Justice without compassion is tyranny


The government’s slaughter of over 70 cows, sheep and goats belonging a Pemba peasant farmer who was caught transporting them in the wake of a livestock movement ban in Southern Province due to a Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak is a frightening case of justice without compassion.

Keme Syantumbe lost 32 cows, 28 sheep and 11 goats, estimated about K138,000 in value, as he attempted to transfer them from Macha to Mumbwa.

The livestock was slaughtered and is due for auction.

A distraught Syantumbe collapsed as the animals were being culled.

There is a story in Scripture that can help us try to understand the plight of this poor man. In John 8:2-11, we read about a woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus’ feet for judgment. Her accusers wanted her stoned to death, as the justice of the law required. Instead, she was rescued and transformed by a display of grace that epitomises what Jesus came to do through His kingdom.

There is no question that what the woman did was wrong (the nowhere-to-be-seen man involved was wrong too, for that matter, but that’s a topic for another day!). And it would have been considered justice for Jesus to uphold the law of the day and condemn her. But He didn’t.

Instead, Jesus profoundly demonstrated that His definition of justice is birthed from a heart of compassion that looks toward redemption. If Jesus had looked at the woman and only seen someone sinful and deserving of punishment, He would have written her off right along with everyone else. But that is not what He saw, and it is not what He sees when He looks at you or any other human being – even the ones we would dismiss as hopeless.

Paul writes that Jesus came to reconcile all things to Himself (Col. 1:19-22). He does not want us to be far from His heart or to be in any kind of bondage; He wants us to be fully connected and alive in Him. It is from this motivation that He administers justice.

In God’s character, justice, righteousness and mercy are inseparable, cemented together by the essence of His nature – unfailing love. This is vividly portrayed throughout the Old Testament, especially in the prophetic books and in Psalms.

And because of His perfect love, He is moved with mercy, He wants us to be in right relationship with Him and with others, and He wants us to live in a way that carries out His justice.

God’s justice is not punitive – punishment and consequences are not the end goal. Redemption is what He has in mind, and mercy and compassion make this result possible.

The connection between compassion and justice is especially important for us to grasp if we truly want to see reformation – if we want to disciple our nation and establish godly systems and social structures.

The connection between compassion and justice is especially important for us to grasp if we truly want to see reformation.

For example, in our attempts to help the poor, it is not enough to merely feed people, although that is an important start. But there are systemic problems and corruption that contribute to keeping people in poverty or making it very difficult to move beyond it. True justice moves beyond addressing the symptoms on the surface to find and pull up the roots in order to give people hope.

In a similar vein, a lack of compassionate perspective is evident in the chaos and brokenness of our current criminal justice system. It is a system built around punitive justice, not redemptive justice. As a result, countless individuals are robbed of the opportunity to truly learn from their mistakes and build a better life. For many, the imprisonment continues long after they have served their time, as they cannot find jobs, homes, and so on and so forth. That man will not, without help, recover from the loss of his animals.

Compassion recognises the problem, but justice involves objectively facing and dealing with our own hearts, as well as the systems, attitudes, customs, power dynamics, and other elements that allow transgressions to persist.

You cannot have true justice without compassion.

Compassion softens hearts so we recognise the need for justice; it moves us to care when we might otherwise be indifferent. Furthermore, it ensures that justice is carried out in a way that prioritises righteousness – right relationships with God and fellow human beings.

Justice without compassion has left that brother of ours in destitution, poverty and despair. Things could have been done differently. He could have been forced to return his animals where they came from.

Thomas Aquinas said, “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty.”

Justice without compassion is not justice, it kills.

Justice without mercy is tyranny.

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