Debt to Society

Debt to Society

[Adapted in part from Chapter 15 of Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things]

We were created in the image of God, to live in the direction of God. Sin mars us, defaces and twists us. We are bent – not the way we are supposed to be. Our relationships are meant to be characterized by shalom – by justice, fairness, harmony, and flourishing. Injustice and sin cause relational debt – a gap between what is meant to be and what actually happens. Sin degrades a relationship, whether between individuals, groups of people, or people and God.

If injustice causes relational debt, how is it paid back?

One way is punitive justice – an eye-for-an-eye punishment that demands a wrong be righted by inflicting equal wrong upon the wrongdoer. A second way is reparative justice – this type of justice focuses on repayment for the debt in the form of money, time or some other type of payment.

But what can restore just relationships between the members of two ethnic groups involved in genocide? What can transform the relational debt between an abused child and the abuser? What happens when punitive or reparative justice can’t bring about full restoration of the relationship?

Célestin Musekura knows both the pain of genocide and the difficulty of forgiveness. A Rwandan Hutu, he lived through the Rwandan Genocide, experiencing evil that few people can imagine. In the reprisal attacks that followed, members of his family were murdered and he receives death threats because of the reconciliation work he now pursues.

For a man like Célestin, there is no possibility of justice being peripheral or optional. He has given his whole adult life to the quest for justice.

“Americans tend to think that punishment is the only way to satisfy justice, when in fact punishment is only one of several ways to satisfy it. The evil must be punished, but the goal is not just to punish the perpetrator; the goal is to restore the community.”

But how?

“There is no justice without forgiveness, and there is no forgiveness without justice. Before I forgive something, I have to judge it as evil.”

Why not simply lock up or hang the leaders of those murderous gangs? Célestin won’t have it. “Justice without forgiveness sets up the process of more revenge… The desired result of forgiveness is that you will reconcile.”

Forgiveness is a choice that happens within us. However, when we believe that forgiveness and reconciliation happen simultaneously, we oversimplify a process that is painful and prolonged. Reconciliation is needed as a category in order to describe the lengthy, difficult process by which injustice can be rebuilt into full shalom. It happens in the context of personal and communal relationships, and requires trustworthy behavior over time.


Grace. Grace, manifested as love, is the only way to both erase the debt of sin and injustice and restore relationships through reconciliation. It must be grace, for we cannot do it on our own. Working toward a just society requires more than doing justice – it requires a willingness to forgive and be reconciled in the presence of pain and justice.

“The divine seed and gift of grace in our lives serves as a catalyst in encouraging us to grant others the same grace granted to us,” Célestin says.

Jesus asks us to forgive, not seven times, but seventy-seven. It’s impossible for us, in our own power, to forgive so freely and so frequently. True forgiveness requires grace.

This is the ultimate goal of justice: not only that debt is paid, but that relationship is restored. That is why Célestin says, “Justice without grace is like an atmosphere without air.”

Pursuing Justice



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