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Grenfell Tower: desire for justice

John Stevens, Director of FIEC, considers some profound implications of the tragedy

John Stevens, FIEC

Figure Image
Grenfell Tower ablaze | photo: BBC

Many people today would reject the idea of God as a God of judgment.

Surely he will not hold us accountable for our sins and punish us accordingly. This is seen as primitive, vengeful and inconsistent with his love. However, the response of the victims of the appalling Grenfell Tower tragedy shows that there is a deep-seated human desire for justice to be done. In the aftermath of the fire that killed more than 80 people, the police are undertaking a criminal investigation and the Prime Minister has established a Public Inquiry. But the appointment of Sir Martin Moore-Bick as judge has been criticised by residents. Their complaints show that they want three things:

1. They want justice to be done

They want to know who, if anyone, was responsible for the tragedy, and for them to be punished appropriately for their failings. The investigations will determine whether the council, architects, contractors or manufacturers of the cladding were criminally liable, and examine whether the building regulations and health & safety regime were inadequate. The desire of the residents for justice to be done is natural and right. It is the common human response of the victims of mistreatment or gross negligence. Remember the campaign concerning the Hillsborough disaster to get justice. Those who have been denied justice, such as the victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland where no prosecutions have been brought, feel cheated and are unable to move on from their grief. We intuitively grasp that the world can only be put right by judgment.

2. They want a just judge

The residents have objected to the appointment of Sir Martin to head the inquiry on the grounds that they perceive him to be an Establishment figure, and therefore someone who will not act impartially. Their desire for a judge who will not be biased against them is again entirely understandable, though their criticism of Sir Martin is unfair. There is no suggestion that he is in any way prejudiced against them, and he has an excellent record of assessing responsibility in criminal and civil cases over many years. British judges are required to act impartially, to determine facts and then apply the law to those facts. In past cases of miscarriages of justice the problem has not generally been the partiality of the judges, but that they have not had access to all the facts that would be needed to make a right decision. Witnesses have lied, or evidence has been doctored or covered up by the police.

The comments of David Lamy MP and others that Sir Martin is not qualified to head this inquiry are ultimately damaging to any judicial process, as they assume that no judge can act impartially because of the biases that are inherent to their class and background. It would be considered outrageous if it were suggested that a black judge was unable to judge a case involving a white victim, that a judge from a working-class background was unable to judge a defendant from a middle-class background. or that a gay judge could not judge a case involving a straight victim.

3. They want an empathetic judge

Their objection to Sir Martin’s appointment is not merely a fear of impartiality, but the sense that he cannot empathise with their experience of life. He is therefore perceived as remote and aloof.

No doubt he will make every effort to try to understand their circumstances and concerns and will listen carefully to them, but that is not the same as having shared their lives. As such, they regard him as unqualified to sit in judgment over them.

God is qualified to judge

These three concerns of the residents are all understandable, and justice in this world is always imperfect and incomplete. Total impartially and objectivity cannot be achieved, and no judge can fully share the life experiences of the parties to a dispute.

However, the Bible assures us that God is the perfect judge, who will act with complete impartially. He commands human judges not to show favouritism to either the rich and powerful or the poor and powerless (Leviticus 19.15). He is passionately concerned for justice and will hold all men accountable for what they have done. Every word and deed will be judged by him. He is omniscient and therefore judges with complete knowledge of the facts, and he even knows the thoughts and motivations of our hearts. Nothing will be hidden from him, and we cannot hide or doctor the evidence. His judgment will be scrupulously fair.

More than that, he does not judge us from an aloof distance with no experiential understanding of our lives and the circumstances we have faced. His judgment will be carried out on his behalf by Jesus (Acts 17.31).

We can have no possible complaint when he stands in judgment over us, that he does not understand what we have faced. This is well expressed in the creative retelling of the last judgment in The Long Silence.

This poem imagines billions of people at the end of time standing before God’s judgment throne. While many cringe in shame, others begin to question whether God has the right to judge them. Different individuals testify to the prejudice and terrible injustices they have suffered in the world and say how lucky God is to live in heaven, isolated from such pain.

They formulate a plan. Before God can be qualified to judge them he must suffer the kinds of things they have. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die so there can be no doubt he died.

As the requirements are announced there is a great murmur of approval. But when the list is finished, it is followed by a long deathly silence: ‘For suddenly, all knew that God had already served his sentence.’

Victims and perpetrators

Far from rendering belief in God impossible, only a God who will judge the world with utter fairness and impartiality is worthy of believing in, because only such a God will be able to put our broken and wicked world right.

It is deeply ironic that we long for justice at a human level but reject the idea of a God of judgment. Surely the reason for this is because we long to cast ourselves as victims who are entitled to justice against others, whereas God insists that we are not just victims but also perpetrators, so that before him not one of us is innocent, but we are all guilty and deserving of eternal condemnation.

We have sinned by rejecting him and his authority over our lives, ignoring him, breaking his law and worshipping his creation in his place. We have not loved him, or others, perfectly as we ought to have done. It is precisely because he is an impartial and omniscient judge that he must condemn us, as this is the verdict that we deserve. As Romans 3.10… 3.23 so succinctly puts it: ‘there is no one righteous, not even one…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’

God’s forgiveness

We all long for justice, but when we appreciate what that really means the reality is that we all need God’s mercy. The great news of the gospel is that the God who ought to condemn us gave his Son to be willingly condemned in our place, so that we can be forgiven and declared righteous if we repent and put our faith in him.

The only hope for our world is the just judgment of God that will eliminate sin and wickedness once and for all. The fundamental problem is that we are part of the problem, and so the only hope we have is that God has extended his mercy to us in Christ Jesus. We need to be confident that God is both a God of judgment and of mercy, and to preach the good news of the gospel to people who think of themselves as victims in need of justice, whereas they are also sinners in need of grace.

This article first appeared on John Stevens’ blog, www.john-stevens.com, and is used here in edited form with permission.