Last week I spent a few hours at Dachau, the infamous Nazi concentration camp. It stands today as a kind of monument to evil, a reminder of what humanity is capable of. It was sobering to walk the grounds, to view the barracks, to tour the museum, and to peer into the long rows of isolation cells. It was horrifying to see the pockmarked wall that was used as the backdrop for firing squads, to walk through a gas chamber, and to stare at the ovens that were once used to dispose of so many bodies. The things I had seen in movies and read about in books were right there in front of me. It was all so real.
As I walked back through the gates of Dachau and onto the streets of Munich, the cry of my heart was for justice. It is not right that so many people should have been rounded up and confined and killed in that camp (and in so many other camps like it). It is not right that people should have been executed for their unpopular political views, for their religion, for their ethnicity, or for all those other arbitrary reasons. It was wrong. Really, really wrong. The common experience when leaving a camp like that is to feel deep sorrow mixed with a deep desire for justice.
Justice exists to address evil. If there was no evil in this world there would be no need for justice. But evil does exist, and so justice must exist as well. The cry for justice is universal. There has never been a person who has not desired it at one time or another. This longing arises from the image of God within us. Rocks don’t want justice; animals don’t want it. We do. We long for justice because we bear the image of a just God.
As I walked out of Dachau I felt a deep longing for justice. I did not just want the kind of justice that would hand out a life sentence, but a cosmic justice, a complete justice, God’s own justice against the evildoers. A life sentence hardly pays the debt for a man who killed hundreds or thousands or millions.
But I had a deeper and more disturbing realization: If I want justice for them, I must also want justice for me. I can’t have it both ways. Either justice must exist for all crimes, or it must exist for no crimes. It must exist for those who violate God’s law in unusual and extreme ways and those who violate God’s law in the common and less remarkable ways. If there is to be justice for rapists and murderers and people who create concentration camps, there must also be justice for liars and lusters and gossips. If we want to live in a world where there is justice for war crimes, we must also live in a world where there is justice for heart crimes.
I like to be choosy about justice, to construct it in such a way that it falls on others but not on me. But what I realized as I walked out of Dachau is that if I want justice for them, I must also want it for me. If I want a world that is consistently rather than arbitrarily just, I must want justice for my own transgressions as well. And what cut through the gloom and gave me hope is that justice has been done and will be done. For those who are in Christ, the demands of justice have already been met by our Savior. For those who are not in Christ, the time of justice is looming. Justice will be done.