to point out that she was pressing hard for the maximum sentence against Larry Nasser.

She noted that the justice of God demanded this, because evil is real, and because it matters! The great love of God demands justice. God cares deeply for people and does not ignore evil and its harmful aftermath. Churches reflect God’s love and justice when we send the same message, that evil is real and that it matters; it matters deeply to God and therefore to us.

One of the images that stayed in my mind from Rachael’s talk was the image of dark and light. Imagine going from absolute darkness, or even a dimly lit space, into bright sunshine. How much brighter does it seem because of the darkness?

Another way to think about it is to notice stars, which are invisible during the day and shine brightly in the darkness. The darker the space the more brightly they shine. Dark and light work in opposites. Darkness reveals light; they depend on one another in our understanding. We are called to shine like stars in this generation (Philippians 2). If we refuse to acknowledge or enter into the darkness, we miss our opportunity to shine. Our experience of darkness will help us to know more fully the glorious brightness of the light. It works in opposites.

Just as with light and dark, our sin and God’s grace work in opposites. I’ve seen this principle at work in my own healing journey. As I climbed deeper and deeper into the darkness of my own brokenness, I was able understand more and more clearly the light of God’s love and amazing grace. The same is true collectively in our church communities. Our sin and God’s grace work in opposites. When we minimize the evil of sexual abuse and refuse to fully acknowledge the darkness, we also minimize and limit our experience of God’s grace and mercy.

God calls us to live as One Body of Christ, which includes both those who perpetrate sexual abuse and those who have suffered from its horrific effects. When situations of abuse arise in our CRC congregations, we must be cognizant of the tension that exists within each of us and within our communities. We affirm that each person is created good, in the very image of God, possessing worth and dignity beyond measure. At the same time, we affirm our own depravity and capacity for evil.

No human is completely good or purely evil—that line runs down the middle of each human heart. So how do we respond to the unimaginable evil of sexual abuse in our midst? God’s love demands justice. Evil is real and it matters to God! Therefore, we must work in opposites.  

We must be willing to open our eyes, to acknowledge how terrifyingly awful sexual abuse really is. We need to be willing to enter into the unknown as we walk alongside in dark places. It is there, in the deep darkness, that we will discover, in new and deeper ways, the powerful light of God’s love and grace. Remember, it works in opposites. This is our opportunity to shine. Remember, it works in opposites. That means that to the extent that we minimize or deny the evil of sexual abuse, we minimize or deny God’s grace and mercy.

Those who have suffered abuse and those who have perpetrated abuse each have their own journey to walk. The communities that walk alongside also bear the impacts. The ripple effects grow large and last a long, long time. Our tendency, as Christians, is to rush toward forgiveness. In our hurry to ‘fix’ it, we become guilty of minimizing or even denying the deep impacts and the harm done. We don’t pursue justice but instead seek to mitigate painful consequences in the name of mercy.

We forget that we are working in opposites. We hurt ourselves and discredit God by proclaiming an opposition message, which says that what happened wasn’t that bad, that it doesn’t matter to God or to us. Justice, which is near to God’s heart, declares unequivocally that evil is real and that it matters to God! The message of love from the church must match God’s heart. It matters deeply to God, and therefore to us.

Though it may not be an easy path, we must remain in the tension and continue to work in opposites. We can take courage, knowing that we are able to face the darkness with hope, because our Light has come into the world, and the darkness will not overcome it (John 1). 

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I agree with most of what is said here and wish to add some thoughts regarding mercy and justice. I do not see them as polar opposites but as complementary: both are necessary. I do not think we can separate them in interactions between people even as God does not separate them in his dealings with us. As Reformed theology teaches, God’s mercy to us sinners is possible only because his justice is fulfilled by punishing our sin in Christ who became sin for us. Mercy requires justice and justice can give mercy.

However, as is said, “We don’t pursue justice but instead seek to mitigate painful consequences in the name of mercy.” Often this takes the form of forgiving the offender for the harm done to the victim. But when we do this, we fail in both mercy and justice. We owe justice and mercy to both the offender and the victim. But when we withhold justice, we withhold it from both the offender and the victim, and we show so-called “mercy” to the offender but deny it to the victim. True justice will see that both the offender and the victim receive justice. Then mercy can be shown to both as well.

For the offender, justice will not be an act of vengeance but will be merciful in that it confronts that person with the harm done and gives a chance to acknowledge it; true mercy would also provide ways to renounce the offense and make changes.

For the victim, justice is given in that the offense and the harm done will be acknowledged for what they were; mercy is given in that the victim is able to move on into a phase of healing and perhaps even, as part of the healing, forgiveness.

I would welcome others’ thoughts on this.

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Thank you for your thoughtful clarification; yes, I agree that true mercy must also include justice and that we owe it to both the one who has been harmed as well as to the one who has offended. Thanks again.